Julian Assange interviewed on Democracy Now by Amy Goodman, 4-6-2010
Original video clips
Amy Goodman: Video footage from a July, 2007 attack on Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops was released Monday by the website Wikileaks.org. We are joined now by two guests: Julian Assange is the cofounder of Wikileaks.org and oversaw the release of this top-secret military footage; he’s joining us from Washington D.C. And by video-stream from Brazil we’re joined by Glenn Greenwald, the constitutional law attorney and blogger for Salon.com. We called the Pentagon and the U.S. Army but they didn’t respond to our request for them to be on the broadcast. Julian Assange, tell us how you got this footage.
Julian Assange: We got this footage sometime last year. We don’t disclose precise times for reasons of source protection. When we first got it, we were told that it was important and it showed the killing of journalists, but we didn’t have any other context. We spent quite some months after breaking the decryption looking closely into this, and the more we looked, the more disturbing it became. This is a sequence which has a lot of detail, and I think in some ways covers most of the bad aspects of the aerial war in Iraq, and what we must be able to infer is going on in Afghanistan. So we see not only this initial opening shot on a crowd which is clearly mostly unarmed—there may be some confusion as to whether two people are armed or whether there’re cameras on their arms, but it’s clear that the majority of the people are in fact unarmed, and as it later turned out, two of those people were simply holding cameras. But we go on from there into seeing the shooting of people rescuing a wounded man, and none of those people are armed. What’s important to remember is that every step the Apache takes in opening fire is authorized. It does pause before shooting; it explains the situation, sometimes exaggerating a little, to its commanders, and gets authorized permission. These are not bad apples; this is standard practice. You can hear it from the tones of the voices of the pilots, that this is in fact another day at the office. These pilots and gunners have evidently become so corrupted, morally corrupted, by the war that they are looking for excuses to kill. That is why you hear this segment, “C’mon, buddy, just pick up a weapon,” when Saeed, one of the Reuters employees, is crawling on the curb. They don’t want him for intelligence value, to understand the situation. The man is clearly of no threat whatsoever—he is prostrate on the ground; everyone else has been killed. They just want an excuse to kill. It appears to me to be some kind of video-gaming party where they just want to get a high score; get their kill-count up. And later on you’ll hear them proudly proclaiming how they killed twelve to fifteen people.
AG: Julian, how has the Pentagon responded to this footage?
JA: It’s very interesting. So, yesterday, the Pentagon stated that the original investigation that it did into whether the acts broke the rules of engagement, the rules that soldiers must obey before shooting—they came to the conclusion then that there was no violation of those rules, that the pilots and gunners in fact acted properly. They reiterated that, last night, that in fact it was their view that the original investigation came to the right conclusion, and that they would not be reopening the investigation. However, we hear that that may be about to change. That hasn’t been confirmed yet but our sources in SenCom say that there may be a change. Also, late last night, the Pentagon suddenly decided it liked the Freedom Information Act after all. Reuters put in the Freedom Information request for this video in August, 2007, and did not receive any response whatsoever for over a year, and never has received, to our knowledge, the video. But yesterday the Pentagon released on the SenCom website six files relating to this event. There is one that is the most important, which is the investigative report into whether this action broke the rules of engagement. It’s really quite a telling report—the tone and language are all about trying to find an excuse for the activity. This is as if your own lawyer wrote a report for you to submit to the court. It is very clear that that is the approach, to try and find any mechanism to excuse the behavior, and that is what ended up happening. Something that has been missed in some of the press reportage about this is that there is a third attack just twenty minutes later, by the same crew, involving three Hellfire missiles fired onto an apartment complex where the roof was still under construction. We had fresh evidence from Baghdad that there were three families living in that apartment complex, many of whom were killed, including women. We sent a team down there to collect that evidence. So that is in the full video we released, not in the short one, because we didn’t yet have that additional evidence. Innocent bystanders walking down the street are also killed in that attack.
AG: Do you know who these Apache helicopter teams are; what this unit is?
