The man who fell to Earth
Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks
Julian Assange holds a press conference on the 'Afghan War Diary' in London, 26 July 2010. © Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images
The religion of peace came late to Nuristan Province, arriving at spearpoint in 1896. In a desperately poor, remote land at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountain range, the local inhabitants – pagans and animists – had held out against Islam for more than a thousand years before Abdur Rahman, the Emir of Afghanistan, sent his forces north to bring the light of Mohammad’s love and word. Until that time the area had been known as Kafiristan, the ‘Land of the Unbelievers’. When the most determined and recalcitrant of the Kafirs had finally been slaughtered, and the survivors came to see the advantages of moving promptly into the Dar-al-Islam, the ‘House of Peace’, the province was renamed Nuristan, the ‘Land of Light’.
Semantics aside, it remained a benighted sinkhole, although nearly 1300 years of fierce parochialism and independence shone through even after Rahman’s conversion of the locals. During the Soviet occupation (1979–89), the area was renowned as a graveyard for Red Army conscripts. American forces pushed deep into the region after toppling Mullah Omar’s regime in 2001, but found it too difficult to supply and hold the small combat outposts they established there.
Sitting on the border with Pakistan, it is now an open wound in the body of the Afghan state, through which the Taliban’s viral insurgency has been able to enter and infect the north of the country, an area otherwise thought peaceable enough for NATO’s more delicate, risk-averse members to secure. From Nuristan came the fighters responsible for the ambush murders of eight Western aid workers and two local guides in early August this year. The Westerners – six Americans, one German and one British national – were returning to Kabul from the Land of Light, where they had run clinics for the locals on behalf of the International Assistance Mission. Eye specialists, female-health practitioners and a dentist, they spent weeks on horseback traversing hostile terrain, where the plunging valleys and razor-backed ridges made vehicular travel impossible.
The lone Briton and surgeon, 36-year-old Dr Karen Woo, had wondered back in Kabul whether they might have to leave the horses behind when they reached the highest passes. The snow lies deep in the colder months, and in her last blog entry before leaving she pondered “the image of a straggly band of people labouring through the snow at 16,000 feet”. Labour through they did, in the end, unloading their equipment from the pack horses and hauling it on their backs over the worst of the passes and back down into the Parun Valley, where they hiked from village to village, treating small groups of sheep herders and subsistence farmers.
Their good works done, the team retraced their steps to the vehicles they had left at the village of Kuran Wa Munjan, near the provincial border. A number of routes back to Kabul lay ahead of them, but they chose a slightly longer, more circuitous path through a forested valley in Badakhshan Province, as it promised a marginally safer passage for a conspicuous group of foreigners. Rain and snow melt had given rise to some of the local waters by the time the aid workers came to cross them; on the morning of the ambush they found themselves stuck on one side of a flooded river. A local Afghan man appeared and offered his help. Dr Tom Little, a 62-year-old optometrist from Delmar, upstate New York, rolled up his pants and braved the freezing rush of icy water, looking for somewhere shallow enough for the 4WDs to ford a crossing. Once across the river, the expedition pulled into a small clearing in the wooded valley and began to prepare for the journey to Kabul. The Afghani man disappeared.
Not long thereafter, weapons fire broke over them, the distinctive crackling burst of old AK-47s. Men appeared, running through the forest, shouting “Satellite! Satellite!” and gesturing for the aid workers to throw down their phones. Little, who had been working in Afghanistan since before the Soviet invasion, cried out “What’s happening?” but was immediately struck down by a man who clubbed him in the head with the heavy wooden stock of his assault rifle. Little tried to climb back to his feet, but the insurgents opened up, firing at short range, killing him instantly.
The team’s Afghan driver, a man with the single name of Safiullah, who was the only survivor of the attack, described two women running and diving for shelter in one of the vehicles; this was probably 35-year-old German translator Daniela Beyer and 32-year-old American Cheryl Beckett, who specialised in mother–child health. They died in the deafening roar and dirty, blossoming flames of exploding grenades. Jawad, a 24-year-old cook who had been given time off from his job at the eye hospital in Kabul to accompany the volunteers, was shot while he cowered beneath a vehicle. Dr Woo, apparently trying to run, was shot twice in the back, although some reports put her in the vehicle that was blown up. Safiullah told investigators the rest of the foreigners and 50-year-old Mahram Ali, who had been in charge of the vehicles, were lined up and killed “one by one”. He was spared after falling to his knees and chanting from the Koran.
