The war on WikiLeaks

October 28, 2010

Nicole Colson reports on new revelations about the U.S. war machine in Iraq--and the attempt by politicians and the media to deflect attention from the real crimes.

TORTURE, BRUTALITY and civilian deaths. That is the legacy of the U.S. war on Iraq, according to nearly 400,000 secret U.S. military field reports recently released by muckracking Web site WikiLeaks.

But once again, U.S. political leaders and establishment media outlets are trying to shoot the messenger. Not only have the media tried to spin the reports to make the U.S. look better, but politicians are denouncing WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange for publishing the material.

The same people who cheered on these wars in the first place--from government officials who jumped on the Bush administration bandwagon to invade, to a mainstream media that mindlessly parroted the case for war--are now trying to downplay what WikiLeaks has revealed, while smearing Assange for good measure.

Coming on the heels of an equally disturbing release of documents in July related to the war in Afghanistan, this newest look into the workings of the U.S. war machine reveals what antiwar activists have said about the war all along, and what the mainstream media have been loathe to say: that the U.S. invasion and occupation has been an unqualified nightmare for the people of Iraq.

Fox News coverage claims Wikileaks has endangered lives in U.S.-occupied Iraq

Once again, WikiLeaks took the step of releasing the documents in advance to several major publications, including the New York Times, Britain's Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel.

They show, according to the Washington Post, "grim new details about the toll of that conflict, indicating that more than 100,000 Iraqis were killed during a six-year stretch, and that American forces often failed to intervene as the U.S.-backed government brutalized detainees."

But the U.S. media seemed to downplay the responsibility of U.S. forces. The Guardian was more blunt in its assessment:

-- U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished.

A U.S. helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender.

More than 15,000 civilians died in previously unknown incidents. U.S. and UK officials have insisted that no official record of civilian casualties exists, but the logs record 66,081 non-combatant deaths out of a total of 109,000 fatalities.

The numerous reports of detainee abuse, often supported by medical evidence, describe prisoners shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles, and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks. Six reports end with a detainee's apparent death.

And these, of course, are just the records that were leaked to WikiLeaks. Unquestionably, the real toll of death and destruction at the hands of U.S. forces in Iraq is much greater.

IN DAMNING detail, the WikiLeaks documents show a total disregard for the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Time and again, the records show, U.S. troops watched horrifying abuses--beatings, shootings, even systematic torture--of detainees and not only did nothing to stop the abuse, but prevented investigations from taking place.

One such case, according to the Guardian's Nick Davies, involved:

a man who was arrested by police on suspicion of preparing a suicide bomb. In the station, an officer shot him in the leg and then, the log continues, this detainee "suffered abuse which amounted to cracked ribs, multiple lacerations, and welts and bruises from being whipped with a large rod and hose across his back." This was all recorded and judged to amount to "reasonable suspicion of abuse." The outcome: "No further investigation."

Again and again, such instances were labeled by U.S. military officials "no further investigation" or "no investigation required"--an outcome, says Davies, of a military order known as "Frago 242."

Issued in June 2004, relatively early on in the occupation of Iraq, the order directed coalition troops to not investigate any "breach of the laws of armed conflict"--including abuse of detainees--unless it directly involved U.S. or other coalition troops. Where the alleged abuse was committed by an Iraqi on an Iraqi, "only an initial report will be made...No further investigation will be required unless directed by HQ."

Although U.S. military officials deny it, there is an unmistakable suggestion that U.S. troops allowed Iraqi forces to do their "dirty work" in torturing prisoners. As Davies notes, there is not simply one or two such cases, or even a few dozen:

Hundreds of the leaked war logs reflect the fertile imagination of the torturer faced with the entirely helpless victim--bound, gagged, blindfolded and isolated--who is whipped by men in uniforms using wire cables, metal rods, rubber hoses, wooden stakes, TV antennae, plastic water pipes, engine fan belts or chains.

