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On Contact: Collateral Murder video

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to journalist, Dean Yates, who, 13 years ago, was the head of Reuters’ Baghdad bureau. On July 12, 2007, Yates learned two of his employees, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, had been fired on and killed by the US Army. Their deaths, and those of others, were the focus of the now-infamous video Collateral Murder, leaked by Chelsea Manning and released by Wikileaks.

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CH: Welcome to “On Contact.” Today we talk to Dean Yates, who 13 years ago was the head of the Reuters bureau in Baghdad when the collateral murder video, now infamous throughout the world, killed two Reuters employees.

DY: In terms of the significance of this tape, Chris, I think it will be—it’s easily as significant as the photographs that came out of the Abu Ghraib detention abuse because it showed the world what the war in Iraq really looked like. It showed for the first time—it showed the American public what the war in Iraq really looked like from how assessments were made about who to open fire on and how decisions were made without--very little information at all. You know, such as that attack on the van, which I think a lot of experts believe was a war crime. And then later on in the time where you see fire—missiles being fired into a building without any confirmation of actually who was inside that building. So I think it really laid bare what the war in Iraq really looked like.

CH: Early on the morning of July 12, 2007, Dean Yates, the Reuters News Agency bureau chief in Iraq, sat at the slot desk at the News Agency’s office in Baghdad. Suddenly, he heard loud wailing from the back of the office. An Iraqi colleague burst through the door. Namir Noor-Eldeen, a Reuters photographer, as well as a Reuters driver and fixer, Saeed, had been killed. Yates, despite his shock and grief, still had to file a story. He contacted the U.S. military’s spokesman. He waited until the evening before the U.S. military responded. When it did, it released a statement saying that “During a firefight in Baghdad, nine insurgents have been killed and 13 had been detained.” “There was no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” a U.S. lieutenant told Reuters. It was a lie. And after that for the next three years, as Yates pushed to uncover the truth, came lie upon lie by the U.S. military until in 2010, Julian Assange released a video of the killings leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, a U.S. military intelligence analyst in Baghdad. It became known as the collateral murder video. The video was taken from the U.S. Apache attack helicopter that carried out the killings. It showed the pilots bantering back and forth as they nonchalantly gunned down Namir, Saeed, and nine other men while also seriously wounding two children. There was no firefight or clash with insurgents. The U.S. pilots who committed the war crime have never been charged while Julian Assange is being held in a British prison as the U.S. attempts to extradite him to stand trial for the publication of classified material under the Espionage Act, although Assange is not a U.S. citizen and WikiLeaks is not a U.S.-based publication. Joining me from his home in Tasmania to talk about the killings and the difficult odyssey he has undergone coping with the murder of his colleagues and his friends, as well as a lack of transparency by the U.S. military is Dean Yates. So, Dean, let’s begin with that morning. And, I mean, it must have been just hell to have to write a story and cope with what you were coping with at the same time. Just lay out, you know, initially what it is you had thought had happened. You know, what you knew, because so much of your own journey was an attempt to finally uncover what took place, which the U.S. military refused to acknowledge.

D.Y.: Yeah, thanks, Chris. As you know, right, in situations like that, initial details are often sketchy. You get witness reports that something’s happened, and you got to try and confirm that information. So initially, we heard that Namir and Saeed had been killed in some sort of aerial attack. Witnesses were telling us that, actually Iraqi police said it was a helicopter, a U.S. helicopter. So we sent folks to the scene. And one of the really puzzling things about this picture to begin with, this scene, was this van that had been—this minivan that had been absolutely mangled. And it was like, What was this doing at the scene? What had happened here? And there were shrapnel marks everywhere courtyards and walls, a lot on the ground. And so it was—and Namir’s cameras had been seized by soldiers. So it was very [audio cuts out] for me to put together an accurate picture of what had happened. But I had to write a story because this was big news. And so I was trying to write a story of what had happened based on witness accounts. And the military wasn’t telling me anything until late—actually, it was in the early hours of the next day when that statement came out with that blatant lie that they’d been killed in a firefight. All I could do was just report what we knew. I had to do my job as a journalist. But as the days went on, we were getting eyewitnesses telling us there was no clash going on, there was no firefight taking place. And so it was very clear to me that there was something very wrong with that statement.

CH: Were you—I mean, you were a seasoned journalist. What was your relationship with the U.S. military? And until this moment and the subsequent process, did you believe that they could—because they really spun you along, which we’ll talk about. But did you believe that they were that mendacious?

