FP Explainer

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

No. Just the important ones.

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.

FP Explainer

Why Weren't the Russian 'Spies' Charged with Espionage?

Because they didn't find out anything secret.

Yesterday, federal prosecutors unsealed criminal complaints against 11 people who were allegedly part of a Russian spy ring. According to the prosecution, the suspects lived in the United States under false names while trying to penetrate "policy-making circles" on behalf of Russia's SVR, the successor to the KGB specializing in foreign intelligence. The defendants were charged with "conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general," an offense that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Why weren't they charged with espionage, which can often bring a life sentence or even the death penalty?

Probably because they never found out very much. U.S. law defines espionage as transmitting or attempting to transmit "any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, note, instrument, appliance, or information relating to the national defense" to a foreign government with the intent to harm the United States or give advantage to the foreign nation. Because federal prosecutors have not charged the "illegals," as they were known because they had no official credentials, with espionage, they either never got their hands on anything -- or it can't yet be proven that they did.

With details about messages in invisible ink and buried money caches, the criminal complaint might read like a Cold War-era spy thriller, but it's still unclear what exactly, any of the defendants are supposed to have found out. The closest thing to espionage in the charges is a meeting at a seminar between defendant Donald Howard Heathfield and a U.S. government official who "works on issues of strategic planning related to nuclear weapon development," but it doesn't appear that Heathfield learned any classified information.

Although prosecutors might still file additional charges, the activities of these so-called spies don't appear to be on the same level as clear-cut espionage cases like those of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who sold classified information to the Soviet Union and Russia over more than two decades, and Aldrich Ames, the CIA case officer whose leaks to Moscow led to the deaths of at least 10 U.S. agents in the Soviet Union. Both men are currently serving life sentences in federal prison.

Violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires that agents representing the interests of a foreign power register with the Justice Department, is a far lesser offense and one that rarely merits much media attention. Prominent FARA cases include Iraqi-American businessman Samir Vincent, who admitted to acting as an unregistered agent of Saddam Hussein's government during the U.N. "oil-for-food" scandal, and former President Jimmy Carter's brother Billy, who was forced to register as a foreign agent to avoid charges that he was paid $220,000 by Muammar al-Qaddafi's government to curry favor for Libya in Washington. The scandal, and a resulting congressional investigation, came to be known as "Billygate."

Thanks to Plato Cacheris, partner at the law firm of Trout Cacheris and former attorney for Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames.

Shireley SHEPARD/AFP/Getty Images