This happened, four years ago, as Julian Assange, in Iceland, with his merry band of followers, prepared the release of what he would call Collateral Murder, a video of a U.S. gunship's attack on Iraqi civilians below, including two staffers from Reuters. Video, we now know, leaked by Chelsea Manning. The following excerpted from my book, The Age of WikiLeaks. Also see my new book (updated version) on media malpractice and Iraq. And updated book on Chelsea Manning (with Kevin Gosztola), Truth and Consequences. And here's my piece on what happened after the Iraq video was released by Assange.
It’s safe to say that before the spring of 2010, few Americans had ever heard the name “WikiLeaks.” Its co-founder, Julian Assange, hailed from Australia and was a name in hardly any households. The shadowy organization, aided by a corps of volunteers, had been leaking sensitive documents for more than three years, but drawn only modest media coverage in the U.S., beyond a few brief flurries: when it published messages hacked from Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! account, exposed emails between climate scientists on global warming, and released 570,000 pager intercepts from September 11, 2001. Beyond that, the leaks generally related to subjects or regions that few Americans cared much about: Kenya, Scientology, overseas banks, British National Party, the commodities firm Trafigura, and so on.
That changed suddenly when WikiLeaks, on April 5, 2010, posted on its site—following Assange’s official unveiling at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.-- the "Collateral Murder" video. It showed U.S. Army Apache helicopter air strikes in an eastern district of Baghdad on July 12, 2007, which killed two staffers for Reuters and a dozen or more others. WikiLeaks said it had obtained the video from unnamed “whistleblowers” in the military. This would turn out to be one source, actually, named Pfc. Bradley Manning.
The video, posted at WikiLeaks.org, at YouTube and then at countless other sites, drew a massive worldwide audience, quickly reaching millions. It was the day after Easter, a slow news day otherwise. Now WikiLeaks had fully arrived – as a concept, as an organization, as a media fixture in America. For the week following the video’s release, the word "wikileaks" showed the greatest growth around the world as a search term measured by Google Insights.
Perhaps the first hint of what was to come came earlier in the year, when WikiLeaks at its Twitter feed made a public request for help in decrypting a video it described as "US bomb strikes on civilians.” For some reason, it suggested March 21 as a possible release date.
The organization, however, was scrambling for funds. Assange, 38, had pleaded for donations to prepare what he described as hundreds of thousands of pages of documents relating to “corrupt banks, the U.S. detainee system, the Iraq war, China, the U.N,” and other topics. A German foundation reportedly collected about $1 million for the WikiLeaks account, easing the way for a very busy 2010.
Intrigued by WikiLeaks, New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian had emailed Assange, and then chatted with him on the the phone, establishing a certain level of trust. Assange mentioned the video, in somewhat vague terms. The writer knew it would make a splash if released. He'd wanted to write about WikiLeaks anyway and so, with an okay from his editor, he flew off to frigid Reykjavik, Iceland, in late-March. Khatchadourian, author of the article "The Kill Company" (on Operation Iron Triangle in Iraq) and a profile of Adam Gadahn (an American who joined Al-Qaeda) must have seemed to Assange like a good man for this job.
At a newly-rented house soon dubbed the “bunker,” Khatchadourian found that half a dozen volunteers had joined the tall, silver-haired Assange, and were readying the release of the 38-minute cockpit video from Iraq, which they labeled Project B. Assange had told the owner of the house they were journalists covering the volcanic eruption then disrupting air travel in Europe. He had chosen Iceland for his secret task after spending time there helping to draft a law with strong free-speech provisions. Some people involved in that fight, including a member of parliament, Birgitta Jonsdottir, now were engaged with Project B.
Also involved was Rop Gonggrijp, a well-known Dutch hacker and businessman, who knew Assange well. As Khatchadourian described it in his New Yorker report two months later, Gonggrijp “became the unofficial manager and treasurer of Project B, advancing about ten thousand euros to WikiLeaks to finance it.”
he footage from Iraq, living on a hard drive in the bunker, was still in the early stages of editing. Assange would not identify his source for the video, saying only that the person was unhappy about the helicopter attack in Iraq. Khatchadourian captured Assange’s describing to his colleagues what was on the video: “In the first phase, you will see an attack that is based upon a mistake, but certainly a very careless mistake. In the second part, the attack is clearly murder, according to the definition of the average man. And in the third part, you will see the killing of innocent civilians in the course of soldiers going after a legitimate target.”
As days passed, Assange worked night and day, editing the footage and scrubbing any elements that might reveal the leaker, while trying to decide if he wanted to release the full video and/or a shorter version, with commentary, that would be more viewer-friendly. The video did not yet have a name. He considered “Permission to Engage,” before choosing “Collateral Murder.” The New Yorker writer quoted him telling Gonggrijp, “We want to knock out this ‘collateral damage’ euphemism, and so when anyone uses it they will think, ‘collateral murder.’”
Much time was spent analyzing the video for evidence of Iraqi targets carrying rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) or AK-47s. Assange spotted what seemed to be weapons but in most cases it was not conclusive. He had declined to ask military experts for advice, since they were “not terribly cooperative” when he told them it was for a WikiLeaks release.
Breaking the code of secrecy, Assange dispatched two Icelandic reporters to Baghdad to notify the families of those killed or injured in the attack, including the mother of a boy and a girl who had been sitting in a van driven to the scene by their father. Assange wanted to prepare the families for publicity but also to gain some telling details on what happened that day.
At some point, Assange made a frank admission to Khatchadourian. Yes, he tried to foster “harm-minimization” to individuals in his work but WikiLeaks could not spend all of its time checking every detail. He was aware that some leaks risked harming the innocent -- “collateral damage, if you will" -- and that one day WikiLeaks members might get “blood on our hands.”
Finally, Assange finished the edited version, at eighteen minutes, which covered the first two attacks. He also picked an opening quote, from Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The intro would also include information on the deaths of the two Reuters staffers and the Army’s investigation absolving crew members for that. It handled the delicate issue of guns on the ground by observing that “some of the men appear to have been armed [but] the behavior of nearly everyone was relaxed.”
In the bunker, Assange predicted: “The video shows what modern warfare has become and, I think, after seeing it, whenever people hear about a certain number of casualties that resulted during fighting with close air support, they will understand what is going on. The video also makes clear that civilians are listed as insurgents automatically, unless they are children, and that bystanders who are killed are not even mentioned.”
Greg Mitchell’s new edition of So Wrong for So Long
on Iraq includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen, a new introduction and a
lengthy afterword with updates. He's also co-authored (with Kevin Gosztola a book about Chelsea Manning, Truth and Consequences.