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2010-10-26

WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange on Iraq War Logs, "Tabloid Journalism" and Why WikiLeaks Is "Under Siege"

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In an extended interview, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange discusses the release of nearly 400,000 classified US military records on the war in Iraq, the biggest intelligence leak in US history. The disclosure provides a trove of new evidence on the number of civilian casualties, violence, torture and suffering that has befallen Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. While the Obama administration is defending the US military’s record in Iraq, the allegations in the documents have sparked worldwide condemnation. Assange also confirmed that threats by the Pentagon would not stop WikiLeaks from releasing additional military documents related to the war in Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration is defending the US military’s record in the Iraq war after coming under worldwide condemnation following the release of leaked secret documents that paint a graphic picture of the US occupation. The whistleblower group WikiLeaks released close to 400,000 classified US war logs over the weekend, comprising the largest intelligence leak in US history. The disclosure provides a trove of new evidence on the violence, torture and suffering that’s befallen Iraq since the 2003 US invasion. Despite US claims to the contrary, the war logs show the Pentagon kept tallies of civilian deaths in Iraq.

The documents also show the US imposed a formal policy to ignore human rights abuses committed by the Iraqi military under an order known as Frago 242 issued in June 2004, coalition troops were barred from investigating any violations committed by Iraqi troops against other Iraqis. Hundreds of cases of killings, torture and rape at the hands of the Iraqi troops were ignored. State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley rejected the accusations, saying the United States trained Iraqi security forces in human rights. Crowley said, quote, "Our troops were obligated to report abuses to appropriate authorities and to follow up, and they did so in Iraq. If there needs to be an accounting, first and foremost there needs to be an accounting by the Iraqi government itself." Meanwhile, General George Casey, who headed US forces in Iraq during 2004 to 2007, also denied that the United States turned a blind eye to prisoner abuse.

But the war logs have sparked worldwide concern and condemnation. In Britain, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the allegations were, quote, "extremely serious" and should be "properly examined." The Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises six US-allied Arab countries, urged Washington to open a serious and transparent investigation into possible crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, the United Nations chief investigator on torture, Manfred Nowak, has called on the Obama administration to order a full investigation of the role of US forces in human rights abuses in Iraq. And Human Rights Watch said the US may have broken international law if it knowingly transferred prisoners to potential places of abuse.

The nearly 400,000 documents were provided ahead of time to the New York Times, The Guardian newspaper in London, the French newspaper Le Monde, Al Jazeera, the German magazine Der Spiegel, on an embargoed basis. They’re now available online at wikileaks.org.

We go now to London, where we’re joined by the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange.

Julian, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of these documents, how you got them, and why you decided to release them.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Hello, Amy.

Well, these documents cover the periods of 2004 to the beginning of 2010. It is the most accurate description of a war to have ever been released. Within them, we can see 285,000 casualties. That’s added up, report by report. That’s each casualty, where it happened, when it happened, and who was involved, according to internal US military reporting.

Now, looking at particular groups of casualties, we can see, for example, over 600 civilians killed at checkpoint killings, including thirty children, previously — mostly previously unreported, that three-quarters of those killed at checkpoint killings, according to the United States military itself, were civilians, and only one-quarter, according to the US military internal reporting, were insurgents.

We see 284 reports covering torture or other forms of prisoner abuse by coalition forces, covering 300 different people. We see over a thousand reports of torture and other prisoner abuse by the Iraqi state itself, many or most of those receiving no meaningful investigation. I heard in your introduction that the Pentagon claims that the Iraqi government is responsible for this, but in international law, it is the person or government or organization that has effective control that is responsible. And certainly, before the technical legal handover from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi government, it is clear that the United States and other coalition forces were the effective, legally responsible group for those. We see in the United Kingdom, Phil Shiner and his group Public Interest Lawyers, Amnesty International, and in New York, Human Rights Watch, calling for investigation and, in some cases, lawsuits against coalition forces for wrongful death.

There’s other aspects, as well. We can see the involvement of Iran in Iraq with various forms of support given to Shia groups. We can see the corruption present in the Maliki government, including what appears to be a special forces — Iraqi special forces — squad personally responsible to Maliki and not tasked by the Iraqi army itself that has been going around and strong-arming and possibly assassinating opponents.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get these documents, and who wrote them?

