The WikiLeaks Files:
The World According to US Empire
Verso: London & New York, 2015, 624 pages, $19.95 paperback.
WIKILEAKS TRULY NEEDS no introduction. Everyone with even the slightest degree of political awareness knows what WikiLeaks is. It was founded in 2006 and in its first year posted to its website more than a million documents leaked by whistleblowers.
In 2010, however, its importance took a qualitative leap forward. In July of that year it published more than 75,000 secret military and diplomatic communications about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Three months later it followed up with the release of almost 400,000 more secret documents about the U.S. war in Iraq.
Many of WikiLeaks’ disclosures of crimes against humanity in those wars were dramatic and shocking. Among the most memorable was incontrovertible video evidence that an American helicopter crew in Iraq had gleefully slaughtered more than a dozen innocent civilians and journalists from the air as if they were playing a computer game.
The 39-minute video was made by the war criminals themselves, who were apparently so proud of their deeds that they recorded them for posterity.
When a young Army intelligence analyst, PFC Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, discovered that video together with a great deal more damning evidence against American “shock and awe” in the Middle East, she surreptitiously copied it and turned it over to WikiLeaks, which then made it public. The video went viral and came to be known under the title “Collateral Murder.”
Did that revelation lead to the prosecution of the murderers? No, to the contrary, it led to the prosecution and extreme persecution of the courageous whistleblower, PFC Manning. That perverse outcome could lead observers to conclude that WikiLeaks’ efforts are fruitless, or even counterproductive, in the battle to defend human rights.
But that conclusion would not be warranted. Although American officials, military and civilian alike, steadfastly refused to acknowledge that war crimes had been committed, it was perfectly evident to the rest of the world.
In 2011 the Obama administration was pressing its client regime in Iraq to grant U.S. troops blanket immunity in advance. It was after seeing the evidence of war crimes made public by WikiLeaks, Marjorie Cohn explains, “that the Iraqis refused to immunize U.S. forces from prosecution for their future crimes.”
That impasse led to the breakdown of negotiations between Iraq and the United States, and in turn forced the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq considerably sooner than president Obama and his generals had wanted.(1)
The Arab Spring provides another prime example of WikiLeaks’ impact on recent world history:
“The WikiLeaks releases played an influential role in fueling public anger in the region and in shaping global audiences’ understanding of the causes of what became known as the Arab Spring. By exposing hidden secrets, double standards, and hypocrisy of the Arab leaders, they provided new perspectives on Arab politics, as well as confirming widespread suspicions, and thus put angry publics in direct confrontation with autocratic governments.”(2)
Nevertheless, WikiLeaks’ revelations have not had the impact that they might have had if the public were more aware of their contents. The power of the truth they contain has been greatly blunted by a number of factors, not least of which is the sheer magnitude of the documentation itself.
Simply reading through the 2,325,961 diplomatic cables and military documents that form the basis of The WikiLeaks Files would take an inordinate amount of time; for any individual to analyze them, understand them in context, and generally “separate the signal from the noise” would require several lifetimes.
That chore would be made all the more time-consuming by the fact that the documents were deliberately written in a sort of code. Their authors, mostly professional diplomats and military bureaucrats at the State Department and Pentagon, are trained obfuscators who cover their tracks and mask their true intentions by skillful use of the language of plausible deniability.
Euphemisms, hypocrisy, and alphabet-soup acronyms are a few of the reasons the cables are often difficult to interpret. One recurring euphemism is “resource nationalism.” As one of the contributors to The WikiLeaks Files explains:
“The concept that US oil corporations are entitled to extract and export the natural resources of Venezuela and Libya would be too brazen a concept for US diplomats to endorse explicitly. Hence, it is reframed in the cables as “resource nationalism,” to make it seem as if it is a bad thing when the government of Venezuela decides that the natural resources of Venezuela should principally benefit Venezuelans.”(3)
For another example, consider the use of the phrase “structural adjustment programs” to sugarcoat U.S. efforts to impose economic austerity on other countries. And sometimes the hypocrisy goes beyond euphemism to downright Orwellianism, as when funding death squads to subvert democratically elected governments is called “democracy promotion.”
Another factor in dampening the impact of WikiLeaks’ revelations is the complicity of the mainstream news media that transmit them to the general public. When leaked documents reveal unsavory facts and the State Department or Pentagon spokespeople leap into damage control mode, the spin they offer is either presented by the news outlets without challenge or, at best, as an equal half of a “balanced” report.
The media also engage in misdirection, focusing on revelations of personally embarrassing gaffes of individual diplomats while ignoring the systematic depredations of imperialistic foreign policy.
