I was in Kabul in 2010 when Julian Assange and WikiLeaks first released a vast archive of classified US government documents, revealing what Washington really knew about what was happening in the world.
I was particularly interested in one of these disclosures which came in the shape of a video that the Pentagon had refused to release despite a Freedom of Information Act request.
When WikiLeaks did release the video, it was obvious why the US generals had wanted to keep it secret. Three years earlier, I had been in Baghdad when a US helicopter machine-gunned and fired rockets at a group of civilians on the ground, who its pilots claimed were armed insurgents, killing or wounding many of them.
Journalists in Iraq were disbelieving about the US military claim because the dead included two reporters from the Reuters news agency. Nor was it likely that insurgents would have been walking in the open with their weapons when a US Apache helicopter was overhead.
We could not prove anything until WikiLeaks made public the film from the Apache. Viewing it still has the power to shock: the pilots are cock-a-hoop as they hunt their prey, which included people in a vehicle who stopped to help the wounded, saying, “Oh yeah, look at those dead b*****s” and “Ha, ha, I hit them.” Anybody interested in why the US failed in Iraq should have a look.
The WikiLeaks revelations in 2010 and in 2016 are the present-day equivalent of the release by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, unmasking the true history of the US engagement in the Vietnam War. They are, in fact, of even greater significance because they are more wide-ranging and provide an entry point into the world as the US government really sees it.
The disclosures were probably the greatest journalistic scoop in history and newspapers like The New York Times recognised this by the vast space they gave to the revelations. Corroboration of their importance has been grimly confirmed by the rage of US security establishment and its allies abroad and the furious determination with which they have pursued Julian Assange as the co-founder of Wikileaks.
Daniel Ellsberg is rightly treated as a hero who revealed the truth about Vietnam, but Julian Assange, whose actions were very similar to Ellsberg’s, is held in Belmarsh high security prison. He faces a hearing in London this week to decide on his extradition from the UK to the US on spying charges. If extradited, he stands a good chance of being sentenced to 175 years in the US prison system under the Espionage Act of 1917.
Ever since Assange orchestrated the release of documents through WikiLeaks, he has been the target of repeated official attempts to discredit him or, at the very least, to muddy the waters in a case that should be all about freedom of speech.
The initial bid to demonise Assange came immediately after the first release of documents, claiming that they would cost the lives of people named. The US government still argues that lives were put at risk by WikiLeaks, though it has never produced evidence for this.
On the contrary, in 2013 the US counter-intelligence official who was in charge of the Pentagon’s investigation into the impact of the WikiLeaks’ disclosures admitted in evidence that there was not a single instance of an individual being killed by enemy forces as a result of what WikiLeaks had done.
Brigadier General Robert Carr, head of the Pentagon’s Information Review Task Force, told the sentencing hearing for Chelsea Manning that his initial claim that an individual named by WikiLeaks had been killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan was untrue. “The name of the individual was not in the disclosures,” he admitted.
On the day the WikiLeaks revelations were made public I had a pre-arranged meeting in Kabul with a US official who asked what the coding on the top of the leaked papers was. When I read this out, he was dismissive about the extent to which the deep secrets of the US state were being revealed.
I learned later the reason for his relaxed attitude. The database Manning had accessed was called SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router) which is a US military internet system. After 9/11 it was used to make sure that confidential information available to one part the US government was available to others. The number of people with the right security clearance who could theoretically access SIPRNet was about three million, though the number with the correct password, while still substantial, would have been much fewer.
Excerpted from: ‘With Wikileaks,Julian Assange Did What All Journalists Should Do’.
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