Media war: WikiLeaks v the Pentagon
Analysing the media coverage of the latest WikiLeaks release reveals some interesting insights.
The Pentagon is engaged in a different kind of conflict; an information war with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks website has significantly eroded the credibility of US military planning, protocol and enactment [EPA]
It happened on a Friday, the anniversary of the first US casualties of the Vietnam War way back in 1957. It was also the anniversary, in 1964, of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s announcement that he was turning down the Nobel Prize.
It was the day this year that the often shadowy WikiLeaks, chief nemesis of the Pentagon, maybe their worst nightmare – considered perhaps even more dangerous than the Taliban – surfaced again with the largest public drop of secret military documents in history. WikiLeaks is a public web site run by the Sunshine Press, a non-profit group.
WikiLeaks introduced the significance of their immense treasure trove of secrets on their website this way: “The 391,832 reports (‘The Iraq War Logs’), document the war and occupation in Iraq, from 1st January 2004 to 31st December 2009 (except for the months of May 2004 and March 2009) as told by soldiers in the United States Army. Each is a ‘SIGACT’ or Significant Action in the war. They detail events as seen and heard by the US military troops on the ground in Iraq and are the first real glimpse into the secret history of the war that the United States government has been privy to throughout.”
This time around, and unlike the earlier dissemination of what they called Afghan “war logs,” they sanitized these documents to remove names that might become targets for retribution. The gesture did not satisfy the Pentagon, which said they would provide aid and comfort to the enemy. Forcibly retired General Stanley McCrystal called the release “sad.”
The Los Angeles Times reported, “In addition to the Times, the documents were made available to the Guardian newspaper in London, the French newspaper Le Monde, Al Jazeera and the German magazine Der Spiegel, on an embargoed basis.”
The New York Times said it had edited or withheld any documents that would “put lives in danger or jeopardize continuing military operations.” It said it redacted the names of informants, a particular concern of the defence department.
The Pentagon had been bracing for the release for months. Fearing more compromises of national security and more embarrassment for practices they wanted hidden, they had set up a WikiLeaks war room staffed with 120 operatives in anticipation.
A special intelligence unit called the Red Cell was involved. The task has been to prod the American spy networks to operate in a cleverer and more intelligent manner. (Ironically, WikiLeaks had leaked some of their internal reports earlier.)
One report dealt with perceptions abroad that the US supported terrorists. Another was oriented toward how to sell support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Western Europe, counseling that “counting on apathy is not enough.”
I can testify to their savvy. I met members of the unit at a University of Westminister conference on war and terrorism in London in September. There were three of them. Two stood out because of their crew cuts and military demeanor. A third was a Muslim woman. They were clearly on a reconnaissance mission probably linked to WikiLeaks detection since it had been reported that English students were helping the covert citizen agency target covert government activities.
I spoke at some length with their leader, an active-duty army major, who told me that his unit in Iraq handled high-value prisoners, including Saddam Hussein. (They escorted him to the hangman, he revealed.) He was very friendly and made no secret of his affiliation but clearly was not at a leftist academic conference to collect footnotes.
As we know now, the Pentagon was unable to stop the release, but may have pressured WikiLeaks not to name names. We may never know what happened until WikiLeaks finds some document about their anti-WikiLeaks operations.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accused the Pentagon of more than document editing. CNN reported, “The founder of WikiLeaks was denied a Swedish residency permit on Monday and said his whistleblowing website had been cut off by a company that handled many of its donations. Julian Assange blamed the financial cutoff on the US government, which denied any involvement.”
He had earlier intimated the United States might have been behind the other incidents in Sweden that led to his being accused of sexual harassment: so-called “honey pot traps” used in seduction scenarios have always been part of espionage operations.
A week earlier, an American veteran of the Iraq “surge” published an open letter urging the administration to heed the revelations and change its policies.
Josh Stieber wrote:
Dear members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and other willing parties, this is an anticipatory letter aimed to advise you on your response and responsibility for the coming WikiLeaks release, expected on October 23rd. Based on the White House’s response to the last leak about Afghanistan, the temptation seems strong to once again divert attention away from accountability. I write as a young veteran who once fully embraced the concept of a preemptive war to keep my fellow citizens safe and, as President Bush declared, because ‘America is a friend to the people of Iraq.’ I now hope to preempt your response to the information regarding that war in which I fought.
The full brunt of the US response has yet to be felt. The media outlets that worked with WikiLeaks have a new scoop of unprecedented depth and dimension. Yet the different ways media outlets reported the disclosures reveals continuing media biases against allegations of torture.
The New York Times played up the revelations in a page-one spread but downplayed their meaning writing: “…the Iraq documents provide no earthshaking revelations, but they offer insight, texture and context from the people actually fighting the war”.
Not surprisingly, reports of widespread torture that American forces knew about,and in some cases reported with nothing done, is not “earthshaking”. Unreported civilian deaths numbering 15,000 are also minimized. The Times devoted more ink to evidence of abuses by Iraqi forces without mentioning most were trained by Americans who were the occupying power. It fleshes out US military allegations of Iranian intervention more than reports of killings by American soldiers, an emphasis that conveniently contributes to the demonization of Iran by American politicians.
Contrast this with the Guardian coverage which called its package “Iraq: The War Logs,” and goes high with revelations of “serial detainee abuse” and “15,000 [previously] unknown civilian deaths”.
The Times approach infuriated writer Rob Beschizza, who came up with what he called “The New York Times Torture Euphemism Generator”.
“Reading the NYT’s stories about the Iraq War logs, I was struck by how it could get through such gruesome descriptions - fingers chopped off, chemicals splashed on prisoners - without using the word ‘torture.’ For some reason the word is unavailable when it is literally meaningful, yet is readily tossed around for laughs in contexts where it means nothing at all.”
Oddly, the New York Times-owned Boston Globe had no reservations in using torture in its headline.
The New York-based Columbia Journalism Review surveyed global coverage and, weirdly, criticized Al Jazeera for a video it produced: “All in all, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the secret files is straightforward, except perhaps for a six-and-a-half minute documentary video posted prominently throughout the site, a video that is awkwardly edited and features weird, cable-TV-style reenactments and dramatic readings of some of the reports.” This condescending comment betrays a lack of insight into the differences between TV coverage and newspaper formulas.
While all of the press seems to be reporting the story, few media outlets are going back to their own coverage and acknowledging how they had failed at the time, to report many of the atrocities we now know the US military knew about, and covered up. One glaring example: the killings that took place in Fallujah, where Al Jazeera correspondents were banned.
Much of the media, as we now see, especially leading American media outlets, were complicit in a multi-year cover-up of truths and crimes that continue to this day, not just in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in our living rooms at home.
Danny Schechter, made the film Plunder The Crime of Our Time about the financial crisis as a crime story (Plunderthecrimeofourtime.com) and blogs for Mediachannel.org.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.