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What I want from the Pentagon

April 21, 2010

This op-ed by Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger appeared in The Guardian.

When Wikileaks published the harrowing video of the deaths in Iraq of my colleagues Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his assistant and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, the world finally had the transparency it should have had about this tragedy.

It was impossible for me to watch and not feel outrage and great sorrow – but this is not about trying to tell anyone else what to feel. This is about trying to find out exactly what happened and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

What I want from the Pentagon – and from all militaries – is simple: Acknowledgment, transparency, accountability.

Acknowledgment means both understanding at headquarters and training in the field that journalists have a right to be on the battlefield, and not just those embedded with a military unit. A journalist’s mission is to provide understanding, provide context and provide the reporting that citizens deserve. That mission requires journalists cover the story from multiple angles, including ones that potentially put them in harm’s way. A war prosecuted in darkness is a war without accountability. The journalist’s role is vital for a democracy and it must be acknowledged.

Then, there must be acknowledgment that true journalists come in every race, both sexes and a multitude of nationalities. Within Reuters, our 2,800 journalists come from 80 different nationalities. They all have a right to safety.

As too many tragic deaths, including those of Namir and Saeed, have proven, soldiers in tense warfare repeatedly mistake cameras and tripods for weapons. They’re not. There must be a way of training soldiers to distinguish the forms. It is imperative to have the consciousness that the shape in the scope might not be a threat.

Transparency is vital. This is the honesty for all to learn lessons from what has transpired. Soon after the incident, Reuters editors were shown only one portion of the video . We immediately changed our operating procedures – the first portion of the video made clear that anyone walking with a group of armed people could be considered a target. We immediately made it a rule that our journalists could not even walk near armed groups.

However, we were not shown the second part of the video, where the helicopter fired on a van trying to evacuate the wounded. Had we seen it, we could have adjusted our procedures further.

Transparency saves lives.

We have been trying for more than two and a half years to get this video from the military through formal legal means without success and in fact have an appeal to their last denial of our request still pending; now it transpires that officials who repeatedly told us that what the video contained was important enough for security reasons to withhold it from us, made no efforts to secure it and weren’t even clear where it was. It took a whistleblower to make sure the world had the transparency it needed and deserved.

I want the Pentagon to join me in a search for thorough and complete transparency.

Finally there is accountability. There are rules of war as there are in peace. The lack of transparency has meant there’s been absence of accountability.

Let’s dig behind the video. Let’s fully understand the rules the military were operating under. Let’s have a complete picture of what was going through the fliers’ minds. Let’s hear the Pentagon explain its interpretation of the rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention and how the actions either did or did not accord with them in its view. And importantly, let’s keep in mind that while we focus on this particular tragedy, it is the rare circumstance that when a journalist is injured or killed in a conflict area, there is a video of the death, and even more rare as this case demonstrates, for the public to see such a video.

And then let’s have the debate. Seeing the hundreds of articles and thousands of comments in the wake of the video’s release, it’s clear that people on every side of the issue have strong feelings. Let’s have a debate based on fact and not on emotion.

Acceptance, transparency and accountability – these add up to true justice. And that, in the end, is what I am after. I want justice for the journalists who lost their lives.

Justice is not vengeance. Justice is about holding all to account to make sure that proper lessons are learned, that mistakes aren’t repeated and that tragedies don’t happen again.


The fact that all these things is up for debate is exactly why America will never win another war again, and it’s not for lack of power. The people they are fighting do not follow these guidelines or anything remotely like them. As long as your enemies have more freedom to prosecute a war than you, you can never beat them. Period. Enjoy the quagmire!

Just think back to the last war America really did have a hand in winning: WW2. It was a savage and brutal war, and while not commonly spoken, America was guilty of every war crime imaginable a thousand times over. That’s what it takes to break an enemy: savagery.

