by Patrick Cockburn Independent/UK July 2, 2012
Thanks to WikiLeaks, more information has become available about what the US and allied states are doing and thinking than ever before. The only competing revelations that come to mind were the publication by the victorious Bolsheviks in 1917 of secret treaties, including plans to carve up the Middle East by Britain and France, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers thanks to Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, revealing systematic lying by the Johnson administration about Vietnam.
Switch on YouTube and watch a 17-minute video film taken by the crew of an Apache helicopter over east Baghdad on 12 July 2007. It shows the helicopter crew machine-gunning to death people on the ground in the belief that they are all armed insurgents. In fact, I cannot see any arms and what in one case was identified as a gun turned out to be the camera of a young Reuters' photographer, who was killed along with his driver, The video shows the helicopter coming in for a second attack on a van that had stopped to pick up the dead and wounded. The driver was killed and two children wounded. "Ha! Ha! I hit 'em," shouts one of the US crewmen triumphantly. "Look at those dead bastards."
I was in Baghdad when the shooting took place and I remember at the time disbelieving, along with other journalists, the Pentagon's claim that the dead were all armed insurgents, but we could not prove it. Rebel gunmen did not amble about the streets in plain view when a US helicopter was nearby. The existence of a video of the killings became known, but the US Defense Department adamantly refused to release it under the Freedom of Information Act. The official story of what had happened would not have been effectively challenged if a US soldier, Bradley Manning, had not turned over the video to WikiLeaks, which released it in 2010.
The cables obtained by Wiki–Leaks were published later that year in five newspapers – The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País – but the response to Assange himself was surprisingly mean-spirited and dismissive. Allegations of rape destroy a reputation, however flimsy the evidence. Assange has never really recovered from this. As for the suggestion that he exaggerates the chances of being extradited to the US from Sweden, this is surely very flip. Who would willingly take even a 5 per cent chance that their flight to Stockholm might result in 40 years' detention in a US prison cell?
In practice, the WikiLeaks documents are vastly and uniquely informative about what the US does and what it really thinks of the world in which we live. For instance, there is a cable sent by the US embassy in Kabul in 2009 describing Prime Minister Hamid Karzai as "a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building".
Specialists on Afghanistan commented that Karzai's failings were scarcely news. They missed the point that there is a vast difference between what is suspected by the outside world and what is confirmed by those with daily access to the Afghan leader. Here were senior and experienced US officials giving their true opinion of the man whom the Americans and British were fighting and dying to keep in power.
All governments indulge in a degree of hypocrisy between what they say in public and in private. When democratic openness about general actions and policies is demanded, they pretend they are facing a call for total transparency which would prevent effective government. This deliberate and self-serving inflation of popular demands is usually aimed at the concealment of failure and monopolising power. What the US government wanted to keep quiet about in Afghanistan was not just an embarrassingly negative assessment of Karzai as their main local ally. It was that it had no credible local Afghan partner and therefore could not win the war against the Taliban.
Assange and WikeLeaks unmasked not diplomatic reticence in the interests of the smooth functioning of government, but duplicity to justify lost wars in which tens of thousand died. Recent history shows that this official secrecy, frequently aided by "embedding" journalists with armies, works all too well.
In Iraq, in the months before the US presidential election in 2004, foreign embassies in Baghdad all knew and reported that US soldiers were only clinging to islands of territory in a hostile land. But the Bush administration was able to persuade US voters that, on the contrary, it was fighting and winning a battle to establish democracy against the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and the adherents of Osama bin Laden.
State control of information and the ability to manipulate it makes the right to vote largely meaningless. That is why people like Julian Assange are so essential to democratic choice.
© 2012 The Independent http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/07/02-5
Patrick Cockburn is Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent.