The greatest potential harm in the release of these documents is not in the documents themselves, but in the tendentious interpretations being provided by some [EPA]
At the bottom of most classified documents produced by the US government, tens of thousands every day, there appears in small print an indication, to those who understand the nomenclature, as to when that document is to be automatically declassified. Even where such markings are missing, there is an expectation that the document’s contents will eventually be revealed. Depending upon the classification level and type of document, it could be released in as few as 10 years, or remain sequestered for as many as 50.
Documents specifically requested by outside parties under the Freedom of Information Act, of course, are eventually reviewed and often selectively declassified in even less time. But virtually every properly-classified document in US government hands carries within it the reminder that no secret can or should last forever, there is no justification for it to remain in darkness.
We would do well to remember that as we focus on the much-anticipated and much-ballyhooed release of the second installment of what we might call the WikiLeaks Trove. This time the release involves nearly 400,000 classified military documents detailing US military activities and events in Iraq over a five-year period from 2004 to 2009, hailed as the largest single leak of classified military documents in history.
For public-spirited observers, there are at least two things to consider: The significance of the documents themselves, and the significance of their release.
In any such assessment, it should be noted that at this point, we are largely forced to rely on the initial, partial analyses provided by a few news organizations, including Al Jazeera, which were granted pre-release access to these documents. For a deeper understanding we will have to await a more exhaustive review – if any have the energy to perform it.
As with the previous WikiLeaks release of over 90,000 documents concerning Afghanistan, the sheer overwhelming volume of detailed information contained in this latest windfall has its own fascination. Stalin is alleged to have said that: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” For those with no direct experience of the bloody mayhem which has characterized much of Iraq for long periods since the US invasion, daily accounts of mass-casualty incidents overwhelm the capacity to grasp or to feel. A single report, however, of a seemingly needless death at a Coalition checkpoint, even in the antiseptic prose of a hurriedly-prepared military report, has the capacity to focus the mind on the horror, the tragedy, and the brutal capriciousness that have characterized this struggle, and indeed all wars.
That said, and again much like the Afghan release, the overall outlines of the story these documents reveal include few surprises – the efforts of some to suggest otherwise notwithstanding. Indeed, the greatest potential harm in the release of these documents is not in the documents themselves, but in the tendentious interpretations being provided by some.
Much, for example, is made of the fact that the US military did indeed compile counts of civilian deaths in Iraq, despite former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s claimed refusal to do so in 2003, and the military’s demurrals over the reliability of its numbers since. In fact, however, this is no great revelation: The fact that the military has been providing rough estimates of civilian deaths to Congress, at the latter’s insistence, since 2005 is well-known. The military has never considered its methodology to be comprehensive, though, and has cautioned Congress that their estimates are mere “signposts,“ and not definitive.
|The latest release from WikiLeaks, above all else, concentrates the mind on the horrors and chaotic disorder of military conflict [EPA]
Part of the reason for both the incompleteness of their counts and their reluctance to discuss them is another fact being overlooked by some, and that is that the vast majority of the 66,000 Iraqi civilian deaths estimated in the leaked documents to have occurred were the result of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, and did not involve US or Coalition forces. While many may lay ultimate responsibility for the vicious Sunni-Shi’a “sectarian-cleansing” that occurred in greater Baghdad, and the mass-casualty terrorist bombings of Al Qa’ida in Iraq, for example, at the feet of the Americans for having overthrown Saddam and thus having released these pent-up forces in the first place, that is a very different argument, and one often left misleadingly vague.
Similarly, the fact that significant numbers of Iraqi civilians were killed through “escalation of force” incidents at US/Coalition checkpoints and as a result of contact with US convoys is hardly new. The figure of 681 civilians killed in such incidents is both striking and disturbing, but simply underscores the fact that manning checkpoints with conventional troops ill-equipped by training and doctrine to perform what are essentially police duties, in the midst of a population they ill-understand and with which they generally cannot communicate effectively, and in an environment characterized by constant suicide bombings and vehicle-borne explosive attacks in which every civilian is viewed as a potentially deadly enemy, taken together, is a prescription for a slow-rolling disaster.
Given that some 14,000 escalation-of-force incidents occurred across Iraq during this period, the wonder is that there were not more mistaken killings. The fact is, however, that circumstances have been as much a culprit as the claimed “brutality” of the US “occupiers.” While that may not absolve the US military of its responsibility for these deaths, the initial accounts I have seen are largely devoid of thoughtful analysis as to how and why they have occurred.
Perhaps most disturbingly, there are the claims that while newly-empowered Iraqi security forces of all stripes routinely engaged in torture and mistreatment of detainees, US forces “were not allowed to intervene” to stop them, thus making them accessories to abuse. These, too, are highly misleading assertions, and deserve a much more rigorous analysis. In fact, the documents in question seem to substantiate that in those rare instances where US military personnel encountered Iraqi counterparts actively engaged in prisoner abuse, they did indeed intervene to stop it. The question, then, would be what to do next.
In the vast majority of the roughly 1,300 incidents catalogued in the documents, US personnel saw not torture, but evidence of torture: Detainees with obvious marks of abuse, the presence of torture instruments, or credible complaints of abuse by the detainees themselves, for example. In such instances, the protocol was for US forces to report such indications in their own chain of command, and to leave it to their superiors to raise such issues with Iraqi officials whose formal responsibility it was to investigate such reports.
It seems disingenuous to me to suggest that the fact that few such investigations were ever conducted is the fault of the Americans. There is more than a little irony in the fact that it is precisely those who are most likely to characterize the US military presence in Iraq as an unwanted military occupation, trampling on the sovereign rights of Iraqis, who in this instance suggest that US military personnel should have behaved like colonialists. In dealing with an Iraqi system in which abuses by security forces were rampant at all levels, what were US forces to do, practically speaking? Should they have taken over every suspect police station? Should they have indicted and tried those suspected of prisoner abuse? In whose courts?
Finally, there is the question of the impact of the release of the documents per se, quite apart from what any of them reveal. That is very difficult to assess, without having much greater familiarity with the documents than I can command. In any case, it surely is not conducive to morale or good order for those charged with writing clear and truthful reports to live with the nagging fear that what they write is liable to be revealed publicly in a manner designed to provide ammunition to ones detractors, or in a way which could expose friendly elements to risk.
I have written in the recent past about the harm caused by leaks of properly-classified information. By and large, the harm to legitimate interests lies in the sensitive details such leaks reveal. In this case, I think it is generally fair to say that the harm, such as it is, lies not in the details, but in the aggregate picture these documents provide. That suggests to me a generally low degree of potential harm. I strongly suspect that there would be a point in the relatively near future when such documents, doubtless with some exceptions, could be properly turned over to historians and others to provide a dispassionate look at the reality of the US engagement in Iraq.
Whoever was responsible for turning these documents over to WikiLeaks has clearly advanced that process, and done so illegitimately. In the context of the rapidly changing US role and mission in Iraq, however, it is likely that these revelations will do little lasting harm, beyond that caused by the events which they describe.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was the director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.