The Iraq War Logs, The War on Whistleblowers, and Lessons Learned From a Decade of WikiLeaks Revelations
By Collective 20
[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]
”In war, truth is the first casualty.” -Aeschylus (525-456BC)
It’s now been 10 years since WikiLeaks published the Iraq War Logs. The release of the colossal compendium of nearly 400,000 U.S. Army field reports revealing what founder Julian Assange called ”intimate details” of the war undoubtedly opened the world’s eyes to the literal ground truth of a war based on lies.
Yes, we saw. We saw horrors that stunned the world, including war crimes and other serious human rights abuses perpetrated by American and coalition troops, private contractors, and Iraqi government and paramilitary forces. But with U.S. bombs and bullets still killing men, women, and children in some half-dozen countries today, the question is begged: What, if anything, did we learn from the Iraq War Logs and how do antiwar activists convince the American people—who have the power via the ballot box to punish the warmongers and uplift peace candidates—to eschew the former in favor of the latter?
Never-Ending War Crimes
First, let’s take a look back. In 2010 the United States was nearly a decade into a never-ending “War on Terror.” There had been some heroic whistleblowing related to events of the first decade of the conflict—most notably, by Joe Darby and Samuel Provance (Abu Ghraib torture), Sgt. Frank Ford (Army torture in Iraq), John Kiriakou (CIA torture), Karen Kwiatkowski and Joseph Wilson (Iraq invasion lies), Katherine Gun (dirty tricks at UN Iraq war vote), Jesselyn Radack (”American Taliban” John Walker Lindh interrogation), and even Coleen Rowley (pre-9/11 FBI intelligence failures), and Russell Tice, Thomas Drake, and Thomas Tamm (NSA government surveillance). However, since Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, there had not been a series of leaks so expansive as what WikiLeaks would reveal, beginning with a grainy black-and-white video that looked like it came from a video game or a low-budget war movie.
It was called “Collateral Murder” and it was passed from a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst then named Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks, and from WikiLeaks to the world on April 5, 2010. The 39-minute video, shot from Army Apache attack helicopters, shows their crews laughing and joking while massacring a group of Iraq civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and shooting a good Samaritan and his children when they rushed in to help the victims.
”Collateral Murder” shocked the world’s conscience. But it was but one single video. What WikiLeaks unleashed next was one of the biggest leaks in U.S. military history, the Afghan War Diary. This involved over 91,000 Army reports spanning the years 2004 to 2010 and revealed the killing of hundreds of civilians by U.S.-led coalition forces, covert death squads, and other shocking crimes and abuses.
”These files are the most comprehensive description of a war to be published during the course of a war; in other words, at a time when they still have a chance of doing some good,” said Assange upon the release of the Afghan War Diary. Once again, it was Manning who made it all possible. As Assange said, ”It is not WikiLeaks that decides to reveal something, it is a whistleblower or a dissident who decides to reveal it. Our job is to make sure that these individuals are protected, the public is informed and the historical record is not denied.”
Even that massive Afghan War Diary paled in comparison to what came next. The Iraq War Logs—first leaked by our hero Manning—comprised a staggering collection of documents offering an unprecedented inside look at the U.S. war and occupation, then in its eighth year. The bombshell revelations contained in the 391,832 Army field reports showed that:
- Coalition officials lied about not recording Iraqi civilian casualties caused by U.S.-led forces.
- At least 66,000 of the 109,000 total Iraqi deaths recorded by U.S. authorities from 2004 to 2009 were civilians.
- These figures were still very likely an undercount of the true civilian death toll; for example, no civilian deaths are recorded from the two bloody battles for Fallujah in 2004, although the monitor group Iraq Body Count said at least 1,153 men, women, and children died.
- U.S. troops often falsely claimed that civilians they killed were insurgents, as was the case with the ”Collateral Murder” video.
- U.S. troops killed nearly 700 civilians—including pregnant women and people with mental illness—for coming too close to military checkpoints.
- U.S. officials failed to investigate hundreds of reports of torture, rape, murder, and other crimes committed by Iraqi security forces with impunity.
