TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Tonight's guest is veteran Middle-East correspondent and author Robert Fisk.
Following the release by WikiLeaks of nearly 400,000 classified US military documents, Mr Fisk wrote an angry piece headlined "The Shaming of America" in his newspaper The Independent.
He claimed the Pentagon's anger over the leaks was not because their secrecy had been breached, but because they'd been caught out telling lies, and he joined us just a short time ago from Beirut.
Robert Fisk, thanks for being there.
ROBERT FISK, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: You're welcome.
TONY JONES: Now, what's the significance of the close-to-400,000 secret US military documents that have been posted by WikiLeaks, as far as you're concerned?
ROBERT FISK: Well I think there are several very important elements to this story.
First of all, the individual items like, you know, there are witnesses, American witnesses to torture, they didn't do anything, that the Iraqis – security authorities were torturing Iraqis, that American air strikes were killing many civilians.
We knew about this, but it was always denied by the Americans. I was doing stories years ago about Iraqis torturing Iraqis and the stories were coming from American officers who were leaking them to me.
But of course every time I wrote them in the paper, the Americans denied that it was true. I went to the scenes of US air strikes. They were obviously limbs, hands, arms of children, babies, women, civilians, as well sometimes as armed men, and we wrote about this.
What the WikiLeaks does is it proves beyond any doubt that what we reported was correct and that what we were told by the American authorities was mendacious, it was a lie.
Just remember, the Americans now are saying, "Shame upon WikiLeaks. It's endangering lives in Iraq." I mean, invading Iraq endangered an awful lot of lives, didn't it?
But, you know, if these leaks, if these 400,000 documents had confirmed that the Americans did stop torture, that they didn't kill civilians and air strikes, you know, US generals'd be handing this stuff out free of charge to journalists on the front steps of the Pentagon.
It's the fact that it proves how shameful our invasion and occupation of Iraq was that this has come as such a blow to the United States – and only, I might add, to the West.
You know, the reaction in the Arab world, when they looked through all stuff in the Arabic language press, particularly in Baghdad, was, "Well, so what's new? We knew all this. We were the people being tortured. We were the people being bombed by the Americans." It's in the West that we're saying, "My goodness! Is that the case? So the generals lied."
That's the big significance at this particular point of this.
One bigger significance, I think – and it was Al Jazeera who actually picked this up – was that this famous 242 message, which tells US troops from higher headquarters, presumably Ricardo Sanchez when he was a general in Baghdad, which says, "If you see abuse taking place, not by Americans, report it, but basically, just do nothing."
Al-Jazeera found that about the time that message was put out, Donald Rumsfeld had a press conference at the Pentagon in Washington with journalists present who did not understand the significance of what he was saying.
Because when he did that, the chief of the – the head of the joint chiefs of staff in uniform, Pace, General Pace, was saying, "Well, if a soldier …," – we didn't know about the WikiLeaks. This was years ago. "If a soldier sees someone being tortured, of course he must stop it."
And the camera suddenly switches to Donald Rumsfeld and Pace's face falls at this point. He said, "Well, I think," – Rumsfeld says, "I think that in fact he doesn't have to physically intervene. He has to report it."
In other words, at that point Rumsfeld and presumably Sanchez had both agreed Americans would not intervene to stop torture, and that of course is against the Geneva Conventions.
TONY JONES: Let's go back to one step, and I'll come to more of the detail of the torture allegations in a moment. But to start with, these documents reveal 15,000 Iraqi civilian casualties that hitherto were unreported or undocumented. Now what do you make of these numbers?
ROBERT FISK: Well, look, the fact of the matter is nobody knows how many people have been killed in Iraq and there are numerous reasons for this.
If I can give you an anecdote of my own to show you why. In the worst period, when it was just beginning, the absolute total massacres in Baghdad, I was going in some danger, on my own, to the mortuary every day to count corpses. It's a very lugubrious thing to do at midday in a summer's day in Baghdad.
And, for example, I found that the senior mortician, whom I was talking to and got very friendly with, told me that so many bodies were coming in and so many people were not claiming them – because perhaps they didn't wanna be associated or they were the wrong religion – that they were just throwing them into mass graves outside Baghdad.
But when Americans brought corpses to the mortuary, the doctors were told not to perform post-mortems. Why was that, I wonder? Had they been tortured by other Iraqis and handed back to the Americans after being taken prisoner by Americans? I don't know the answer.
But all over Iraq there were mortuaries which were not taking the proper details down. Now what we know from this 15,000 more than we knew about is just that we have the body count organisation, which of course is not allied with any military body, which comes up with various figures.
And the figure of 66,000 dead, which is very small compared to what most people thought it would be, is 15,000 more than they had thought it might be.
