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Shattering the Context of War

The U.S. government protects itself, not democracy. That’s what is most apparent about its 18-count indictment of Julian Assange, not to mention the ongoing imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, for the leaking and release of State Department and military documents and videos a decade ago.

The current reporting on the indictment is mostly about Assange himself: his expulsion from the Ecuadoran embassy in London after he’d been holed up there for seven years; the sexual assault charges against him in Sweden; and, of course, his role as a “tool” of the Russians, along with his flip-flopping appeal to both the political left and right (depending on the nature of the controversy WikiLeaks is stirring up). What a story!

Almost entirely missing is anything about the leaks themselves, except vague references to them, such as this comment by John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security: “This release made our adversaries stronger and more knowledgeable, and the United States less secure.”

These words are remarkable bullshit and have resonance only to the extent that the actual leaked data is missing from the discussion, such as the infamous Apache helicopter video of 11 unarmed men (in U.S. military parlance, “insurgents”) — including a Reuters photographer and his driver — being shot and killed from above on a street in Baghdad, and two children being injured.

The video shows the killings as they occur, with helicopter crewmen talking and laughing between bursts of machinegun fire, as though they’re playing a videogame:

“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.”

“Nice.”

We see a wounded man crawling for cover, only to be taunted from above: “Come on, buddy. All you gotta do is pick up a weapon.”

A van shows up and some men start picking up the bodies. We listen to the crewmen asking for permission to shoot — “engage” — and finally start firing at the van, in which, it turns out, two children are sitting. When that little detail becomes apparent, a crewman comments: “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle.”

And when some Bradley tanks arrive at the scene, a crewman comments, laughing: “I think a tank just drove over a body.”

At the time the video was released, in 2010, three years after the incident occurred, Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained that its impact was unfair because the public was seeing it “out of context” — which of course it was! It was sheer, raw war, shown as it was in progress. The Department of Defense is supposed to have total control over context; on the home front, war is 100 percent public relations. The public’s role is to be spectators, consumers of orchestrated news; they can watch smart bombs dropped from on high and be told that this is protecting them from terrorism and spreading democracy. That’s context.

After the video came out, the New York Times attempted to restore some of the shattered context, quoting a psychologist who explained that soldiers need to distance themselves from what they’re doing to maintain their sanity: “. . . their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real.”

But the searing takeaway from the video wasn’t the laughter, it was the killing — the destruction of “the enemy,” who in this case were a group of seemingly unarmed men standing around and talking. Two of them were journalists, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, Saeed Chmagh. After the incident, Reuters tried to learn the details of what happened and filed a freedom of information request, but that went nowhere. The details only became known when WikiLeaks released the classified video.

All of which brings me back to the Demers quote: “This release made our adversaries stronger and more knowledgeable, and the United States less secure.”

These words need to be translated. By “our adversaries,” he means the public (American and global). By “the United States,” he means the U.S. government, particularly the executive branch.

And of course the Apache helicopter video was just a drop in the bucket of what was released, which is the basis of Assange’s indictment. Der Spiegel, one of five international publications that got advance copies of more than 250,000 State Department cables, wrote at the time: “Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information — data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built.”

Reflecting on all this, I wrote: “The revelations so far seem less significant than the fact that the American government’s bin of secrets has — once again — been raided, and that the raw data of diplomacy has been strewn across cyberspace, for the likes of you and me to ogle and, if we choose, draw our own conclusions. We get to have real-time looks at how geopolitics actually works.

“While temporary secrecy, or at least privacy, is sometimes necessary in any endeavor, permanent secrecy — secrecy as entitlement — is nothing but dangerous.”

Assange’s indictment is his red badge of courage. We can’t depend on large institutions to stand up for democracy. The larger the institution, the more absorbed it is likely to be in its own preservation and the success of its agenda. Democracy requires people outside the circle of power, both governmental and corporate, to maintain an adversarial relationship with power and endlessly dig for its secrets. This is called journalism.

Demers, justifying the government’s indictment, paid lip service to the sacredness of journalism, explaining: “The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy, and we thank you for it. It is not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist.”

There you have it. What better proof could you ask for that he is a journalist, and that the secrets he has ripped out of hiding require serious public scrutiny?

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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