- American troops often handed over suspected insurgents and other detainees to Iraqi forces known for murder, rape, torture, and other atrocities, including the notorious Wolf Brigade.
Appearing on Democracy Now! after the release of the Iraq War Logs, Assange was asked by host Amy Goodman what surprised him most out of the hundreds of thousands of documents. He replied:
Well, it’s the big picture of the war, that nearly all the deaths are in incidences that kill just one or two people. A little girl on the street… in a yellow dress, who would frequently go to collect candy and so on from U.S. troops. One day a tank goes past, and for an inexplicable reason, a shooter comes out of the tank and blows her away. There are just so many of these incidences.
While prominent international media published the logs, most American corporate media took an approach like the Washington Post—the “there’s nothing new here” non-defense so often invoked by U.S. war criminals and their apologists—or downplayed and whitewashed the American lies and war crimes revealed in the logs. Instead they focused on less damning revelations of Iranian involvement in Iraq and abuses committed by private contractors and Iraqi forces rather than by U.S. troops, as journalist Glenn Greenwald noted at the time. In the more reactionary media, Fox News contributors called for Assange and others at WikiLeaks to be declared ”enemy combatants” and subjected to “non-judicial actions.”
Others on the right didn’t mince words. Former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Assange should be ”hunted down,” while perennial GOP presidential contender and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee opined that ”anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.” A television game show host and dodgy businessman named Donald Trump concurred, calling Assange ”disgraceful” and asserting that ”there should be like death penalty or something.”
Of course, it was President Barack Obama, with hawkish Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, who was in power in the fall of 2010, and with the administration just months away from bombing Libya, its seventh victim nation, Obama was in no mood for whistleblowers. Clinton condemned the leak, claiming—apparently without irony—that it ”puts the lives of United States and its partners’ service members and civilians at risk.” Assange rightfully countered that there was no evidence anyone was harmed by the leaks.
Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders kept on lying. Gen. George Casey insisted that U.S. policy ”all along was if American soldiers encountered prisoner abuse, to stop it and report it immediately up the U.S. chain of command and up the Iraqi chain of command.” The torture at Abu Ghraib and across Iraq (and while we’re at it, Afghanistan too) told a very different—and sometimes deadly—story.
War on Whistleblowers
None of the Bush administration officials who planned or executed the illegal war, or any of the Obama officials who perpetuated and expanded it into Libya and Yemen—where even American citizens were assassinated by the drone warrior-in-chief—were held accountable. None of the field commanders or rank-and-file troops who ordered or perpetrated the countless war crimes revealed in the Iraq War Logs were ever seriously punished. The whistleblowers, on the other hand, suffered tremendously for exposing the truth.
The state came down hard on Manning, who, in addition to leaking ”Collateral Murder,” the Afghan War Diary, and the Iraq War Logs, is responsible for the ”Cablegate” leak of over 250,000 State Department communications, the Guantánamo Bay Files—which revealed that the U.S. knowingly imprisoned 150 innocent Afghans and Pakistanis in GITMO for years—and video of a May 2009 U.S. airstrike in Granai, Afghanistan that killed up to 147 civilians. Manning was arrested in May 2010, five months before WikiLeaks published the logs. She was charged with violating articles 92 and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as with ”aiding the enemy,” potentially a capital offense.
Imprisoned first in Kuwait and then at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virgina, Manning endured solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and being forced to sleep naked, prompting Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, to formally accuse the U.S. government of ”cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Due to behavior resulting from her abuse, Manning was repeatedly placed on suicide watch. In March 2011, State Department spokesman Phillip J. Crowley was moved to publicly declare that the way Manning was being treated was ”ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid.” Crowley was forced to resign three days later. The following month, Manning was transferred to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
Manning—who was by then transitioning to Chelsa—headed to court-martial in June 2013 after pleading guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against her in February of that year. She claimed to have leaked the documents in order to ”show the true cost of war,” while apologizing for any harm her actions may have caused. The government sought to lock her up for 60 years as a deterrent to other would-be whistleblowers. She was ultimately sentenced to 21 to 35 years, busted down to private, and dishonorably discharged from the Army.
