Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Primer on Early WikiLeaks Coverage

A Primer on Early WikiLeaks Coverage


WikiLeaks calls the coordinated media coverage "an

extraordinary moment in journalism"


Campaign Desk, Columbia Journalism Review

October 22, 2010

By CJR Staff



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.


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



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



     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 requirment. 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



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



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



     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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