The Cover-Ups That Exploded

The Pentagon is reeling after two lethal episodes uncovered by diligent journalism show trigger-happy U.S. Army helicopter pilots and U.S. Special Forces slaughtering civilians, then seeking to cover up their crimes.

The worldwide web was transfixed on Monday when Wikileaks put up on YouTube a 38-minute video, along with a 17-minute edited version, taken from a U.S. Army Apache helicopter, one of two firing on a group of Iraqis in Baghdad at a street corner in July of 2007. Twelve civilians died, including a Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and a Reuters driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Wikileaks said it had got the footage from whistle-blowers in the military and had been able to break the encryption code. The Pentagon has confirmed the video is genuine.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has finally admitted that Special Forces troops killed two pregnant Afghan women and a girl in a February, 2010, raid, in which two Afghan government officials were also killed. Brilliant reporting by Jerome Starkey of The Times of London has blown apart the U.S. military’s cover-up story that the women were killed by knife wounds administered several hours before the raid.

It now appears that the knife wounds may have been inflicted by the Special Forces troops retrieving their bullets from the dead or dying women’s bodies. Starkey’s story last Sunday in The Times reported that “Afghan investigators also determined that American forces not only killed the women but had also ‘dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath” and then “washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened.”

The 17-minute video recording the US military’s massacre from the air in Baghdad, is utterly damning. The visual and audio record reveal the two Apache helicopter pilots and the US Army intelligence personnel monitoring the real-time footage falling over themselves to make the snap judgment that the civilians roughly a thousand feet below are armed insurgents and that one of them, peeking round a corner, was carrying an RPG, that is, a rocket-propelled antitank grenade launcher.

The dialogue is particularly chilling, revealing gleeful pilots gloating over the effect of their initial machine-gun salvoes. “Look at those dead bastards,” one pilot says. “Nice,” answers the other. Then, as a wounded man painfully writhes toward the curb, the pilots eagerly wait for an excuse to finish him off.  “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” one pilot says yearningly.

Then suddenly a civilian van, seeing the carnage, pulls up. A man jumps out, and starts dragging the wounded man around to load him in. The pilots implore the intelligence monitors to give them the go-ahead to strafe the van, about which they have made the instant, fatally erroneous judgment that this is an insurgent rescue squad. A few moments later, the intelligence monitors, with zero visual evidence underpinning their judgment, give the go-ahead.

Another salvo finishes off the wounded man and his would-be rescuer, kills other civilians in the van and wounds two children in the front seat.

U.S. ground troops arrive on the scene, report the presence of wounded children. “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one pilot tells the other. There are further sniggers as a U.S. armored vehicle rolls up. “I think they just drove over a body,” one of the pilots cackles.

One disgraceful exchange discloses a brutal order to the US ground troops not take the wounded children to the nearest military hospital, thus condemning them to the long waits and understaffed, underequipped Baghdad civilian hospitals. It clearly shows the culpability of the next command echelon, which is just as great as that of the pilots.

In the wake of the lethal onslaught, the U.S. military denied that any error had taken place, its version of events faithfully cited by the New York Times under the headline “2 Iraqi Journalists Killed as U.S. Forces Clash With Militias”:

“According to the [U.S. military’s] statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine [sic] insurgents were killed.”

The footage made public by Wikileaks makes it clear this was fiction, from start to finish.

Defense analyst Pierre Sprey, who led the design teams for the F-16 and A-10 and who spent many years in  the Pentagon,  stresses two particularly damning features of the footage. The first is the claim that Noor-Eldeen’s telephoto lense could be mistaken for an RPG.   “A big telephoto for a 35mm camera is under a foot and half at most. An RPG, unloaded , is 3 feet long  and loaded, 4 foot long. These guys were breathing hard to kill someone.”

Sprey’s second point is that an Apache helicopter makes a very loud “whomp, whomp” noise. “ Twelve guys are unconcerned, with loud helicopters right overhead. Imagine if they were planning an assault on American troops. They’d  be crouched down and skulking along walls, spread out.  They would not be walking casually down the middle of the street, totally ignoring the  helicopters.”