That being said, the loss of these cameramen is tragic and under the rules of war they were fired upon wrongly (especially the 2nd strafing involving the van). Within the present framework, the man evaluating the video (whom I’m supposing gives the clearance to fire) should be held accountable. Take em to trial and train these guys better… it’s literally a matter of life and death.

Posted by CDNrebel | Report as abusive

I agree entirely that transparency should be more prevalent in militaries all over the world, and deaths such as this are tragic and unnecessary. However, the request to train soldiers to identify specific sorts of tri pods and cameras is unrealistic and impractical. Sometimes to get the best insight, journalists will take risks that place them in harms way. Any time this happens, there is potential for harm and possible death. Camera flock to wars, not the other way around.

Posted by bossmeh19 | Report as abusive

The military informed Reuters of this within 2 weeks after it happened, I read on Reuters’com. Where was the transparency and accountability to Reuter’s audience at that time? Transparency shouldn’t begin and end with governments.

Posted by CPA1976 | Report as abusive

I want the US to get the heck out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Stop policing the world on wars we can’t win nor afford

Posted by Storyburncom_is | Report as abusive

All of you should watch the video…….

Posted by Cynicalcubicle | Report as abusive

CDNrebel – there isn’t any such thing as a moral victory in war especially one that you start. Keeping journalists out so they don’t report war crimes doesn’t make it any more acceptable!

Posted by nicfulton | Report as abusive

My war has always been personal. Serving in 10 countries with guns pointed directly at me gives me no right to judge the sad result of reporters deaths. I’ve never felt reporting as being needed. It was, is, will continue to be -war. What right has any reporter to endanger my mission by standing near my enemy? I never killed innocent civilians. Too many rules of engadement empowers my enemy. You who NEED to know or see justice as a liberty and entitlement will surely respond with the endless examples of what YOU think happens or doesn’t happen when credentials or red crosses are displayed. B.S. War goes on with or without you. But will continue to be lost without me.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

That these reporters were in a war zone, and were intentionally walking into a battle area when they KNEW the enemy fights without uniform.

That when enemies breach the law and fight out of uniform, it is inevitable that civilian casualties will be the result.

That journalists have a right to be protected in a warzone. But that does not protect them from being mistaken for a target when they willingly interfere with a combat situation.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

What the real tragedy is people doing the complaining have no idea what WAR is… They think it’s like a paintball game, where everyone goes out for a beer at the end of the day… People die in a war, and people who want to cover that war should understand the risks… the military is there to kill the enemy, and if you are in the battlefield then you very well could die… no apologies needed, no condolences… the military should not be asking everyone if they have a press-pass… If you are that soldier in the field and you hesitate, then it’s your wife and children that are crying at your funeral!!!

Posted by Don45 | Report as abusive

“Let’s hear the Pentagon explain its interpretation of the rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention and how the actions either did or did not accord with them in its view.” Time to review you history and why the Geneva Convention came about… it does not apply to these Terrorists… They are not a uniformed military, and they directly target and kill civilians… They are entitled to nothing under the Geneva Convention… How about bringing to light the daily atrocities of the Terrorists, instead of complaining about them not receiving Miranda Rights on the battlefield…

Posted by Don45 | Report as abusive

Transparency Moderation Censorship, you get to pick. Just don’t beg comments from pHenry with one-sided history lessons.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

You have got to be kidding. Spend valuable time and assets ‘training’ our military to recognize cameras… and the other side? What about them? Journalists have no business being on the battlefield- embedded or not. If they make the decision to place themselves ‘in harm’s way’ then they have to be prepared for the inevitable consequence.

CDNrebel, I think you might be wrong about why America will never win another war. America will not win because it doesnt have the stomach to see what the so-called journalists put on the six o’clock news daily. America won WWII for the reasons you cite- and the fact that journalists reported WHAT HAD OCCURRED (past tense) not photos, video, etc as it was occurring. VietNam gave rise to the immediacy of video… and America couldnt stand what she saw and wanted to pull out much more than she wanted to win. When forced to witness her handiwork daily, this will always be the case. Whether or not most can grasp the concept, America will never win another war and her days are numbered as a result.

