Outrage, Applause, Indifference: US Reacts to WikiLeaks Iraq Documents

By in New York

Hundreds of thousands of classified US military reports on the Iraq war have been published. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is rejecting all accusations that he has endangered lives by publishing the information. The US government is still seething. Will the publication spark a fresh debate over the horrors of war?

An Iraqi army soldier signals cars to turn off their headlights during a sandstorm in 2008. Zoom
AP

An Iraqi army soldier signals cars to turn off their headlights during a sandstorm in 2008.

Not a single word. Barack Obama clearly decided not to acknowledge the news of the day by stating any position on it. The president, the commander in chief of the US forces, could have personally condemned the release of close to 400,000 classified military documents from the Iraq war as he did after the publication of documents from Afghanistan. After all, this was the biggest leak in US military history. But then, when he appeared at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, the president didn't waste a single word on the historic security leak. Instead, he praised the "100,000 brave young men and women who have come back from Iraq."

This time, it seems, the US government was prepared. For weeks, a 120-member Pentagon task force had been combing through classified war logs from Iraq. Their mission: to identify names and other "sensitive" information well ahead of time. "Our concern," said department spokesman Dave Lapan, "is mostly with the threat to individuals, the threat to our people and our equipment."

"Threat" and "danger" were catchwords that rang through all of Washington late on Friday, as WikiLeaks published almost 400,000 classified Pentagon documents on the Iraq war. The official line remained the same throughout: It was the greatest leak in the history of the US military endangered national security -- as well as the lives of troops and civilians.

No surprise there. The Pentagon had already condemned the WikiLeaks scoop -- the second of its kind in two months -- ahead of time as a breach of law (see the box below). After DER SPIEGEL, the London Guardian and the New York Times put their own analyses of the papers online, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell picked up the argument late on Friday.

US Reaction to Iraq War Logs
Click on the headlines to read the responses to SPIEGEL provided by Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell ...
On the Planned WikiLeaks Publication
"We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies. We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large. By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us. The only responsible course of action for WikiLeaks at this point is to return the stolen material and expunge it from their websites as soon as possible."
On the Episodes Detailed in the Documents
"We strongly condemn the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and will not comment on these leaked documents other than to note that 'significant activities' reports are initial, raw observations by tactical units. They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane, and do not tell the whole story. That said, the period covered by these reports has been well-chronicled in news stories, books and films and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq's past."

"However, it does expose secret information that could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future. Just as with the leaked Afghan documents, we know our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources, and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment. This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed."
"This is all classified secret information never designed to be exposed to the public," Morrell told CNN. "Our greatest fear is that it puts our troops in even greater danger than they inherently are on these battlefields. That it will expose tactics, techniques and procedures."

And so the dice fell where they were expected to fall. The administration tried the awkward balancing act of downplaying the logs while simultaneously condemning their release as some sort of treason. The pundits on the left cheered. The pundits on the right demanded WikiLeak's founder Julian Assange's head.

Which is apparently why WikiLeaks' founder Assange, in an exclusive interview with CNN on Friday, pointed out that the documents were somewhat "easier to understand" than the Afghanistan logs previously published in July. When CNN insisted on pressing him about his legal problems, he walked out of the interview.

Of the US media, only the New York Times was granted prior access to the war logs. CNN revealed it was also offered access to the documents in advance of the release but declined "because of conditions that were attached to accepting the material."

The other US media then took a few hours to digest the flood of information -- only to come up with different conclusions. "The reports cover such a variety of incidents and situations that they will be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the perspective of those who study them," the radio station NPR said.

'Compelling Evidence of War Crimes'

Probably the most buzz in the US was generated by those documents detailing the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners committed by US-led coalition and Iraqi government forces. Assange said the logs revealed "compelling evidence of war crimes."

That caught the eye of many. "Files detailing alleged Iraq war crimes are released on WikiLeaks," was CNN's initial news flash. "Torture, Abuse, Murder," blared the overnight headline of the Huffington Post news site, followed by, "US Troops Abused Prisoners For Years After Abu Ghraib." The web site of the magazine The Atlantic didn't mince words, either: "American-led forces averted their eyes from horrific, systematic detainee abuse by Iraqi security forces," it read.

