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Video shows death of 2 Reuters employees in Baghdad attack

David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; 1:30 PM

Pulitzer-winning Post staff writer David Finkel discusses newly released video of a 2007 helicopter attack on a Baghdad suburb, which led to the deaths of two Reuters employees.

Finkel wrote about the battle in his book The Good Soldiers, a chronicle of 'the surge' in Iraq 'the surge' through the experiences of a battalion of soldiers known as the 2-16.

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David Finkel: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining this chat. We got to see an edited version yesterday of a disturbing video showing what one day in the surge was like. Since I happened to be there that day, I thought I'd try to put the video in fuller context. I'm looking forward to your questions.

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Gainesville VA: David:

Glenn Greenwald says the Iraqi attack is par for the course -- that we have killed thousands in indiscriminate attacks.

Do you agree? Could you estimate, based on what you've seen in Iraq, how many Iraqi civilians have died as a result of our direct military operations?

David Finkel: Well I don;t want to agree or disagree with Glenn Greenwald, but I think it;s fair to say that there have been many many bad days for Iraqis and Americans, and this was one of them.

What's helpful to understand is that, contrary to some interpretations that this was an attack on some people walking down the street on a nice day, the day was anyting but that. It happened in the midst of a large operation to clear an area where US soldiers had been getting shot at, injured, and killed with increasing frequency. What the Reuters guys walked into was the very worst part, where the morning had been a series of RPG attacks and running gun battles.

As for how many Iraqis have died, it's of course anyone's guess. But that day there were a dozen or so.

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Reston, VA: After watching the video, it seems the journalists were taking a substantial risk by traveling with armed insurgents. Less clear, however, is the attack on the van that came to assist the wounded, where two children were visible in the front passengers seat. Did this second attack represent normal rules of engagement? It seems much more difficult to justify than the initial attack.

David Finkel: More context -- you're seeing an edited version of the video. The full video runs much longer. And it doesn't have the benefit of hindsight, in this case zoom,ing in on the van and seeing those two children. The helicopters were perhaps a mile away. And as all of this unfolded, it was unclear to the soldiers involved whether the van was a van of good samaritans or of insurgents showing up to rescue a wounded comrade. I bring these things up not to excuse the soldiers but to emphasize some of the real-time blurriness of those moments.

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Easton, Conn.: The lack of humanity of the soldiers is evident when they heard that two children have been hit.

A human would express some regret and concern.

David Finkel: Perhaps you're right. It's certainly difficult to hear the conversation that went on. On the other hand, I remain in touch with many of the soldiers from that battalion, including one who picked up and held one of the wounded children, and he has been having a difficult time ever since he made the discovery. I won' go into details without his permission, but I can assure you that in his case he is haunted.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Could the Reuters stringers have possibly been assisting the anti-American insurgents?

David Finkel: Everything I know suggests the Reuters staffers were doing their jobs. They heard of something going on and went to the scene to report it out.

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Vancouver BC: You claim that you're trying to put this attack into context. In that case, why are you ignoring the fact that the helicopter operator lied to ground control?

The helicopter crew has at least 480p resolution video. They can see what we can see. So clearly, he was lying...

He claimed that these people were carrying an RPG and AK47's when anyone with two eyes can see that the so-called RPG was no longer than 18 inches, and no such RPG is manufactured by anyone... are you saying that members of the US armed forces are so poorly educated that they think an 18 inch long camera lens is an RPG?

David Finkel: Thanks for asking about this. If you were to see the full video, you would see a person carrying an RPG launcher as he walkeddown the street as part of the group. Another was armed as well, as I recall. Also, if you had the unfortunate luck to be on site afterwards, you would have seen that one of the dead in the group was lying on top of a launcher. Because of that and some other things, EOD -- the Hurt Locker guys, I guess -- had to come in and secure the site. And again, I'm not trying to excuse what happened. But there was more to it for you to consider than what was in the released video.

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Olathe, Kan.: Where were you that day and how did you first hear about it?

David Finkel: I was there because I was writing a book about the experiences of an Army infantry battalion in the surge. That battalion happened to be the one involved in the 2-16 incident. They were in Baghdad for 14 months; I was with them for eight months. They had a tough area and a tough time -- June, for instance, was four KIAs, one who lost a hand, one who lost an arm, one who lost an eye, one who was shot in the head, one who was shot in the throat, eight who were injured by shrapnel. Many, if not most, of those injuries occurred in the area that on July 12 they were attenmpting to bring under control.

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Fairfax, VA: I'm following up on the comment that Reston, VA made about the journalists traveling with armed insurgents -- from some of the other comments that I have read, all of the dead were civilians and the one or two guys with AK47s were part of a security detail. There were no insurgents in that crowd. I could be wrong, however.

Do we know for sure who was on the ground at the time?

David Finkel: Other than the two who worked for Reuters, no. They are unknown, at least to me.

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Washington DC: I don't think anyone has done anything wrong here. I think Reuters had every right to embed their reporters with an enemy unit.

Do you think that Reuters should have let the US know specifically which insurgent group it had reportes with? Should US forces have withheld shooting at enemy units known to be accompanied by hostile reporters?