D.Y.: Look, Chris, I was probably naïve, to be honest. But, you know, I was seasoned. I’d worked in Vietnam, I’d worked in Indonesia, I’d worked in Jerusalem, the West Bank. I’d been around the block. I’d had assignments in Baghdad in 2003-04. But I’d actually taken a different approach to my predecessors, who were both tough, hard Scotsmen. And they’d just gone up against the military in a very confrontational manner, and I just thought, “I’m just going to be a little bit different. I’m going to try and work with the military,” because it wasn’t just about getting the story. It was sometimes about getting our guys out of detention. And one of the first things I had to do when I got to Iraq was to get one of our stringers from Ramadi out of detention. He’d been detained for months. And so I just felt that maybe the best way that I could operate as bureau chief was to have a good relationship with senior military officials so that—and that’s what I tried to do. I tried to build relationships with senior military officials. But I think at the end of the day, I was probably naïve. And maybe they thought, “Yeah, this is some guy that we can manipulate,” if you like. And when I look back on this, I look at my two predecessors, Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Marshall, and I think, you know, maybe I should’ve been harder like they were.

CH: Well, they spun you in many ways. But let’s start with, you know, this constant request on your part for the rules of engagement. Explain what that is to people who don’t understand a war zone, why it’s important, and what they did.

DY: So the rules of engagement, first of all, let me define the word engagement, OK? The word engagement in U.S. military language is basically a euphemism for killing someone in a war zone, shooting someone. U.S. military uses that term to soften this notion of killing someone. It’s basically defining, What are the conditions under which a soldier can open fire and kill someone. So that might be situations at a checkpoint, situations in a street, situations in any sort of scenario—urban, rural—and what has to happen, in theory, for that soldier to be able to open fire. And therefore—and soldiers are supposed to abide by those rules of engagement. I believe those rules of engagement are sometimes printed out on pieces of paper, laminated small cards. Soldiers would carry them around. And those rules of engagement, therefore, would sort of be the conditions of wartime, the guidelines for warfare that were meant to govern how the U.S. military conducted warfare in Iraq.

CH: So after this event, talk a little bit about your struggle to find out what happened to your colleagues and friends, including they showed you a small part of what became known as the collateral murder video. But talk about that process.

DY: So they set us down, and they took us through—they gave us an account of what had been happening in that area, in the al-Amin neighborhood. They told us that this particular battalion, the 216, had been coming under attack in recent days, maybe a week, with IED attacks and that the battalion had gone out at dawn that morning to clear out Shi’ite militiamen. So they were going on the offensive, basically. And the battalion split up into different groups and was coming under fire—coming under attack from various parts of the neighborhood. So the commander called in air support, which is how the two Apaches ended up in the air. And at some point, the battalion, the Apaches, saw a group of men walking around--milling about, if you like—and that caught the eye of the Apaches, and that they immediately identified this group as a group of military-age males. So that made the Apaches suspicious. The generals then told us that the Apache identified some in the group as carrying weapons. It turned out that one of the members of the group was Namir. And what they identified was his camera. They misidentified his camera as a weapon. They then told us that--they gave us a sort of step-by-step account of what happened with the Apache opening fire and so on, and they showed us some photographs. They told us that the fact that there were men on the streets was an expression of hostile intent on the part of those men. And my colleague and I argued, “How is this possible?” You know, “Well, will you show us the firefight?” You know, “Where is the clash?” And they said, “This is an expression of hostile intent by these men. Therefore the Apache was given permission to open fire.” They kept using this word, engage, that that’s permission to open fire. And, therefore, they did. They also said that Namir had peered round a corner to take photographs of U.S. military Humvees about 100 meters away. They said that caught the eye of the Apache pilot and that he believed that that was someone, an insurgent, peering around a corner with an RPG. And then once all this had happened, towards the end, they showed us less than 3 minutes of the video, which showed up to the point where the Apache opens fire for the first time, and they stopped the video at the moment when these 30-millimeter rounds are hitting the ground and all the dust goes up and basically these men are getting killed. And my colleague, who was, obviously, much more senior than I, said—he asked for a copy of the tape. He asked for a copy of the photographs, and the general said no. “You have to seek them through the Freedom of Information Act process out of the United States, which our lawyer in the States did that very same day, later that day in the States.

CH: But they never turned it over. When we come back, we’re going to continue this discussion with former Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad Dean Yates.

Welcome back to “On Contact.” We continue our discussion about the collateral murder video with former Reuters bureau chief Dean Yates. So this became the line of the U.S. military. You know, we’re talking about months and finally years of constant requests to see the video. The U.S. military continues to lie about what happened. And I want to talk a little bit about the personal toll not only on the families and staff abut also on yourself because that’s often not acknowledged, but it was tremendous. I mean, even to the extent where you are blaming Namir for his own death. But talk a little bit about that process and then the release of the video by WikiLeaks.

