A Primer on Early WikiLeaks Coverage

WikiLeaks calls the coordinated media coverage "an extraordinary moment in journalism"

Around 5 p.m. on Friday, the online secret-sharing site WikiLeaks released almost 400,000 previously classified U.S. military documents pertaining to the Iraq war. As with their last document dump, WikiLeaks shared the documents with a number of news organizations before they were widely released. Here’s a basic rundown of those outlets’ initial coverage. (The French newspaper Le Monde was also given access to the documents. Unfortunately, nobody here reads French.)

The New York Times

Just as it focused on Pakistan’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan in its reporting on WikiLeaks’s July dump, The New York Times focuses heavily on the involvement of Iran in the Iraq War logs released today. Reporters Michael R. Gordon and Andrew W. Lehren do the bulk of reporting in four main stories posted online Friday afternoon, which were published in a package with an introduction, overview, links to selected documents from the war logs, and two harrowing slideshows. Reportage is expected to be bolstered over the weekend, with a profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be published on the weekend.

The Times’s current online lead WikiLeaks story is “Leaked Reports Detail Iran’s Aid for Iraqi Militias,” which details the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ backing of Iraqi militias.

The piece draws on specific incidents from the logs to demonstrate that Iran’s Quds Forces mostly maintained a low-profile, arranging for Hezbollah to train Iraqi militias in Iran, and financing and providing weaponry to insurgents. Other times the Iranian forces sponsored assassinations; at others, they sought to influence politics.

Gordon and Lehren’s reporting is strong, and they provide much needed context to the documents—Quds Force-backed attacks continued during Obama’s term, for instance—with jarring summaries of specific incidences and weapons halls, tagged with links to the original reports. For example:

The provision of Iranian rockets, mortars and bombs to Shiite militants has also been a major concern. A Nov. 22, 2005, report recounted an effort by the Iraqi border police to stop the smuggling of weapons from Iran, which “recovered a quantity of bomb-making equipment, including explosively formed projectiles,” which are capable of blasting a metal projectile through the door of an armored Humvee.

Most striking is the account of a particularly brazen plan to carry out a kidnapping against American soldiers.

According to the Dec. 22, 2006, report, a militia commander, Hasan Salim, devised a plan to capture American soldiers in Baghdad and hold them hostage in Sadr City to deter American raids there.

To carry out the plan, Mr. Salim turned to Mr. Dulaimi, a Sunni who converted to the Shiite branch of the faith while studying in the holy Shiite city of Najaf in 1995. Mr. Dulaimi, the report noted, was picked for the operation because he “allegedly trained in Iran on how to conduct precision, military style kidnappings.”

Those kidnappings were never carried out. But the next month, militants conducted a raid to kidnap American soldiers working at the Iraqi security headquarters in Karbala, known as the Provincial Joint Coordination Center.

The documents made public by WikiLeaks do not include an intelligence assessment as to who carried out the Karbala operation. But American military officials said after the attack that Mr. Dulaimi was the tactical commander of the operation and that his fingerprints were found on the getaway car. American officials have said he collaborated with Qais and Laith Khazali, two Shiite militant leaders who were captured after the raid along with a Hezbollah operative. The Khazali brothers were released after the raid as part of an effort at political reconciliation and are now believed to be in Iran.

The Times’s second report appears at first more in line with the outraged approach being taken by the Guardian and Der Spiegel. Lehren teams with reporter Sabrina Tavernise for “A Grim Portrait of Civilian Deaths in Iraq,” which summarizes several instances of civilian deaths—a particularly numbing example being the incident in which a sniper accidentally shoots a U.S.-employed interpreter. Almost jarringly, though, it opens with a defensive tone. The second paragraph begins, “The reports make it clear that most civilians, by far, were killed by other Iraqis.” And there is little emphasis, unlike at other outlets, on the fact that many of the civilian casualties revealed in the logs were previously unreported.

