Imagine that the New York Times revealed that five Senators were known to be taking bribes from a particular corporation. Some days later the Washington Post runs a story saying they had independent sources suggesting that four Senators were taking bribes from that same corporation but goes on to state that this was nothing new as the story was already covered, neglecting to mention that three of the four names were different than those previously reported by the Times. This is hard to imagine because eight named Senators in a scandal is not the same as five named Senators, and because healthy competition between papers would tend to point out the information missed by a rival. Yet, this is, at least numerically, what happened following the October 22nd, 2010 release of the Iraq War Logs by WikiLeaks.
The release which supposedly included over 391,000 classified DoD reports described violent events after 2003 including 109,000 deaths, the majority (66,000) being Iraqi civilians. At the time of the release, the most commonly cited figure for civilian casualties came from Iraqbodycount.org (IBC), a group based in England that compiles press and other descriptions of killings in Iraq. In late October, IBC estimated the civilian war death tally to be about 104,000. Virtually all authorities, including IBC themselves, acknowledge that this count must be incomplete, although the fraction missed is debated. The press coverage of the Iraq War Logs release tended to focus on the crude consistency between the number recorded by WikiLeaks, 66,000 since the start of 2004, and the roughly 104,000 recorded deaths from Iraqbodycount since March of 2003. The Washington Post even ran an editorial entitled, ‘WikiLeaks’s leaks mostly confirm earlier Iraq reporting’ concluding that the Iraq War Log reports revealed nothing new.
A research team from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health released a report this week analyzing the amount of overlap between the 66,000 WikiLeaks reports and the previously known listing of IBC. The team developed a system for grading the likelihood that the WikiLeaks War Log record matched an entry in IBC, scoring the match between 0 (not a match) to 3 (very likely a match). The matching records were graded by at least two reviewers and then a third reviewer arbitrated any discrepancies. The conclusion? Only 19% of the WikiLeaks reports of civilian deaths had been previously recorded by IBC. With so little overlap between the two lists, it is almost certain that both tallies combined are missing the majority of civilian deaths, suggesting many hundreds of thousands have died.
On some level, not noticing that the WikiLeaks list of 66,000 deaths were different events than those previously recorded by IBC is somewhat understandable. Reporters have precious few hours to read, assess, reach out to experts, and then produce copy on the topic of the day. It takes several minutes to review a particular War Log and then go to the public database on Iraqbodycount.org and see if on that specific day there was an event that seems to match the War Log description. In fact, many papers ran an AP wire article on the WikiLeaks release so it is likely very few reporters actually looked at the Iraq War Logs.
On the other hand, WikiLeaks gave these records in advance to five papers including the New York Times and it took the Columbia University team just minutes to realize that for most events reported outside of Baghdad (where matching takes more work) there were no reported killings in a particular city or province on that day within IBC’s database.
This is not the first time this topic has been inadequately covered by the US press. A study I coauthored in The Lancet in estimating 100,000 excess deaths by September of 2004 (an estimate confirmed three times since then) received extraordinary press coverage almost everywhere in the world, but almost none within the US. Project Censored cited the topic of Iraqi civilian deaths as the second most under-reported topic of 2004. A survey by researchers from Johns Hopkins University suggested there had been 600,000 deaths due to the invasion by mid-2006. A poll by the Opinion Research Business in late 2007 put the tally over 1 million. Both estimates were viciously attacked by critics, largely supported by experts in their respective disciplines, but consistently labeled as ‘controversial’ by the press.
The implications of the WikiLeaks Iraq War Logs for the US standing in the Middle-East are profound. The only public estimate of the Iraqi death toll ever provided by the US was President Bush’s response at a public forum in December of 2005 in which he said, ‘I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis,’ with the Whitehouse spokesmen later attributing this estimate to media accounts. This number matched the IBC estimate at that time. WikiLeaks’ War Logs suggest the US had information to know that this estimate was only a small fraction of the reality.
Les Roberts is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University.