Closely following the character of Julian Assange, founder of the pro-transparency media organization WikiLeaks, the recently aired CNN documentary, “WikiWars,” provides a presentation of the story of the organization with a prime focus on Assange’s character. It is another opportunity, like PBS’ Frontline documentary “WikiSecrets,” for a wide audience in the United States to get a better grasp of the nature of the organization.
That, perhaps, is what makes discussing this documentary important. There is no new information in this documentary, but, packaged together, the documentary uses Assange as a vector for communicating the idiosyncrasies of WikiLeaks to an audience. Whether legitimately done or not, viewers are able to hear Assange in footage obtained by the producers and also hear a handful of people, who have worked with Assange, discuss what he is like.
The documentary can be broken into the following parts: an introduction into the behavior and motivations of Assange, the founding of WikiLeaks (which highlights the work that impacted Kenya and Iceland), the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, the release of the Afghan War Logs that involved collaborating with the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, the accusations of sexual assault that now find him under house arrest in the UK and the rise of a secret global force of cyber hacktivists known as Anonymous that have launched DDoS attacks in defense of WikiLeaks.
Larsen frames the story in the opening scene like this:
Over twenty years ago the Berlin Wall came down and it marked the end of a cold war between two superpowers. Now, there’s a battle that’s being waged for control of information. Its frontlines aren’t brick and mortar walls, they’re firewalls. Its weapons are computers, not missiles. And its warriors—hackers, activists, even anarchists. It’s an epic struggle over state secrets between institutions and individuals. And at the center of this war is Julian Assange.
Centering the documentary on Assange has a way of reinforcing the notion that WikiLeaks is an autocratic organization that is all a project of Assange, who has little regard for his actions. The enigma of Assange is built up throughout the film. He is made to seem more like a fictional character in a spy movie instead of a human being whom has the ability to discern right from wrong and is committed to transparency because of his conscience belief in what the opening up of governments can do to correct injustices and corruption.
As Daniel Domscheit-Berg, former member of WikiLeaks who defected from the organization, says, Assange is smart and intelligent and doesn’t really care what anybody else thinks about him. He says Assange sees himself as a “hero of a spy novel” and believes he and everyone around him is being constantly tapped and followed (which journalist Mark Davis says later in the documentary is probably true).
The story sets viewers up to doubt the judgment of Assange’s handling of WikiLeaks releases. It asks those watching to consider whether he might be a maniac by showing interviews with journalists like David Leigh of The Guardian, who not only claims Assange has to have it explained to him there are “flesh and blood consequences” to leaking but also says at one point Assange “didn’t behave like earthlings.”
Fmr. Brig. Gen. Used to Discredit the “Collateral Murder” Video
The most disparaging criticism comes from former Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. Kimmitt, who served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs under George W. Bush from August 2008 to January 2009, is used as a tool to discredit the work of Assange and WikiLeaks. The producers employ his viewpoint to help viewers decide whether Assange and WikiLeaks are correct in their belief that the “Collateral Murder” video, which WikiLeaks released in April 2010, is in fact a war crime.
Here’s the full exchange between Kimmitt and Larsen, who go through some of the video together in the CNN Studios in Washington, DC (note: not once is it noted that Kimmitt served in the Bush Administration and might have a clear bias):
LARSEN: This clip is where they believe they identify an RPG. It turns out as we know now that was a long lens telephoto camera held by a Reuters journalist. You can see him as he peak’s around the corner there.
(voice over) The Reuters photographer, his assistant and the men around him were all gunned down.
KIMMITT: This photographer shouldn’t have been walking around with an instrument that looks very much like a weapon.
LARSEN: Is the blame on the photographer or is it a causal series of mistakes made by the crew there that led to the ultimate negative consequences?
KIMMITT: Warfare is not perfect. There are mistakes that are sometimes made. He shares much of the blame for what happened here.
LARSEN: I want to move to the van video. And what you see is the van that’s coming to help grab some of the wounded people on the ground. The Apache helicopter asks for permission to engage.
KIMMITT: Again, this is an active battlefield. That van could have other fighters inside of it with weapons. Those fighters could put soldiers at risk and kill other soldiers that they’re fighting.
ASSANGE: We can see in this video that the young pilots in the Apache helicopters have become debased in their charcacter. They are playing video games with real human lives and looking for excuses to kill people.
(voice over) LARSEN: It turned out there were children inside the van.
LARSEN: I have a decade in naval special warfare. You’re obviously thirty years in the army. Soldier to sailor, ground pounder to ground pounder, should these men have exercised more restraint?
