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The Washington Post and WikiLeaks

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The disclosure of roughly 400,000 classified U.S. government documents by WikiLeaks at the end of last week gained prominent press play around the world. Der Spiegel carefully reviewed the data on Iraqi civilian deaths; the WikiLeaks documents suggested that the Pentagon’s own records could not be reconciled with the Pentagon’s broad claims about the level of civilian casualties. The Guardian focused on a wealth of documents about the torture of prisoners by Iraqi forces and what the United States knew. It identified a fragmentary order issued by the U.S. command that authorized Americans to simply ignore the problem.

By comparison, reporting by major American papers was lame and defensive. Glenn Greenwald offers a good review of the unprofessional and “government subservient” coverage of the New York Times here and here. The Columbia Journalism Review finds that “the Times has been tame to a fault; as if afraid of the material that it has been given by a man and organization they’ve sought to greatly distance themselves from, while working with both.”

So far the Washington Post has escaped the critical attention that it deserves. A feature piece by Greg Miller and Peter Finn offered a workmanlike survey of the disclosures, resting heavily on the legwork of other publications. It gave prominent placement to the preemptive criticisms of the Pentagon, and stated “there appear to be no major revelations in the latest logs,” a conclusion which, though hedged, is not warranted by the balance of the article.

The same claim was made in a WaPo editorial: the “mass leak… mainly demonstrates that the truth about Iraq already has been told.” It grants that the disclosures include details on “troubling stories,” but it says these stories “were extensively reported by Western journalists and by the U.S. military when they occurred.” It concludes that Julian Assange “put the lives of courageous Afghans at risk,” that he has “complicated negotiations to form a new government” in Iraq, and that his efforts are “reckless” and “politically motivated.” In fact, in the preemptive press barrage unleashed by the Pentagon in response to the WikiLeaks documents, we find precisely the same arguments, in the same sequence. It’s as if Jackson Diehl had simply picked up their release, taken his blue pencil to it, and converted it into a WaPo editorial.

WaPo claims that “we’ve heard all this before.” It is true that there is no new category of misconduct or abuse introduced by the WikiLeaks papers. In fact, to its credit, the Post itself provided some of the best coverage of misconduct by security contractors and torture by Iraqi security forces. But it is absolutely untrue that every incident documented in the WikiLeaks papers has been previously reported. A good number have not been. One striking example involves the use of lethal force on a group of Iraqi insurgents who attempted to surrender to a helicopter; many others include detailed instances of prisoner abuse.

It’s also untrue that the new disclosures contain no “major revelations.” It will take some time to fully digest this material, but the disclosure of a Fragmentary Order (“Frago”) authorizing soldiers not to investigate cases of torture that do not involve coalition forces is extremely important. It counts as evidence of high-level policy to countenance war crimes and violations of the prohibition on torture, which requires not only investigation but also intervention. Recall this astonishing exchange that occurred between Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace at a DOD press conference in November 2005. Pace stated “it is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene to stop it…” Rumsfeld interrupted and contradicted him, but Pace stood his ground. He was reciting well anchored military doctrine. He was also overruled by Rumsfeld.

The WaPo editors think this is “nothing,” but a court or tribunal examining the matter would likely come to a starkly different conclusion.

What about the Pentagon claim that WikiLeaks “has blood on its hands,” which the WaPo repeats? When pressed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary Gates was forced to admit that these claims were hyperbole—“the leak… did not disclose any sensitive intelligence sources or methods.” Gates went on to acknowledge that there was no evidence of any informant being killed or threatened or even requesting protection as a result of the WikiLeaks publications. Why then has the Post editorial page decided to ape agitprop that the Pentagon itself has all but retracted? Maybe they don’t read their own paper.

The best rebuttal to the WaPo editorial page so far comes from Ellen Knickmeyer, who distinguished herself as the Post’s best reporter on the ground through the heart of the Iraq War. After looking through the latest WikiLeaks document dump, she writes that she is now persuaded that “top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world.” Tellingly, her piece appears not in the Post but in the Daily Beast, and she’s supplemented it with a detailed review of the documents involved at Foreign Policy.

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