David Finkel: There's an assumption here I'm concerned about -- that Reuters embedded its staff with "an enemy unit." I know of no basis for that. What I was told that day, and subsequently, is that the two heard of something going on and went to check it out. That's just journalists being journalists.

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Ethan Miller, NY: Given your experience as an embedded reporter, would you say that this event was an exception or a common occurrence?

David Finkel: The answer is both. I'm not trying to be flip. This was an extreme version of what went on constantly during this period. It was one bad day in a surge that was filled with such days.

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Northern California: Is it truly within the rules of engagement to fire upon unarmed men carrying a wounded unarmed man into a van to evacuate him from a battlefield?

David Finkel: According to a review by the military, the military thought the rules of engagement had been followed. But others clearly disagree.

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Lee, N.Y.: How did you get to see the whole unedited video? Did Wikileaks show it to you, and could we all see it somewhere?

David Finkel: I hadn't heard of Wikileaks before yesterday. I based the account in my book on multiple sources, all unclassified. Without going into details, I'll say the best source of information was being there.

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Easton, CT: I disagree. You can clearly hear a soilder dismissing the report of the children being hit with the statement that "they shouldn't bring children to a war zone" or something to that effect. You or I or any human with any moral basis would express some concern. I never hear the soilders say "crap, are you sure" or anything to that effect. I don't doubt that the soilder on the ground who helped one of the children is deeply affected by this. I want to know about the soilders in the gun ships who we hear on the radio.

David Finkel: I never met the gunship crews. They were from another unit and circled above an operatiion involving 240 soldiers, 65 Humvees, and several Bradley Fighting Vehicles. At the end, they flew onto their base, which was not the same base of the infantry soldiers I was with on the ground. I wish I had been able to meet them, though.

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Madison, WI: Is there anything the journalists could have done to distinguish themselves from the insurgents? I don't believe that the helicopter would have been able to differentiate between targets when firing from such a distance. Would it have changed the rules of engagements if journalists could be positively identified?

David Finkel: Interesting last question. I'm guessing, but the guess is that the answer would be no.

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Los Angeles: What is your opinion of David Schlesinger's (the Reuters editor-in-chief) response to the public airing of this video? Should he have made a stronger statement than simply pointing out the dangers journalists face in covering wars?

Is this not, arguably, a massacre, and shouldn't Reuters be demanding an apology from the Pentagon? I suspect Schlesinger is in a bind because Reuters was shown the video in 2007, two weeks after the killings, and it failed to make a strong protest at the time. Or is Schlesinger right?: This incident illustrates the hazards of covering a war. Many people have commented that the cameraman could have been mistaken for an RPG-holding insurgent.

David Finkel: I'd hate to second-guess anything David Schlesinger has said. The fact is that he lost two people that day. Like so many things that happened over there, I hate that this happened.

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San Francisco, CA: You seem to be ameliorating the actions of the soldiers in question: "haunted," "full context", "benefit of hindsight" etc.

Is it fair to question your objectivity as a reporter in this situation, given that, as an "embed," you were depending on these very same soldiers for your survival on that very day, and have kept in touch with them since?

David Finkel: Well if you read the book, I think your questions about objectivity will be answered. And apologies for repeating myself, but my intent here is not to excuse the soldiers for their actions that day. It's to put a video many of us have now seen into a larger context.

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Arlington, Va.: Should the military have released the video when Reuters first asked for it?

David Finkel: I've heard from soldiers over these past two days saying the very same thing. Just get the information out there. The public is intelligent enough to handle it.

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Mt Joy, Pa.: It looks like a lot of the people submitting questions or editorial comments are clearly anti-military. They want to emphasize the carnage, destruction, morbility, and mortality, yet have no idea of what really happens on the ground. Perhaps they should instead realize that the situation on the ground in Iraq was far from as clear-cut as they wrongly believe. Better yet, some of them need to get the courage to enlist and serve the country as opposed to sitting in coffee shops, ranting and raving.

David Finkel: There are a lot of comments here that I want to post, just for people to hear different points of the conversation. This is one.

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Rochester, Minn.: Honestly, this really infuriates me. Is this lack of decorum and joking about people they have just killed by pilots the rule rather than the exception? Perhaps they need to get a little closer to the destruction they have just brought on people.

David Finkel: Another.

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Nashville TN: Thanks for this! it seems clear that there was no intent to kill civilians. The voices state that they have spotted armed men, and indeed the video shows just that. A journalist put himself into the middle of a battle site with armed men around him. That's very sad, but it hardly seems reasonable to construe this as a deliberate attack on unarmed civilians. at the most, Monday quarterbacks could fault the crew for failing to distinguish between a camera and the RPG7s that were also present.

David Finkel: Another.

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Bloomington, Ind.: The transcript seems to capture American troops at their worst -- they seem heartless, cruel. And yet one can't help but also notice the men on the ground sprinting with the bodies of the children, racing to get them to a hospital. No remorse from the helicopter pilots and gunners?

David Finkel: Another.

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Washington, DC: Any thoughts for those like me who are currently in school for photojournalism?

David Finkel: Sure. Learn from the work of others. In your case, it's a list that should include Namir Noor-Eldeen, whose work is available on the web.

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David Finkel: Many questions I haven't gotten to. Apologies. But thanks for all of your interest. David

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