KIMMITT: I don’t think so. What we have here from everything I’ve seen is that they followed the proper procedures.
LARSEN: If they did everything by the book, is there something wrong with the book?
KIMMITT: I don’t think so. The book doesn’t have every scenario. It doesn’t have every possible outcome.
Ethan McCord and Josh Stieber might agree with Kimmitt. Both are soldiers who were part of Bravo Company 2-16, the company of soldiers in the video. McCord and Stieber, however, did not accept that nothing morally reprehensible happened that day. They wrote an open letter of reconciliation and responsibility to all who were injured or lost during the shootings in the released video.
The Iraq War veterans wrote the “Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created. From our own experiences, and the experiences of other veterans we have talked to, we know that the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how U.S.-led wars are carried out in this region.”
Larsen could have easily contacted McCord and Stieber and had them talk about their opinion on the “Collateral Murder” video release. Since Larsen and others involved in the making of the film specifically wanted people who were active in the WikiLeaks story, McCord and Stieber would have made good characters to feature especially since “Collateral Murder” and the Afghan and Iraq War Logs were a major part of the film. Both could have spoke to “rules of engagement” and what they were asked to do as soldiers during the Iraq War.
But, they are not included. The documentary instead presents us with Kimmitt, a character who defies the criteria Larsen and others set for including people.
Kimmitt is not an active player in the WikiLeaks story; he has only read the military’s report on the “Collateral Murder” video. Essentially, Kimmitt does for the documentary what “military analysts” planted on news shows by the Pentagon did throughout the Iraq War: he appears to be objective because he read the report and is calling it like he sees it and this supposedly gives him the authority to minimize the significance of a video that depicts the horror of war.
Is it even worth it to explain why blaming the Reuters photojournalist for being killed is reactionary? The remark is like blaming a hot blond woman for a sexual deviant’s decision to rape her.
Assange Thought Afghani Civilians Deserved to Die
After discrediting the “Collateral Murder” video release and presenting Assange as an adversary of the United States, journalists whom Assange worked with on the release of the Afghan War Logs appear to discuss the relationship between them and how the release of classified information occurred. Nick Davies, a journalist with The Guardian, describes tracking Assange down and speaking to him in Brussels, Belgium. It is here that Davies convinced Assange partnering up with media organizations could maximize the impact of his war logs releases.
The key tension in this part of the documentary stems from discussions over what names to redact and not redact. Davies explains, “All of us came across material which was clearly likely to lead to the death of innocent civilians if we published it. All of us had the experience of bringing this to his attention and being told in effect, ‘If an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, then they deserve to die.’”
It is a “high crime” for a pro-transparency organization to release material it knows will endanger the people it most wants to help. Therefore, there should be some kind of skepticism raised as to whether this is true or not. But, Leigh and Davies are not pressed on their description of the dispute that was had.
From PBS Frontline’s full interview with Assange for the documentary “WikiSecrets,” there is a reasonable motivation for the release of names, as Assange explains:
We, as all good investigative journalists do, name names. We name names of those people that are involved in corrupt or abusive activities, and that includes in Afghanistan. And then there are people that are incidental characters, that are not themselves threatened in any way. They should also be named as part of just the context of the situation.
We have a harm-minimization procedure. A harm-minimization procedure is that we don’t want innocent people who have a decent chance of being hurt to be hurt. Now, no one has been hurt. There is no allegation by the Pentagon or any other official source that anyone has been physically harmed as a result of our publication of the Afghan war logs, the Iraq war diaries or the State Department records, or the “Collateral Murder” video, or in fact anything we have done over the past four years in over 120 countries.
Here, “WikiWars” fails. It had the potential to really get into specifics of allegations that WikiLeaks “has blood on its hands.” It could have gone to official sources in the Pentagon and State Department. It could have talked with people in Europe and in the Middle East. There could have been a segment that got to the bottom of this consistent claim that WikiLeaks has led to the deaths of innocent people. For example, former State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley alleged during an Index on Censorship panel discussion that hundreds of people are known to have suffered because of the release of material by WikiLeaks. CNN’s “WikiWars” crew could have involved Crowley and worked to find out what evidence Crowley has for such allegations.
The Government is Not Going to Stop WikiLeaks
In the final part of the documentary, viewers are introduced to Anonymous, which is described as a “secretive global force of cyber hacktivists.” Two members of Anonymous – sometimes referred to as “Anons” – speak with Larsen.