At the torturer's whim, the logs reveal, the victim can be hung by his wrists or by his ankles; knotted up in stress positions; sexually molested or raped; tormented with hot peppers, cigarettes, acid, pliers or boiling water – and always with little fear of retribution since, far more often than not, if the Iraqi official is assaulting an Iraqi civilian, no further investigation will be required.

Most of the victims are young men, but there are also logs which record serious and sexual assaults on women; on young people, including a boy of 16 who was hung from the ceiling and beaten; the old and vulnerable, including a disabled man whose damaged leg was deliberately attacked. The logs identify perpetrators from every corner of the Iraqi security apparatus--soldiers, police officers, prison guards, border enforcement patrols.

In some cases, the logs show, U.S. forces turned prisoners over to Iraqi forces when they knew they would be tortured. Among the reports is an official account of threats by a military interrogator to turn an Iraqi prisoner over to the so-called "Wolf Brigade"--an Iraqi battalion run by a U.S. "military adviser" that operated in Samarra and was made up at least partially of former elements of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. It was known for torturing detainees.

As the Guardian's David Leigh and Maggie O'Kane describe:

The field reports chime with allegations made by New York Times writer Peter Maass, who was in Samarra at the time. He told Guardian Films: "U.S. soldiers, U.S. advisers, were standing aside and doing nothing," while members of the Wolf Brigade beat and tortured prisoners. The interior ministry commandos took over the public library in Samarra, and turned it into a detention center, he said.

An interview conducted by Maass in 2005 at the improvised prison, accompanied by the Wolf Brigade's U.S. military adviser, Col. James Steele, had been interrupted by the terrified screams of a prisoner outside, he said. Steele was reportedly previously employed as an adviser to help crush an insurgency in El Salvador.

Aside from the overwhelming evidence of U.S. complicity in the torture of Iraqis, other horrors revealed in the WikiLeaks records include details of some of the tens of thousands of civilians killed following the U.S. invasion, including more than 15,000 deaths that were previously unrecorded.

Among the commonplace incidents is "Operation Steel Curtain," a 17-day assault of more than 2.500 Marines and soldiers on the town of Husaybah in 2005. In the days after the attack, the U.S. trumpeted the action as a clear victory for U.S. forces--leaving 139 "insurgents" dead.

But the WikiLeaks records show that U.S. officials were aware that at least 25 civilians had also been killed in the attack, including 11 children and 10 women.

After the attack, when questioned by a Washington Post reporter about reports of civilian casualties, Col. Michael Denning, the top air officer for the 2nd Marine Division, stated that "insurgents will kill civilians and try to blame it on us."

But as the Guardian's Jonathan Steele notes, "From the intelligence reports, it is clear that by the time of Denning's interview, U.S. authorities already knew that more than two dozen women and children had been killed in areas bombed by U.S. planes."

Other reports from the logs show incident after incident in which civilians in cars were assumed to be combatants or suicide bombers and summarily gunned down. The Guardian described the logs as "contain[ing] a horrific dossier of cases where U.S. troops killed innocent civilians at checkpoints, on Iraq's roads and during raids on people's homes. The victims include dozens of women and children. The U.S. rarely admitted their deaths publicly."

Raids on Iraqi homes figure prominently in cases of civilian casualties as well, as in a pre-dawn raid that happened in the town of Rutba on September 11, 2005. Although there was no one in the home over the age of 10, Marines opened fire. A 10-year-old girl and an infant boy were killed in the raid, while three other children suffered blast wounds.

WHILE MOST people are outraged by the detailed portrait that the WikiLeaks logs give of the scale of brutality of the U.S. war and occupation, the right wing is frothing at the mouth over the fact that the documents were released at all.

In a recent opinion piece on the Fox News Web site, for example, Fox contributor and former State Department advisor Christian Whiton argued that the release of the WikiLeaks documents "is an act of political warfare against the United States...WikiLeaks is a foreign organization that obtained these documents as a result of espionage, and it means to use the information to thwart and alter U.S. policy."