Initially, it was thought that the aid workers had simply run into bandits. But the Taliban quickly took responsibility for the murders, accusing the group of spreading Christianity through Nuristan. Hizb-i-Islami, the Islamic militia of Mullah Omar’s occasional rival and sometime ally, the war lord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, complicated the lines of responsibility by rushing in to claim its share of credit for the slaughter.
Civilian casualties are up in Afghanistan this last year, and the indiscriminate, industrial-scale lethality of the American-led war machine has nothing to do with it. Collateral damage is down, in large part due to a change in tactics effected under former American Commander Stanley McChrystal, who placed far greater limits on coalition forces’ use of heavy weapons and air strikes when fighting the Taliban. In August the UN’s Kabul mission released data showing that deaths and injuries due to Western military action had dropped by one-third. Overall civilian casualties had soared, however, with child casualties in particular climbing 55% over the past year.
Why? Because incidents like the attack on the medical expedition to Nuristan have become much more commonplace as the insurgency attempts to break the Kabul government once and for all. Suicide attacks and the use of IEDs in crowded urban centres have accounted for thousands of civilian deaths and injuries as the Taliban and its opportunistic fellow travellers attempt to collapse Afghanistan’s civil society. Precisely targeted violence has claimed the lives of hundreds more. The aid workers in Nuristan were notable because of their Western origins but they were killed for the same reasons hundreds of Afghan “teachers, nurses, doctors, tribal elders, community leaders, provincial and district officials, [and] other civilians including children” were murdered in the first six months of 2010 – because, says the UN, they were “working for international military forces and international organizations”. Or, in the case of some of the children, because they attended government schools or their parents worked for Kabul, or for aid groups such as Dr Little’s and Dr Woo’s.
Politically motivated and religiously justified murder, and the terror it is meant to inspire, is the daily lot of Afghans. In 2005 a headmaster in Zabul was decapitated in front of his children for refusing to close down his government-run school. The political nature of the attacks is evidenced by the Taliban practice of delivering “night letters” to those it wishes to discipline. These warnings, which arrive under the cover of darkness, are usually couched in Koranic terms and counsel recipients to resile from their wicked ways lest Allah’s servants lay his vengeance on them.
One such letter, as cited in the Human Rights Watch report ‘The “Ten Dollar Talib” and Women’s Rights’, reads:
[Name], you are working with the government. We Taliban warn you to stop working for the government otherwise we will take your life away. We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working. The money you received is haram [forbidden under Islam] and coming from the infidels. The choice is now with you.
Another letter warns a teacher at a girls’ school:
[Name], you should be afraid of God. We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and will set light to your daughter. We will create a situation that you will regret. This is the first and last warning.
The stage-villain prose may be risible but the menace is not. The efficacy of terror as a political tactic can be measured in colourless metrics; the number of school closures in those districts where the security guarantee of Kabul and the Western military counts for nothing when measured against the very real threat of having your head sawn off in front of the children.
Aid groups and journalists do not just monitor and report on the barbarism. As the fate of Dr Little’s group shows, they are frequently subject to it. They take care to protect themselves and the people they work with from the reprisals with which the insurgency hopes to destabilise the Afghan regime and sap the will of its Western guardians to stay and fight. In July this year, however, nearly a fortnight before the Badakhshan massacre, a new variable was suddenly introduced into this fraught environment. The Taliban was gifted with a treasure trove of intelligence, identifying hundreds – possibly thousands – of collaborators with coalition forces, many of whom had taken great pains to disguise their connection to the governing regime and its Western backers. The exact number is unknown because the trove is so vast that very few people, possibly none, have been able to sift through it all. The Taliban has promised that it will.
The Afghan War Diary, 2004–2010 went live on the WikiLeaks website on 25 July 2010; a gritty, ground-level diary of the American military’s day-to-day presence in Afghanistan, it comprises over 91,000 mostly secret documents. Approximately 75,000 were released in the first tranche, with 15,000 being held back, according to WikiLeaks, as “part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source”. Harm would potentially come to individuals identifiable in the unreleased documents; publication could expose them to retaliatory violence of the sort detailed in a report released by the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on 10 August. Unfortunately, the released material was seemingly no less sensitive.
On 17 October 2006, for instance, American officers met with two members of a tribal shura. The members, both named in the War Diary, gave detailed accounts to the soldiers about the lengths they had gone to in attempting to deny the Taliban a sanctuary in their locality. The Americans took the two men in question to see the governor, later writing in their Key Leader Engagement (KLE) report, “The Governor was adamant that these individuals are supporting the government and are providing intelligence information to his office, and are part of his PTS program [strengthening peace program].”
The KLE reports, organised into 16 easily searchable pages by WikiLeaks volunteers, allow anyone with an internet connection to browse six years’ worth of minutely detailed individual acts of co-operation, or what the Taliban would call ‘collaboration’, with no names or other details redacted. The potentially herculean task of trawling through the main archive is made infinitely easier by a convenient browse function, allowing interested parties to search topics such as “surveillance”, “recruitment (willing)” and “defecting”.
It is not surprising that the American military and the Obama administration reacted with such hostility to the release, although fears over the damage done to operational security and the threat posed to American and Allied personnel were probably overstated in the shock of the moment. A subsequent assessment by David Lapan, deputy assistant secretary of defense, reported on NBC, found that the War Diary contained “nothing that could damage national security”. The risk to the security of the Afghans named in the documents, however, was beyond dispute.
Adam Weinstein, a former Department of Defense contractor, explained to the American investigative political magazine Mother Jones how KLEs work:
Many of these key leaders take their lives into their hands; from my experience in Iraq, I know that numerous Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds with high standing among their tribes – and among our enemies – took time to brief US officials, often to dish dirt on crooked or violent elements in their vicinity. If they were ever outed as collaborators with American forces, they’d be as good as dead … WikiLeaks is putting some lives at serious risk with that particular data dump.
The same concerns led Reporters Sans Frontières to address an open letter to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, on 12 August 2010. The release of documents, wrote Jean-François Julliard, the organisation’s secretary-general, was “highly dangerous” and an act of “incredible irresponsibility”. Julliard cut to the heart of professional journalism’s discomfort with WikiLeaks:
Indiscriminately publishing 92,000 classified reports reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility. Journalistic work involves the selection of information. The argument with which you defend yourself, namely that WikiLeaks is not made up of journalists, is not convincing. WikiLeaks is an information outlet and, as such, is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media.
On the same day that the War Diary went live, three ‘old media’ outlets, which had been given prior access to the data, published their own articles based on the files. The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel chose to highlight different elements; the Times gave precedence to the alleged involvement of Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence in the insurgency, while the Guardian emphasised details of civilian casualties that had previously been difficult to obtain. Each of these publications, however, took great care to avoid releasing information that might lead to revenge attacks or compromise the security of Allied and Afghan forces. The Times went so far as to release a press statement of its own, reminding readers and competitors that they would not release “information that would harm national security interests” or disclose “anything that was likely to put lives at risk … We have, for example, withheld any names of operatives in the field and informants cited in the reports”. It was a noble but empty gesture because those names remained, and still remain, freely available. Indeed, fearing state sanction, WikiLeaks has backed up and distributed the Afghan War Diary – the longest death list ever drawn up in the name of press freedom – in such a fashion that it can never be removed from the public domain.
WikiLeaks is a practitioner of what the New York Times’ David Carr calls “asymmetrical journalism”. The asymmetries Carr speaks of are practical: WikiLeaks, which is constantly at war with any number of states and giant multinational corporations, relies on donations and anonymous volunteers to collate and disseminate its data. Structured to be all but impervious to legal threats and hacker attacks, it nonetheless went into limbo for a period in late 2009 due to a serious shortage of funds. But the asymmetries are also philosophical, encompassing the rejection of any compact with the state or commercial authorities whose secrets it is exposing, or indeed of any obligation to abide by the long-established ethics and standards of the reporting profession.
