In this special posting, marking the tenth anniversary of the launch of the criminal Iraq war, here is an excerpt from my book, The Age of WikiLeaks, covering the release of the “Iraq War Logs” more than two years ago and the reaction.
The release of the Iraq documents, some 391,000 in number, was originally set for August. But a week before that happened, Julian Assange told The Guardian’s David Leigh that he wanted a more diverse group of partners for this round, “and asked that Leigh delay publication to give the other outlets time to prepare programs,” Sarah Ellison would recount in Vanity Fair.
Leigh said he’d agree to a six-week delay if Assange handed over so-called “package three,” the biggest leak of all (which would become Cablegate). According to Leigh, Assange said, “You can have package three tonight, but you have to give me a letter signed by The Guardian editor saying you won’t publish package three until I say so.” Leigh agreed.
On October 22, the Iraq War Logs arrived. As with the Afghan logs, WikiLeaks had obviously set a tight embargo time and coordinated the release with the news outlets carefully. At a press conference in London, Assange said that this “constituted the most comprehensive and detailed account of any war ever to have entered the public record.” The 391,000 documents would set a new world record for leaks—the Afghanistan trove held a paltry 77,000 docs—but who was counting?
These military incident and intelligence reports “are used by desk officers in the Pentagon and troops in the field when they make operational plans and prepare briefings on the situation in the war zone,” The New York Times explained. “Most of the reports are routine, even mundane, but many add insights, texture and context to a war that has been waged for nearly nine years.”
The Times posted its deep package of “War Logs” stories about 5 pm ET. Arriving about the same time over in London, the Guardian’s coverage focused on shocking updates on civilian deaths in Iraq and the US military’s role in allowing the torture of detainees by Iraqis. The Times covered those subjects, too, but seemed equally interested in the role of other countries in that war, particularly Iran.
Assange, in a CNN interview, again charged that the US had committed “war crimes.” Secretary of State Clinton quickly condemned the WikiLeaks move.
Getting in on the WikiLeaks action for the first time, Al Jazeera suggested that the real bombshell was the US allowing Iraqis to torture detainees. Documents revealed that US soldiers sent 1,300 reports to headquarters with graphic accounts, including a few about detainees beaten to death. Some US generals wanted our troops to intervene, but Pentagon chiefs disagreed, saying these assaults should only be reported, not stopped. At a time the US was declaring that no torture was going on, there were forty-one reports of such abuse still happening “and yet the US chose to turn its back.
The New York Times report on the torture angle included this: “The six years of reports include references to the deaths of at least six prisoners in Iraqi custody, most of them in recent years. Beatings, burnings and lashings surfaced in hundreds of reports, giving the impression that such treatment was not an exception. In one case, Americans suspected Iraqi Army officers of cutting off a detainee’s fingers and burning him with acid. Two other cases produced accounts of the executions of bound detainees.
“And while some abuse cases were investigated by the Americans, most noted in the archive seemed to have been ignored, with the equivalent of an institutional shrug: Soldiers told their officers and asked the Iraqis to investigate …. That policy was made official in a report dated May 16, 2005, saying that ‘if US forces were not involved in the detainee abuse, no further investigation will be conducted until directed by HHQ.’ In many cases, the order appeared to allow American soldiers to turn a blind eye to abuse of Iraqis on Iraqis.”
Amnesty International quickly called on the US to investigate how much our commanders knew about Iraqi torture.
A top story at The Guardian, meanwhile, opened: “Leaked Pentagon files obtained by The Guardian contain details of more than 100,000 people killed in Iraq following the US-led invasion, including more than 15,000 deaths that were previously unrecorded.
“British ministers have repeatedly refused to concede the existence of any official statistics on Iraqi deaths. US General Tommy Franks claimed ‘We don’t do body counts.’ The mass of leaked documents provides the first detailed tally by the US military of Iraqi fatalities. Troops on the ground filed secret field reports over six years of the occupation, purporting to tote up every casualty, military and civilian.
“Iraq Body Count, a London-based group that monitors civilian casualties, told The Guardian: ‘These logs contain a huge amount of entirely new information regarding casualties. Our analysis so far indicates that they will add 15,000 or more previously unrecorded deaths to the current IBC total. This data should never have been withheld from the public.” ’ The logs recorded a total of 109,032 violent deaths between 2004 and 2009.”
Citing a new document, the Times reported: “According to one particularly painful entry from 2006, an Iraqi wearing a tracksuit was killed by an American sniper who later discovered that the victim was the platoon’s interpreter …. The documents … reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians—at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.”
However, media interest in the Iraq docs was already fading, similar to what happened after the Collateral Murder and Afghan war releases. The editorial page of the hawkish Washington Post (a newspaper once again left out of the WikiLeaks media plan) thundered that “the mass leak, like a dump of documents on Afghanistan in the summer, mainly demonstrates that the truth about Iraq already has been told …. [T]he incidents were extensively reported by Western journalists and by the US military when they occurred.” This, of course, was true in some cases, nonsense regarding others.
Meanwhile, Assange returned to CNN for Larry King’s show, appearing with his new friend Dan Ellsberg. King decided to bring up the Assange CNN “walk off.” Assange replied, “We released 400,000 classified documents, the most extraordinary history of a war to have ever been released in our civilization. Those documents cover 109,000 deaths. That’s a serious matter, and it’s extraordinarily disrespectful to those people to start conflating the first revelation of that material with any sort of tabloid journalism. And CNN should know better, and I believe does know better than to do that.”
Assange said that issues surrounding his personal life and the sex crime case were not proportionate to what had just been revealed in WikiLeaks’ cache of Iraq war documents. “And it is—I mean, CNN should be ashamed of doing that,” he added. “And you, Larry, you actually should be ashamed, as well.”
Greg Mitchell’s new edition of So Wrong for So Long, on how the media failed on Iraq, includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen, a new introduction and a lengthy afterword with updates right up to Bradley Manning’s hearing last month.