An Anon explains that Anonymous is part of an Internet subculture that believes in anonymity, freedom of thought freedom of speech and freedom of expression all taken to a logical extreme. The Anon explains the government is after Anonymous and that is why members must have anonymity. And, WikiLeaks is worth supporting because they believe in many of Anonymous’ ideals especially the idea of exposing secrets.
“They’re not going to stop WikiLeaks. Even if the government were to take down WikiLeaks, they’d essentially be martyring WikiLeaks and a hundred other sites would spring up. The only thing they can do is turn the Internet off and even that didn’t stop the people in Egypt,” explains an Anon.
Larsen understands this reality. As the documentary concludes, he laments, “In some sense, the WikiLeaks phenomenon is unstoppable—part of a new reality where whistleblowers go global and make governments quake, where a leak can add fuel to a revolution. But, governments will fight back.”
The section on Anonymous along with the scenes on the release of war logs and the “Collateral Murder” video all serve to present a rising challenge to US government, one that consists of players creating much uncertainty for the future of American superpower. It’s the same uncertainty driving the US government to ramp up its efforts to establish a coherent strategy and policy for cybersecurity that can protect commerce and agencies withing US government. It’s an uncertainty that leads to questions like, for example, should a pro-transparency organization that is accountable to no one (as government officials and those in US media contend) be allowed to release material and make it harder for the US to conduct wars and international diplomacy?
Julian Assange understands it doesn’t matter if the war on WikiLeaks by the US succeeds or not. As he said in a press conference call:
…. Either the mainstream press in the United States collapses as an effective investigative organ holding the government to account and all sources then are forced to only deal with WikiLeaks, or the administration finds that it has to conform to the U.S. First Amendment and other parts of the Constitution and then the United States is a free society that upholds our values…
Don’t underestimate the impact that a presentation like this can have on the public in the United States if what is said is not clarified or reviewed properly.
Many Americans know very little about WikiLeaks. They may know the name Julian Assange and the name Bradley Manning. They might have heard media reports that said Assange was suspected of raping two women or they might know that a soldier was held at Quantico for leaking classified information. Certainly, PBS Frontline’s “WikiSecrets” documentary went a long way to “educate” Americans on the key details in the story of Bradley Manning. And, now with “WikiWars,” Americans get an “education” on the character of Julian Assange.
Larsen and crew properly include Iceland and Kenya in the backstory of WikiLeaks and Assange. How WikiLeaks revealed there were “hundreds of killing at the hands of Kenyan police” during violent disputed elections in 2007 show that WikiLeaks can potentially make the world a better place. The spotlight on WikiLeaks’ posting of a secret loan book in July 2009 that revealed one of the largest bailed out banks, Kaupthing Bank, made risky loans that likely contributed to Iceland’s banking crisis which brought the country to its knees further establishes that WikiLeaks can improve society. In Iceland, viewers learn they were regarded as “local heroes” because of the leak and influenced a push in Iceland to strengthen press protections and make Iceland a “haven for whistleblowers.”
Post Iceland and Kenya, audiences are not treated to this kind of tolerant analysis of WikiLeaks operations. The case might be made that it is far better to be critical and get to the truth. Supposing that is true, it is worth considering the fact that a CNN poll conducted in December 2010 found seventy-seven percent of American disapprove of “the online organization’s release of thousands of confidential US government documents concerning US diplomatic and military policies. Only twenty percent approved of the action.”
Assuming the level of support found here was an accurate representation of the level of support in the United States and assuming that it remains at this level, Larsen and crew would have known going in that most Americans are skeptical and, in fact, irked by the operations of WikiLeaks. So, in that sense, what Larsen presents is “safe” journalism that helps to affirm Americans’ views toward WikiLeaks.
That WikiLeaks has published information the US public should have a right to know (i.e. the overclassification of information by government) is overlooked. That WikiLeaks is a publisher and should be protected by press freedoms that all media organizations enjoy is not discussed. The sheer number of revelations on US corruption and abuse of power by the United States is omitted (an excuse might be that production had to wrap and could not get to this aspect). And, that Assange was awarded a Sydney Peace Prize and WikiLeaks has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize is not fully examined.
Here’s two key questions for the producers of “WikiWars”: Why, all over the globe, is WikiLeaks being given credit for being a force for good? Why is it being nominated for peace prizes and medals when here in the United States most contend it has put lives at risk and exercises reckless authority when deciding what information to publish and not publish?
The answer might help the producers understand where they failed and why Americans will, even after “WikiWars,” still not get what WikiLeaks is all about.