A third story, also by Tavernise and Lehren, “Detainees Fare Worse in Iraqi Hands,” reports on abuses carried out by the Iraqi army and police forces against prisoners. Despite the headline, though, the U.S. is not exonerated; Lehren and Tavernise note that “while some abuse cases were investigated by the Americans, most noted in the archive seemed to have been ignored, with the equivalent of an institutional shrug: soldiers told their officers and asked the Iraqis to investigate.” Readers learn that the most serious abuses often come during arrests, when there is resistence, and damningly, the authors point out that the “worse examples of Iraqi abuse came later in the war.” The implications are dark:

It is a frightening portrait of violence by any standards, but particularly disturbing because Iraq’s army and police are central to President Obama’s plan to draw down American troops in Iraq. Iraqi forces are already the backbone of security in Iraq, now that American combat troops are officially gone, and are also in charge of running its prisons.

Elsewhere, Gordon and Lehren burrow into one specific report for a shorter story to reveal that the three American hikers taken into Iranian custody for illegally crossing into Iran in July 2009 were in fact on the Iraqi side of the border.

On first read it appears that for the Times, the Iraq war logs reveal much about that country, ours, and Iran. - Joel Meares

The Guardian

The Guardian calls its package “Iraq: The War Logs”, and goes high with revelations of “serial detainee abuse” and “15,000 [previously] unknown civilian deaths.” (A subhed on the homepage bills the Guardian’s coverage as the summary of “five years of carnage.”) As of this posting, there are two ambitious multimedia components, the most impressive—and difficult to stomach—being “every death mapped,” which breaks down the new data on both civilian and military deaths into little pink dots scattered across the country.

The lede for the Guardian’s introduction to the package doesn’t mince words, saying that the WikiLeaks documents detail “torture, summary executions and war crimes.” The intro focuses on the sheer volume of incidents, while breakout stories—on detainee abuse, an Apache helicopter that killed insurgents trying to surrender, civilian deaths at checkpoints, etc.—turn the data into vivid anecdotes.

The paper puts the most emphasis on the 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths revealed in the logs. It also emphasizes repeatedly the fact that U.S. and British officials have both denied the existence of military data on civilian deaths, noting a 2002 quote from General Tommy Franks: “We don’t do body counts.” The story on deaths at checkpoints is the best of the Guardian’s more anecdotal stories; a very good subhed also provides context on checkpoint violence from both the soldier and civilian perspective: “Fear of suicide bombers means troops have shot drivers and passengers who were simply too scared or confused to stop.”

The Guardian’s coverage of detainee abuse highlights a coalition “fragmentary order” called “Frago 242.” A “frago,” as the story explains, is a military order “which summarises a complex requirement.” Frago 242 was a decision not to investigate any instances of detainee abuse in which coalition troops were not directly involved (in other words, torture by Iraqi soldiers or police). The result was that U.S. medical examiners treated victims of torture, documented the incidents, and sent them through the proper channels, only to hear back that no investigation was required. The Guardian explains that Frago 242 resulted in both isolated and “systematic” instances of detainee abuse being buried—that is, until WikiLeaks brought them to the surface. - Michael Meyer

Al Jazeera English

Al Jazeera English focuses on the same secret U.S. military order not to investigate Iraqi torture. “The reports reveal how torture was rampant and how ordinary civilians bore the brunt of the conflict,” reporter Gregg Carlstrom writes. “The files record horrifying tales: of pregnant women being shot dead at checkpoints, of priests kidnapped and murdered, of Iraqi prison guards using electric drills to force their prisoners to confess.”

The site bolsters these findings with a dozen or so feature articles, focusing on individual topics such as civilian deaths at checkpoints, additional revelations about the helicopter squadron “Crazy Horse” that was responsible for the deaths of two Reuters journalists in 2007, a closer look at Iraq’s deadliest suicide bombing in August 2007, and the story of the murder of a Catholic archbishop by al-Qaeda in Iraq in February 2008. In the “Showcase” section of the site, thirty-four reports are provided for readers in full and translated into plain English, but with most names redacted.