Among those in the courtroom during Manning’s trial was Collective 20 member Medea Benjamin, who called the proceedings a ”show trial.” Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel, was also there, praising Manning for ”exposing government corruption and brutality.” Ellsberg, speaking at a rally outside Ft. Meade in Maryland, called Manning ”an extraordinary American who went on record and acted on his awareness that it was wrong for us to be killing foreigners,” adding that he believed she ”saved American lives.”
Echoing Benjamin, Assange said that Manning’s ”verdict was ordained long ago,” and that the trial’s ”function is not to determine questions such as guilt or innocence, or truth or falsehood. It is a public relations exercise, designed to provide the government with an alibi for posterity. It is a show of wasteful vengeance; a theatrical warning to people of conscience.”
”This is not justice,” said Assange. ”Never could this be justice.”
It would be his turn next. When Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for Assange over sex crimes allegations he claimed were a pretext for extradition to the United States, he first turned himself in to British police before skipping bail and finding refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, thanks to the sympathetic administration of Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa. Although Assange was granted political asylum in Ecuador, he had no way of safely leaving the embassy without risking arrest by British police, who were permanently stationed outside the building.
Trapped in the embassy, Assange continued the work of WikiLeaks, and even ran, in absentia, for an Australian senate seat in 2013. That year he also helped NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden escape from U.S. law enforcement to safety in Russia, after Snowden leaked files exposing the shocking and illegal scale and scope of U.S. government surveillance around the world. By 2015, WikiLeaks had published more than 10 million documents.
The following summer, WikiLeaks released emails from the Democratic National Committee proving it actively worked to undermine Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in favor of eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The deeply embarrassing DNC email leaks turned many erstwhile Assange supporters into bitter foes, and some Republicans who had called for his imprisonment and worse into unlikely backers.
During the Trump years, WikiLeaks would continue blowing the whistle on U.S. and other countries’ crimes and misdeeds, including the largest leak of classified CIA documents in history. Despite a pardon offer reportedly proffered by President Trump in exchange for revealing the source of the DNC email leaks, Assange remained near the top of the government’s most wanted list. A change in government in Ecuador meant a change in Assange’s fortunes after May 2017. Partly due to U.S. threats and pressure, partly due to the Lenin Moreno administration’s disdain for Assange, and in no small part due to a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan, Ecuador allowed London police to enter the embassy and arrest Assange in April 2019. He was sentenced to 50 weeks behind bars at the notorious Belmarsh Prison, where, like Manning, he was subjected to treatment that a new U.N. special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, called “psychological torture.” And like Manning, Assange was charged under the Espionage Act, which was ironic given that the CIA had been spying on him for over a year by that time. Regardless, Assange faced up to 175 years in prison if found guilty of all the charges. Reporters Without Borders warned that Assange’s arrest ”set a dangerous precedent for journalists, whistleblowers, and other journalistic sources that the U.S. may wish to pursue in the future.”
That, says law professor and Assange supporter Marjorie Cohn, is precisely the point. ”The Obama administration charged Chelsea Manning, and the Trump administration indicted and is trying to extradite Julian Assange, in an attempt to punish the messengers to obscure the message and protect the real culprits,” Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, told Collective 20. ”Their prosecutions are calculated to chill the willingness of would-be whistleblowers to reveal, and journalists and media outlets to publish, material critical of U.S. policy.”
There remains the matter of extraditing Assange from Britain to the U.S. Extradition hearings are currently underway in London’s Old Bailey, where advocates warn that if extradited, he would very likely be locked up in the ADX Florence ”supermax” prison in Colorado, which one former warden there called a ”fate worse than death.” His attorneys say Assange—whose physical and mental health have severely deteriorated from years of confinement and abuse—is at ”high risk of suicide” if extradited. There is a decent chance that he could fare better under a Joe Biden administration, which according to Cohn is ”more likely to follow Obama’s policy of refraining from prosecuting Assange because [the administration] couldn’t distinguish between what WikiLeaks did and what The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País also did” in publishing the leaked files. There is a chance that Biden would heed the warning in a recent Progressive International statement signed by prominent members, including Correa, Arundhati Roy, Yanis Varoufakis, and Collective 20 member Noam Chomsky, that prosecuting Assange ”sets a legal precedent that means that any dissident from the foreign policy of the United States may be shipped to the United States to face life imprisonment or even a death penalty.’’