JA: We don’t have the names of the teams. However, we have details about the unit, and there was a chapter or half-chapter in a book called The Good Soldiers by a Washington Post reporter released late last year that does cover the ground unit that moved in to collect the bodies and was the unit who also called in the Apaches to that area. An important thing that we know from classified documentation is that there were reports of small-arms fire in the general vicinity. This was not an ongoing battle. The Pentagon released statements implying that this was a firefight and the Apaches were called in, in the middle of a firefight; the journalists walked into this firefight. That is simply a lie. At 9:50AM, Baghdad time, U.S. military documentation states that there was small-arms fire in the general vicinity, in the suburb somewhere of New Baghdad, and there was no P.I.D, no positive identification, of who the shooter was. So, in other words, some bullets were received in the general area, and no U.S. troops were killed. They were heard; it could have even been some cars backfiring; there was no positive identification of where those shots were coming from. And the Apaches were sent up to scout out the general region, and they saw this group of men milling around in a square, showing the Reuters photographer something interesting to photograph. So the claim that this was a battle and the Reuters guys were sort of caught in the crossfire, or that this was some kind of active attack that needed immediate response by the Apaches, is simply a lie.
AG: We’re going to come back to this discussion and what’s happening to Wikileaks.org, not only as a result of releasing this, but other sensitive documents. Julian Assange is our guest, cofounder of Wikileaks. Also, Glenn Greenwald will join us; he has been writing about this. This is Democracy Now, DemocracyNow.org. Back in a minute. [Interlude.] I am Amy Goodman. Our guest Julian Assange has just posted on Wikileaks.org this 2007 footage from the helicopter gunships that open fire on Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. I want to play another clip. This is the voices of the cockpit laughing as a Bradley tank drives over the dead body of one of the Iraqi victims. And here the cockpit learns from soldiers on the ground that the victims include children. One voice says, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids to battle.” After discovering the wounded children a soldier on the ground says they should be taken to a nearby U.S. military hospital, but an order comes in to instead first hand the children over to Iraqi police, possibly delaying their treatment. Julian Assange, cofounder of Wikileaks, explain what happened to the children; the children that you show in the video footage by circling their heads there in the van.
JA: Something important to remember is that the video we obtained and released is of substantially lower quality than what the pilots saw. This is because it was converted through many stages to digital, but even so, we can just see that there are in fact two children sitting in the front seat of that van, and subsequent witness reports also confirm that. Those children were extremely luck to survive. The Apache helicopter was firing 30mm shells. That’s shells this wide, normally used for armor-piercing; they shoot straight through buildings. The medic on the scene wanted to evacuate those children to the U.S. military base approximately eight kilometers away from the scene. The base has excellent medical facilities. High command denied that. We don’t know the reason—perhaps there was a legitimate reason—but it seems like the medic would be the person best placed to know what to do. Instead he is told to meet up and hand the children to local police. We don’t know what happened then. But our team that was in Baghdad—we partnered with the Icelandic state broadcasting service, Rouge—found the children over the weekend, this weekend, and interviewed them and took their hospital records. And we have photographs of the scars of the chest wounds and stomach wounds and arm wounds of those children. The boy in particular was extremely lucky to survive. He had a wound that came from the top of his body down his stomach. He was very, very, very lucky. The mother says that she has been offered no compensation for the death of her husband, who was the driver of that van, and no assistance with the medical expenses of her children. And she says that they are ongoing medical expenses related to the daughter.
AG: Julian Assange, what is happening now to Wikileaks.org? What kind of response have you gotten? Can you talk about surveillance, or possibly attempting to shut you down?
