Washington – The 2005 shooting of a Reuters journalist during crossfire in Baghdad was a reasonable response because U.S. soldiers were uncertain about the activities going on in the unmarked car.
The soldiers mistook the video camera for a rocket propelled grenade, the Pentagon's internal watchdog concluded.
In an 82-page report, the Defense Department's inspector general also said that Reuters safety practices contributed to the death of sound technician Waleed Khaled, and the wounding of cameraman Haider Kadhem.
While the report was critical of how the initial investigation was conducted, it nevertheless concluded that a "preponderance of evidence establishes that the cameraman and driver took actions during the incident that reasonably led U.S. soldiers to believe they were confronting hostile intent."
According to the report, U.S. soldiers responding to an ambush on Iraqi police, saw the car with the Reuters journalists inside, and mistook Kadhem's handheld camcorder and microphone for a weapon. The soldiers fired warning shots at the car.
Following Reuters' safety procedures, the crew put the car in reverse and began to back away — an action the military is trained to interpret as an insurgent's combat tactics.
The soldiers fired shots to disable the car, killing and wounding the journalists. A contributing factor, the inspector general said, was the Reuters policy that allows journalists to work without wearing protective equipment, and in unmarked cars.
"We understand Reuters' concern for employee safety, and their employees' desire to reduce their visibility or profile in violent environments," the report said, "but the actions of the Reuters journalists reduced the soldiers' ability to distinguish them from combatants during a battle."
Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger said he believes the inspector general took the case seriously and came up with positive recommendations.
"We are never satisfied when a journalist is killed in the course of covering a story," he said. "I welcome the recommendation that the military and media engage together to better ensure the safety of journalists on the front line."
He said Reuters will examine its safety procedures, and noted, "Better training for journalists and for the military, clear rules of engagement and a closer dialogue are essential in order to prevent further tragedies occurring."
According to the report, the military unit's investigating officer did not follow correct procedures — the officer didn't interview all personnel at the scene, did not get written statements from the shooting team members, and did not fully investigate the scene.
Later, the video of the incident, which was taped by Kadhem, was accidentally lost when the investigating officer mistakenly took it home to Louisiana with him. It was mailed back to Iraq, but never arrived there.
The report recommended that corrective action be taken against the investigating officer for failing to preserve evidence, and that officers receive additional training on how to conduct investigations. It also recommended that the U.S. military in Iraq review procedures with the media so they can safely respond in such encounters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.