WikiLeaks & the Iraq Logs

Originally published in Foreign Policy In Focus' Focal Points Blog (Part 1, Part 2)

On Friday evening, WikiLeaks published “the largest classified military leak in history” – nearly 400,000 documents totaling some 800,000 pages. The files pertain to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Washington Post called it a “chilling, pointillist view of the war’s peak years.”

The logs are “low-level field reports that reflect a soldier’s eye view of the conflict.” Among the most interesting pages is documentation of “hundreds of …cases in which prisoners were subjected to electric shock, sodomized, burned, whipped or beaten by Iraqi authorities.” The BBC adds that torture techniques include the use of electric drills as well as executions.

In one instance, “Three Iraqi officers poured acid on the hands of a man and cut off some of his fingers.” In another case, a U.S. medical officer examined the corpse of a man named Sheik Bashir, who police claimed “had died of bad kidneys,” and concluded that “There was evidence of some type of unknown surgical procedure on Bashir's (sic) abdomen. The incision was closed by 3-4 stitches. There was also evidence of bruises on the face, chest, ankle, and back of the body.”

A BBC correspondent commented, “The US military knew of the abuses [of Iraqi detainees], the documents suggest, but reports were sent up the chain of command marked ‘no further investigation.’”

As veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn writes

The leaks are important because they prove much of what was previously only suspected but never admitted by the US army or explained in detail. It was obvious from 2004 that US forces almost always ignored cases of torture by Iraqi government forces, but this is now shown to have been official policy. 

One of the leaks is a memorandum, entitled Frago 242, which establishes that official policy. Al Jazeera managed to unearth a November 2005 clip (starting at about minute 3:30) from one of Washington’s innumerable military press conferences that depicts then-head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, averring that U.S. soldiers have a responsibility to “intervene” if they witness inhumane treatment. Donald Rumsfeld, made honest by arrogance, corrects him: “I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it. It’s to report it.”

Despite official complicity in the torture, there have been attempts to halt the abuses. The Washington Post notes that “The logs do record attempts by U.S. and coalition forces to stop the abuse…. But U.S. soldiers often could do little…”

Additionally, Al Jazeera reports (minute 4:15) that, “Some senior Iraqi police officers did try to act against the torture. But were warned off [by U.S. forces], making the U.S. position even more worrying.” This further demonstrates what was already evident – that U.S. policy went beyond indifference to active complicity with the torture chambers of “truly shocking scale.” The efforts to intervene by Iraqi police have, however, received no attention – in contrast to the efforts of some U.S. personnel, which can be spun as an illustration of superior American humanity (witness the New York Times’ headline: “Detainees Suffered Most In Iraqi Custody, U.S. Logs Say”).

Much like sifting through the accumulated evidence of a legal proceeding, the Iraq files make tedious reading. Unlike the kind of human interest stories favored by the press, particularly television news, that profile the plight of individuals – the Chilean miners being the most striking recent example – the victims in the Iraq occupation logs will not be humanized. The journalistic outfits with the resources to send foreign correspondents will not attempt to interview the families of those documented as killed in the leaks, or otherwise flesh-out the brief, acronym-filled accounts in the military logs into comprehensible stories of human suffering.

Nonetheless, the bare details in the entries can be striking. The leading German daily, Der Spiegel, highlights the reports from a particularly violent day, Thursday Nov. 23, 2006. On that date, the tally reads: “Incidents: 360. Deaths: 318. Minimum injured: 373.” One file from the day records, in the “dry military lingo” that is characteristic of these bureaucratic forms that comprise most of the leaks:

1:45 p.m.: A watch post at Camp Summerall in Bayji, northwest of Baghdad, discovers a man digging by the side of the road 300 meters (985 feet) from the base and fires warning shots. “The individual dropped the shovel and ran away. No BDA,” which means “body damage assessment.” The log also notes that the individual was estimated to be between 10 and 12 years old.

The response to the new leaks from Washington has been predictable. The Pentagon affected to “deplore” the release of the files to the global public “including our enemies.” Hillary Clinton announced that “We should condemn in the most clear terms the disclosure” of any information that would endanger lives. 

The public posture was straight out of an old playbook. Daniel Ellsberg himself noted that the same dangers to national security were invoked when he leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. 

The corporate press, taking their cue from Washington, have treated the claims of dire security threats posed by the leaks with somber credulity.

