WikiLeaks has released close to 400,000 U.S. classified military documents relating to the Iraq war. The American people, the theoretical masters of the government, were not supposed to see them. So, just as it was when the website released 77,000 documents on the Afghan war in August, WikiLeaks was roundly condemned. Unnamed officials in the Obama administration are reported to have asked European governments to criminally investigate WikiLeaks director Julian Assange. There was even talk of charging him under the U.S. Espionage Act. The website Daily Beast said that “the U.S. effort reflects a growing belief that WikiLeaks and organizations like it threaten grave damage to American national security....” Or, at any rate, to the government’s ability to shape public opinion by withholding the truth about its wars.
The reaction to Wikileaks has been surreal. In August Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen and Secretary of Defense Gates said that WikiLeaks and whoever provided the documents “have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” That was said without irony by two of the men who are conducting the lethal operations about which WikiLeaks has released information.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said that “this is the kind of stuff that gets people killed.” If so, it’s not unlike the “kind of stuff” the CIA’s assassination teams do to people throughout the Muslim world.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “Neither WikiLeaks, nor its original source for these materials, should be spared in any way from the fullest prosecution possible under the law.” He and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) planned to add language to exclude WikiLeaks from protection in the media-shield bill they were writing.
And Marc Thiessen, former staffer to Vice President Dick Cheney and apologist for “enhanced interrogation” techniques that can be described only as torture, said in August, “The Web site must be shut down and prevented from releasing more documents — and its leadership brought to justice.”
Why are these people so upset? The reason is easily understood. WikiLeaks and its sources have the nerve to give the public information the government doesn’t want them to have. It is information about military operations conducted in the American people’s name — though without their real consent — and paid for by their tax dollars. But “their” government doesn’t want them to know what’s really going on. If they knew, they might be disgusted enough to demand an end to those operations. Then WikiLeaks would deserve credit for saving lives.
In the latest document dump we learn, among other things, that the number of Iraqi civilian deaths has been underreported by 15,000, according to an analysis by Body Count, which keeps track of civilian deaths in Iraq. According to the New York Times, “The reports make it clear that most civilians, by far, were killed by other Iraqis,” but, “The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.”
The U.S. government may claim that Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is not its responsibility, but things are not so simple. Many of the deaths were from Shi’ite ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Baghdad, which was unleashed by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime, which had subjugated the majority Shi’ite Muslims. Absolving the U.S. government of responsibility seems a hard case to make under the circumstances. Blood is on the hands of American policymakers, no matter how much they deny it. The U.S. government also had a role in creating 3.5 million refugees who show no sign of returning to their homes, despite the glorious success proclaimed by President Obama.
At any rate, thanks to WikiLeaks we know more now than we did before about the the consequences of the U.S. government’s criminal conduct. Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration would rather have the American people ignorant of the truth about its military operations. But we have a right to this information. If the government won’t give it up, we are justified in getting it by other means.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation
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