Not for WikiLeaks is the tiresome business of eliminating bias, offering rights of reply or even at times fact-checking its information. (‘We Release, You Decide’, might be its motto, were it as self-consciously obnoxious as Fox News.) In a long New Yorker profile of Julian Assange, composed while he oversaw the compilation and release of the Collateral Murder video, he gave the magazine’s writer, Raffi Khatchadourian, the very strong impression of being annoyed by the process of journalism; elsewhere he has described it as “a craven sucking up to official sources to imbue the eventual story with some kind of official basis”. Assange has also rejected the idea of journalistic balance, admitting that some of his motivation is simply the joy of “crushing bastards”. WikiLeaks, which grew in part from Assange’s conflicted history with state authority in Australia, is not so much a reporting outlet as a stateless, digital hive-mind with revolutionary pretensions.
“We are in a romance with journalists’ hearts,” Assange wrote in a 2007 email but it has at times been a confused and conflicted romance, with real tensions over the importance of ‘balance’. WikiLeaks’ Twitter page presents voluminous links to supportive news stories but bristles at criticism. On 26 August Assange accused CNN of lying “baldly”, a charge he also levelled at Newsweek on 21 August. He has taunted the traditional media, proposing it try a business model akin to his, of simply publishing and asking for donations, while he told Khatchadourian that journalism could learn much about balance from scientific method:
If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research – the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.
Collateral Murder, the ‘leak’ for which the organisation was probably most famed before the War Diary, was the name given to a video package compiled from the gun camera of an American attack helicopter in Baghdad that mistakenly fired on a group of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters cameramen. The release of the package was also a harsh lesson in the politics of media balance for Assange. Khatchadourian was allowed to follow him to Iceland, where Assange had rented a small waterfront cottage for a few weeks to cut the 39 minutes of raw footage and produce a 17-minute highlights tape.
The shorter video, which Assange unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington on 5 April this year, was a sensation. Reuters had sought the gun-camera footage under FOI for two years without success and it is easy to see why the Pentagon wanted it kept out of the public domain. Three separate attacks were captured in the video. The first, a 30mm-cannon run by an Apache helicopter with the call sign “Crazyhorse-18”, targeted a group of about ten men, including Reuters cameramen Saeed Chmagh, 40, and Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, whose recording equipment was mistaken for weapons by the Apache pilots.
Collateral Murder begins by quoting George Orwell on the cunning of political language, “designed to make lies sound truthful”, followed by three minutes of personal detail about the dead journalists. A few screens of white typography on black tell the brief history of Reuters’ attempts to obtain the footage, with statements from an American military spokesman justifying the killings. A soft wash of electronic static plays in the background until the distorted nasal twang of an American accent cuts in over crisp black-and-white video of a densely packed Middle Eastern city. Crosshairs pan over the dome of what looks like a mosque while subtitles translate the crackling dialogue as the voice explains, “there’s more that keep walking by and one of them has a weapon”. The targeting reticle is centred on the suburb of New Baghdad. The helicopter seems to circle for a few seconds then the picture jumps twice and settles on the first group of men, walking casually and slowly towards each other in what the pilot describes as “an open courtyard”.
At 3.15 minutes, more type appears on screen with an arrow pointing to “Saaed w/camera”. At the same time as the viewer is informed that the wide-bodied man with the confident gait is Reuters cameraman Saeed Chmagh, one of the American observers states, “That’s a weapon,” and another quickly replies, “Yeah.” Given the benefit of both hindsight and forewarning, with the real-time video conveniently edited into a coherent narrative with subtitles and explanatory labels, a sense of dread is inescapable. When the Americans identify six individuals with AK-47s and request “permission to engage” at 3.49 minutes, something horrible is very obviously about to happen. The tension, which increases as the voices talk with urgency about weapons fire and men armed with rocket-propelled grenades – nowhere to be seen in the video – becomes decidedly unpleasant as the moments drag out. The helicopter loses sight of the main group while it orbits to the rear of the mosque.
“Just fuckin’, once you get on ’em, just open up. All right,” advises an authoritative voice from somewhere within the American chain of command.
It happens at 4.51 minutes, with the men standing together near a ragged-looking tree. They seem relaxed, casually talking. Two text inserts identify Namir Noor-Eldeen “about to shoulder camera” while his colleague Chmagh is “talking on the phone”. The crosshairs sweep over Chmagh’s upper body for half a second before the image begins to shake and the industrial hammering of the Apache’s fixed weapon drowns out the American chatter. There is a strange split-second where nothing changes. The cannon is roaring but the men are seemingly unaware and unaffected; the cockpit’s recording devices picked up the sound of gunfire as the shells left the M230E1 chain gun at a muzzle velocity of 792 metres per second, but fractionally before they tore into the doomed men at a rate of 600 rounds per minute – or ten rounds of high explosive ordnance every second. The ammunition is capable of penetrating two inches of steel. In the video, when it strikes the reporters and the men they were talking to, all disappear inside a maelstrom of swirling dust and body parts.
The violence is savage and all the more disturbing for the detachment with which it is dealt out. The Americans hover over the scene of the massacre, calmly discussing the details, congratulating each other and eventually noticing one survivor, Saeed Chmagh, trying to crawl away over the broken, chewed-up footpath. He seems to be the only thing moving in the grey wasteland dotted with torn-up bodies. The video isn’t sharp enough to make out fine detail but it’s not necessary. The man’s life is obviously spilling from him; the Americans urge him to pick up a weapon so they can resume shooting.
At 9.08 minutes, a van approaches, “picking up bodies and weapons”. The American soldiers, convinced they are witnessing insurgents gathering their comrades and arms, repeatedly ask for “permission to engage”. The vision is awful. Three Iraqis hurry to lift Chmagh into the back of the van as an unidentified American soldier, exasperated with the delay, says, “C’mon, let’s shoot!” Cleared to engage, they do, and the same toneless hammering of the chain gun destroys the van, Saeed Chmagh and his rescuers. When American ground troops arrive eight minutes later, they discover two badly wounded children in the van.
Collateral Murder remains a powerful audio-visual document, in spite of its occasionally ham-fisted attempts at pathos, such as the looped video of the van with the two children marked out by arrows. The children are nothing but blobs of lighter-shaded pixels, and the effort to further indict their killers actually lessens the power of the footage: this fuzzy passage reinforces the impossibility of making fine-grained distinctions on a battlefield. What the WikiLeaks video doesn’t make clear are the complex and difficult circumstances surrounding the fatal encounter. For that we have to turn to the old-fashioned reportage of the Pulitzer Prize-winner David Finkel.
Unlike Julian Assange, Finkel, who published an account of the botched air attack in his book The Good Soldiers (Scribe, 304pp; $35.00), did not gather his information clandestinely or at a vast remove. Having been embedded with the troops in question he understood the world in which they fought and the infeasibility of making moral judgements during combat.
Finkel, a Washington Post reporter, lived with the soldiers of the 2-16 Battalion for eight months in 2007, watching a proud and confident fighting unit utterly destroyed in the threshing machine of the war in Baghdad. The information that Assange ‘released’ at the National Press Club was published in The Good Soldiers months before. There was no need for any ‘leaking’ as such. Finkel had all but unlimited access to the battalion responsible for calling in the Apaches that day. The Americans had been involved in operations throughout that area of the city, some of them quiet and routine, but some ferociously violent. It was the latter engagements, fought against a well-armed, cunning and effective insurgency, that led the officers to request air support.