JULIAN ASSANGE: The documents are what is referred to in military terminology as "significant action reports," so those are field reports by the US Army radioed back to base of everything those soldiers and commanders considered significant. So, that is the launch of an operation; the dropping of a bomb; the arrest or detainment of persons, of which there are approximately 174,000 cases documented in this material; significant key leadership engagements, so the meetings with some key leaders and the US Army. It is, if you like, what the US Army and the Pentagon use as its raw ingredients to come up with policy and understand how the war was progressing.

Clearly this material must have come from someone or some persons within the Pentagon or within the United States military. And it’s worth pointing out that there are clearly good people in the Pentagon who were not happy with the progress of the Iraq war. And those people have chosen to provide us with this material and, presumably, have chosen to provide us with other material that we have released over the years.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and come back to Julian Assange. He’s joining us from London, actually just across the River Thames from MI5 and MI6, where we were broadcasting from a few weeks ago, the British equivalents of the FBI and the CIA. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Julian Assange. He’s joining us from London, where he held a news conference on Saturday with his organization WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website that has released close to 400,000 military documents, the largest leak in US history, about the Iraq war.

Now, Julian, I wanted to play for you some of the comments coming from the military, WikiLeaks being criticized for releasing these documents. This is what, well, the disgraced General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who also ran special operations forces during the surge in Iraq, had to say about the Iraq war logs on the eve of their release.

GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: I think, first, the decision by anybody to leak classified information is something that — not only is it illegal, it’s also something that that individual is making judgments about the value of that information and the threat to comrades that almost nobody is qualified to make that judgment. So, if somebody leaks information that puts me or one of my soldiers at risk, I think that’s a level of irresponsibility that’s very upsetting. Then there’s the decision to release them widely. I also am not comfortable with that, either. I think that a level of responsibility towards our people needs to be balanced with any argument for a need or right to know. I can’t judge every single piece of information — I wouldn’t try to — but I would say that there has to be that balance, and there has to that level of maturity, because it’s likely that the leak of some of that information could cause death of our own people or some of our allies.

AMY GOODMAN: That was General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of the US and NATO force in Afghanistan. His view was echoed by other soldiers farther down the chain of command. This is Private First Class David Service who’s stationed in northern Iraq.

PFC DAVID SERVICE: I don’t think anybody who’s managed to access classified information should share, as far as regarding the safety of the soldiers or the people it could be affecting. But when you get into — the Iraqis have been — you know, it’s a violent culture. We’ve been doing our best to help them with the problems that they’re having.

AMY GOODMAN: And back in Washington, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell also lashed out at WikiLeaks for releasing the war logs.

GEOFF MORRELL: The bottom line is, our forces are still very much in danger here as a result of this exposure, given the fact that our tactics, techniques and procedures are exposed in these documents, and our enemies are undoubtedly going to try to use them against us, and making their jobs even more difficult and dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell. Julian Assange, your response?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, this is the same old argument that the Pentagon has been trotting out every time there is media exposure of their abuses for the past fifty years. They tried it with the Afghan war logs. Last week, NATO told CNN from Kabul that there was not a single case of an Afghan that they could find who needed moving or protection. The Pentagon — Secretary of Defense Gates wrote to the US Senate Armed Services Committee privately on August the 16th saying that no intelligence sources, sensitive intelligence sources or methods had been revealed by this material, while saying publicly something completely different. Similarly, the Pentagon stated last week that it could find no incidents of an Afghan who had been adversely affected by this release or the injury to any US troops. The reality is that the only thing at risk here is the reputations and the jobs of those individuals who put troops in harm’s way in Iraq and who put Iraqi citizens in the middle of a civil war.

You know, late last week, the Pentagon was saying — pushing out the message that they had found 300 names in this material of people who needed protecting. But that, in fact, is misleading rhetoric. What they had found was 300 names in their internal material, which they say needed protecting. But the Department of Defense issued — confessed yesterday that in fact none of those 300 names were present in our material.

So, on the one hand, we see no credible evidence of harm being committed. We also see the Pentagon making a position that it’s not really involved in Iraq anymore. Well, we all know that there’s 50,000 US forces presently in Iraq and hundreds — over 100,000 US military contractors. So that argument can’t stand up on both accounts. But when we look to see what happened with the Afghan experience, we see no one harmed by this, apart from the reputation of an abusive organization, who is not credible, who’s been shown time and time again, not just by our work, but by others, to make statements that are simply not credible. And so, that is the lack of harm.

So then we look at the other side of the equation. What is the possible benefit? Can this material save lives? Can it improve the quality of life in Iraq? Can it tend to shape our perceptions of how war should and should not be conducted? Can it shape our perceptions of who should be conducting war and in what manner? And the answer to that is a clear yes. We see serious consideration and calls for investigation by the top levels of the United Kingdom government. That is the correct response to the revelation of this type of material.

