WikiLeaks made “devastating revelations” that exposed the way the US conducted its wars in Iraq and Afgahanistan, a court has heard.
Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the Independent, said WikiLeaks revealed that US forces were killing civilians in large numbers in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Cockburn said in written evidence yesterday that WikiLeaks confirmed reporters’ suspicions that US troops were killing significant numbers of civilians in the face of silence from the US and Iraq’s ministry of health.
His statement was read out on the 17th day of the extradition trial against Julian Assange at the Old Bailey.
Assange, 49, faces 18 charges, including one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and 17 under the US Espionage Act 1917 related to WikiLeaks publishing a series of leaks from Chelsea Manning, a former US Army soldier turned whistleblower, in 2010-11.
He was served with a superseding indictment before the current court hearing, which introduces new allegations that he conspired with hacking groups to obtain classified documents, including publishing a list of the “most wanted” leaks.
Assange claims that his prosecution is politically motivated.
Leaks enabled journalists to establish truth
Evidence from investigative journalists Patrick Cockburn and Andy Worthington read in court yesterday said the Manning leaks were important in exposing torture, civilian deaths and war crimes.
Cockburn said WikiLeaks documents enabled journalists to establish the truth of incidents during the Iraq war in the face of official denials.
“I was in Kabul when I first heard about the WikiLeaks revelations, which confirmed much of what I and others had suspected,” he said.
The documents used “dehumanising acronyms”, such as “EOF” (escalation of force) to describe incidents where people were killed.
According to one report, a marine opened fire on a car, killing a woman and wounding her husband and three daughters on the outskirts of Fallujah in Iraq.
The marine opened fire because he was “unable to determine the occupants of the vehicle due to the reflection of the sun coming off the windshield”.
Helicopter killings prompted Manning leaks
Cockburn published a piece in the Independent in July 2007 about the killing of 11 people, including two Reuters journalists, by a US helicopter in Baghdad.
The US military claimed that its forces had come under fire and that the helicopter had killed two civilians and nine insurgents.
Iraqi police claimed the 11 people had died during a random American bombardment and an eyewitness said the helicopter had fired on a vehicle that had come to help the wounded.
The Pentagon refused to release the video of the attack under a Freedom of Information request.
Cockburn said it was impossible to prove that all those who had died were civilians in the face of official denials.
Manning, a junior intelligence analyst, was appalled by what the video showed about the way the US was conducting the war on terror, said Cockburn.
She leaked the video, along with thousands of reports and cables, to WikiLeaks.
“But for that, the suspicions of journalists and the local police in Baghdad could never be established,” he said.
Although the information in the WikiLeaks disclosures was no secret to Iraqis, Afghans or foreign journalists who knew about civilian deaths, this could never be confirmed in the face of official US silence or denial.
In one case, an Iraqi brain surgeon was shot dead while travelling to hospital after he accidentally got close to a US convoy.
Monopoly control of state information
Although there were some devastating revelations, Cockburn said many of the secrets in the Manning documents were not particularly significant or secret.
The reaction of the US government and its allies cannot be explained by the document’s contents, said Cockburn, but were a response to “a perceived assault on their monopoly control of sensitive sate information”.
If disclosures became the norm, it would radically shift the balance of power between government and society, he said.
The Pentagon put in huge efforts early on to discredit Assange by trying to prove that the WikiLeaks disclosures led to the deaths of US agents and informants.
An information review taskforce, led by brigadier general Robert Carr, aimed to produce a list of people who might have been killed through information in cables disclosed by WikiLeaks.
His team of 120 counter-intelligence officers had been unable to find a single person among thousands of US sources in Afghanistan and Iraq who could be shown to have died.
Cockburn learned from an American official that the classified documents released by Manning did not contain deeply held secrets.
The official told him that the government was not so naive that information stored on the databases that Manning had access to would stay secret for long.
Nearly three million people had security clearance to use the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRnet), which was protected only by a password.
WikiLeaks did what all journalists should do
Cockburn said WikiLeaks did what all journalists should do, which is to make important information available to the public, enabling them to make evidence-based judgements on the world around them, their governments and state crimes.
“In 2010, WikiLeaks won a great victory for freedom of expression and against state secrecy, and the US government is now making every effort to reverse it,” he said.
Andy Worthington, an investigative journalist and historian, advised WikiLeaks on the publication of the Guantanamo detainee files, which contained records of 779 prisoners compiled by the joint taskforce that ran the prison
“The evidence that the files revealed was of extraordinary potential importance, the full implications of which are continuing to be properly understood even in 2020,” he said in a witness statement read out in court.
The documents revealed accounts of innocent men detained by mistake or detained because the US was offering substantial bounties for Al-Quaeda or Taliban suspects, he said.
Prisoners detained on basis of evidence obtained under torture
In the majority of cases, prisoners were detained on the basis of testimonies from a handful of fellow prisoners who had been subject to torture or other forms of coercion at Guantanamo or secret prisons run by the CIA, said Worthington.
One detainee was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was captured in Afghanistan and subject to rendition to Egypt, where he falsely confessed that Al-Qaeda operatives had met with Saddam Hussein to discuss obtaining chemical and biological weapons.
“Although this false confession was retracted by al-Libi, it was used nevertheless by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003,” he said.
The “uncomfortable facts” contained in the documents revealed “the anatomy of a crime of colossal proportions” perpetrated by the US government on the majority of the prisoners in Guantanamo.
Within a week of publishing the files, the US government publicised the killing of Osama Bin Laden, with an official narrative that torture in Guantanamo had allowed the US to locate Bin Laden.
“This claim has subsequently also been found to be an untrue account,” said Worthington.
He said publication of the detainee assessment briefs was “of extraordinary journalistic importance” as they shone a light of truth on rendition and torture programmes during the US war on terror.
The case continues.