Law in Contemporary Society

The Dao of Not Knowing

-- By Ron Mazor

[Long Version]

[Short (Edited) Version]

(Video being utilized for academic purposes, with the intention of fair use.)


On April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks posted the above short video on its site. They also linked to Collateral Murder, which had a second, "full" version of the video.

The videos pertain to a helicopter strike by U.S. forces on July 12, 2007 in Iraq. The strike killed two Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, as well as nine other individuals. The U.S. conducted an informal investigation into the incident (AR 15-6, Pilot Sworn Statements, Legal Review) (explanation of AR 15-6). The conclusion was that the pilots had acted appropriately, and the U.S. declined to take further actions.

When I first saw the short video, about a week after it hit the news, I was scandalized. I was pretty sure that what I saw contravened portions of the Geneva Conventions, and I was shocked that the Army declined to further investigate the matter. Usually, I've bristled at Eben's characterizations of the U.S. military, as I've felt his descriptions were unfair reductions which failed to take into account the difficulty faced by soldiers in making decisions. Yet, my own position only holds water so long as the weight of such choices are seriously considered. What I saw in the video seemed an unjustifiable example of lethal carelessness, and I was angry.

When I brought this topic up with Eben, he suggested I take a closer look at what I didn't know, and not jump to conclusions. Where I saw incontrovertible video footage, Eben saw over-reliance on a single evidentiary source. He was right.


When I began to analyze my source more critically, I was shocked by how many things I had taken for granted. I quickly discovered that I could not, for example, draw a straight line from WikiLeaks to the Apache video. Rather than hosting the video outright, the WikiLeaks site was referring viewers to a Youtube video hosted by "sunshinepress," and to a second website entitled CollateralMurder for further info. Off the bat, I needed to assume that "sunshinepress" was accurately hosting the Wikileaks footage, and that WikiLeaks, CollateralMurder, and "sunshinepress" were indeed affiliated with the Wikileaks organization.

I was further surprised to discover that I could not verify the validity of the gun camera footage. The Pentagon has not released an official statement confirming the validity of the footage. While a number of reputable news sources, including Reuters, and the Associated Press, claim to have confirmed the video's authenticity, all relied on unnamed sources. Thus, I could not point to incontrovertible evidence that the footage is valid.

Further issues cropped up. Wikileaks significantly edited the short video, playing with the chronology of the events and emphasizing certain scenes to heighten the emotional impact. Having already shown a willingness to play fast and loose with facts, could I really trust that Wikileaks had left their longer version "unedited?" Moreover, the source itself contains gaps in footage, as recently recognized by Wikileaks (Gawker, CNN at 1:20). My faith that the video was a clear and sufficient source of evidence was misplaced.


The footage itself tells an interesting story. The long video establishes that the Apaches were directed to the area after receiving reports of armed individuals, and in addition to the journalists, early portions of the video feature individuals who seem to be carrying weapons (2:04-2:24). Later on, the footage reflects a discovery by the ground troops of an individual lying on top of an RPG round (19:18), and the subsequent sworn statements of the ground troops assert they discovered weapons and ammunition among the dead. I was initially under the impression that the Iraqis involved were unarmed--further research and examination of the footage complicated the picture.

At the same time, the written reports provide important context for the events of the video. As an example, the informal investigation revealed that there were a number of humvees at the opposite end of the street where 'Namir' was crouching. This is not clear from the footage alone. The sworn pilot statements reflect that this was a major concern, and that they interpreted 'Namir's' actions as preparing to fire an RPG toward the vehicles. The written reports clarify important situational considerations influencing the pilots' actions.

Yet, even after reading through the written sources, certain questions remain. The incident involving the van remains troublesome--I do not understand why the van was perceived as a threat or why engagement was authorized. Both the sworn statements and the video reflect that the pilots were aware that the van was picking up wounded, and the van demonstrates no obvious hostile act/intent.

WikiLeaks provides a number of documents which purport to be the rules of engagement (ROE) in place--important for contextualizing the pilots' actions--during July 2007. The usual authenticity questions remain. Yet, if the ROE are authentic, I don't understand how the van squares with the requisite procedure for positively identifying a threat before using force. Nor do I understand how the additional bursts of fire (crowd (4:18-4:24), van (9:14-9:30)), comport with the restriction against firing at previously neutralized/incapacitated threats. If the ROE were properly applied, I am bothered by the prospect that the military is not sufficiently considering the welfare of civilians or the injured, and is casting too wide a net in defining combatants.


I remain troubled by the incidents of July 12, 2007. However, I see now that my initial ire –sparked by viewing the short video—was premature. In relying on a single source, I failed to exercise critical judgment and left myself closed to other interpretations of the event.

A quick note - Ron: after our discussion, I reconsidered my earlier comments and have taken another approach to editing your paper. Please don't hesitate to contact me - either on this page or by email - if you have concerns about the direction I have taken this paper in or if you have additional tips. Many thanks for the explanation, and congratulations on completing the school year. Best wishes for a great summer! -David

This article came out in the New York Times today and involved a discussion of the use of video evidence in the incidents involving NYPD officers pushing Critical Mass riders of bicycles. One of the assertions is that the video evidence was key in securing the charges against/conviction of Patrick Pogan. Not exactly on point, but related both to Ron's original paper and my rewrite, so I figured I'd post it for all who are interested. Best, -David

Ron, ever since reading your paper, I've been following this story. I don't know if you saw this article in the New York Times today, but the saga continues. Look like the leaks go beyond this video. Hope the summer is treating you well, and please keep updating the MagCourt page - I really enjoyed the first "installment". It reminds me of my experience working in arraignments in Queens a few years back. Best, -David


Webs Webs

r22 - 28 Aug 2014 - 17:39:56 - RonMazor
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