FP Explainer

Does the U.S. Military Keep All Its Combat Videos?

No. Just the important ones.

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JELUWAR, AFGHANISTAN - JULY 07: A U.S. Army soldier with Task Force Thor Route Clearance Patrol from 23rd Engineering Company, Airborne videotapes a screen showing the detonation of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that was discovered during a day-long route clearance mission July 7, 2010 near Jeluwar, Afghanistan. The U.S. Army route clearance unit uses specialized equipment to seek out improvised explosive devices (IED) on roads throughout Afghanistan to prevent military patrols and civilians from being hit by the homemade roadside bombs that have injured and killed hundreds of NATO troops and locals. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On July 6, the U.S. military announced that it had charged Army Spec. Bradley Manning with leaking classified video showing a 2007 airborne attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq. The clip, taken through the gunsight of an Apache helicopter, was published by the website WikiLeaks in April. Does the military keep all of its video?

Not quite. The processing of combat video is the responsibility of dedicated combat camera (COMCAM) units in all branches of the military. Visual documentation of combat operations is collected in order to "enhance the commander’s situational awareness and [establish] a historical operations record." Traditionally, this video was collected by dedicated units like the Army’s 55th Signal Company, which has filmed every U.S. war and military operation since World War II.  In recent years, "weapons system video" capabilities like the gunsight camera that captured the leaked Iraq clip have become increasingly common. According to Defense Department guidelines, the 55th Signal Company has "limited capability to process weapons system videos" when it is determined to be of interest for training, record-keeping, or accountability purposes.

The on-scene commander makes a determination as to whether the video should be classified, after which it is transferred to the Joint Combat Camera Command center at the Pentagon for processing and distribution. Unclassified video can be cleared for public release by the Defense Department’s office of public affairs. Unclassified video that nonetheless contains sensitive material — such as the identity of individual soldiers — can be designated as "not cleared for public release." Both classified and unclassified video is stored on servers maintained by the Defense Imagery Management Operations Center and will eventually, like all government documents, find its way to the national archives.

With some exceptions for national security, classified records are automatically declassified after 25 years. So, assuming the leaked Apache video was not the only one of its kind, it can be thought of as a preview of the detailed video record of the Iraq war that will become available to the public around 2028.

Thanks to Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.

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