JA: Well, a few weeks ago we released a 2008 counterintelligence report from the United States Army, thirty-two pages, that assessed quite a few articles that I had written, as well as some of the other material we had released. So, that includes the main manuals from Guantanamo Bay, which revealed falsification of records there, deliberate hiding of people from the Red Cross, breach of the Geneva Convention and psychological torture, and many other things, and a report we released on the Battle of Fallujah, once again a classified U.S. military report about what happened there. They were clearly concerned that we were causing embarrassment to the U.S. military by exposing human rights abuses. Some concern doesn’t seem to be legitimate, but some concern was about fine detail of material we were releasing which could, in theory, when combined with other detail, pose a threat to soldiers if insurgents got hold of that information. So that report looks at different ways to destroy Wikileaks.org or fatally marginalize it. And because our primary asset is the trust that sources have in us we have a reputation for having never had a source publically exposed, and as far as I know that reputation is true. It looks to see whether they can publically expose some of our sources, prosecute U.S. military whistle-blowers. And in fact, it uses the phrase “whistle-blowers:” not people who are leaking indiscriminately. They want to prosecute U.S. military whistle-blowers in order to destabilize us and destroy what it calls our center of gravity, the trust the public and sources have in us. It also looks at some other methods. It’s careful to fine-tune the language, but says that perhaps we could be hacked into and destabilized that way, or perhaps fed information that was fraudulent and therefore our reputation for integrity could be destroyed. The report is careful on these last two, to suggest that maybe other governments could do this. Seems like some kind of license for the claims they speak about—how Iran has blocked us on the internet and China has blocked us on the internet, and other governments of a similar type have condemned us. . . Israel. . . And it lists the case we had against the Swiss bank in San Francisco in February, 2008, a case which we conclusively won. But in the production of this video in Iceland, where most of the team was, over the last month, we did get a number of very unusual surveillance events. I personally had people covertly filming me in cafes, who, when confronted, ran off so scared that they even dropped their cash. Not Icelanders, outsiders, although there also was some surveillance from Iceland. Our feeling is, now, that that surveillance may not have been related to this video. It may more likely have been related to leaks from the U.S. Embassy in Iceland that we released. We’re not sure of that, but there appears to have been a following of me on an Icelandic flight out of Iceland to an investigative journalism conference in Norway. We’re not sure that there are records of two state department employees on that plane with no luggage. Our suspicion is that these are probably the diplomatic security service investigating that leak at the embassy. We did have a volunteer arrested for some other reason, and asked questions, in Iceland, about Wikileaks. But there are now two sides to this story. Our volunteer says that they asked questions about Wikileaks and the police say they asked questions about Wikileaks, but the police say that this was because of a sticker on a laptop. The volunteer says that this wasn’t true. We’re unable to confirm whether the police had inside information about the video or whether the volunteer is not telling the truth.
AG: We’re also joined, Julian Assange, by Glenn Greenwald, blogger for Salon.com. He’s a constitutional lawyer. Glenn, the significance of what this videotape is showing, from the helicopter gunships opening fire on Iraqi civilians.
Glenn Greenwald: I think that in one sense Wikileaks has done an extraordinarily valuable service, because it has exposed what it is that war actually is; what we’re actually doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, on a day-to-day basis. My concern with the discussions that have been triggered, though, is that there seems to be the suggestion in many circles, not, of course, by Julian, that this is some sort of extreme event; that this is some sort of aberration, and that’s the reason why we’re all talking about it and are all horrified about it. In fact, it’s anything but rare. The only thing that’s rare about this is that we happen to know about it and are seeing it take place on video. This is something that takes place on a virtually daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places where we invade and bomb and occupy. And the reason why there are hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq and thousands of dead in Afghanistan is because this is what happens, constantly, when we are engaged in warfare in those countries. And you see that, as Julian said, in the fact that every step of the way they got formal approval for what they wanted to do. And if you read the Defense Department investigations, which cleared the individuals involved in every sense, and said that they acted complete—[Cut off by phone static, some unintelligible mumbling follows.] You see that this is standard operating procedure. The military was not at all concerned about what took place; they didn’t even think there were remedial steps needed to prevent future reoccurrence. They concluded definitively that the members of the military involved did exactly the right thing. This is what war is; this is what the United States does in these countries. And that, I think, is the crucial point to know. And the military fought tooth-and-nail to prevent this video from surfacing precisely because they knew that it would shed light on what their actual behavior is during war, instead of the propaganda to which we’re typically subjected.
AG: And then the attacks on Wikileaks, the surveillance of Wikileaks, Glenn.