DY: Yeah, so this is—I guess this might be hard for people to understand, Chris, why this happened. But I think what I need people to do is to try to put themselves in my shoes, sitting in that room in the Green Zone, one of Saddam’s former palaces. And one of the last things that happened in that briefing was I’m watching this footage. And in that footage, it shows Namir peering around this corner, taking photographs of Humvees 100 meters away. And he looks suspicious. I have to acknowledge that, that he looked—from that angle, he looked suspicious. And the helicopter pilot is saying, “He’s got an RPG.” And that voice is urgent. That pilot is edgy. I left that briefing with that image scene—

CH: Let me just interrupt you. Let me just interrupt you, Dean, because an RPG can take down a helicopter. That’s a rocket-propelled grenade for people don’t understand—any tank weapon, any armor. But the helicopters. So that’s, yeah.

DY: So I left. When I saw that image of Namir peering around that street corner, I just—I put my head in my hands. And because I knew how suspicious he looked. But the order to open fire had already been given. They were going to attack that group of men irrespective of what Namir did. And this was something that I think Julian made clear when he released the tape in 2010…

CH: Yeah.

DY: that that image was seared into my brain. And that’s what I left that briefing with. And it just—and it just—it just became so part of my consciousness that in later years, I came to believe that Namir was responsible. I blamed him for that. And for me—and when I was writing about it in later years when I was—first admitted to the psych ward, I was writing down. And that, when I fully realized that I’d been blaming him for years, that was just, I mean, the shame I felt at that, I was just devastated to realize, How could I? They had already given—they were already going to attack anyway. And I just wonder if that was the intention of those generals. Were they setting us up like that? Did they want me to go away with that? Was that choreographed?

CH: Yes. Ha ha!

DY: I don’t know. But the impact on me was—[inaudible].

CH: I mean, what’s fascinating from—

DY: The impact on me was—anxiety [inaudible].

CH: I mean, what’s fascinating from—did a very good interview with you in the “Guardian,” is that you said you didn’t realize that they were going to fire anyway until the collateral murder video leaked by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks in 2010. So that’s a 3-year period.

DY: And, you know, to fast-forward to 2016, around the ninth anniversary of Namir and Saeed’s death, the shame that sort of bubbled to the surface, the guilt I felt over not—you know, they were killed on my watch. I didn’t protect them. I wasn’t--I didn’t quite understand where there was shame and guilt was coming from until later. But that shame and guilt was so strong, it made me suicidal. And I nev—I didn’t speak because I hadn’t spoken out publicly when the WikiLeaks tape was released. It was coming so strong, I ended up in the psych ward. And I had three psych ward admissions over nearly two years, over a period of two years. And it was only on the second psych ward admission that I fully understood what had been happening in my head, that I’d been blaming Namir wrongly. And it was from that second admission that I held a memorial ceremony in a chapel, and I asked Namir and said to forgive me. And I actually forgave myself as well.

CH: Talk about the impact. You were out backpacking, and you came out of the forest. So you didn’t immediately see the collateral murder video. Talk about its impact on you and its importance. I mean, I’m a great supporter of Julian, but, you know, as a journalist, it’s important journalistically.