Whiton went on to argue that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his colleagues should be indicted for espionage, and perhaps even declared enemy combatants in order to "pav[e] the way for non-judicial actions against them." The conservative Washington Times ran a similar op-ed, suggesting that the "government also should be waging war on the WikiLeaks web presence."

While the right has been foaming at the mouth, the supposed liberal media isn't much better.

In an editorial written after the release of the documents, the Washington Post claimed that the leak "mainly demonstrates that the truth about Iraq already has been told." In other words, there's nothing to see here, folks, so move along.

But the Post goes further. It claims, along with the right, that the releases are actually causing harm:

In Afghanistan, WikiLeaks appears to have put the lives of courageous Afghans at risk, by identifying them as American sources. In Iraq, it has at least temporarily complicated negotiations to form a new government. We are all for the disclosure of important government information; but Mr. Assange's reckless and politically motivated approach, while causing tangible harm, has shed relatively little light.

For its part, the New York Times has been little better, even though WikiLeaks gave it early access to the records.

While most media outlets around the world ran headlines about the fact that the leaks prove the U.S. turned detainees over to be tortured ("Secret files show how U.S. ignored torture," read the Guardian headline), the New York Times article was headlined, "Detainees fared worse in Iraqi hands, logs say."

And while the international press has given prominent coverage to the fact that, in the wake of the WikiLeaks release, the UN chief investigator for torture has called on the Obama administration to formally investigate U.S. military complicity, that was buried in most U.S. newspapers, including the Times.

WHAT THE Times and several other U.S. media outlets did focus on, however, was the suggestion that the WikiLeaks documents show a definitive link between Iraqi insurgents and the Iranian government.

As the Times described in a lengthy article, the documents supposedly "provide a ground-level look--at least as seen by American units in the field and the United States' military intelligence--at the shadow war between the United States and Iraqi militias backed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards."

That accusation--that Iran meddled in neighboring Iraq, instead of respecting the rule of its American occupiers--is more in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives, and so the Times coverage dutifully played up this conclusion about the WikiLeak records.'s Glenn Greenwald described the Times coverage overall as little more than:

Three cheers for the U.S.! While a handful of American soldiers--a few bad apples--may have abused Iraqi detainees in hellholes like Abu Ghraib, those detainees "fared worse in Iraqi hands," so we weren't as bad as the new Iraqi tyrants were. That's the way the New York Times chose to frame these revelations.

And while that article mentions in passing that "most [abuse cases] noted in the archive seemed to have been ignored, with the equivalent of an institutional shrug," the vast bulk of the article focuses on Iraqi rather than American wrongdoing and even includes substantial efforts to exculpate the American role ("American soldiers, however, often intervened").

The difference in how (a) the [Times] "reported on"--i.e., whitewashed--these horrific, incriminating revelations about the U.S. and (b) the rest of the world media reported on it, could not be more vast.

Likewise, a large part of the Times coverage of the leaks was dedicated not to what the military documents themselves show, but rehashing allegations about WikiLeaks' Julian Assange--that he is, for example, a megalomanic.

Such attacks are not new. After the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, for example, journalist Daniel Ellsberg was similarly targeted with character assassination by military officials and the Nixon administration. "But now," Greenwald points out, "the smear campaign is led not by executive branch officials, but by members of the establishment media."

Considering that the New York Times and other media outlets acted as little more than Pentagon mouthpieces in the run-up to the war--breathlessly repeating every unsubstantiated rumor about Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction"--it can hardly be surprising that they would downplay the facts about the real legacy of the U.S. war today.

As Greenwald concluded, high-profile media figures:

want you to think there's nothing new in these documents, and to focus instead on Julian Assange's alleged personality flaws (or the prospects that he--rather than the criminals he exposed--should be prosecuted), because that way, they hope you won't notice all the blood on their hands. That's one major benefit. The other is that they discharge their prime function of currying favor with and serving the interests of the powerful Washington figures whom they "cover."

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