Speaking of Chomsky, he has been a vocal defender of Assange, telling the judge considering his extradition that:
In my view, Julian Assange, in courageously upholding political beliefs that most of us profess to share, has performed an enormous service to all the people in the world who treasure the values of freedom and democracy and who therefore demand the right to know what their elected representatives are doing. His actions in turn have led him to be pursued in a cruel and intolerable manner.
In his final days in office, President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence after over seven years of imprisonment that included a successful hunger strike that forced the Army to allow her to receive gender confirmation surgery. Finally free and fully transitioned, Manning traveled the country giving speeches and she even ran for Senate just like Assange did in Australia. However, she wasn’t out of trouble just yet, and in March 2019 Manning once again found herself behind bars for refusing to testify in the government’s case against WikiLeaks and Assange. ”We’ve seen this power abused countless times to target political speech,” Manning told the Washington Post. ”I have nothing to contribute to this case and I resent being forced to endanger myself by participating in this predatory practice.”
”I would rather starve to death than change my principles in this regard,” she defiantly declared before being sent back to prison for a year.
It is clear that the U.S. war on whistleblowers is meant to have a chilling effect on anyone who is thinking of exposing the many ongoing war crimes being committed by the United States as President Trump fulfills his grisly and illegal campaign promise to “bomb the shit out of” Islamist militants and “take out their families.” But is all the U.S. bullying working? After all, there haven’t been any Assanges, Mannings, or Snowdens in a while. And will anyone ever be held accountable for any of the crimes exposed by WikiLeaks and others?
”Although whistleblowers haven’t exposed U.S. war crimes or massive illegal surveillance recently, last year a whistleblower in the intelligence community revealed evidence of Trump using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election,” Cohn noted. ”And in May, another whistleblower complained that some federal COVID-19 vaccine contracts were awarded based on political connections.”
As for accountability, it remains far riskier to expose war crimes than to commit them. ”WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan War Logs, however, has led to the opening of a war crimes investigation of U.S. leaders in the International Criminal Court,” Cohn notes somewhat optimistically—although the United States is not party to the I.C.C. Rome Statute.
Finally, we must ask what—if any—lessons have been learned by the American people, government, military, and antiwar movements from the Iraq War Logs and other similar leaks. Assange has said that ”reform can only come about when injustice is exposed,” and he truly believed that the leaks would ”change public opinion and… the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence.” But even Manning confessed that there was a certain naïveté in her belief that exposing what she called the U.S. military’s ”bloodlust” would help end the war.
”I look back at my decisions and wonder, ‘How on Earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over the decisions of those with the proper authority?,” she once asked.
The sad, hard truth is that the Iraq War Logs didn’t make much of a dent in the psyche of the general public in a country that former president Jimmy Carter last year called ”the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” The American people stood by and yawned as the Obama administration ignored Congress and misled them into yet another illegal war in Libya. And although Obama withdrew most U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, they were back with a vengeance following the rise of Islamic State in 2014, killing thousands of civilians and laying waste to entire cities, towns, and villages as they slowly defeated a monster largely of America’s own making. And the war in Afghanistan has gone on so long that young adults born after 9/11 are now fighting it—although to his credit, Trump has come closer to ending the 19-year conflict than either Bush or Obama ever could.
And sadly, the lesson the Trump administration has learned from the copious military and intelligence leaks of the past decade seems to be to try to stop the leaks instead of the war crimes. Since 2017 the administration has rolled back what little transparency Obama had managed to achieve on drone and other airstrikes, even as it loosened rules of engagement meant to protect civilians. But that doesn’t mean Trump has plugged the leaks he so despises—witness Airwars’ new investigation revealing a dramatic escalation in drone strikes and civilian casualties in Yemen over the past three years.
