The WikiLeaks release of the Iraq War Logs occurs against a background where information on Iraqi casualties is not only lacking, but difficult to substantiate. This article looks at this wider context, and how IBC is working with the new data to obtain a fuller picture of the Iraq conflict’s human impact.
Iraq War Logs: Context
What’s new here?
The “Iraq War Logs” released by WikiLeaks, which are a version of the SIGACTS (Significant Activities) reports compiled from 2004-2009 by the United States military,1 is not the first release of US military data on Iraqi casualties. It is, however, the first time that it has been possible to examine such data and to compare and combine it with other sources in a way that adds appreciably to public knowledge.
1 Except for two months, May 2004 and March 2009.
2 U.S. Quietly Issues Estimate of Iraqi Civilian Casualties, NYT 30 Oct 2005.
3 Counting Civilian Deaths in Iraq, WP 'Fact Checker' 1 Oct 2007.
It emerged five years ago that the US military was quietly collecting and compiling Iraqi casualty data, when the US Department of Defense (DoD) began regularly reporting such data to the US Congress.2 Some of this information was presented as a set of bar graphs combining deaths and injuries, civilians and Iraqi security forces, without breaking down the proportion of each, or showing any of the underlying data. The best that could be said of these graphs was that they provided a rough indicator of violence trends but, because they were lower than other figures publicly available at the time, including those produced by Iraq Body Count (IBC), it was impossible to determine whether they contained anything that was not already known.
Slightly clearer data was presented by General David Petraeus to the US Congress in 2007. However it, too, raised questions among independent analysts.3 This was in part because the DoD’s Jan 2006 - Oct 2007 trendline for Iraqi civilian casualties (combining deaths and injuries), which was generally below but otherwise in line with the monthly trends for civilian deaths in IBC, briefly rose above IBC’s figures just before the US troop ‘surge’ commandeered by Petraeus, then suddenly dropped again immediately after the ‘surge’ began (Feb 2007). However, other sources monitored by IBC continued to report a very high rate of casualties with no significant reduction in this rate until September 2007. As before, there was no way to reliably or usefully reconcile and combine the DoD data with existing knowledge.
4 U.S. reports 77,000 Iraqi fatalities from 2004 to August 2008, WP 15 Oct 2010.
5 More than 85,000 Iraqis killed in war violence, ministry says, CNN 15 Oct 2009.
Most recently, the DoD has released another set of summary figures for those killed in violence from Jan 2004 to Aug 2008, which record 63,185 civilians, and 13,754 members of the Iraqi Security forces, killed in that period. 4These figures very likely come from the same SIGACTS data that is contained in the Iraq War Logs, since their totals for casualties generally agree. As has been noted elsewhere, their total for civilian deaths is lower than that recorded by IBC and other sources, including the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry.5
It is unsurprising that the conflict casualty information from any single source, including that collected by the US military, is incomplete. But what prevents the latest ‘officially released’ US figures being genuinely useful, rather than yet another set of free-floating numbers, is that they again lack the item by item detail that would allow them to be compared to, and combined with, other data such as IBC’s to form a larger picture.
In fact the only genuinely useful DoD casualty data on Iraq casualties to appear in the public domain prior to the release of the Iraq War Logs are the far less comprehensive daily reports which appear on the MNF-I website, and the 35,000 pages of official records (also encompassing Afghanistan) obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request filed in 2005.6 The ACLU data relates in large part to claims filed by Iraqis for loss of life and injury due to US forces’ actions. As such, they share with the Iraq War Logs the distinction of being highly detailed and specific to particular incidents and deaths or injuries. This allows them to be carefully compared to existing knowledge and, where they relate to deaths previously unrecorded, allows those deaths to be added to the public record. Through many months of work IBC has so far been able to add 477 Iraqi civilian deaths from the ACLU releases, as discussed more fully elsewhere on the IBC site.7
7 For the public record, in the public interest IBC 1 Oct 2010.
8 Iraq War Logs: What the numbers reveal IBC 22 Oct 2010.
As with the military records officially obtained and released by ACLU, a similar process of careful, record by record analysis will allow the data on casualties in the Iraq War Logs to be used to build a significantly more complete picture than existed before their release.
