The true fiasco exposed by Wikileaks

You are probably already familiar with the Wikileaks-edited video released April 5 of the 2007 airstrike in which a number of people were killed, including armed and unarmed men as well as two employees of the news agency Reuters. As of this writing, the initial instance of the edited version of the video titled "Collateral Murder" on YouTube is over 5 million views, not including reposts of the video by others using different YouTube accounts, and, according to The New York Times, "hundreds of times in television news reports." An unedited and not subtitled version upload by Wikileaks to YouTube, in contrast, has less 630,000, reflecting the lack of promotion of this version.

This video represents the advantages and disadvantages of social media in that highly influential content is easily propagated for global consumption. The persistency provided by the Internet means it will always be available and easily repurposed. Further, this situation highlights the ability to suppress unwanted information, both by the propagandist (omission of information) and by the supporter (removing an adversarial perspective). Lastly, the official response to this video shows the Defense Department still has a long way to go in understanding and operating in this new global information environment.

This video is, on its face and in depth, inflammatory and goes well beyond investigative journalism and creating transparency. It has launched debates about the legality of the attacks and questions of whether war crimes were committed. The video, as edited, titled, and subtitled is disturbing. It will continue to get substantial use in debates over Iraq, the US military, and US foreign policy in general.

Russia Today, the English language Russian government news agency, interviewed Julian Assange, Wikileaks editor and co-founder, on April 6, the day after the release. In a segment titled "Caught on Tape", the interviewer starts by describing the video as "gruesome, to say the least." Assange portrays Wikileaks as a Fourth Estate and says the military was "scared of the information coming out," which Reuters had been requesting through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for over two years, "for fear of the reform effect." Originally broadcast, the RT interview is also on YouTube has, as of this writing, with nearly 40,000 views. In the first day of release it had over 10k views and was on YouTube's front page.

One of the few, if perhaps the only, serious attempt to respond to "Collateral Murder" is another YouTube video titled "Wiki Deception: Iraq 'Collateral Murder' Rebuttal":

This video, shown above, adds scenes left out of Collateral Murder but in the longer, and less promoted and thus less viewed, complete video. This "rebuttal" annotates and highlights pertinent details left out of or ignored in Collateral Murder that could have been done April 5 (or even before).

image UPDATE: The "rebuttal" video was removed from YouTube for "violation of the YouTube Community Guidelines." The cause of action: "graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed in YouTube videos." The "rejection notice" at right was sent by someone close to the "rebuttal". Neither Collateral Murder nor the unedited video have been removed from YouTube. It appears the "rebuttal" video is a clear victim of manipulation by supporters of Collateral Murder or its cause. The method was social media's "democratic" ability to suppress or silence opposing viewpoints by flagging content as inappropriate, a feature in YouTube that is often used by insurgent and terrorist propagandists. Conversely, content can be promoted and rise to the top of search results with a "thumbs up." Jillian York has documented the same silencing technique on Facebook.

UPDATE 2 (10 APR 10): The "rebuttal" video is now available at LiveLeak and again at YouTube. As of 11 April 2010, the LiveLeak video has nearly 8000 views and the YouTube video has under 600. At YouTube, the first in the suggested list of similar videos is this news report from Russia Today titled "With No Accountability for Atrocities Iraqi Civilians Killed With Joy As If In A Video Game" from April 6.

image The Wikileaks release apparently caught the Defense Department flatfooted. Even today, three days after its release, there is largely silence from DOD, save a brief public comment and a link to documents and photos at www.Centcom.mil (hidden in plain sight through the link labeled "Link to FOIA documents on July 2007 New Baghdad Combat Action"). Don't bother going to www.Defense.mil as that site, and hence the Pentagon, has nothing readily available either. The April 6 briefing pack did not include the explanatory imagery and there is no news release explanation the Department's position. It's as if nothing happened. When asked about the situation, senior official at DOD pointed me to the "great piece" in The New York Times explaining how trained soldiers view and operate in these events differently than civilians. This, however, misses the point.

Despite the vigorous discussion online and over the air whether there was a violation of the laws of war, the old belief that if you ignore a problem it will go away continues to dominate.

This explanatory "rebuttal" video is superior to the still from the video available from the Centcom link above in PDF format. These stills are, remarkably, less understandable than the video as while they include text comments they fail to guide the untrained eye to the evidence described. Further demonstrating the failure to communicate on this issue, it apparently did not occur to Centcom to rotate the images in the PDF to make them easier to view, so, for your convenience, I have modified the PDF with annotated stills here so you do not have to tilt your head to read the titles.

A blogger at Blackfive.net is one of the very few who gets to the real issue Collateral Murder exposes:

It looks to me like it started when you didn't respond to what looks like a reasonable use of the FOIA by Reuters.  The result of this is that you let your enemy get inside your OODA loop.  You could have taken the FOIA request and complied with it on your terms to control the narrative.  Perhaps you could have leaked the video out first to a few trusty bloggers who would have seen it for what it was: An ugly, sad, but common story.

The blogger also cites a blogger at Firedoglake, who wrote:

I want to first start by saying that Wikileaks has really misled the public on the details of this video. They made it sound like it was an unprovoked massacre of unarmed civilians, and so it angers me when I wasted my time watching this video to see nothing like that.

I would then like to plead that you not respond or argue with me unless you have watched every second of the 39 minute video. In any engagement, be it in Iraq, or a DUI arrest in Los Angelas, a complete understanding of the event is essential.

It is remarkable that in the current information environment, after so many debates and discussions over the importance of information and perceptions, that the Defense Department could have failed so miserably to anticipate and respond to what was clearly going to be damning propaganda. Perhaps it went under the radar because, and I say this with my tongue only somewhat in my cheek, this information was not based in "Islamic extremism" as we are so wrapped around that axle. This sentiment was echoed in the comments at Small Wars Journal:

Sadly, it looks like the DoD, or the government on whole, has completely dropped the ball on this and is unlikely to address the issue at all. This should really be a measure of the effectiveness of our strategic communications gurus to seize this opportunity to show what the real video showed in context (where were the US troops that were being overwatched, what was the state of violence at this point, how many helicopters had been engaged/shot down in this part of Baghdad at this point.) As has been shown time and again (think Rodney King) video of an event is not the whole story, context is critical. But days have passed now and it doesn't look like anyone but a few on-line posters is making any effort to put events into context.

With the volume, velocity, and shallowness of today's global information environment of "formal" and "informal" news, the first and increasingly only draft of history is written by the first out of the gate. In the case of the rebuttal video, it will have have little to no impact on the discussion now. Late to the party in the first place, the "rebuttal" video's opponents - producers and/or supporters of Collateral Murder - blocked any chance it had in participating in and influencing the conversation when they knocked it offline. Windows of opportunities open and close quickly giving power to the phrase "speed kills."

We live in a global and dynamic information environment. It is not sufficient to assume someone else will tell your story. Remaining silent or providing low fidelity information to refute or rebut misinformation and disinformation being propagated against you surrenders the debate to others to own and set the terms of the discussion.

While the video's release may not have been avoided - and indeed should not have been avoided - the perceptions it generated or supported, the distractions it caused, and the attention it garnered could have been. Added to the list of recent failures in the oversight of information activities, the Defense Department still has a long way to go get its house in order.

A roundup of reactions on military blogs can be found at At War blog of The New York Times. Spencer Ackerman highlighted a few paragraphs of CENTCOM's official 2007 investigation.

According to a source, the Reuters bureau chief was briefed on this incident in the summer of 2007, including the video in its entirety. Gawker has a story about an article held up at Reuters because of the editor in chief, David Schlesinger.