The Al Jazeera site has several interactive features, such as a Flash timeline of IED attacks much like the one The Guardian produced for the previous WikiLeaks dump. The data has been fed into several easily readable graphs, charting and mapping the casualties, roadside bombs, and reports of detainee abuse. All in all, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the secret files is straightforward, except perhaps for a six-and-a-half minute documentary video posted prominently throughout the site, a video that is awkwardly edited and features weird, cable-TV-style reenactments and dramatic readings of some of the reports. - Lauren Kirchner

Der Spiegel

Der Spiegel’s English-language coverage of the Iraq war logs is relatively thin, compared to the Times and The Guardian’s packages, at least as of Friday evening. But it does feature a very thorough interactive map of casualties and “events,” called “An Atlas of Horror.” If that proves too hard to absorb, the map can also be collapsed into “One Day in Iraq,” a day in November 2006 with several civilian deaths by IED attack as well as a surprising number of “criminal events (murders)” in which unidentified civilian corpses were discovered by coalition troops. Der Spiegel also, like Al Jazeera, embellishes on the story of the “Crazyhorse” apache helicopters, who were involved in several “dubious” attacks. And one feature in the package takes a step back and dicsusses the ethics of publishing the secret reports, analyzing the shifts in reactions of the U.S. government to this latest leak, as opposed to the previous leak of 75,000 reports from Afghanistan. - Lauren Kirchner

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a U.K.-based nonprofit, had three months to analyze the Iraq war logs. The result is approximately twenty stories, all of which are published and freely distributable under a Creative Commons license. (“Steal our stories,” the homepage blares.)

The site seems primarily concerned with documenting ostensible war crimes—or at least bad behavior—on the part of coalition soldiers. The lead story, titled “Biggest document leak in history exposes real war,” calls the documents “the uncensored detail Washington did not want us to know.” Other stories on the site emphasize civilian deaths and torture at coalition hands: an Apache helicopter crew that killed insurgents who were trying to surrender; Iraqi-instigated prisoner abuse that went uninvestigated by the U.S. military; and so on. A story dubbing December 2006 the war’s bloodiest month notes that 3,784 people died during that time period, a body count that far exceeds that which was officially reported. There’s also a Flash timeline of important events in the Iraq war, a glossary of relevant military terminology, and at least one article that is translated into Arabic. - Justin Peters

Channel 4 (U.K.)

The U.K. television station Channel 4 will air a program about the documents on Monday. In advance of that, its website has published several articles and video clips reporting on and analyzing the data. The lead story features a graphic seven-minute video that claims the documents “expose the lie that the U.S. kept no body counts” in Iraq. Particularly affecting is an interview with the uncle of a boy who was killed by a Hellfire missle: “The children came towards us screaming ‘Alawi has been blown to pieces.’ We collected the remains bit by bit. His head was more than 100 metres away.”

Other stories emphasize Iraqi-on-Iraqi tortrure that was apparently condoned by U.S. forces (“On 7 November 2005 George W Bush said: ‘Any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture….’ The above examples of Iraq war logs may suggest that the former President’s claim was inaccurate.”), and report that more civilians were killed at checkpoints than insurgents. In another story, Channel 4 reports that it actually traveled to Iraq and found the two survivors of an incident in which a car came under fire for failing to stop at a checkpoint (the car’s driver was killed), and notes the drastic difference between the survivors’ version of events and the military’s version of events.

Chief correspondent Alex Thomson offers a robust what-it-all-means analysis, and ends on this note:

The reality today is that there are one million war widows across Iraq. Many come to the central mortuary in Baghdad to try and find and identify the body of missing loved ones. Because of the numbers of names in these leaked secret Sigacts, that search might just get a little easier in future.

That is just one of several significant truths revealed by this sudden avalanche of hitherto secret information. In that regard, its significance is hard to underestimate.

We’ll be watching for the station’s full program on Monday. - Justin Peters

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