And the antiwar movement? It depends on which part of it we’re talking about.
Benjamin credits WikiLeaks with “helping to grow, inform, and activate people to get out on the streets and protest the war.”
“And while the massive protests didn’t stop the war, they did change the way the war was prosecuted,” she said.
Collective 20 member Vincent Emanuele, a former Marine who fought in Iraq before joining Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Veterans for Peace, says that ”most of what’s described in the Iraq War Logs was already known” among veterans and active duty troops in the movement. ”IVAW held the Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan hearings in 2008, two years prior to the release of the Iraq War Logs,” Emanuele said in an interview for this article. ”Dozens of veterans testified to war crimes, most of which were much worse than those detailed in the War Logs. So, to some degree, the word was already getting out prior to 2010,” he says. By then, ”the antiwar movement had been organizing, mobilizing, and traveling across the country with the same message: namely, that U.S. troops were committing horrendous crimes and atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Progressive International has hailed the WikiLeaks revelations as a call to action. ”If we do not stand now—with all the evidence in our hands—we stand little chance against a machine of war and surveillance that becomes more sophisticated and more secretive by the day,” PI said at the Belmarsh Tribunal, a recent virtual gathering of activists, artists, thinkers, and international political representatives who put the U.S. on trial for its 21st century war crimes. ”It is time to take action. And it is time to demand justice. Because if they charge against the publisher who revealed their crimes, we must charge against the criminals themselves.”
And while Emanuele says that ”Assange, Manning, and other whistleblowers are true heroes whose courage is something to admire and who deserve a lot of credit for putting their lives on the line to disseminate this information to the public,” he also says watching whistleblowers come forward only to face the full fury of a vengeful state has left him questioning the value of that heroism. ”If you’re asking if I think their individual sacrifices were worth it given the punishment they’ve endured, I’d have to say ‘no,’” Emanuele asserts. ”In fact, I would argue that the antiwar movement should seriously re-examine how or whether we encourage whistleblowers in the national security apparatus. Lives have been ruined. For what? We’re no closer to ending the wars today than we were ten years ago. Yes, antiwar activism has changed public opinion, but we’ve got a long way to go in terms of actually challenging or stopping the war machine.”
”We can’t encourage people to make tremendous individual sacrifices if we don’t have the infrastructure, organizations, and movements to back them,” concludes Emanuele. ”Plus, the reality is that individuals don’t stop wars: movements stop wars. Organized resistance stops wars. Yes, we need information about those wars, and whistleblowers help us understand the reality on the ground, but at this point the majority of Americans, as polls show, including military personnel, are opposed to more wars. Americans want demilitarization. Now, our goal is to organize that sentiment into a movement that’s capable of dismantling U.S. Empire.”
Such a dismantling would seem a most insurmountable undertaking. Back in 2013 Benjamin visited Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and asked him if, with the U.S. war then in its 11th year with no end in sight, people should feel demoralized.
“They should not be demoralized,” he replied. “I believe that the opposition to the Iraq War was very important, and that it actually altered the behavior of U.S. forces during the initial invasion of Iraq. Compare it to the 1991 Gulf War, when massive numbers of Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians were killed. In the 2003 there was a lot more concern about casualties. The protests rattled their cage.”
“We released a memo that showed that if a prospective military operation might kill over 30 people, it had to be approved all the way up the chain of command,” Assange said. So while the protests did not stop the war, they did have an impact on the way the war was initially conducted, and that’s important.”
Of course, far more Iraqi civilians were killed during the current U.S.-led war than in 1991, and Trump loosened rules of engagement meant to protect civilians, with predictable results. All of which just demonstrates just how much work lies ahead for the antiwar movement regardless of who occupies the White House—and just how critical whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and others like them are in the pursuit of peace.
[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Brett Wilkins | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Elena Herrada, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Paul Ortiz, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]