Just days away from crucial midterm elections, WikiLeaks, the whistle-blower website, unveiled the largest classified military leak in history. Almost 400,000 secret Pentagon documents relating to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq were made available online. The documents, in excruciating detail, portray the daily torrent of violence, murder, rape and torture to which Iraqis have been subjected since George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished.” The WikiLeaks release, dubbed “The Iraq War Logs,” has been topping the headlines in Europe. But in the U.S., it barely warranted a mention on the agenda-setting Sunday talk shows.
First, the documents themselves. I spoke with Julian Assange, the founder and editor in chief of WikiLeaks.org. He explained: “These documents cover the periods of 2004 to the beginning of 2010. It is the most accurate description of a war to have ever been released ... each casualty, where it happened, when it happened and who was involved, according to internal U.S. military reporting.”
David Leigh, investigations editor at the Guardian of London, told me the leak “represents the raw material of history ... what the unvarnished version does is confirm what many of us feared and what many journalists have attempted to report over the years, that Iraq became a bloodbath, a real bloodbath of unnecessary killings, of civilian slaughter, of torture and of people being beaten to death.”
The reports, in bland bureaucratic language and rife with military jargon, are grisly in detail. Go to the website and search the hundreds of thousands of records. Words like “rape,” “murder,” “execution,” “kidnapping” and “decapitation” return anywhere from hundreds to thousands of reports, documenting not only the scale and regularity of the violence, but, ultimately, a new total for civilian deaths in Iraq.
The British-based Iraq Body Count, which maintains a carefully researched database on just the documented deaths in Iraq, estimates that the Iraq War Logs document an additional 15,000 heretofore unrecorded civilian deaths, bringing the total, from when the invasion began, to more than 150,000 deaths, 80 percent of which are civilian.
In one case, in February 2007, two Iraqi men were attempting to surrender, under attack by a U.S. helicopter gunship. The logs reveal that the crew members called back to their base and were told, “They cannot surrender to aircraft and are still valid targets.” The two were killed. The helicopter unit was the same one that, months later, attacked a group of civilians in Baghdad, killing all of the men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring two children. That case, also documented in the Iraq War Logs, was the subject of another high-profile WikiLeaks release, which it called “Collateral Murder.” The Apache helicopter’s own video of the violent assault, with the accompanying military radio audio, revealed soldiers laughing and cursing as they slaughtered the civilians, and made headlines globally.
Imagine if the military operations were not subject to such secrecy, if the February murder of the two men with their arms raised, trying to surrender, had become public. If there was an investigation, and appropriate punitive action was taken. Perhaps Reuters videographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22 years old, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, the father of four, would be alive today, along with the civilians they were unlucky enough to be walking with that fateful July day. That’s why transparency matters.
Sunday’s network talk shows barely raised the issue of the largest intelligence leak in U.S. history. When asked, they say the midterm elections are their main focus. Fine, but war is an election issue. It should be raised in every debate, discussed on every talk show.
I see the media as a huge kitchen table, stretching across the globe, that we all sit around, debating and discussing the most important issues of the day: war and peace, life and death. Anything less than that is a disservice to the servicemen and -women of this country. They can’t have these debates on military bases. They rely on us in civilian society to have the discussions that determine whether they live or die, whether they are sent to kill or be killed. Anything less than that is a disservice to a democratic society.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.