WikiLeaks: An Inventive New Threat to the Propaganda System (Part 1)

Iraqi policeOn 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.

Part 2 tomorrow.