Announcing the release of the largest collection of classified US military documents leaked by an insider — 391,832 field documents relating to the war in Iraq from 2004 to 2009 — Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said at a press conference in London today, “This disclosure is about the truth. We hope to correct some of that attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war, and which has continued on since the war officially concluded. While I am not sure we have achieved the maximum possible [political impact] I think we are getting pretty close.”
As the Guardian explained, “Assange highlighted how the reports documented 109,000 deaths — including 66,000 civilians, of which 15,000 were previously undocumented,” and also stated, “That tremendous scale should not make us blind to the small human scale in this material. It is the deaths of one and two people per event that killed the overwhelming number of people in Iraq.”
Several major media outlets — more than were entrusted with similar material relating to the war in Afghanistan in July, when 92.000 classified field documents were released to the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel — were given the Iraq documents two weeks ago, and their research into what the documents contain was revealed today, as Assange gave his press conference.
Of particular importance are the reports of civilian deaths (both those that were previously documented, and the 15,000 that have not been disclosed before), not just because they provide a shocking insight into how many civilians have died in unreported circumstances (although these figures are still far less than those cited in other reports), but also because they flatly contradict the military’s assertions that, as General Tommy Franks claimed in 2002, “We don’t do body counts.” As the Guardian explained, in flat contradiction of Gen. Franks’ claim, “Troops on the ground filed secret field reports over six years of the occupation, purporting to tot up every casualty, military and civilian.” In response to the revelations, Iraq Body Count, the London-based group that monitors civilian casualties, stated, “These logs contain a huge amount of entirely new information regarding casualties. Our analysis so far indicates that they will add 15,000 or more previously unrecorded deaths to the current IBC total. This data should never have been withheld from the public.”
However, as well as containing information about 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths, the documents reveal information about the ongoing abuse of detainees by US forces, a systematic failure by the US authorities to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers, and the revelation that a US helicopter gunship involved in the cold-blooded murder of a dozen people in July 2007, including two Iraqis working for Reuters (released on video by Wikileaks in April), had previously killed two Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender.
The Guardian’s coverage is here, Der Spiegel’s is here, and the New York Times’ coverage, which unfortunately dwells too much on revelations about the military’s fears of Iranian involvement in the insurgency (as this was an inevitable fallout from the ill-conceived invasion, and should not be used to assist those seeking war against Iran) is here. In addition, Channel 4 will be covering the leaked documents in a Dispatches programme on Monday.
Following the release of the documents, both the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defense issued statements. In Britain, where human rights lawyer Phil Shiner told the press conference this morning that “Some of these deaths will be in circumstances where the UK have a very clear legal responsibility,” and that “This may be because the Iraqis died while under the effective control of UK forces — under arrest, in vehicles, helicopters or detention facilities,” the MoD stated that “any unauthorised release” of classified material “can put the lives of UK service personnel and those of our allies at risk and make the job of armed forces in all theatres of operation more difficult and more dangerous.”
Meanwhile, in the US, the Pentagon stated, “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.”
Given the extensive media coverage of the reports, it would be difficult to imagine how this particular genie could be reinserted in the bottle, or, indeed, why it should be, as the significance of these revelations, and those regarding the Afghan war, is to expose the horrendous brutality of the wars — and their many cover-ups, lies and distortions — rather than to provide any comfort whatsoever to those who believe that the military occupation of either country should continue one day longer.
As Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, explained, there was “now a duty on the US to investigate whether its officials were involved in or complicit in torture.” Nowak told the BBC’s Today programme, “President Obama came to power with a moral agenda, saying “we don’t want to be seen to be a nation responsible for major human rights violations.” He added, as the Guardian described it, that a “failure to investigate credible claims of US forces’ complicity in torture would be a failure of the Obama government to recognize the US’s obligations under international law.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the USand the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed(and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.