Wikileaks is back in the news again with more US government docs on the Iraq war, including some on the link between the US military and the death squads that appeared after the invasion (aka "the Salvador Option") - Iraqi torture squad 'given captives by US troops'.
Fresh evidence that US soldiers handed over detainees to a notorious Iraqi torture squad has emerged in army logs published by WikiLeaks.
The 400,000 field reports published by the whistleblowing website at the weekend contain an official account of deliberate threats by a military interrogator to turn his captive over to the Iraqi Wolf Brigade.
The interrogator told the prisoner that: ''He would be subject to all the pain and agony that the Wolf battalion is known to exact upon its detainees.''
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The evidence emerged as Britain's deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said the allegations of killings, torture and abuse in Iraq were ''extremely serious'' and ''needed to be looked at''.
Mr Clegg did not rule out an inquiry into the actions of British forces in Iraq, but said it was up to the US to answer for the actions of its forces. His comments to the BBC contrasted with a statement from the Ministry of Defence on Sunday, which warned the posting of classified US military logs on the WikiLeaks website could endanger British forces.
Mr Clegg said: ''We can bemoan how these leaks occurred, but I think the … allegations made are extraordinarily serious. They are distressing … and they are very serious. I am assuming the US administration will want to provide its own answer. It's not for us to tell them how to do that.''
Within the leaked archive is a batch of secret field reports from the town of Samarra, north-west of Baghdad. They corroborate previous allegations that the US military turned over many prisoners to the Wolf Brigade, the 2nd battalion of the interior ministry's special commandos.
The Wolf Brigade was created by the US in an attempt to re-employ elements of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
They were accused by Iraqis of beating prisoners, torturing them with electric drills and sometimes executing suspects.
The SMH also has some slightly confused analysis of Wikileaks' purpose by John Birmingham - you can probably be sure they don't want to release random taxpayer data if they happen to get hold of it - the purpose is to illuminate when governments and corporations are doing the wrong thing (ie. a relatively low tech implementation of John Brunner's ideas about transparency described in "The Shockwave Rider) - What secrets are worth keeping? .
It's a fraught business criticising Wikileaks. You suddenly find yourself surrounded by the sort of barking mad pinheads who hold down anchor positions on Fox News. This is a species of loon happy to speculate openly about unleashing special forces operators on Assange and, presumably by extension on anyone who criticises any aspect of US (or Australian) military operations. On the other hand, the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq have become such toxic tragedies in many people's minds that they cannot disentangle their contempt for the misadventures from any consideration they might otherwise make of Wikileaks' strengths or weaknesses. Since Assange declares himself opposed to the war, anything he does as regards the conflict must by definition be beyond reproach.
But plenty of people with no time for the military industrial complex or the vast right-wing media conspiracy supporting it (OK, I really just mean Fox News again) remain troubled by the tactics and philosophy of Wikileaks. You would think that journalists would love the idea of a website where they can pick up thousands of secret government documents, and for the most part they do. But Wikileaks is not a journalistic endeavour. It adheres to no standard of ethics and, being a relatively young institution, it seems to be evolving whatever standards it does have on the fly.
The question remains then, is there a document Wikileaks would not release? If for instance the group had existed in 1999 and had gained access to Australian plans to attack Indonesian military facilities in the event of an escalating confrontation in East Timor getting out of hand, would they have released them? It's a purely hypothetical question, but one worth pondering because it illuminates the potential dangers of information release without regard to unintended consequences. To Julian Assange the release of war plans might seem to be a guaranteed way of avoiding conflict. But in the real world that sort of information hits the public realm with massive kinetic effect and could well tip two contending nations into war rather than away from it.
Picking another area, were Avian Flu to mutate again and become a much deadlier and more communicable disease, would Wikileaks release government plans to deal with a lethal pandemic, knowing that the release would cripple the ability of a government to put the plan into effect? Were they to get hold of the Australian Taxation Office files of every PAYG earner in the country, would they release those? If you are a scrupulously honest tax payer you might be interested to know whether your fellow citizens are dudding you on their claims. But are you scrupulously honest? The government holds any number of dossiers on you; your tax history, your medicare records, every instance of every dealing you've ever had with every level of government in fact. Do you believe that because a file is held by a public institution it should automatically be released into the public sphere?
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While Assange and Co. are doing nothing more than vexing the likes of Stephen Conroy or bugging the freaks at Scientology, it's all good fun and jolly hockeysticks. But there are classes of information that should never be released into the public domain. Weaponized botulism recipes, anyone? Likewise there are huge fields of data which might well serve some public interest by being released, but not as a massive info dump without context or explanation. Neither of which Wikileaks do. They tried something like that with the release of the "Collateral Murder" video, but wound up looking like foolish amateurs.
There is doubtless a place in the world for Wikileaks. Some of their previous releases have been undeniably of benefit to public discourse. There is even without doubt a place for the release of documents such as those we've seen coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Historians will be forever grateful to Assange for providing them with such a vast trove of raw material they might otherwise have had to wait decades to access. But with power comes responsibility. It remains to be seen whether a protean, cell structured, largely anarchic group like this can ever properly internalise that.