You know, it must be disturbing to Iraqis to see this sort of revelation, which reveals 15,000 civilian casualties that were never previously reported, 66,000 internally declared total, but 15,000 that are not present in any media report since 2003, to hear the Pentagon take such a cavalier attitude to the discovery, the public discovery, of six 9/11s, the equivalent death count of six 9/11s. And, you know, really, if the Pentagon is to be seen as a credible institution — every country needs a military to defend it, but if it’s to be seen as credible in that role, it needs to also be a responsive institution.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you —

JULIAN ASSANGE: All these reports were made secret at the time that they were written. Without doubt, they — nearly all of them should not be secret now. Their time has elapsed. They’re not of tactical significance. And yet, they are still concealed. So, what is the purpose of concealing them?

AMY GOODMAN: What are the documents you’re talking about, are still concealed?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, essentially, all this material, all these 400,000 reports have been kept by the Pentagon. The only reason that the public are seeing them now is that some brave soldier or soldiers stepped forward to give us this material and get it out into the public domain, where it can shape public policy and do some good.

AMY GOODMAN: Not only Britain has responded saying they are calling for an investigation, but the latest news right now out of — out of Denmark, I believe, the — let’s see if I can find it here. The Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen promised all allegations according to which Danish soldiers may have knowingly handed over detainees in Iraq to mistreatment at the hands of local authorities are regarded as very serious. But the Prime Minister also rejected calls by the opposition to establish an independent commission to investigate the claims. Have you, Julian Assange, redacted any of these close to 400,000 documents? And how did you communicate with the Pentagon beforehand?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah, so, we look at the claims made by the Pentagon last week, that they had saw 300 names in this material. That was their material. And they admitted early this week that in what we released, there are none of those 300 names. None whatsoever. So, we went through a harm minimization process, like we do with every release of our material. And we asked, back for the — back when dealing — at the time, in dealing with Afghanistan and after, for the Pentagon and the ISAF’s assistance in this. The Pentagon stated to us very clearly, including in a letter from its — from the DOD’s chief counsel, that they were not interested in harm minimization. They were not an organization that were interested in harm minimization, and they would not be assisting us. And they were only interested in, in fact, demanding, under the threat of compulsion, that we return and destroy all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain Frago 242, the — and 039, and how US leadership might be implicated in torture?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, Frago 242 is a classified order that we managed to discover after reviewing this material. It wasn’t included in the material itself, but we managed to explore it and get it from some of our sources, that shows that — an order that the US military not intervene in these cases of Iraqi police and Iraqi officials committing torture. We can also see cases where people have been deliberately handed over to some of the most abusive groups, most abusive police groups, in Iraq, in what looks to be an intentional sort of torture laundering, a sort of internal torture rendition in Iraq.

Now, there’s an extraordinary piece of footage, which we included in the Channel 4 documentary that was released yesterday on this subject, of the chief of staff, at a press conference with Donald Rumsfeld, responding to a question by a reporter along these lines of what action US forces must take if they see torture or other forms of abuse. And the chief of staff said, "Well, they must intervene where they can," and was corrected by Donald Rumsfeld, in saying, "No, no, they don’t. They don’t have to intervene." And in fact, it turns out that Rumsfeld was right, and presumably Rumsfeld knew the existence of this order 242 much better than the chief of staff, because he had been involved in the drafting of that order.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play that interaction. We played it yesterday. But it’s very interesting. General Peter Pace, followed by Donald Rumsfeld. This is from November 2005.

GEN. PETER PACE: It is absolutely the responsibility of every US service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene to stop it.

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it. It’s to report it.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah, and you’ll find, in the longer version of that clip, Pace says, "No, no, no, that they have an obligation to physically intervene." Not true. And not also subsequently re-corrected by Rumsfeld. But Rumsfeld was right. Frago 242 says explicitly that that is not to happen, that there is not to be a physical intervention. And arguably, the US, at that period, was the controlling organ in the situation. It had effective control on the ground, and so, under international law, it is the responsible party having effective control.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, I want to read for you from the Washington Post editorial in today’s paper. They write, quote, "In Afghanistan, Wikileaks appears to have put the lives of courageous Afghans at risk, by identifying them as American sources. In Iraq, it has at least temporarily complicated negotiations to form a new government.

"We are all for the disclosure of important government information; but Mr. Assange’s reckless and politically motivated approach, while causing tangible harm, has shed relatively little light."