But I think what you've got to say is overall, calculating by the thousands who were dying every month, sometimes in just three weeks in Baghdad alone, I think we're talking about at least 150,000, probably much more than that.
But again, you see, because you can't prove it, because you can't actually find it on paper, because there never was such a figure on paper because it was impossible to get – I'm sure the Americans would try to hide it if they did – you simply don't know and we won't know.
TONY JONES: I've just gotta interrupt you there for a moment because I want you to respond to what the Pentagon has actually said in its official response to this. It says, "The period," and you're talking about your own reporting, so …
ROBERT FISK: A pleasure.
TONY JONES: … the period covered by these reports has been well-chronicled by news reports, books and films and these field reports don't bring any new understanding to events.
ROBERT FISK: Yes, they do. What the field reports do prove that the Pentagon was lying at the time and we were right.
But what they're trying to say is, "Oh, it's on old story! We all knew about that." But the Pentagon was denying it all through those years. Their lies are not being chronicled by the Pentagon statement today. That's the point.
TONY JONES: What's the scale of the torture contained in the allegations here? It seems that there are, if I'm reading this correctly, 1,300 independent new US reports of torture by Iraqi police in police stations.
ROBERT FISK: Look, this is just the reports that the Americans chose to put in. There would be many other cases where they wouldn't have sent them in because they were tired or they were doing something else or they were chasing some other incident.
It is a fact – and I discovered this in police stations myself, and by talking to policemen – that if you got arrested, particularly if you were handed over by the Americans to the Iraqis as a suspected "terrorist", you would be tortured.
Now maybe it would be slapped around. In some cases the Americans themselves were smashing people around with plastic bottles full of water and when the water broke they slashed them across the face. But in most cases, they handed them to the Iraqis.
It was a kind of domestic form of rendition. If the Americans caught someone in Afghanistan and couldn't make them talk, they'd ship them off to Morocco or Egypt where they'd pull out their toe nails and then perhaps they would talk.
So in a sense this was a miniature rendition. The Americans caught people, they sent them to the Iraqi security services.
They knew what would happen. Well they knew that 1,300 it'd happened. And they knew very well that they would be tortured, and they were.
And that's why so many Iraqis who've ever been arrested, when you talk to them in Baghdad, they'll say, "Yes, I was tortured, routinely, always and without exception." And that's the situation.
This 1,300 figure doesn't actually mean anything. We're talking of tens of thousands of prisoners who've been brutalised and abused by the Iraqis with American knowledge – that's what we're talking about.
TONY JONES: We saw with the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib Prison by Americans, but it took some time for that story to really take hold.
Is that what's happening here? And is there evidence, direct evidence in these new documents that the Americans actually turned a blind eye? You referred to that memo, the secret memo Frago 242, as it's called?
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I mean, they were being ordered to turn a blind eye. They could report it, but the fact that the American administration and Ricardo Sanchez, who was the general at the time – he was the general at the time of Abu Ghraib – did nothing about it, means it was a blind eye.
You've gotta remember this has also been happening in Afghanistan, where prisoners taken by NATO troops, including Americans, have actually been executed or simply tortured to death by Afghans, the same kind of, again, domestic rendition. "We're handing them over to you. We believe they're terrorists." And they disappear, or they're tortured, or they come out – sometimes.
I had a very interesting conversation a couple of days ago with a former senior American officer in Iraq who was trying to justify what happened. He said, "Well, you know, we're all against torture, but in a war situation, we have to take a different attitude."
And I said, "What? Hold on a second, if you see someone across the road being tortured, your duty as a human being is to cross the road and stop it, otherwise you can be taken by a policemen to a court."
He said, "Yeah, yeah, but that's OK as a morality in London or Paris or New York," he said, "but it's not the same when you're at war." And I said, "But if it's not the same, why did you go to war to end torture?" You know, it's a round-trip situation.
But you shouldn't mistake the fact that these figures that we're getting are merely proof that the generals lied at the time. They're a very small version of what actually happened, because these are only the versions which we know that the Americans knew about, or chose to know about, or chose to report at the time.
TONY JONES: Britain's deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat who, to be fair, opposed the war in the beginning, says the allegations are extraordinarily serious, the allegations of torture.
He wants them investigated. Now the Russians are calling for an investigation, the Danes are investigating whether detainees they handed over to Afghans – to Iraqis, I should say, were tortured. There's also a call from the United Nations for an investigation. Where do you think it's going to go?
ROBERT FISK: Nowhere. You've gotta remember there's a certain hypocrisy for the Russians to start talking about allegations of torture when during their eight-year occupation of Afghanistan, they tortured even more people and killed even more Afghans than the Americans killed Iraqis.
