The case for exposing the real picture in Iraq

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 October, 2010, 12:00am

Anyone hoping that the massive disclosure of classified documents on the war in Iraq would include the most sensitive secrets held by American forces or intelligence agencies will be disappointed. Much like the earlier release by the website WikiLeaks on the war in Afghanistan, nearly 400,000 secret military field reports give a soldier's eye view of a conflict that has lasted longer than the second world war. While they throw no light on a fateful military intervention that tarnished the image of the US abroad, and helped polarise political discourse at home, or the difficulty of pacifying a society divided and oppressed along sectarian lines, they do flesh out in matter-of-fact but shocking detail the underlying narrative of all wars - the toll of innocent civilians and human rights, hitherto only reported piecemeal in the news, books and films.

Hundreds of reports of physical abuse, rape and murder include torture by Iraqi security forces of detainees, such as beatings, electrocution and the use of an electric drill on a man's legs. More recently, US authorities were given a video of Iraqi soldiers executing a bound detainee. Not only did they fail to investigate them, but some reports were marked 'no further investigation'.

According to international media outlets, there were more than 100,000 civilian deaths overall in the five years to last December.

The leaks raise questions why Iraqi security forces appear to be continuing practices expected to die out after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and what the US did to end them. The unvarnished view from Iraq hardly bodes well for future security, given that greater responsibility for the country's army and police are central to US President Barack Obama's plan to draw down American troops, and the formation of a stable Iraqi government.

Condemning release of the documents as posing a risk to US national security and relations with Iraq, the Pentagon said they were snapshots of events that did not tell the whole story. But they do echo the revelation in the previous release by WikiLeaks on the war in Afghanistan: the US and its allies have not been honest with the public. And the two releases deliver the same message: how damaging it can be to say one thing to the public and another behind the wall of government secrecy.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims to believe in making available every piece of information about the military operations to ensure that the powerful are accountable for their actions. Critics point out that he operates amid a cult of secrecy, compiling a dossier for publication of material submitted to his website, with no accountability to anyone. In that respect leaked information sourced to Iraqi agents and officials that the hand of Iran is behind many anti-American actions in Iraq should be treated with caution.

That said, the policy of anonymously publishing leaks has had a generally healthy impact in enabling readers to make more informed judgments. Americans, Iraqis and the peoples of their allies have a right to know what is happening on the ground in a conflict that was launched as a just war. The release of information about the scale of human tragedy will doubtless be debated for months and years to come, but it illustrates that while the digital world makes it harder for governments to keep secrets for legitimate security reasons, obsessive secrecy and lack of transparency only increases the risk of damaging leaks from insiders.