WikiLeaks, the website created as a repository for classified information, has just accomplished the largest leak of secret documents in history. The organization alleges that they show U.S. complicity in torture, human rights abuses and deception in the war in Iraq. This release is designed to fan the flames of anti-Americanism around the world, but a careful reading of the files undermines this agenda and exposes the Iranian government’s destructive role in Iraq.
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, explains his motivation thus: “I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards.” It is clear that in his mind these “bastards” are officials in the U.S. government and military. He has criticized what he views as the militarization of the U.S., speaks at anti-capitalist forums, and said, “We have been attacked by the United States, so we are forced into a position where we must defend ourselves.”
This is just the latest shot fired in his crusade. WikiLeaks previously released a deceptively-edited video allegedly showing a U.S. massacre of civilians in Baghdad called “Collateral Murder.” In July, WikiLeaks released over 90,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan with the same objective. Now, WikiLeaks has released nearly 400,000 documents about the war in Iraq, containing material that is causing the United Nations and Amnesty International to call on the U.S. to investigate alleged abuses by American and Iraqi forces.
WikiLeaks claims that they censored the documents to make sure no lives were put in danger. After the last release, the Taliban announced that it had put together a nine-man team to scour the documents to find the names of spies for prosecution by their court. The Pentagon warns that 300 Iraqis are named in the released documents that are “particularly vulnerable to reprisal attacks.”
Alleged human rights abuses by U.S. forces, either through direct participation or acquiescence, are generating the most media coverage. However, much of the information is based on single sources without confirmation. One news article in the Guardian is titled, “Iraq War Logs: Apache Helicopters Kill 14 Civilians in Hunt for Insurgents.” If you read further down, you see it isn’t so clear. After a clash with insurgents, a single Iraqi informant says that 14 civilians are dead, but it does not say how he knows they are civilians and not insurgents. An Iraqi colonel, on the other hand, reports that a dozen insurgents are dead. As the Guardian admits, “It is not clear whether both men are referring to one group of dead with differing estimates of whether they were insurgents or civilians, or whether there were separate groups totaling 26.” That uncertainty did not make its way into the headline that many readers will limit their attention to.
The Pentagon is denying that the documents show any crimes being committed by Americans. A spokesman said, “We vetted every single one of the documents, word by word, page by page. There is nothing in here that would indicate war crimes. If there were, we would have investigated it a long time ago.”
The other major “story” is that the U.S. allegedly downplayed the number of civilian casualties. Apparently in anticipation of the WikiLeaks release, the U.S. military released a count of 63,185 Iraqi civilians and 13,754 security personnel killed between 2004 and August 2008, leaving out the first year of the war. WikiLeaks’ own count closely matches that of the U.S. with a count of 66,081 civilians and 15,196 security forces. The Iraq Body Count website, however, says its review of the WikiLeaks files allowed them to identify an additional 15,000 civilian casualties, bringing their estimate up to over 122,000. That’s a serious discrepancy with the U.S. estimate, but this is partly because the government admittedly did not include the entire year of 2003; i.e., not because of deception. Furthermore, there are reasons to be skeptical of the higher numbers.
Casualty numbers in the local media are notoriously inaccurate. For example, in covering the CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, the local press routinely reported inflated numbers that would indicate over 600 civilians have been killed. A U.S. military review found that less than 30 civilians had been killed, with some of those “civilians” accompanying the targeted terrorists such as the second wife of the Pakistani Taliban chief.
The New York Times has found reasons to doubt the accuracy of the casualty numbers, noticing double-counting and contradictory reports. It is also difficult to distinguish insurgents and terrorists from civilians. In the U.S. military’s report, it rightly says it cannot confirm that no insurgents are included in the civilian casualty number. Whatever the real number is, it is clear that both the U.S. military and WikiLeaks discredit the huge casualty estimates in the Lancet study that gave a toll of over 600,000 Iraqis and attributed much of it to U.S. military operations.
The death toll must also be put in context. It must be compared with the number of Iraqis dying under Saddam Hussein’s rule due to oppression, inadequate governance, sanctions and sectarian violence. It is misguided to attribute the deaths to the U.S. without considering the number of lives saved.
The release shows extensive Iranian involvement in violence and subversion in Iraq, just like the previous release showed the regime’s involvement in Afghanistan. The files reveal that that in July 2006 the leader of an extremist Shiite militia named Azhar al-Dulaimi was trained in Qom, Iran in July 2006 by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He orchestrated the kidnapping of many officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and the U.S. learned in December 2006 that he had decided to begin kidnapping American soldiers. He is believed to have been responsible for the kidnapping and killing of four U.S. soldiers in Karbala before he was killed. The media is treating this like a new revelation, but this information was available at the time.
The documents show that the Iranians provided advanced explosives for car bombs, sophisticated IEDs called Explosively-Formed Penetrators, .50 caliber rifles, training in explosives and sniping, and even portable surface-to-air missiles that shot down one U.S. helicopter in July 2007. The Iranians also consulted with the militants on assassinating Iraqi officials and used their intelligence agents in the militias to target Iraq’s Industry Ministry. The Iranians reacted to the “surge” by stepping up their operations in a failed bid to prove it did not work. One document shows that a member of the Mehdi Army met with the Revolutionary Guards on November 28, 2008 to receive rockets for use in attacks on the Green Zone.
WikiLeaks is planning on releasing 15,000 more documents related to the war in Afghanistan. The Pentagon should recognize that WikiLeaks is partaking in the battle of ideas and prepare to rebut the allegations of war crimes that will surely be made when the next release comes. WikiLeaks should be recognized and treated for what it is: An organization seeking to spout anti-American propaganda and undermine its military efforts overseas.