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Misreporting Iraq's Casualties

The press falsely claims that the latest WikiLeaks documents demonstrate 285,000 people were killed in the Iraq War.

1:10 AM, Oct 23, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Early Friday evening I received a link, via email, to this story at ABC News’s website by Russell Goldman and Luis Martinez. The opening sentences read (emphasis added): 

In what is being described as the largest release of secret U.S. military documents ever, whistle-blowing web site WikiLeaks has published a trove of classified reports about the war in Iraq, including a secret U.S. government tally that put the Iraqi death toll at 285,000, according to news sources that received advanced copies of the documents.

A little while later I clicked on the link again, but now the opening sentences had been changed to read (emphasis added): 

In what is being described as the largest release of secret U.S. military documents ever, the whistle-blowing web site WikiLeaks has released a trove of classified reports about the war in Iraq, including a secret U.S. government tally that puts the Iraqi death toll between 109,000 and 285,000, according to news sources that received advanced copies of the documents.

And then a little later again (emphasis added):

The whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks today released a trove of classified reports about the war in Iraq that it said documented at least 109,000 deaths in the war, a higher number than the United States previously has acknowledged, as well as what it described as cases of torture and other abuses by Iraqi and coalition forces.

This strikes me as indicative of the media’s overall reporting on the Iraq War. Media outlets initially jumped on the claim that WikiLeaks had released a previously secret study showing that 285,000 Iraqis had perished in Iraq. ABC News hadn’t even seen the study at the time of its initial report. Instead, it summarized other “news sources” that reportedly had.

Then it turned out that the study in question did not in fact show that 285,000 Iraqis were killed. ABC News scrambled to rewrite its account. That’s why we see the initial 285,000 figure was revised to “between 109,000 and 285,000.”

Of course, that range (with 176,000 casualties separating the minimum from the maximum) is almost certainly meaningless. Who wrote this study for the U.S. government? Were there other studies? How do we know that the study was found to be reliable? Were there other, conflicting studies?

The media did not ask any of these questions. Instead, some outlets ran with the 285,000 number without asking any of the hard questions or even inspecting the underlying documents for themselves.

As can be seen in the third, and hopefully last, version of the ABC News account, the WikiLeaks documents purportedly show that “at least 109,000” were killed in the Iraq War. That’s the number currently on display at the WikiLeaks website. It is not that far off from the statistic compiled by the website Iraq Body Count, which pegs the total number of fatalities at over 107,000.

According to Al Jazeera, one of the media outlets granted a sneak peek at the WikiLeaks documents, Iraq Body Count is going to revise its estimate upwards to 122,000 based on the contents of the WikiLeaks documents. It is awful to think of that many people having been killed, but it is still far less than 285,000.

In other words, the media should be more careful when it comes to reporting on the contents of documents released by WikiLeaks. With that caveat in mind, here are some of the questions the media should be asking going forward:

Who was responsible for the majority of the casualties in Iraq? America or her enemies?

How many of these deaths are attributable to Iran, which trained, armed and otherwise sponsored many of the bad actors who tried to tear Iraqi society apart?

As the New York Times reported Friday, the WikiLeaks documents show that Iran was, and remains, a principal sponsor of Shia extremist groups in Iraq. These same groups helped bring Iraq to the brink of chaos -- along with al Qaeda, which was also happy to fuel the sectarian violence. We’ve known this for years and it should not be surprising. But for some it never sunk in.

In its reporting on the newly released WikiLeaks documents, and the damning details on Iran’s behavior they offer, the Times helpfully reminds us:

During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran’s role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.

Ah yes, the war with Iran that never happened. Perhaps now that President Bush is gone, the media can focus more on America’s and Iraq’s real enemies. They killed far more civilians than the American-led coalition ever did. And the WikiLeaks documents probably say far more about their violent designs for Iraq than America’s supposed misdeeds.

After all, that was the case with WikiLeaks’ last document dump. WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange claimed the documents exposed “thousands” of American war crimes in Afghanistan. The documents showed nothing of the sort. Instead, the documents showed that Afghanistan’s enemies, like Iraq’s, deliberately and regularly slaughter civilians as part of their campaign.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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