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Do Disclosures of Atrocities Change Anything?

The hope of the brave soldier who sent 92,000 secret U.S.  documents to Wikileaks was that their disclosure  would prompt public revulsion and increasing political pressure on Obama to seek with all speed a diplomatic conclusion to this war.  The documents he sent Wikileaks included  overwhelming documentary evidence – accepted by all as genuine, of:

* the methodical use of a death squad made up of US Special Forces, known as Task Force 373,

* willful, casual  slaughter of civilians by  Coalition personnel, with ensuing cover-ups,

*the utter failure of “counter-insurgency” and “nation building”,

*the venality and corruption of the Coalition’s Afghan allies,

*the complicity of Pakistan’s Intelligence Services with the Taliban,

Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, skillfully arranged simultaneous publication of the secret material in the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel.

The story broke on the eve of a war-funding vote in the U.S. Congress. Thirty-six hours after the stories hit the news stands,  the U.S. House of Representatives last Tuesday evening voted  Aye to a bill already passed by the Senate that funds a $33 billion, 30,000-troop escalation in Afghanistan. The vote was 308 to 114. To be sure, more US Reps voted against escalation than a year ago when the Noes totted up to only 35. That’s a crumb of comfort, but the cruel truth is that in 24 hours   the White House, Pentagon ,with the help of  licensed members of the Commentariat and influential papers like the Washington Post, had finessed the salvoes from Wikileaks.

“WikiLeaks disclosures unlikely to change course of Afghanistan war” was the Washington Post’s Tuesday morning headline. Beneath this headline the news story said the leaks had been discussed for only 90 seconds at a meeting of senior commanders in the Pentagon.  The story cited “senior officials” in the White House even brazenly claiming that that it was precisely his reading of  these same raw secret intelligence reports a year ago that prompted Obama “to pour more troops and money into a war effort that had not received sufficient attention or resources from the Bush administration.” (As in: “Get that death squad operating more efficiently” – an orderenacted  by Obama’s appointment of General McChrystal as his Afghan commander, elevated from his previous job as top U.S. Death Squad general in charge of the Pentagon’s world-wide operations in this area.)

There’s some truth in the claim that long before Wikileaks released the 92,000 files the overall rottenness and futility of the Afghan war had been graphically reported in the press. Earlier this year, for example, reporting by Jerome Starkey of The Times of London blew apart the U.S. military’s cover-up story after Special Forces troops killed two pregnant Afghan women and a girl in a February, 2010, raid, in which two Afghan government officials were also killed.

It’s oversell to describe the Wikileaks package as a latterday Pentagon Papers. But it’s undersell to dismiss them as “old stories” as disingenuous detractors have been doing. The Wikileaks files are a damning series of snapshots of a disastrous and criminal  enterprise. In the Wikileaks files there  is a compelling series of secret documents about the death squad operated by the US military known as Task Force 373. an undisclosed “black” unit of special forces,  which has been hunting  down targets for death or detention without trial. From Wikileaks for the first time we learn that  more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida are held on a “kill or capture” list, known as Jpel, the joint prioritized effects list.

There are logs showing that Task Force 373 simply killed their targets  without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path.

One could watch Assange being interviewed on US news programs where he would raise the fact that the US military has been – is still – running a death squad along the model of the Phoenix Program, His  interviewers simply changed the subject. Liberal gate-keepers complained that the Wikileaks documents were raw files, unmediated by responsible imperial journalists such as themselves. This echoed the usual ritual whines from the Pentagon about the untimely disclosures of “sources and methods”.

The bitter truth is that wars are not often ended by disclosures of their horrors and futility in the press, with consequent public uproar.

Disclosures from the mid-1950s  that the French were torturing Algerians amid the war of independence were numerous.  Henri Alleg’s famous 1958 account of his torture, La Question,  sold 60,000 copies in a single day. Torture duly  became more pervasive, and the war more savage, under the supervision of a nominally Socialist French government.