Reportage has also failed to provide proper context for the documents. The media, virtually across the board, domestic and international (Robert Fisk in the London Independent being an exception), included no cautionary note that the fatality totals are surely an undercount and amount to a small fraction of the best estimates using epidemiological methodology. The fatalities recorded in the leaked files total 109,000 violent deaths in the 2004-2009 period, 66,081 of whom were civilians. The London Guardian did note that, even within the narrow framework of the logs:

the US figures appear to be unreliable in respect of civilian deaths caused by their own military activities. For example, in Falluja, the site of two major urban battles in 2004, no civilian deaths are recorded. Yet Iraq Body Count monitors identified more than 1,200 civilians who died during the fighting.

The media response to the Afghan occupation logs that WikiLeaks released in July was to deftly redirect the debate onto WikiLeaks, following the Pentagon’s talking points. Fisk, an esteemed journalist on the region, noted the remarkable spectacle of the Pentagon earnestly accusing WikiLeaks of having “on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family” (Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff):

The Pentagon has been covered in blood since the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, and for an institution that ordered the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 – wasn’t that civilian death toll more than 66,000 by their own count, out of a total of 109,000 recorded? – to claim that WikiLeaks is culpable of homicide is preposterous. 

Weeks later it was privately admitted by the Secretary of Defense that no “sensitive intelligence sources and methods [were] compromised” (and thus, presumably, no one has died as a result of the leaks, though that apparently was not the topic of concern). NATO confirms in more direct terms that no individuals in Afghanistan are known to be threatened. 

However, the subsequent corrections were given a scarcely detectable sliver of the prominence of the original accusations. In this manner, the propaganda system handily deflected most of the damage from the leaks.

In an effort to foil a repeat of that response, WikiLeaks has taken a “more vigorous approach” to redaction for the Iraq occupation logs, “not because,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says, “we believe that approach was particularly lacking [but] rather just to prevent those sort of distractions from the serious content by people who would like to try and distract from the message.” 

In fact, CNN found that, “An initial comparison of a few documents redacted by WikiLeaks to the same documents released by the Department of Defense shows that WikiLeaks removed more information from the documents than the Pentagon.”

The other tactic employed by opinion shapers, coming to the foreground in light of the extensive redactions of the Iraq documents, is to smear the messenger. The reader of the American press cannot help but be struck by one thought while reading the various reports discussing Assange’s reputed authoritarianism and psychological health, the molestation charges he faces, and the factional strife at WikiLeaks: the allegations are of virtually no public policy significance. They amount to scarcely more than gossip column fodder. 

Tim Shorrock and Glenn Greenwald have already pointedly noted the tactic in action. The strategy was so transparent that, before the Iraq logs were even published, one of the members of the Infantry Company depicted in the April leak of a U.S. Apache helicopter attack upon two Reuters journalists and others, pleaded with pertinent Congressional bodies: “For every question you ask of Manning and Assange and their characters, the much greater question needs to be asked of where the accountability in U.S. foreign policy has gone.”

Greenwald, one of the most valuable commenters on contemporary American politics now writing, pointed out the divergence between coverage in the Times (the only U.S. media outlet to receive advance access to the files) and foreign media. In contrast to the rest of the world’s media, the Times chose to downplay angles related to the U.S. forces “summarily hand[ing] over thousands of detainees to Iraqi security forces” in what is likely a “serious breach of international law” (in the words of Amnesty International).

Take Der Spiegel’s summation of the German media reaction. The leaks “raise fresh questions over why the US justice system has done so little to probe war crimes committed during the conflict, write German commentators.” They, “provide a shocking portrayal of the brutality of the conflict and its impact on civilians, embarrass the White House and Pentagon and cast doubt on the integrity of the Iraqi government.” Further, the files: 

also highlight the failure of the US justice system to investigate war crimes committed during the George W. Bush administration, commentators say, adding that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has done democracy a service by publishing the logs despite attempts by the US government to intimidate him with unsubstantiated claims that he his (sic) putting the lives of soldiers and civilians at risk.

The business journal, Financial Times Deutschland, editorialized:

Wikileaks has presented evidence of the brutality of the war and has thereby done freedom of information a service. The online platform makes it possible for armies that wage war on behalf of nations to be controlled by the citizens of those countries. The people who run the platform should therefore ignore attempts to intimidate them. 

No such blunt assessments appeared in American editorial pages. To the contrary, the Washington Post belittled the leaks as “reckless and politically motivated,” guilty of “causing tangible harm,” and of “shed[ding] relatively little light” on “incidents were extensively reported by Western journalists and by the U.S. military when they occurred.” The other major papers simply ignored the story in their opinion pages. 