Based on analysis of a carefully selected sample of 860 of the Iraq War Logs (including all of those containing over 20 deaths), IBC estimates that they will add in the order of 15,000 previously unrecorded Iraqi civilian deaths to the public record, and many more deaths of Iraqi security forces and other combatants than have so far been detailed.8 A final accounting of the human tragedies contained in the Iraq War Logs will require much time and painstaking effort, but it is now at least possible.
IBC’s contribution so far
All information about the deaths caused in any disaster, be it a man-made war or a natural catastrophe, is public information which no state has a right to withhold from the public indefinitely. Even in military circles, the latest thinking accepts this view, for a variety of reasons that include its own best interests.9
9 See for instance In Everyone’s Interest: Recording All The Dead, Not Just Our Own co-authored by Oxford Research Group and a British army colonel, published in the summer 2010 issue of the British Army Review.
10 Iraq War Logs: The truth is in the details IBC 22 Oct 2010.
Yet these Iraq logs (like the “Afghanistan War Diaries” released by WikiLeaks earlier in 2010) contain information on civilian and other casualties that has been kept from public view by the US government for more than six years. Even knowledge of the details within them – such as the fact that they record the names of thousands of Iraqi civilian victims – has been kept secret.10 Far from being data “stolen” from the US military as asserted by a spokesman, the data on casualties contained within these logs is information about the public (mainly, the Iraqi public) that was unjustifiably withheld from both the Iraqi and world public by the US military, apparently with the intent to do so indefinitely.
While the Iraq War Logs are likely to be of intense media interest in the short term, it is in the public interest that their release is accompanied by authoritative and comprehensive analysis over the longer term. IBC is well placed to supply such an analysis, drawing as it can on its experience in collecting and analysing Iraq casualty data on a detailed incident by incident basis for more than seven years, with the resolve to continue this work into the foreseeable future.
The past several weeks of detailed analytical work on the mass of detailed information in the Iraq War Logs has allowed IBC to provide a broad, evidence-based overview of key findings on the day of their release. It has also given us the opportunity to do a substantial amount of the groundwork needed for the full and authoritative integration of these logs in their entirety into existing public knowledge of human losses in Iraq.
IBC’s future plans
IBC’s intention for the future is to fully integrate all information relevant to casualties that is present in these logs into the IBC database. This will amount to the largest piece of analytic work ever undertaken by IBC on a single source, probably requiring the human inspection of the majority, if not all, of the 390,000 log entries.
Indeed, IBC would not have embarked on its initial analyses, published today, unless it were committed to achieving the full integration of these logs into the public record, incident by incident, victim by victim. As our preliminary analyses demonstrate, these logs are likely to add as many as 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths. But beyond this, they will provide details of 25,000 previously unspecified incidents resulting in deaths, whether those deaths were previously reported or not.
However, this task will require far more resource, human and financial, than is currently available to IBC, so the realisation of our plans will depend upon very substantial new sources of funding for our work. We are actively seeking such support. Individuals may contribute to this work by making donations directly through our website.
Our ahead-of-time access to these unofficially obtained US military records has required IBC to consider any legal risks to it or its staff. We have addressed this by acting on specialist legal advice at every step of the way during the preliminary review period. This advice has been provided by Public Interest Lawyers, a leading firm specialising in domestic and international human rights.
IBC has also addressed this risk by acting in a way that is essentially no different to that of the major international media outlets like the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, who all have been given full and early access to the new material.11 We have shared with these organisations a joint commitment to publish our initial analyses of these logs on the same day that WikiLeaks releases them, come what may.
11 A full list of contributing organisations can be found via the Iraq War Logs website of The Bureau for Investigative Journalism
A final key area of concern for IBC was that nothing we publish should put lives at risk. In fact, IBC itself never publishes ‘unprocessed’ information of any kind – that is, everything published by IBC has been fully studied and analysed first by members of the IBC team. This means that, for example, names of primary source witnesses could never unwittingly be published by us. Given that such scrutiny cannot possibly be applied by NGOs, or even by major media organisations, within a matter of weeks to 390,000 multi-entry logs, WikiLeaks has consulted widely on possible solutions, including with IBC, and has decided to heavily redact the content of the Iraq War Logs prior to release. Although such intense redaction will fall far short of the ideal of transparency for such releases, we agree with WikiLeaks that this is the best solution short of postponing the release of the logs indefinitely – the very situation this release aims to remedy.