Unlike Collateral Murder, the relevant chapter of Finkel’s book did not extract the incident on 12 July 2007 from the wider conflict. Instead, the reporter explained minute by minute how the Apaches came to fire on the reporters and the Iraqis, some of whom were found to be armed with AK-47s and RPGs when American ground forces reached the site of the massacre. Finkel writes of the commanding officers of the 2-16 Battalion, who called in the Apaches:
They had gotten the video and audio recordings from the Apaches and had reviewed them several times. They had looked at photographs taken by soldiers that showed AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher next to the Iraqis. They had reviewed everything they could about what had prefaced the killings in east Al-Amin, in other words – that soldiers were being shot at, that they didn’t know journalists were there, that the journalists were in a group of men carrying weapons, that the Apache crew had followed the rules of engagement when it fired at the men with weapons, at the journalists, and the van with the children inside – and had concluded that everyone had acted appropriately.
Had the journalists? That would be for others to decide.
As an embedded reporter, Finkel was given access to the recordings that Assange obtained by stealth, and his account of the killings tracks the video almost to the second, but without the crude attempts at emotional manipulation that Assange and his supporters produced in the makeshift editing suite of the cottage in Iceland. Placed in context, the deaths become explicable, if no less tragic. The distressing senselessness of the slaughter in Collateral Murder is no less distressing or senseless in The Good Soldiers, yet the incident is not presented as a callous video game played by uniformed serial killers. There is so much violence, so much death and sadness and insanity, in The Good Soldiers that the killings of Chmagh and Noor-Eldeen can be seen for what they are, two more brushstrokes in a landscape of despair.
Most of the coverage of WikiLeaks has understandably focused on the group’s Australian founder and spokesman. Julian Assange is a gift to journalists in at least one sense: he is a genuinely weird and fascinating character. He is well described by Khatchadourian in the New Yorker profile as “an international trafficker, of sorts”. A man without a home, he is constantly on the move, bunking down with supporters, never staying long, always shading and eluding the details of where he has been and where he might be tomorrow. He is almost perfectly crafted for the digital realm, an avatar for the hacker activist cause. Khatchadourian found him “quick to lash out at perceived enemies” online, while acting with an “uncanny sang-froid” on television, where he stands out for his shock of white hair (recently dyed darker) that drained of colour following the stress of a bitterly fought custody battle for his son in the 1990s. Assange’s own childhood was deeply unsettled. His family had moved 37 times by the time Assange was 14 years old, spending many years in hiding to evade one of his mother’s partners who had turned “abusive”.
However compelling a profile subject Assange might be, he is not WikiLeaks, and the threat he appears to embody, both to traditional journalism and to the institutions and interests on which WikiLeaks reports, would remain even if he were to leave the game. Indeed, that seems almost inevitable, given the powerful state and non-state actors he has set himself against – everyone from the Pentagon to the Church of Scientology.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, touched on the newly emerging balance of power evidenced by the New York Times press statement published after the release of the War Diary. The Times, said Rosen, acted at the request of the White House in urging WikiLeaks to withhold any “harmful” material from its website, beyond that which had already been published by the Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. Here, explains Rosen:
We find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors ... If you’re a whistle blower with explosive documents, to whom would you rather give them? A newspaper with a terrestrial address organized under the laws of a nation that could try to force the reporter you contacted to reveal your name, and that may or may not run the documents you’ve delivered to them online … or WikiLeaks, which has no address, answers no subpoenas and promises to run the full cache if they can be verified as real?
To the woes of the old media, then, are added assaults and indignities from the new. The internet, which has cannibalised old media’s product while simultaneously hollowing out its business model, now imperils its very raison d’être – the distillation of meaning from the chaos of information. The Google era always threatened to fetishise volume of data over quality selection, and in WikiLeaks’ move away from attempting to frame information – in the manner it was still doing with Collateral Murder – towards a simpler model of dumping it en masse, à la the Afghan War Diary, we see the evolution of the new model in fast forward.
It is telling, though, that Assange and his confidants decided to deal with the old media, which they hold in such contempt, because – for now, at least – it still commands an authority and an audience that their stateless, guerilla news outlet does not. WikiLeaks faces the same challenge as all online media services: Given infinite choice, why make any particular choice? Why link to Assange’s 16 pages of first-hand reports about Key Leader Engagements in Afghanistan, when thousands of other contextualised reports are but a click away?
Unless, of course, you are a Taliban commander looking for names to add to your death list.