Now, that’s not a general speaking in the United States; that’s the Washington Post. I wanted you to respond to that, but also, interestingly, Ellen Knickmeyer, former Washington Post Baghdad chief during much of the war, writes in the Daily Beast, "Thanks to WikiLeaks, though, I now know the extent to which top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world, as the Iraq mission exploded." Julian?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah, well, those statements in the Washington Post of "tangible harm" are simply false. And that’s not me making that allegation. It’s not our people making that allegation. We just need to look at what the statements of the Department of Defense have been last week and this week, that there is no Afghan civilian or anyone else that they can determine who has been harmed by release of the Afghan material; the statement by NATO in Kabul last week, that there was not even anyone that they could see that needed protecting or moving as a result of the release of that material. The Australian government has just completed a review, Australian Defense Department completed a review of that material, the Afghan release, and published a press release this morning saying that they could find no harm to individuals as a result of that material. So, the Washington Post editorial is simply untrue. So, there’s a question as to why a newspaper like that feels that they need to make untrue statements. What are they catering for?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the Washington Post editorial also takes a different stance on the reports of deaths of civilians in Iraq. It reads, quote, "The report confirms that the vast majority of Iraqi civilian deaths were caused by other Iraqis, not by coalition forces; claims such as those published by the British journal The Lancet that American forces slaughtered hundreds of thousands are the real 'attack on truth.'" Julian Assange?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, I mean, the real attack on truth is tabloid journalism in the United States. And I would have to say the situation is worse in tabloid journalism — craven behavior by a number of mainstream media organizations. So, let’s dissect that statement. The Lancet study did not say, in fact, who had caused these excess deaths. That was an epidemiological study, where deaths could have been caused by many different types of violence, disease and so on. Those were, if you like, the missing people in the Iraqi population.

Similarly, our material, which is told from the US perspective, probably only covers about 50 percent of US military — of military operations. It doesn’t include British operations, doesn’t include CIA, doesn’t include special forces, doesn’t include top-secret operations. But nonetheless, it sometimes touches on those, when there is a combined operation. It lists internally declared 66,000 civilian casualties between 2004 and the end of 2009, with two missing months.

And yes, the majority of those are listed as those who have been killed by sectarian violence, but it is the Iraq war and the mismanagement of the Iraq war that caused that sectarian violence. So, you know, organizations such as Iraq Body Count, which has the sort of most detailed and rigorous individual counting, as opposed to statistical surveys of death, individual cases that are recorded, it also has the majority of deaths caused — civilian deaths caused by civilian violence. But it still counts those as civilians killed by violence as a result of the war, and correctly so.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, we’re going to break and then come back. We’re speaking to Julian Assange. He’s the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, which has just posted the largest release of documents, of military documents in history. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. After we speak with him, we’ll be talking about the outbreak of cholera in Haiti.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Julian Assange. He’s the editor-in-chief and founder of WikiLeaks, which has released — well, posted at wikileaks.org close to 400,000 Iraq war logs — military documents written by soldiers, by military officials over the years — what exactly are the years? 2004 right until 2010, Julian?

JULIAN ASSANGE: That’s correct, excluding two months in 2004 that are missing for reasons we don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian, you have seen these thousands and thousands of documents. What most surprised you? Is there a story or stories, a category that has most disturbed you?

JULIAN ASSANGE: 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, who would — in a yellow dress, who would frequently go to collect candy and so on from US troops, one day a tank goes past, and for an inexplicable reason, a shooter comes out of the US tank and blows her away. There are just so many of these incidences.

You know, I spoke before about checkpoint killings. In one incident, after a car was shot up and examined, according to these internal US military reports, the man killed was a doctor delivering a pregnant woman to the hospital.

We see a very interesting example of a town of 40,000 on the Syrian border, whose population went from 40,000 to 2,000 over a year or so. And that town and that circumstance has not been reported in any — not been reported at all, that we could find in the mainstream media or, in fact, in the alternative media. There was just no reporters there as that town collapsed and people fled across to Syria.

There — you know, I like to describe the big tragedy of war, the killings on every — on almost every street corner in Baghdad, as —- it’s the car accidents of war and not the bus accidents of war, that actually -—

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like we have just lost Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder. Satellite just cut off to Britain. We’ll see if we can get him back, but we’ll move on to our next segment. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, editor-in-chief. We will also provide the transcript online at democracynow.org of this whole conversation. It will be in video and audio podcast, and you can link to it. And, of course, we’ll link to the documents.

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