JUNE 18, 2020
Julian Assange was running WikiLeaks in 2010 when it released a vast hoard of US government documents revealing details of American political, military and diplomatic operations. With extracts published by the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País, the archive provided deeper insight into the international workings of the US state than anything seen since Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the media in 1971. But today Ellsberg is celebrated as the patron saint of whistleblowers while Assange is locked in a cell in London’s Belmarsh maximum security prison for 23 and a half hours a day. In this latest phase of the American authorities’ ten-year pursuit of Assange, he is fighting extradition to the US. Court hearings to determine whether the extradition request will be granted have been delayed until September by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the US he faces one charge of computer hacking and 17 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917. If he is convicted, the result could be a prison sentence of 175 years.
I was in Kabul when I first heard about the WikiLeaks revelations, which confirmed much of what I and other reporters suspected, or knew but could not prove, about US activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The trove was immense: some 251,287 diplomatic cables, more than 400,000 classified army reports from the Iraq War and 90,000 from the war in Afghanistan. Rereading these documents now I’m struck again by the constipated military-bureaucratic prose, with its sinister, dehumanising acronyms. Killing people is referred to as an EOF (‘Escalation of Force’), something that happened frequently at US military checkpoints when nervous US soldiers directed Iraqi drivers to stop or go with complex hand signals that nobody understood. What this could mean for Iraqis is illustrated by brief military reports such as the one headed ‘Escalation of Force by 3/8 NE Fallujah: I CIV KIA, 4 CIV WIA’. Decoded, it describes the moment when a woman in a car was killed and her husband and three daughters wounded at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Fallujah, forty miles west of Baghdad. The US marine on duty opened fire because he was ‘unable to determine the occupants of the vehicle due to the reflection of the sun coming off the windshield’. Another report marks the moment when US soldiers shot dead a man who was ‘creeping up behind their sniper position’, only to learn later that he was their own unit’s interpreter.
These reports are the small change of war. But collectively they convey its reality far better than even the most well-informed journalistic accounts. Those two shootings were a thousand times repeated, though the reports were rare in admitting that the victims were civilians. More usually, the dead were automatically identified as ‘terrorists’ caught in the act, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The most famous of the WikiLeaks discoveries concerned an event in Baghdad on 12 July 2007 during which the US military claimed to have killed a dozen terrorists. But the incident had been filmed by the gun camera of the US Apache helicopter that had carried out the shootings, and the people it targeted were all civilians. Much was known about the killings because among the dead were two local journalists working for Reuters. It was known, too, that such a video existed, but the Pentagon refused to release it despite a Freedom of Information Act request. Appalled by what the video revealed about the way the US was conducting its war on terror, and appalled by the contents of the thousands of reports and cables it was stored alongside, a junior US intelligence analyst called Bradley Manning, who later changed her legal gender and became Chelsea Manning, released the entire archive to WikiLeaks.