Pentagon spokesman Morrell rushed to object to this assessment: "There is nothing in here which would indicate war crimes. If there were, we would have investigated it a long time ago," he told CNN.

Yet Amnesty International immediately called on the US to investigate how much American officials knew about the torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. "We have not yet had an opportunity to study the leaked files in detail but they add to our concern that the US authorities committed a serious breach of international law when they summarily handed over thousands of detainees to Iraqi security forces who, they knew, were continuing to torture and abuse detainees on a truly shocking scale," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the leak as well as Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador in Iraq, and Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander-in-chief in Afghanistan, called it "illegal."

Similar criticism had come from conservative commentators. Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, a member of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, characterized WikiLeaks as a "criminal enterprise" and demanded Assange be put on trial. Mike Rogers, a Republican in the House of Representatives, had previously encouraged capital punishment for whistleblowers.

Conspicuous Silence from the Right

On Friday night, however, most conservative blogs remained conspicuously silent.

The unified phalanx of administration and military shows how embarrassing the affair is to them. The fact that the most modern military in the world can suffer such a "massive security breach," as CNN put it, is an international humiliation -- and raises serious questions about the protection of classified government information in war times.

It didn't help much that the Pentagon had already gone into damage-control mode weeks ago, as if preparing for a real army to attack. Not to be surprised again, as it had been by the leak of the Aghanistan logs in July, the so-called Information Review Task Force formed then had continued to diligently comb through all relevant Iraq documents from 2003 to 2010.

"We can't chase every single person", a Pentagon official cautioned the Wall Street Journal. "Maybe no one's name will be released."

"There are 300 names of Iraqis in here that we think would be particularly endangered by their exposure," Pentagon spokesman Morrell said on Friday. WikiLeaks didn't hesitate to fight back on its Twitter account, calling that "absolute lies ... there are no names in the Iraq war logs."

As was the case with the Afghanistan war logs, SPIEGEL has taken every measure possible to ensure that lives are not put at risk. This includes redacting the names of those individuals who could be targeted for revenge or of those places at risk of being targeted for collective reprisals.

Even US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has put those accusations into perspective, albeit in semi-private communications. "The review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by this disclosure," he wrote in a letter to the Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the Afghanistan war logs.

'They're Crying Alarm Over This'

"They're crying alarm over this, as they always do in the case of every case of a leak," said activist Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War, in an interview with the progressive radio and TV program "Democracy Now!" on Friday. "I've waited 40 years for a release of documents on this scale," he rejoiced later that night on Twitter before heading to London to participate in a WikiLeaks press conference.

ABC News used the war logs to highlight the new, high number of war casualties. Other media focused on the fate of two US citizens captured in 2009 by Iran at the Iranian-Iraqi border. Many Americans have been moved by this particular story, unrelated to the Iraq war.

One of the military reports made public by WikiLeaks and read by the New York Times asserts that the US students were on the Iraqi side of the border when they were seized. One of them, Sarah Shourd, was released last month, the two others remain in Iranian custody to be tried for espionage in November.

Still, even some progressive voices protested the leaks. "It's still wrong to put Iraqi lives at risk and/or release personal details about soldiers and civilians who fought, informed, died or just had the misfortune to live in Iraq," wrote Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Networks, a think tank, in the Huffington Post. "Second, the flood of data makes it harder, not easier, to see the patterns that we still need to learn from this misbegotten war. And the sheer, accumulated horror of it will accelerate the pace at which some Americans will turn away from wanting to learn anything at all."

It's true that these late revelations will do little to stir up the American people. Neither the Afghanistan war nor Iraq are issues in the current congressional election campaigns, which center around populist quarrels over the economy, unemployment and the national debt. The primetime shows on the big US cable news networks -- Fox News, MSNBC, CNN -- on Friday barely mentioned the Iraq publications.

Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks website remained unaccessible through much of the night. "We will be back online as soon as possible," it said instead. Presumably having been attacked by a hacker, it went live again after midnight -- including an appeal for money: "Please donate to WikiLeaks to defend this information."

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