After Ron Ridenhour and then Seymour Hersh broke the My Lai massacre in 1968 in Vietnam with over 500 men, women and babies methodically, beaten, sexually abused, tortured and then murdered by American GIs,  — a tactless disclosure of “methods” — there was public revulsion, then an escalation in slaughter. The war ran for another seven years.

It is true, as Noam Chomsky pointed out to me last week, when I asked him for positive examples, that popular protest in the wake of press disclosures  “impelled Congress to call off the direct US role in the grotesque bombing of rural Cambodia.  Similarly in the late 70s, under popular pressure Congress barred Carter, later Reagan, from direct participation in virtual genocide in the Guatemalan highlands, so the Pentagon had to evade legislation in devious ways and Reagan had to call in terrorist states, primarily Israel, to carry out the massacres.”

Even though New York Times editors edited out the word “indiscriminate” from Thomas Friedman’s news report of Israel’s bombing of Beirut in 1982, tv news footage  from Lebanon  prompted President Reagan to  order Israeli prime minister Begin to stop, and he did.  (On one account, which I tend to believe,  the late Michael Deaver, was watching live footage of the bombing in his White House office and went into Reagan, saying “This is disgusting and you should stop it.”)

This  happened again when Peres’s forces bombed the UN compound in Qana in 2006, causing much international outrage, and Clinton ordered it ended. There was a repeat once more in  2006, with another bombing of Qana that aroused a lot of international protest.  But as Chomsky concludes in his note to me, “I think one will find very few such examples, and almost none in the case of really major war crimes.”

So one can conclude pessimistically that exposure of war crimes, torture and so forth, often leads to  intensification of the atrocities, with government and influential newspapers and commentators  supervising a kind of hardening process. “Yes, this — murder, torture, wholesale slaughter of civilians – is indeed what it takes.” Even though this pattern is long-standing, it often comes as a great surprise. A friend of mine was at a dinner with the CBS news producers, shortly before they broke the Abu Ghraib tortures. Almost everyone at the table thought that Bush might well be impeached.

The important constituency here is liberals, who duly rise to the challenge of unpleasant disclosures of imperial crimes.  In the wake of scandals such as those revealed at Abu Ghraib, or in the Wikileaks files, they are particularly eager to proclaim that they “can take it” – i.e., endure convincing accounts of monstrous tortures, targeted assassinations by US forces, obliteration of wedding parties or entire villages, and emerge with ringing affirmations of the fundamental overall morality of the imperial enterprise. This was very common in the Vietnam war and repeated in subsequent imperial ventures such the sanctions and ensuing attack on Iraq, and now the war in Afghanistan. Of course in the case of Israel it’s an entire way of life for a handsome slice of America’s liberals.

What does end wars? One side is annihilated, the money runs out, the troops mutiny, the government falls, or fears it will. With the U.S. war in  Afghanistan none of these conditions has yet been met. The U.S. began the destruction of Afghanistan in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Advisor Zbigniev Brzezinksi started financing the mullahs and warlords in the largest and most expensive operation in the CIA’s history until that time.  Here we are, more than three decades later, half buried under a mountain  of horrifying news stories  about a destroyed land of desolate savagery and what did one hear on many news commentaries earlier this week? Indignant bleats often by liberals, about Wikileaks’ “irresponsibility” in releasing the documents; twitchy  questions such as that asked by The Nation’s Chris Hayes on the Rachel Maddow Show:  “I wonder ultimately to whom WikiLeaks ends up being accountable.”

The answer to that last question was given definitively in 1851 by Robert Lowe, editorial writer for the London Times.  He had been instructed by his editor to refute the claim of a government minister that if the press hoped to share the influence of statesmen, it “must also share in the responsibilities of statesmen.”

“The first duty of the press,” Lowe wrote, “is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation… The Press lives by disclosures… For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences – to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world.”

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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