GG: Well, the problem, of course, is that there are very few entities left that provide any meaningful checks or oversight on what the military and intelligence communities do. The media has fallen down almost completely. There’s occasionally investigative reports and journalism that expose what they do, but media outlets, for a variety of reasons, including resource restraints, are hardly ever able to perform these kinds of functions, even when they’re willing. Congress, of course, which has principle oversight responsibility to ensure things like this don’t happen and that they see the light of day when they do, is almost completely impotent, by virtue of their own choices and desires, as well as by a whole variety of constraints, institutional and otherwise. And so there are very few mechanisms left for figuring out and understanding as citizens what it is that our government and our military and our intelligence community do, and unauthorized leaks and whistle-blowing is one of the very few outlets left, and Wikileaks is providing a safe haven for people who want to expose serious corruption and wrongdoing. So of course the Pentagon and the C.I.A. see them as an enemy, and something to be targeted and shut down, because it’s one of the few avenues we have left for meaningful accountability and disclosure.
AG: Julian Assange, you have video of Afghanistan that you have yet to release?
JA: Yes, that’s correct. We have video of a May 2009 attack which killed 97 in Afghanistan. We are still analyzing and assessing that information.
AG: Last comments, Julian. Go ahead.
JA: I must agree with Glenn, and I’d also like to speak a little bit about the media focus on this. We have seen some straw man-ing in relation to this event, so quite a few people have simply focused on the initial attack on Namir, the Reuters photographer and Saaed the other one. In the initial crowd scene, well, a camera and an RPG can look a bit similar, and there do appear to be two other people in that crowd having weapons. It’s a heat of the moment situation. Even if the descriptions were false previously, maybe there’s some excuse for this. It’s bad, but maybe there’s some excuse. This is clearly a straw man. We can see over these three events—the initial attack on the crowd, the attack on the people rescuing a completely unarmed men, themselves completely unarmed, to the Hellfire missile attack on an apartment complex, which killed families, all in the course of one hour, that something is wrong, and the tone of the pilots is another day at the office. This is not, as Glenn said, an extraordinary event. This outlines an everyday event. This is another day at the office. They get clearance for everything that they do form higher command before they do it. There was an investigative report in response to Reuters. It’s not a minor incident; there was pressure from Reuters to produce an investigative report. There was an investigative report; it cleared everyone of wrongdoing. You can read that report; it was released; it is clearly designed to come to a particular conclusion. The suppression of the material, non-response to Reuters, and now we hear, yesterday, from the Pentagon, an attempt to keep the same line, that everything was done correctly. I don’t think that can hold, but I think it gives an important lesson as to what you can believe. Even the number—everyone was described incorrectly as insurgents, except for the two injured children. A blanket description. Only pressure from the press changed that number to there being civilians amongst the crowd. But we also see that the total death count is wrong. There were people killed in the buildings next to this event, who were just there, living in their houses. There were additional bystanders killed in the Hellfire missile attack. And those people weren’t even counted, let alone counted as insurgents. You cannot believe these statements from the military about the number of people who were killed, whether people are insurgents, whether investigation into rules of engagement was correct. They simply cannot be believed and cannot be trusted.
AG: Well, after the footage was released, Nabil Noor-Elden, the brother of the slain Reuters cameraman, Namir Noor-Eldeen, spoke out in an interview with Al Jazeera.
Nabil Noor-Eldeen: [Voice recording.] Is this the democracy and freedom they claim to have brought to Iraq? What Namir was doing was a patriotic work. He was trying to cover the violations of the Americans against the Iraqi people. He was only twenty-one years old. Other innocent colleagues and other innocent people who were just standing out of curiosity when they see journalists in a scene, and they were all killed. This is another crime that should be added to the record of American crimes in Iraq and the world. Is the pilot that stupid? He cannot distinguish between an RPG and a camera? They claim he was carrying an RPG. When was the RPG this small, small as a camera. He was carrying a small camera. An RPG is more than one meter long. Yes, it was an RPG because it shows the acts against Iraq and its people that still suffer from their crimes. We demand then that national organizations help us to sue those people responsible for the killings of our sons and our people.
AG: And Nabil Noor-Eldeen is the brother of the photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saaed Chmagh. They both worked for Reuters News Agency. Overwhelmingly sad tributes to them online are very important. I want to thank Julian Assange, cofounder of Wikileaks.org. Glenn Greenwald will stay with us to discuss Afghanistan. This is the War and Peace Report at Democracy Now, DemocracyNow.org.