In the United States, the most important establishment media interpreter of WikiLeaks revelations is The New York Times. The Times gained credibility from having published the most significant leaked revelations of the Vietnam War era, The Pentagon Papers. Its presentation of the WikiLeaks disclosures, however, has been quite different:
“When The New York Times offered an overview of the cables, it remarked that the cables broadly confirmed the dominant view of the US as a benevolent superpower, upholding American values and advocating for human rights abroad. This is unsurprising, if you consider that The New York Times shares the same ideology of US exceptionalism that is compulsory in the State Department.”(4)
Finally, leaving aside the difficulties posed by the leaked revelations’ massiveness, deceptiveness, and distortion via mainstream-media filtering, there is yet a more daunting problem. Their subjects are specific foreign policy issues that only people intimately familiar with their respective contexts can hope to fully understand.
Those who have spent a lifetime studying and participating in the politics of Turkmenistan may be able to comprehend the diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassy in that country, but would be much less capable of analyzing similar documents from Thailand or Ecuador.
So confronted with the massive corpus of leaked secret documents that only experts in dozens of different “area studies” fields could realistically hope to penetrate, what is a beleaguered human rights activist to do?
That is where The WikiLeaks Files comes in. A number of independent scholars and researchers have examined the thousands of documents that have to do with their respective fields of expertise, have analyzed and elucidated them, and have recorded their findings in this single volume.
The WikiLeaks Files is not a quick-and-easy read; it comprises 545 pages organized into chapters that focus on those parts of the world that are of most concern to the U.S. empire: Europe, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Venezuela. But the savings in time and effort it represents can be appreciated by considering that the two billion words it condenses would run in print form to an estimated 30,000 volumes.
By the way, if you should want to read those two billion words for yourself, you could, in theory, do so because they are available on WikiLeaks’ eminently searchable website. More likely, you might want to investigate a particular topic or read an individual document.
If so, be advised that there is a chapter of The WikiLeaks Files devoted to explaining how best to access its archives. For a start, here is the link to WikiLeaks’ PlusD, which is an acronym for “Public Library of US Diplomacy”: https://wikileaks.org/plusd.
The WikiLeaks Files contains a lot of previously underreported revelations culled from PlusD:
“From the WikiLeaks cables we have learned that the United States has bombed civilian targets; carried out raids in which children were handcuffed and shot in the head, then summoned an air strike to conceal the deed; gunned down civilians and journalists; deployed “black” units of special forces to carry out extrajudicial captures and killings; side-stepped an international ban on cluster bombs; strong-armed the Italian judiciary over the indictment of CIA agents involved in extraordinary rendition; engaged in an undeclared ground war in Pakistan; and tortured detainees at Guantánamo Bay, few of whom have ever been charged with any crime.”(5)
For but one of countless examples, do you remember the Dasht-e-Leili massacre? Neither did I, I regret to admit. It occurred just two months after the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack.
In an opening shot in the “global war on terror,” U.S.-backed Afghan troops slaughtered between 2,000 and 3,000 Taliban prisoners (who had had nothing to do with what happened at the World Trade Center) in a particularly inhumane way.
“The WikiLeaks papers document the Dasht-e-Leili massacre “in excruciating detail.” The Taliban fighters had surrendered after brief fighting in November 2001, and were incarcerated in shipping containers to be transferred to US custody at Sheberghan prison — a two-day journey from Dasht-e-Leili, where they had surrendered. But the metal shipping containers were sealed, and most of the prisoners suffocated before they arrived. Many were also shot through the walls of the sealed containers.”(6)
These atrocities were in flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions that require humane treatment of surrendered prisoners, but the classified report describes the massacre in cool, no-big-deal terms.
The compilers of The WikiLeaks Files argue that horrendous revelations of this sort represent but a small part of what makes this book important, and I agree. Its greater value lies in clarifying “the big picture,” in exposing the underlying motivations and mechanisms of U.S. foreign policy.
“Never before has an empire had its inner workings so clearly revealed as when WikiLeaks decided to make these cables, memos, and other documents publicly available.”(7)
The millions of documents that we were never supposed to see, taken together, make clear that the American Empire is not terribly worried about bands of Islamist terrorists, and has no interest in its own armies conquering territory in distant parts of the globe.
It is first and foremost an “imperialism of free trade” concerned with ensuring its continued dominance of the world’s markets and resources.(8) The military aspects of empire must be seen as a means to that end.
The close connection between foreign policy and the economic interests of U.S. corporations repeatedly emerges from the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables. They also offer an abundance of evidence of the “deep continuity in policy between the supposedly progressive Obama Democrats and the utterly reactionary neoconservatives of the Bush administration.”(9)
There is an immense amount of wisdom and information in The WikiLeaks Files that the public needs to know. The problem is that the public will not read this volume. That means that all serious human rights activists should consider it a responsibility to not only read The WikiLeaks Files but to closely study it, assimilate its contents, and disseminate its lessons by any means at their disposal.
The independent experts have done their part; now it is up to activists to pick up the ball and run with it.
7. Dahr Jamail, “Iraq,” The WikiLeaks Files, 367.
Note: The three anonymous chapters cited in notes 2, 5 and 8 are all by the same anonymous author.
November-December 2016, ATC 185