Permissible Arms

Hammer, Meet Nail

Posted in iraq, us defense, us military by Karaka on 7 June 2010

I’ve resisted posting about the Wikileaks video from last month because I didn’t really have anything intelligent to add. From every angle there’s acceptable criticism–the burden of freedom of information, the creedo of defence secrecy and security, the very real consequences of the soldiers’ actions, cover-up vs. scandal. In general, my consideration is that leaking this footage has done more net harm than net good; but now that it exists and is out there, it should be dealt with head-on in inquiry and investigative reporting.

The story took a new turn today as news of the arrest of the leaker became public. From Threat Level:

SPC Bradley Manning, 22, of Potomac, Maryland, was stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer, 40 miles east of Baghdad, where he was arrested nearly two weeks ago by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. A family member says he’s being held in custody in Kuwait, and has not been formally charged.

Manning was turned in late last month by a former computer hacker with whom he spoke online. In the course of their chats, Manning took credit for leaking a headline-making video of a helicopter attack that Wikileaks posted online in April. The video showed a deadly 2007 U.S. helicopter air strike in Baghdad that claimed the lives of several innocent civilians.

You know, he’s just a kid, but spreading bravado over the internet about what you may or may not have done is not the smartest of moves. Especially if you’re on early discharge. The man he spoke to over chat was the person who turned him in, which is where the story takes another twist:

Lamo has contributed funds to Wikileaks in the past, and says he agonized over the decision to expose Manning — he says he’s frequently contacted by hackers who want to talk about their adventures, and he has never considered reporting anyone before. The supposed diplomatic cable leak, however, made him believe Manning’s actions were genuinely dangerous to U.S. national security.

“I wouldn’t have done this if lives weren’t in danger,” says Lamo, who discussed the details with Wired.com following Manning’s arrest. “He was in a war zone and basically trying to vacuum up as much classified information as he could, and just throwing it up into the air.”

Someone associated from Wikileaks leaked the leaker? Honestly, Stieg Larsson couldn’t have written it better.

What interests me about this whole story, though, is the perception of Wikileaks as editorializing the video–which is certainly true, given the extensive rendering, researching, and editing that went into the video before its posting–when Wikileaks never explicitly claimed impartiality. Its editors almost always provided commentary alongside the documents they exposed, and they never claimed or aspired to be journalistic. It seems rather that Wikileaks, and its founder Julian Assange, intended only to provide documents so that other journalists might pick them up and review them, investigating on their own to verify the documents’ authenticity. That’s a very different spin on the leak from “Wikileaks is showing journalistic bias!” Of course they’re showing bias. But they’re providing the document for all to review to combat their bias.

The New Yorker this week has an in-depth profile of Assange and Wikileaks which actually may do more harm to Wikileaks’ general credibility given the detailed descriptions of Assange’s haphazard lifestyle. But this paragraph (in the very long, but worthwhile-to-read article) stuck out at me:

After the press conference in Washington, I met Assange in New York, in Bryant Park. He had brought his luggage with him, because he was moving between the apartments of friends of friends. We sat near the fountain, and drank coffee. That week, Assange was scheduled to fly to Berkeley, and then to Italy, but back in Iceland the volcano was erupting again, and his flight to Europe was likely to change. He looked a bit shell-shocked. “It was surprising to me that we were seen as such an impartial arbiter of the truth, which may speak well to what we have done,” he told me. But he also said, “To be completely impartial is to be an idiot. This would mean that we would have to treat the dust in the street the same as the lives of people who have been killed.”

Not journalists, but not an organization without commentary. It doesn’t absolve them of anything–and they hardly want absolution anyhow–but it would be a mistake to attribute some lessening of principle to Wikileaks by producing and commenting on the video. It is exactly within the line of their principle, of which another is to invite verification and criticism of what they publish by providing the data. A more sustaining argument would be, how much editing did the video undergo? What did it look like in its raw form?

But I wonder if those questions ever will–or should–be answered. Or asked.

ETA: For more, see Greyhawk.

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