In October WikiLeaks released close to 400,000 U.S. classified military documents relating to the Iraq war. The American people, the theoretical masters of the government, were not supposed to see them. The government preferred that they not know. So just as when the website released 77,000 documents on the Afghan war in August, government officials and apologists for the empire’s war policies roundly condemned WikiLeaks. Apparently, the greatest breach of decorum is to let the American people know how their government conducts its wars. In November WikiLeaks began to release more than 250,000 secret diplomatic cables, creating even more heat for the organization.
In December the U.S. Justice Department was deliberating whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be charged with conspiracy to obtain government documents. The government was looking for evidence that Assange assisted or encouraged Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is in custody on charges of leaking the information, rather than being merely a passive recipient of the information. The website Daily Beast said that “the U.S. effort reflects a growing belief that WikiLeaks and organizations like it threaten grave damage to American national security....” Or, at any rate, to the government’s ability to shape public opinion by withholding the truth of its wars.
The reaction to WikiLeaks has been surreal. In August Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that WikiLeaks and whoever provided the documents “have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” That was said without irony by two of the men who are conducting the lethal operations about which WikiLeaks has released information.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said that “this is the kind of stuff that gets people killed.” If so, it’s not unlike the “kind of stuff” the CIA’s assassination teams do to people throughout the Muslim world.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “Neither WikiLeaks, nor its original source for these materials should be spared in any way from the fullest prosecution possible under the law.” He and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calf.) planned to add language to exclude WikiLeaks from protection in the media-shield bill they were writing.
Marc Thiessen, former staffer to Vice President Dick Cheney and apologist for “enhanced interrogation” techniques that can be described only as torture, said in August, “The website must be shut down and prevented from releasing more documents — and its leadership brought to justice.”
Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg was most blunt of all: “Why isn’t Julian Assange dead?... Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?... I don’t expect the U.S. government to kill Assange, but I do expect them to try to stop him. As of now, the plan seems to be to do nothing at all.”
Why are those people so upset? A top Washington Post Iraq war reporter may have the answer: After looking at the documents, Ellen Knickmeyer said she realized that “top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world.”
Of course war defenders are upset. The reason is easily understood. WikiLeaks and its sources have the nerve to give the public information the government doesn’t want them to have. It is information about military operations conducted in the American people’s name — though without their real consent — and paid for by their tax dollars. But “their” government doesn’t want them to know what’s really going on. If they knew, they might be disgusted enough to demand an end to those operations. Then WikiLeaks would deserve credit for saving lives.
In the latest document dump we learn, among other things, that the number of Iraqi civilian deaths has been underreported by 15,000, according to an analysis by Body Count, which keeps track of civilian deaths in Iraq. According to the New York Times, “The reports make it clear that most civilians, by far, were killed by other Iraqis,” but, “The documents also 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.”
The U.S. government may claim that Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is not its responsibility, but things are not so simple. First, many of the deaths were the result of Shi’a sectarian cleansing of Sunnis in Baghdad, which was unleashed by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime, which had subjugated the majority Shi’a Muslims. Absolving the U.S. government of responsibility seems a hard case to make under the circumstances. Blood is on the hands of U.S. officials no matter how much they deny it.
We should also bear in mind that these reports of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence were prepared by American military personnel, so some skepticism is in order. It would not be the first time that American soldiers killed foreigners and tried to blame someone else for the crimes.
But more important, American military personnel are reported to have trained and equipped many of the killers, Iraq Special Operations Forces, which carried out so much of the sectarian killing. The U.S. policy to put down the Sunni insurgency was called the “Salvador option,” after the 1980s U.S. policy of training right-wing death squads to kill leftists in El Salvador. The U.S. military even turned Sunni prisoners over to Shi’ites, knowing the prisoners would be tortured or killed. It was U.S. policy not to monitor or investigate those abuses.
So the U.S. government is not off the hook. And while we’re at it, we should note that the U.S. government also had a role in creating 3.5 million refugees — 2 million of whom have fled the country altogether — who show no sign of returning to their homes, despite the glorious success proclaimed by President Obama. That should tell us something. “Private” contractors
The released documents deal with issues other than civilian deaths. For example, they make it clear that the U.S. government unleashed on Iraq a horde of armed “private” contractors with, in effect, a license to kill.
The Times says, “The war in Iraq spawned a reliance on private contractors on a scale not well recognized at the time and previously unknown in American wars. The documents describe an outsourcing of combat and other duties once performed by soldiers that grew and spread to Afghanistan to the point that there are more contractors there than soldiers.”
The Times goes on:
The documents sketch, in vivid detail, a critical change in the way America wages war: the early days of the Iraq war, with all its Wild West chaos, ushered in the era of the private contractor, wearing no uniform but fighting and dying in battle, gathering and disseminating intelligence and killing presumed insurgents.
There have been many abuses, including civilian deaths, to the point that the Afghan government is working to ban many outside contractors entirely.... The military was often outright hostile to contractors, for being amateurish, overpaid and, often, trigger-happy. Contractors often shot with little discrimination — and few if any consequences — at unarmed Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces, American troops and even other contractors, stirring public outrage and undermining much of what the coalition forces were sent to accomplish.
(The Times is wrong to compare Iraq to the early American West, which, as Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill show in The Not So Wild, Wild West, was remarkably peaceful by today’s standards.)
As the Times notes, the number and role of contractors in Iraq, who do not face the same rules of engagement as the military, will increase as the Obama administration reduces the number of troops there.
I’ve written previously that some of the criticism of the use of contractors has been off the mark. After all, things would be no better if military personnel did the immoral things the contractors have done. When you consider fundamentals, does it really matter whether a killer is hired directly by the U.S. government or indirectly through a contractor? It would matter only if the policy-makers escaped accountability in the latter case. But in fact, the policymakers escape accountability in both cases! The remedy is to hold them — beginning with the president of the United States — responsible, no matter who does the dirty work. War crimes are war crimes. If a “private” firm is retained by the U.S. government — and paid by the taxpayers — to commit aggression, those who hired the firm should pay the price.
The documents also show the extent of abuse of prisoners by the Iraqi police and military. The American abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison is well known, but now we have “indelible details of abuse carried out by Iraq’s army and police,” the Times reports.
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.
Again, all this happened on the U.S. government’s watch, and it cannot evade responsibility. When a president orders the invasion and occupation of a country, he has every reason to think that he will be setting in motion a chain of horrific events. Of course the direct perpetrators of crimes are responsible for their acts, but the invading power provides the opportunity for the commission of those crimes and therefore is responsible as well.
Thanks to the courageous people of WikiLeaks — and their sources in the military — we know more now than before about the U.S. government’s criminal conduct in Iraq. Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration would rather have the American people remain ignorant of the truth about its military operations. But we have a right to this information. If the government won’t give it up, we are justified in getting it by other means.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine.
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