How different are what political leaders say in public and what they may have known in private? The documentary “Iraq’s Secret War Files” reveals that it is often divergent. Executive producer Iain Overton and the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism were given first-look access to nearly 400,000 WikiLeaks reports detailing American involvement in Iraq under President Barack Obama. Overton and the bureau craft a critique of what they describe as the “war and occupation that the U.S. military doesn’t want you to know.”
Video voice-over: There is often a difference between what political leaders say in public and what they may have known in private – as we discovered when we received access to data from WikiLeaks, the whistleblowers’ website. It contained nearly 400,000 secret reports, known as “SIGACTs.” That’s short for “Significant Activities.”
Iain Overton (editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism): We wanted to provide the first draft of history. These were raw accounts, right from the ground, written by American soldiers. And they – it was interesting to see how they compared and contrasted, sometimes, with the testimony, the firsthand testimony, that we got from Iraqi civilians who we went out to interview.
Video voice-over: After the soldiers killed Waheed, the young men allege that they were assaulted.
Iraqi man: They made us lay on the ground and put their feet on our heads. They ground our heads into the road. They beat me here and here. Nonstop beating and dragging – they would drag us from here and drag us there.
Video voice-over: The classified report gives a different version of events.
U.S. soldier: Respectfully, transported the vehicle and the deceased to the family’s house in order to allow them to begin funeral preparations and conducted consequence management.
Overton: It just proves how difficult it is to establish what really happened, but also raises fundamental concerns. The major concerns that we really nailed down were concerns that we saw repeated again and again.
Video voice-over: Tonight, we reveal reports that U.S. troops were killing more civilians than insurgents at checkpoints – that they killed people who were trying to surrender. That even after the scandal of Abu Ghraib, U.S. soldiers continued to abuse prisoners. And also, how the Americans stand accused of turning a blind eye to the torture and murder of detainees by the Iraqi Security Services.
Overton: Everyone knew that there was widespread violence in Iraq, and at some points, it was hell on earth. So revealing that people were dying in droves is not going to be sensational reporting. However, there were moments that came out that are of major concern. For instance, we found one small report that actually described how an Apache helicopter pilot was focused on two insurgents who were trying to surrender. Their arms were up and he called through to base, and a response came back from a lawyer: “You cannot surrender to an aircraft.”
Video voice-over: Yet we discovered four reports where insurgents were allowed to surrender to a helicopter. But this video, leaked by LiveLeak, shows that others were gunned down with their hands in the air.
Overton: So clearly, they killed two men trying to surrender. Now, if you speak to other lawyers – not, clearly, the lawyer who advised the pilot – but other lawyers would say that’s a breach of the Geneva Convention. There are also some things that we knew but we could not prove. For instance, President Obama handed over 180,000 prisoners to the Iraqi authorities, but you are not allowed to hand over a prisoner to an authority that you know tortures.
Video voice-over: The Americans made public claims that they investigated allegations of torture in some of Iraq’s prisons on seven separate occasions between late November 2005 and March 2006.
U.S. military commander: But the people being held in those facilities were being properly taken care of. They were being fed. They had water. They were taken care of. So no abuse, no evidence of torture in those facilities.
Video voice-over: But the data shows that during the same time period, the Army recorded 76 separate allegations of abuse of Iraqis by the Iraqi Security Services in other places and reported them up their chain of command.
Overton: What the documents prove is the U.S. government knew that people were being tortured. And so, we could also show that President Obama, even with the best intentions in the world, but President Obama did break the Geneva Convention.
Video voice-over: Tonight, we tell the story of that war and occupation that the U.S. military doesn’t want you to know – the one they wrote themselves.
Overton: I went ’round the houses, to the major U.S. networks, and said, “Look, I’m working with Julian (Assange, founder of WikiLeaks). I’ve been given editorial independence, but we’re looking at all this, do you want a piece?” And, there was lots of conversations, but every single conversation ended in a dead end. And I think that there was a huge uncomfortableness in the parts of the American media to cover this event.