When it comes to journalistic achievements in 2010, the elephant in the room is WikiLeaks. I’ve seen many put-downs of the materials as containing “no smoking guns”, or as being essentially trivial communications to the State Department from U.S. diplomats and kindred government agents around the world.
Now, it’s true that the cables were legally available to well over 1.5 million Americans, who had adequate security clearance. But trivial? Don’t believe it. The cables show the daily business of a mighty empire acting in manners diametrically opposite to public pretensions. The cables form one of the most extraordinary lessons in the cold realities of international diplomacy ever made public. Normally, scholars have to wait for 10, 20, even 50 years to gain access to such papers.
The WikiLeaks documents show that the picture of the international business of the United States offered by the major U.S. media to the public is an infantile misrepresentation of reality. The efforts being made by Attorney General Eric Holder to bolster secrecy and espionage laws show that the U.S. government, led currently by a man who pledged “transparency,” wants the American people to remain in blissful ignorance of what its government is actually doing.
The alleged leaker of the WikiLeaks files, Army Private Bradley Manning, currently being held in solitary confinement in sadistic conditions, should be vigorously applauded and defended for exposing such crimes as the murder of civilians in Baghdad by U.S. Apache helicopters. The WikiLeaks Afghan-related files are a damning, vivid series of snapshots of a disastrous and criminal enterprise.
In these same files, there is a compelling series of secret documents about the death squad operated by the U.S. military known as Task Force 373, an undisclosed “black” unit of special forces, which has been hunting down targets for death or detention without trial. From WikiLeaks we learn that more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida are held on a “kill or capture” list, known as Jpel, the joint prioritized effects list.
Julian Assange and his colleagues should similarly be honored and defended. They have acted in the best traditions of the journalistic vocation.
The U.S. began the destruction of Afghanistan in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, started financing the mullahs and warlords in the largest and most expensive operation in the CIA’s history until that time. Here we are, more than three decades later, half-buried under a mountain of horrifying news stories about a destroyed land of desolate savagery, and what did one hear on many news commentaries earlier this week? Indignant bleats often by liberals, about WikiLeaks’ “irresponsibility” in releasing the documents, twitchy questions such as that asked by The Nation’s Chris Hayes on the “Rachel Maddow Show”: “I wonder ultimately to whom WikiLeaks ends up being accountable.”
The answer to that last question was given definitively in 1851 by Robert Lowe, editorial writer for the London Times. He had been instructed by his editor to refute the claim of a government minister that if the press hoped to share the influence of statesmen, it “must also share in the responsibilities of statesmen.”
“The first duty of the press,” Lowe wrote, “is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation … The Press lives by disclosures … For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences — to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world.”
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.
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