WikiLeaks: An Inventive New Threat to the Propaganda System (Part 2)

Iraqi policePart 1 here.

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:

EVIDENCE OF UNCHECKED TORTURE WAS NOTED IN THE IRAQI POLICE STATION IN HUSAYBAH, [GREEN ZONE]. LARGE AMOUNTS OF BLOOD ON THE CELL FLOOR, A WIRE USED FOR ELECTRIC SHOCK AND A RUBBER HOSE WERE LOCATED IN THE HOLDING CELL.

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).