So, you know, I think there's a certain hypocrisy behind it all.
It's good to see old Clegg in Britain calling for an investigation. It won't happen and he knows that Cameron won't back it.
I'm talking about the British prime minister in the coalition government in London.
But it's good that we're hearing at least politicians saying, "This is terrible, terrible," I just wish they'd said it at the time, when of course we had Mr Bush denying it and Mr Blair denying it and the result was that Mr Blair is now the peace envoy in the Middle East – heaven spare us, but there we go.
I think there's an awful lot of hypocrisy here. The fact of the matter is that routinely when armies go abroad to other countries far away, they torture and they abuse and they turn blind eyes. Look at Korea, look at Vietnam. I could go through a whole lot more. And it will happen again. I don't think we care about the people whose lands we occupy and that is the problem.
TONY JONES: Let's go the question of the significance of this for journalism because you've said, "This is the most important proof so far that the internet is now doing a better job than newspaper or TV journalism."
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I didn't say it was doing a better job. I don't think the internet does. I think it's full of hate and spite and lies.
But what I was saying is – I was asking a question: what does this huge revelation of military secrets, unprecedented in history, what does it say about the old-style journalism that would be personified, for example, by Seymour Hersch in the United States, the guy who broke the My Lai story and regularly writes revelatory stories about the American military in the New Yorker.
Here's a guy who goes to his sources within the military, gets a pretty good frame of the picture. But what is that compared to being able to press a button and get almost half a million military secrets on a screen in front of you?
Now, what happens to all these big teams of investigating journalists that the New York Times boasts of, and which, in the days when it was a serious paper, the British Sunday Times used to have?
Is there any point in having "investigative journalism" anymore if you're just gonna sit back and wait for some strange code-breaker from Australia to plonk them all on a screen in front of you?
The real danger I think is that journalists will start to get lazy. We'll say, "Oh, well, there's no point in investigating torture. It'll pop up on WikiLeaks at some point."
And that means that WikiLeaks makes the choice of what secrets you see and what secrets you don't see. And it may be there are many other tortures of different kinds associated with us or not that we should be learning about.
So, number one, we're allowing WikiLeaks to set the agenda of whose torture we look at and whose we don't.
And number two, the great danger of people saying, "Well, there's no point in reading Seymour Hersch," or Rupert Murdoch's father revealing some truths about Gallipoli, for example. Those days are gone if we journalists just sit and just press a button and say, "OK, on Saturday, Der Spiegel, Al-Jazeera, the Guardian, the New York Times will run the latest stuff off the web.
TONY JONES: Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon papers all those years ago, regards WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as pretty much a hero.
And I'm wondering if you feel the same way. And I know you've expressed doubts about some of their methods, but bear this in mind: some of his closest collaborators have expressed their extreme concern about the fact that in the first tranche of documents, the names of Afghan informers were included and now the Taliban is talking about taking retribution against those people.
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I knew as soon as I heard that that the Taliban would not miss the opportunity of putting that line in.
Look, I think Ellsberg is wrong. There are two things here: first of all that everything's now on screens, everything's now interneted, and it can be changed and put up in their millions.
In the past, you see, in previous wars – Vietnam, Korea, World War I, World War II, all the way back – everything was on paper. You have a battalion file, written down, typed up, in triplicate, with numbers on and it would go into files.
If there was a leak, you could trace it. So there weren't many leaks. Ellsberg's own papers, the Pentagon papers, were on paper, they were not on screen, they were not on computers. And it needed someone from inside to risk his career, perhaps his life, to grab the material that proved the lie.
Ellsberg did – that's what he's so famous and I think he's a very fine man. Assange didn't do that. Individual American soldiers, possibly at a higher grade than we realise, were involved in leaking this stuff – and I can imagine some of the reasons why.
When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan or talk to – when I'm in the States and talk to American officers, up to and including the rank of colonel, they're outraged by what's happened.
Above the rank of colonel, they're approving of the administration 'cause they wanna get their retirement pensions and keep the badges on their shoulders. But the fact of the matter is that these days, you see, it's the ordinary junior ranks who are putting this stuff up.
And it's people like Assange who are in no danger at all. I mean, Ellsberg was in grave danger, possibly of his life, but certainly his – he might have gone to prison for a very long time. We had stuff on paper, now it's not on paper, and there's no risk involved any longer – not frankly, however much – how romantic Assange thinks he is, or not, as the case may be in actually putting this stuff out.
TONY JONES: Robert Fisk, I'm afraid to say that we are out of time. Once again we thank you for joining us on Lateline. It's always a pleasure to talk to you. We thank you very much for being there.
ROBERT FISK: You're very welcome. Thank you.