Posted by innerjuju | Report as abusive

When you fight an enemy who does not wear a uniform and uses civilian vrhicles it makes it extremely difficult to distinguish friend from foe. Most of these decisions need to be made in an instant. Then there is the thought that if I let this enemy get away he may kill me or my buddy tomorow that makes even these type of decisions difficult for the soldier. Not that we can’t do better, but war is hell.

Now, I hope Mr. Schlesinger is also pushing the terrorists for more care in preventing “unnecessary” casualties.

Posted by RetVet | Report as abusive

Should probably disclose that I’ve spent some time in trouble zones for network news myself, and am appalled at the military’s actions and their subsequent handling as well as all the time a false impression was allowed to linger that there had already been sufficient disclosure, which is an outright lie issue by those in command, repeated by mainstream outlets until the courageous intervention of collateralmurder dot com.

The death rate among journalists in the Middle East is disastrous, and the number of attacks and kills pulled off in particular by the “precision” US Military absolutely scandalous. The fate of those little kids the Crazy Horse killers also shot then failed to treat properly would be of great interest to a public brought up under the First Amendment, otherwise justice simply evaporates in a cloud of weapons-grade military BS.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive




Well said, that just proves the point, don’t write about such serious matters if you have not had first hand experience of it.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

It takes lots of training to become a helicopter gunner. It takes even more to become the commander who tells the gunner whether to fire or not. How much more time and expense would it take to add training to recognize a camera? Is this really the issue? I have no training at all, and I recognized a camera. Do you believe a more centered mindset would make soldiers less effective?

Posted by twixtplayer | Report as abusive

It’s mind boggling how former or active American military are so gung-ho about invading, killing, bombing and shooting foreigners in so-called 3rd world countries that have never touched the American mainland, but somehow become a target for the onslaught of American hi-tech weaponry as a result of a manufactured incident or allegation. Anyone who denounces American aggression for what it is has no idea according to them. All those one sided “Wars” have killed millions and the genocide continues in different countries now. Accountability for the genocide in Iraq? Zero.

Posted by serapio | Report as abusive

This reminds me of 2 things:
(1) the misrepresentation about the pro football player who gave up wealth, fame, and his life, to fight, what he thought to be terrorists involved in 9 11. He volunteered, served and was killed in “friendly fire” in Iraq. Instead of being honest, the authorities portrayed him as a hero who had died in combat rather than having been killed by American soldiers. When the true story broke,
his family testified in front of Congress, and was “mighty mad”.

The lack of honesty, and respect for the family, the loved ones, who deserve to know the truth, was unacceptable. In that case, there appeared to be an intention to keep the truth from the American public because they wanted to continue portraying him as a hero, a role model who had died in the hands of villains. There was active cover up in that case.

(2) Not that long ago, reporters were embedded in American armies. They were friends. What happened?

Could it be that the army was losing confidence in their own system? They were hiding their mistakes by default, because they themselves are having a hard time facing them, or presuming that they were honest mistakes to start with, even before any investigation?

Honest honorable mistakes no longer come first to mind upon hearing about any error. Instead, they instinctively hide everything— because of the fallout with the American public about how the war was started?

George W Bush let me down not because he made mistakes, but worse than that, to this day, he had not faced his own mistakes honorably, honestly, and continues as a “leader of dishonesty”– first to himself, then to the American people. Blaming the intelligence was lame, because there was nothing in the intelligence reports that supported what he claimed the intelligence community had said.

Obama needs to rebuild confidence in the military. Without confidence in their own integrity, their first intincts are to hide the facts, the truth. That results in the lack of transparency that is worse than before.

Just pulling out of Iraq is not enough. More leadership from their top commander in correcting the confidence problem is sorely needed.

Posted by Jos5319 | Report as abusive

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