The Light-Bringers: on Anat Kamm, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks

Wikileaks, Anat Kamm and Bradley Manning expose the corrupting power of secrecy.

The whistleblowing site Wikileaks published during the weekend some 392,000 classified military documents, which it received, in all likelihood, from a US army soldier, Bradley Manning, who is already on trial.

The documents, published in tandem with the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel, caught the Pentagon with its pants down. They show that, in contrast to the Pentagon’s official lie, that it had no idea how many civilians were killed in Iraq, it had – and a rather accurate one; they expose American chief ally, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, as supervising, sometimes personally, over death and torture squads, becoming Saddam Hussein in miniature; and they throw a harsh light on US and British forces, as ignoring torture carried out by their local allies. This willful ignorance of torture was so systematic, so common, it was granted an operational codename: Frago 242.

What this means is that high-ranking officers in the coalition forces knew of the torture, and decided to ignore it. That is, allegedly, a violation of international law. The coalition forces are responsible for the well-being of civilians in the areas they hold.

Highlighting once more Israel’s unique mix of whining self pity and the concept the world revolves around it, Yedioth Ahronoth’s main headline is “Attention, Goldstone”, and the item covering the issue itself is “The Goldstone Test” (Hebrew), implying the IDF is being treated unfairly. Who cares if several dozen thousands Iraqi civilians perish? Who cares if the American army had been corrupted in Iraq? All we care about is there are worse war criminals than we are.

Actually, it’s probably not a contest the Israeli public should enter. Yes, that hollow sound – “we are the world’s most moral army” – sounds suspiciously familiar when uttered by Pentagon spokesmen, but unlike the IDF, the US army investigates its own crimes and brings criminals to justice without being forced to by an international committee. Furthermore, while the US army turns a blind eye to torture carried out by its allies, IDF soldiers kidnap Palestinian civilians every night, and turn them directly over to their torturers. The IDF Spokesman proudly publishes the list of their details every morning, under the title of “wanted persons arrested tonight”. The announcement routinely ends with “they were turned over to the Security Services for interrogation”. And while the US ignored torture carried out by other forces, the IDF is debating for two years now whether to indict one of its senior militants, Colonel Itay Virov, who said under oath he gave his soldiers permission to torture if they saw fit. The decision, by the way, seems to be negative (Hebrew).

Going over the documents, one may deduce (Hebrew) that the number of Iraqi civilians erroneously killed by US soldiers is rather low: 20 in about six years. This seems too low. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the true number is ten times that. That would still be significantly lower than the number of civilians killed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead, which lasted just a month and which was opposed by a much, much less dangerous foe than Al Qaede in Mesopotamia. But that is not the point.

The Israeli financial daily Globes wrote today (Hebrew) that the prosecution is willing to reach a plea bargain with Anat Kamm – who was arrested late last year for leaking classified documents to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau – as a part of which the state will quietly drop the “dangerous espionage” charge from the indictment sheet. The fact that Kamm was no threat to national security, that the whole point of the espionage charge was to terrify her, was easy to guess back in May, when the affair was exposed; but now it’s official. That didn’t stop the GSS from holding a media circus, naming Kamm a traitor.

Kamm and Manning committed a very similar offense: they leaked classified documents. The real question is who classified the documents in the first place, and for what purpose. We are encouraged, from a very early age, to believe that “the people up there” know what they’re doing, and that if something is classified as secret, then there must be a good reason for that.

However, as Kamm and Manning have shown us, all too often the classification of a document – or, in plain English, limiting public access to it – is designed not to protect information the enemy simply must not have, but to cover up unpleasant facts. Sometimes, it’s a screwup on the battlefield (like trying to make Pat Tilman’s death look heroic, even though he was killed by friendly fire); Sometimes it is information which will derail the military’s propaganda war (which may explain why some of the Abu Ghraib photos are still classified); And sometimes, it’s covering a war crime. As David Ben Gurion tried to do after the Kafr Qassam massacre, as the US military tried to cover up Wikileaks’ information, and as the IDF and the GSS tried to do in the Kamm affair.

As Wikileaks published its data – following an attack, seemingly a skillful one, on the organization’s servers – the Pentagon bleated that it is risking human life. Funny: that’s precisely what it said after Wikileaks’ earlier document dump, relating to Afghanistan. It later had to humbly admit it was wrong. The IDF and the GSS tried to convince us that Anat Kamm is the most dangerous threat to the IDF since Hassan Nasrallah. Today, we are told, she is not all that dangerous.

Organizations used to darkness often have much to hide. In Manning’s case, his whistleblowing explodes the COIN theory, made popular (again) by Gen. David Petraeus. COIN, in a nutshell, says that in order to suppress an insurgency foreign forces have to work hand in hand with local forces, and do everything possible to avoid or limit casualties among civilians. However, if your local allies are serial torturers, and the victim populations know this, and also knows you know and keep silent, the whole theory goes to pieces. In Kamm’s case, she exposed the fact that the IDF brass treats the Supreme Court’s orders either as a non-binding recommendation or as an inconvenience you have to bypass.

The motives of whistleblowers are seldom pure; we do not live in a Disney movie. Deep Throat helped expose Watergate because he was jealous of a promotion he did not get. Their opponents often try to use that. Wikileaks, as an organization, is very problematic; its chief, Julian Assange, is charged with everything from running Wikileaks like a private fief to molestation of women (for the latter he is under investigation in Sweden). Anat Kamm, we are told, was interested in promoting her journalist career. All of this is important, and neither Kamm nor Assange are angels – but it is less, much less important than the information they provide. (And if Assange is guilty of the suspicions against him, then he should certainly be imprisoned).

Whenever we are told something is secret, we should ask why is it secret. We should not assume that the classification is reasonable. Power corrupts; and secret power corrupts secretly. If a shadowy organization seems like it’s trying to hide something for its own purposes and not the country’s, that is probably the case. This should be remembered for the next time a Kamm or a Manning are described to us as enemies of the people, traitors, spies; one should wonder who is the real traitor.

As a rule, it isn’t the whistleblower.