DY: Yeah, so I was actually in Tasmania where I live—my wife and now our young kids at the time, we were up in the Cradle Mountain National Park, which is sort of in central Tasmania. No communications whatsoever. We didn’t even have a phone connection. You couldn’t get mobile phone reception up there. And we didn’t come out of that national park until April 7th, which was two days after the tape had been released. So I didn’t know about it. I didn’t even switch on my phone till we got down the coast. And I opened this newspaper, and here is this story spread across two pages. And I’m like, “Is this the same video? Is this the same story?” And I just couldn’t process it at first. And my wife remembers me basically going into shock because all of a sudden, I could see now what had happened after that initial three minutes of the tape. I could see that Saeed had been wounded and for three minutes had been trying to get up and that this helicopter had basically just waited for a reason to open fire on him. And then when the good Samaritan arrives, the minivan gets blown away. And all of this, it was just, for me, it was crushing. It was just—and by this time, the news cycle had already gone on, you know, nearly 48 hours. But, obviously, this was a big story. It was making a lot of—there was a lot of debate around the world. But, you know, Chris, I was a coward. I should’ve stepped into this debate because I knew the story better than anyone. I should’ve stepped into this debate. I should’ve said—and because a lot of people, I think, were misinterpreting what had really happened. A lot of media weren’t making it clear that the helicopter had already been given permission to open fire. And also, importantly, Reuters, my organization, had not called out the military for its lies, had not spoken bluntly about the original lie about the firefight taking place. They hadn’t called out the deceit of not showing us that tape for so long when I’d worked very hard with the U.S. military after that to try to improve journalists’ safety. I mean, to me, that was just, Where’s the honor in that, right? You’re trying to improve journalists’ safety in Iraq, and yet you’re sitting on this tape. We didn’t call out the lies that came at the same time, when the U.S. military said it couldn’t find its own copy of the tape. I mean, Chelsea Manning found it easy enough. And then the U.S. military had come out and said there had never been any attempt to cover up any aspect of this whole saga—[laughs]—I mean, that was, again, just another lie. So, um, I didn’t step up, and I, you know, I had a lot of regret about that. But in terms of the significance of this tape, Chris, I think it will be—it’s easily as significant as the photographs that came out of the Abu Ghraib detention abuse because it showed the world what the war in Iraq really looked like. It showed for the first time—it showed the American public what the war in Iraq really looked like from how assessments were made about who to open fire on and how decisions were made without--very little information at all. You know, such as that attack on the van, which I think a lot of experts believe was a war crime. And then later on in the time where you see fire—missiles being fired into a building without any confirmation of actually who was inside that building. So I think it really laid bare what the war in Iraq really looked like. And if that was—and I think the other thing—and for historical perspectives, you’ve got to go back to Vietnam to that famous photograph by Eddie Adams of the general executing that suspected Viet Cong guerrilla in the streets of Saigon. I think, this tape, the Abu Ghraib pictures, that image from Vietnam, these are—these are historic moments that have been recorded of warfare. And I think what Julian did and what Chelsea did in bringing that to light is absolutely crucial in helping our understanding of war but also in holding governments to account.

CH: How now do you look back on the entire odyssey, you know, if you had to characterize, you know, what it taught you?

DY: I would be so much more skeptical of what governments and militaries tell me. I mean, I would almost be inclined to not believe anything they tell me. And I would push very, very hard for an accounting of everything that was done to innocents, to journalists, because I think that is where—that is where you have to start when it comes to accountability and transparency in the world. And what really, really worries me, Chris, is that the only reason the U.S. military investigated that attack on July 12, 2007, is because two Reuters employees were killed. Would they have ever investigated that attack otherwise? I doubt it. So how many other attacks like that were not investigated? And I think it just, it just really has made me question what’s said. It’s certainly eroded my trust in whatever the official line is, having been through this experience.

CH: And just to close, you know, I worked in the Middle East for the “New York Times” and had to deal with the IDF. You dealt with the IDF as well, and it was very hard to report out of Gaza, and Trump allies with the IDF. What it did teach you about Reuters and mainstream news organizations?

DY: I think mainstream news organizations, I think it’s actually, right now is probably the hardest time to be a journalist in a mainstream news organization right now than it’s ever been. I think when you and I were reporting in those sorts of places, we could often—it might take us one or two days to get to someplace, whether it’s a war zone, a humanitarian crisis. We do our job. We come home. We can decompress a little bit whereas I think today, journalists, it’s a 24-hour front line, 24/7 wherever they are. And I think journalists today are--are just under so much stress, under so much pressure. The social media abuse, governments that lie. And then there’s the distressing imagery that journalists have to deal with that occurs that comes through social media because of technology. And so I feel for our profession that journalists these days that are doing this job day in, day out. And I don’t think a lot of them understand that they are under such tremendous stress because they’re not on what they would see as a traditional front line or a traditional traumatic story that you and I would regard as one. And so I think the job that mainstream news organizations are doing, such as Reuters today, are incredibly important, but I would—I would urge them to look after the mental health of their staff. That is so important.

CH: Right.

DY: And that, to me, is, I think you can’t have outstanding journalism if you’re not looking after the mental health of the staff. If you’re working your journalists to the bone, those people are gonna break down at some point if they’re not breaking down already. And it just worries me when I see journalists getting laid off left, right, and center. And look at it now. Journalists who’ve been covering covid, covering the Black Lives Matters protests across the United States and everywhere around the world. It is such unrelenting. And I would just urge news leaders to be really looking after their staff because it’s just, it’s the right thing to do.

CH: Great. Thanks. That was Dean Yates, former Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad about the collateral murder. Thanks, Dean.

DY: You’re welcome, Chris.