A retired U.S. Marine was even blunter in an email exchange:

“Not a good show at all. The group on the ground were banishing nothing that ‘looked’ or appeared as weapons, especially the voiced ‘RPG’ which is so obvious when loaded. And then again – they were told in advance by intelligence (I am sure by the tone in the flight) that these people were bad guys. The Apache crews were just stupid and the intelligence clowns pointing them and egging them on are guilty of murder – ‘you are clear to engage’. GMAFB.”

In the aftermath the US military claimed that some AK-47s and a grenade launcher had been found at the scene. Sprey comments that, in the course of the subsequent coverup,  the weapons may well have been planted, LAPD style.   According to Reuters their  men had been working on a story about weight lifting when they heard about a military raid in the neighborhood, and decided to drive there to check it out. Local witnesses say there was no fire fight anywhere near where they were gunned down by the Apaches.

Reuters, which by that time had already had four employees killed in Iraq by the U.S. military (ultimately, to date, eight), demanded an investigation, which the Army says it undertook but found no breach of its Rules of Engagement by the pilots or U.S. Army intelligence.

The reaction of David Schlesinger, Reuter’s editor in chief, to the release of the footage by Wikileaks was appallingly feeble. Schlesinger said on April 5, “The deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh three years ago were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones. We continue to work for journalist safety and call on all involved parties to recognize the important work that journalists do and the extreme danger that photographers and video journalists face in particular.”

This anodyne blather elicited a furious email aimed at Schlesinger – sent two days later to The Baron site, “For Reuters people past and present” – from a former Reuters editor in chief and general manager, Michael Reupke. Wrote Reupke, “The flabby response to the shameful murder of photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh by reckless U.S. forces is not reassuring. What of their families? Why do we leave it to others to make the running? Is this a Thomson effect? Michael Reupke (outraged and angry!).” The final sentence alludes to the 2008 takeover of Reuters by the media conglomerate Thomson.

In fact, Reuters was shown the Apache video by the U.S. military shortly after the killings but raised no stink. Requests for public release under the Freedom of Information Act were denied. Finally, whistleblowers handed the video to Wikileaks.

Leave the last word to a retired U.S. Army man, answering the email from the retired U.S. Marine quoted above:

“The damage this incident and its video evidence will do is immense … it will irrefutably confirm for many that large chunk of anti-American propaganda which insists the American flyers are just playing computer shoot-em-up games using real flesh and blood as a proxy for the digital figures they usually slaughter only in the arcades.

“How much is simulator training responsible for the disconnection from reality demonstrated in this incident? The crew was detached from reality … How [is] the Army … producing crews that, having the potential for such incompetence, cannot detect it among themselves. If anyone in that crew had paused and asked if the action being taken was correct, surely it would have been aborted … The Army has to find out why.”

Google and Total Information Awareness

Our latest newsletter features a major, path-breaking  investigation into Google, by Christopher Ketcham and Travis Kelly: “Google, Cloud Computing and the Surveillance-Industrial Complex.”

Don’t miss it. It’s essential reading. A few excerpts:

“Google now controls an estimated 70 per cent of the online search engine market, but its deep-drilling of user information – where we surf, whom we e-mail, what blogs we post, what pictures we share, what maps we look at, what news we read – extends far beyond the search feature to encompass the kind of “total information awareness” that privacy activists feared at the hands of the Bush Jr. administration’s much-maligned  Total Information Awareness (TIA) program. … At the extreme end of the spectrum, your every move can be tracked by some feature of Google. …

“In all of human history,” Kevin Bankston says, “few if any single entities, other than the National Security Agency, have ever possessed such a hoard of sensitive data about so many people.” This is the sort of thing that should make the intelligence community, says Bankston, “drool with anticipation.” And drooling they are….

“But one of the big problems with the cloud, and the danger it presents, is that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against search and seizure do not apply. Google’s links with the intelligence community may stretch back to 2004….Google also works with some of the top players in the surveillance industry, notably Lockheed-Martin and SRA International….”

Also in this explosive issue of our subscriber-only newsletter: Carl Ginsburg on how the Obama Administration spins wealth for the few and long-term misery for the many; and Mike Whitney on  Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke,  the savior of the rich.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.