The biased framing of the Iraq occupation logs by the Times is clearly evident from a glance at the headlines on the front page of their feature on the leaks. In an editorial note to its Iraq leaks coverage, the Times comments that, “The documents illuminate the extraordinary difficulty of what the United States and its allies have undertaken.” Employing the same rhetoric, starvation and misery in North Korea would merely illuminate the difficulties of what Kim Jong-il has undertaken. 

Needless to say, the call from the Danish daily, Politiken, for a “Truth Commission” has not been taken up on this side of the Atlantic.

Moreover, the most pervasive technique for dealing with unwanted stories – ignoring them – appears to already be in effect. Domestic coverage is quickly evaporating. Unlike the Afghan logs, there is no ‘bloody hands of WikiLeaks’ angle, nor the novelty of the first leaks to extend coverage. 

No follow up investigations are likely. The media ‘echo chamber’ will not rehash the unwelcome gory details. As respected military historian Andrew Bacevich puts it, Assange’s “offense is that he is subverting the careful effort, already well-advanced, to construct a neat and satisfying narrative of the Iraq war, thereby enabling Americans to consign the entire episode definitively into the past.”

The Pentagon Papers, of course, received extended coverage. As Ellsberg notes, much of the reaction to the Pentagon Papers actually was due to the heavy handed White House attempts to stifle their publication. This time the White House is savvier.

Whether the current leaks are likely to substantially limit Washington’s military adventures going forward, as former C.I.A. analyst Ray McGovern believes, is uncertain. McGovern recalls the significant policy changes forced by Ellsberg’s first leak to the Times in 1968:

On March 25, President Johnson complained to a small gathering, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us…We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request [by Westmoreland] and the leaks…I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.” On March 31, Johnson introduced a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November 1968.

However, unless the establishment press are compelled by further developments to treat the story with the gravity it merits, there is little indication the White House will in any way curtail its aggression in the Middle East. 

Meanwhile, in Britain, there is already political fallout. American democracy is not flattered by the comparison. 

It is notable that the massive leaks of this year have all gone to WikiLeaks rather than directly to one of the major news agencies. Either the corporate press did not adequately make itself available to potential whistleblowers, or there was a perception (quite possibly accurate) that these institutions would have done little with the leaks. 

There is plenty of precedent for whistleblowers to conclude that the media are an unreliable vessel for leaks. A Washington Post reporter was present during the events depicted on the video of the Apache helicopter attack (and apparently possessed the video before it was released) yet found the events of the day too unremarkable to report upon. Incidentally, the Iraq logs reveal that the same helicopter and unit also gunned down two surrendering combatants several months earlier, in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention. 

Similarly, Ellsberg points out (in minute 107) that the top secret files Bob Woodward has had access to would constitute high-level planning documents that would enrich the public record considerably. He could have leaked the documents but, as a member of the establishment, has chosen not to.

And CNN actually declined WikiLeaks’ offer to obtain advance access to the documents “because of conditions that were attached to accepting the material.” Yet the only known condition was to respect a press embargo until last Friday to allow time to redact sensitive information. More likely, it would appear that CNN was uncomfortable with disobeying the wishes of the White House, even in such a minor way. Perhaps they feared a tarring by rival Fox News

Indeed, WikiLeaks deliberately leaked the material to multiple agencies in several nations, which has the effect of compelling the Times, for instance, to run the story. Compare the Times’ ready publication of the leaks with the paper’s agreement, at the behest of the White House, to sit on its scoop about the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping practices for a full year. 

The establishment media are simply not willing to publish politically incorrect truths forthrightly and in the sort of stark terms that an upstart organization like WikiLeaks is, and for that reason the organization represents a novel threat to the propaganda system.

It is hard to imagine an opinion column or editorial in a major paper quipping, as Assange recently did (see the tail end of the video), that “the Pentagon’s public statements are about as credible as that of North Korea.” Those who think Assange’s characterization extreme might consider the statement of the Pentagon spokesperson in response to Friday’s leaks documenting that U.S. forces are complicit in the Iraqi detainee torture: “There is nothing in here which would indicate war crimes. If there were, we would have investigated it a long time ago.” The dungeons of Iraq no doubt roiled with laughter at that one.

As for the most recent batch of leaks, they have contributed greatly to a detailed evidentiary record of the crimes of the occupation. Without the Iraq logs, the public would never have access to grisly details like that which a June 26, 2006 dispatch records:


To its credit, the Times observes that, at least in one respect, the outcome of this incident was too positive to be representative of most incidents because, “Unlike in other cases, in this case Americans officers took action, including ordering a soldier to spend the night in the prison to prevent further abuses.”

Steven Fake is coauthor with Kevin Funk of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur — Intervention and the USA, Black Rose Books (2009).

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