Charged for revealing the truth

July 9, 2010

Alan Maass reports on the persecution of an Army private who has been accused of leaking video of a U.S. massacre of civilians in Iraq and other "classified information."

THE U.S. military is pressing criminal charges against a whistleblower for allegedly leaking information to the watchdog Web site, including the video of an Apache helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed at least 12 civilians and caused a scandal for the Pentagon.

Pfc. Bradley Manning faces eight charges, including espionage, and could go to jail for more than half a century if found guilty.

All for the "crime" of exposing the unacknowledged crimes of the American military.

Manning has also been accused of turning over at least 150,000 diplomatic cables from the State Department to WikiLeaks--as well as encrypted video of another air strike, this one in Granai, Afghanistan, which killed 140 civilians. WikiLeaks has so far published only one such embarrassing cable, and it has not released the Granai video.

The 22-year-old Manning, who was stationed at a U.S. base east of Baghdad, was arrested by military authorities in May and has been in detention in Kuwait since. He was fingered to the military by a computer hacker named Adrian Lamo. Lamo claims that Manning started communicating with him online, and admitted to being the source of the WikiLeaks exposé.

The leaked video shows a U.S. military helicopter's sights set on two Reuters employees among a group of Iraqis in Baghdad
The leaked video shows a U.S. military helicopter's sights set on two Reuters employees among a group of Iraqis in Baghdad (

But there's reason to doubt Lamo's story--not least because he was convicted of hacking into news and corporate Web sites and served a sentence of house arrest and probation that could leave him vulnerable to pressure by authorities.

The attempts to convict Manning in the press are bound up with the military's ongoing campaign against WikiLeaks, a Web site founded three years ago to expose government and corporate wrongdoing by publishing information from whistleblowers. In addition to the explosive video of the Baghdad massacre, the site has published documents about toxic waste dumping in Africa and the military's practices at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

As's Glenn Greenwald pointed out in a Democracy Now! interview, the U.S. Army's counterintelligence division prepared a report in 2008 identifying WikiLeaks as a "threat to national security" and detailing possible ways to silence the Web site.

The main thrust was that if WikiLeaks' sources were exposed--and the perception created that it was dangerous to associate with the site--whistleblowers could be intimidated from turning over information. As Greenwald said:

That's exactly what has happened here. Suddenly, a 22-year-old private, who supposedly has access to vast amounts of classified information, contacts someone who's a complete stranger and over the Internet...confesses to crimes that could send him to prison for the rest of his life...It's exactly what the U.S. military described it wanted to do in order to destroy WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange drew similar conclusions about the Pentagon campaign in an April interview on Democracy Now!. Assange pointed out that the 2008 report specifically uses the term "whistleblowers"--that is, people who leak classified information to expose an injustice--in identifying targets to investigate and prosecute. The aim, according to Assange, is to "destabilize us and destroy what [the Pentagon report] calls our 'center of gravity'--the trust that the public and sources have in us."

AMID the speculation about Manning since his arrest and indictment--not to mention what he did and didn't say to hacker Adrian Lamo via Internet chat--the video of the massacre itself has tended to fade into the background of mainstream news reports.

It shouldn't. The footage is a chilling--and undeniable--indictment of the brutality of the U.S. military machine and its occupation of Iraq. As Eric Ruder described it in a report for

The video shows U.S. troops circling in a helicopter and focusing on a group of about 10 men, certain that the cameras slung over the reporters' shoulders are AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. "Fucking prick," one soldier says of the men with the camera.

After obtaining permission from commanding officers, one of the soldiers exclaims, "Light 'em all up," and the men are cut to pieces with a burst from the helicopter's 30mm machine gun. On the video, they disappear in a cloud of dust and smoke. "Look at those dead bastards," one pilot says. "Nice," responds another.

The helicopter continues to circle, watching as a van arrives, and a man jumps out to help the safety. One soldier remarks that the man from the van looks to be "picking up the wounded." But a few moments later, the troops again request--and receive--permission to open fire.

This is clearly a war crime--a violation of international law that forbids firing on people aiding the wounded.

After obliterating the van, ground troops are called in and quickly discover the camera belonging to the journalist, as well as two wounded children in the van. Their father, the van's driver, had just been killed by the soldiers in the Apache.

When they hear the report of children in the van, one of the soldiers renders a quick verdict: "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle." Another replies, "That's right."

The July 12, 2007, attack wasn't the only massacre committed by U.S. forces in Iraq. But it stayed in the spotlight at least in part because two Reuters reporters were killed in the attack, and the news agency spent several years trying to obtain the footage from the helicopter gunship. The military claimed it had "lost" its copy--and then "Collateral Murder" appeared via WikiLeaks.

Pentagon officials continue to claim that the video misrepresents what happened--and that U.S. forces were justified in responding to hostile forces. But the leaked video shows no combat at all.

In fact, when WikiLeaks published the video, two members of the company that was involved in the assault--one of them the man who rescued two wounded children from the vehicle that the gunship was attack--came forward and said that massacres like these were a regular occurrence of the Iraq occupation.

GEORGE W. BUSH and his administration were notorious for their efforts to stop leaks of embarrassing information and silence whistleblowers--for example, the smear campaign, personally directed by Vice President Dick Cheney, against CIA agent Valerie Plame.

But the Obama administration has proven to be at least as aggressive against whistleblowers, if not more so.

In May, Shamai Leibowitz, a former linguist for the FBI, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for giving classified documents to an unidentified blogger--the longest sentence for any convicted leaker in U.S. history, according to the Politico Web site. One month earlier, Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency whistleblower, was charged by the Obama Justice Department with disclosing classified information that exposed details of a domestic spy program carried out by the Bush administration.

As Democracy Now! pointed out, the Obama White House has also targeted journalists who get classified information--for example, subpoenaing New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal the sources for parts of his book State of War.

Millions of people voted for Barack Obama because they hoped a Democrat in the White House would restore respect for civil liberties and curb the runaway powers of the federal government's executive branch. Those hopes have been disappointed. As Glenn Greenwald summarized the double standards for

-- If you torture people or eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by the criminal law, you receive "look-forward imperial immunity."

If you shoot and kill unarmed rescuers of the wounded while occupying their country and severely wound their unarmed children sitting in a van--or if you authorize that conduct--your actions are commended.

If you help wreck the world economy with fraud and cause hundreds of millions of people untold suffering, you collect tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

If you disclose to the world evidence of war crimes, government lawbreaking or serious corruption, or otherwise embarrass the U.S., you will be swiftly prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and face decades in prison.

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