Since U.S. troops first set foot in Afghanistan in 2001, the Defense Department has gone to unprecedented lengths to control and suppress information about the human costs of war. But documents made public by the ACLU this week provide a vivid window into the lives of innocent Afghans and Iraqis caught in conflict zones.
Hundreds of claims for damages by family members of civilians killed by Coalition Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were recovered through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in June 2006. The claims and related materials highlight the cost of government efforts to suppress information, through policies including:
- Banning photographers on U.S. military bases from covering the arrival of caskets containing the remains of U.S. soldiers killed overseas;
- Paying Iraqi journalists to write positive accounts of the U.S. war effort;
- Inviting U.S. journalists to “embed” with military units but requiring them to submit their stories to the military for pre-publication review;
- Erasing journalists’ footage of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, and
- Refusing to disclose statistics on civilian casualties.
In Afghanistan in March 2002, then-head of U.S. Central Command General Tommy Franks said “You know we don’t do body counts.” Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in November 2003, “We don’t do body counts on other people.”
The ACLU released a total of 496 files: 479 from Iraq and 17 from Afghanistan. Of those claims, 198 were denied based on an exemption for combat situations. The documents released by the ACLU are available online in a searchable database at: www.aclu.org/civiliancasualties.
“Although these files are deeply disturbing to read, they allow us to understand the human cost of war in a way that the usual statistics and platitudes do not" said Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Security Program.
In a separate effort, the ACLU filed a FOIA request in October 2003 for records concerning the abuse of prisoners held by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. That request has resulted in the release of more than 100,000 pages, all of which are available online at: www.aclu.org/torturefoia. Litigation regarding that request is ongoing.