Networks ignored humanitarian worker Ruzicka's claims that Pentagon conceals civilian casualty figures

In their coverage of the death of Marla Ruzicka, an activist conducting a door-to-door survey of civilian casualties in Iraq who was killed by a suicide bomber on April 16, network news programs failed to note that her research apparently contradicts the Pentagon's repeated claims that it does not track civilian deaths.

A Pentagon official reportedly leaked some casualty figures compiled by the Defense Department to Ruzicka, who founded the Campaign for Innocent Civilians In Conflict (CIVIC) and advocated the official release of all such figures. But in reporting on Ruzicka's work on April 17, ABC News correspondent John Berman failed to note that she directly contradicted the Pentagon's claim that it does not keep track of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, on July 21, 2002, ABC News reported that the Pentagon “does track civilian deaths.” Berman said only that “The Pentagon does not keep track of all the civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

News reports indicate that the Pentagon routinely claims it does not track civilian casualties for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “the United States adamantly refuses to estimate the number of people it kills in combat” [5/3/03]. The Washington Post reported that “Pentagon officials say they do not keep tallies of civilian casualties” [10/29/04]. Similarly, retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, declared in March 2002: “We don't do body counts.”

Yet other news reports suggest that the Pentagon does in fact track civilian casualties, a discrepancy that ABC and other media outlets failed to note in their coverage of Ruzicka's death.

Ruzicka is not the only researcher to question the Pentagon about civilian casualty figures:

  • Britain's Independent reported on Columbia University professor Richard Garfield's insistence that “Despite the claim ... that 'We don't do body counts', the U.S. military does collect casualty figures in Iraq,” [10/31/04 (subscription required)]. Garfield co-authored a 2004 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study on civilian casualties in Iraq.
  • The Associated Press noted that the Pentagon has established a unit in Saudi Arabia “consisting of intelligence officers and military lawyers” in order “to check allegations of civilian casualties and see whether they have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes” [2/11/02].
  • The Boston Globe noted the findings of a report from the nonpartisan Project on Defense Alternatives that “the Pentagon has not fully disclosed in recent years accidental deaths and injuries inflicted upon civilian populations by American military forces” [2/18/04].
  • The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Pentagon “monitors” civilian casualties but doesn't keep a precise tally [3/31/04].
  • The New York Times reported that Ruzicka had “obtained new numbers on civilian casualties from the American military, which does not normally release them” and that she “was eager to talk” about them prior to her death [4/18/05].

Ruzicka addressed the issue of classified Pentagon tallies in an op-ed published after her death by USA Today:

Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking U.S. military official. The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time. Other hot spots, such as the Ramadi and Mosul areas, could prove worse. The statistics showed that 29 civilians were killed by small-arms fire during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents between Feb. 28 and April 5 -- four times the number of Iraqi police killed in the same period. It is not clear whether the bullets that killed these civilians were fired by U.S. troops or insurgents. ... These statistics demonstrate that the U.S. military can and does track civilian casualties. Troops on the ground keep these records because they recognize they have a responsibility to review each action taken and that it is in their interest to minimize mistakes, especially since winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis is a key component of their strategy.

Yet network news coverage of Ruzicka's death barely mentioned the substance of her work and ignored entirely her revelation that the Pentagon, contrary to its public statements, apparently does track civilian casualties. CIVIC's website clearly states that Ruzicka's objective was to document civilian casualties and advocate for compensation for the families of innocent “victims of conflict.” But neither the NBC nor CBS evening news broadcasts reported this mission, despite the fact that CIVIC's research prompted Congress to appropriate $2.5 million and $20 million for civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, according to the Times.

NBC's Nightly News on April 17 identified Ruzicka as a “humanitarian worker” who lobbied for families “displaced by the war.” NBC's only reference to the substance of Ruzicka's work was a clip of a friend, who said that “She kind of kept track of what happened to civilians, innocent civilians in the war.” CBS' Evening News identified Ruzicka as an “American humanitarian worker” whose “passion was helping civilians hurt by war.” The April 18 CBS Morning News did note that she “founded a humanitarian group that was conducting door-to door surveys to document civilian casualties.” And contrary to its previous report that the Pentagon “does track civilian deaths,” ABC's Berman reported on April 18: “The Pentagon says it can't keep track of all the civilian casualties in war. So, Marla founded the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, visiting homes and hospitals, trying to get an accurate count and description of the innocent people killed and wounded.”