Xeroxing the war

In 1969, when the Vietnam War was in full swing,  a senior analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense was quietly copying a secret report about the war. This report, which ran to 7000 pages, covered the progress of the Vietnam war in exhaustive detail. The analyst intended to share this highly classified information with influential politicians and scientists, in the hope that it would quickly bring the war to an end.

That analyst was Daniel Ellsberg, a former officer of the Marine Corps who worked for RAND, the Pentagon think tank. As a result of his experiences in Vietnam and his meetings with conscientious objectors in the US, he became convinced that the war was wrong. With his insider’s knowledge, he already knew that it was militarily lost, but that the American government was misleading the people. Every day the Vietnam war took about eight hundred Vietnamese lives, more than two thirds of them civilians, and twenty American soldiers. Many more were seriously injured or maimed for life..

On June 13, 1971 The New York Times tried to publish a number of excerpts from these documents, but was blocked by the Nixon government through legal and political means. Senator Mike Gravel made a breakthrough by reading a large part of the document in the Senate. The reading of 4100 pages took a while, but the rules of the Senate do not allow a senator who is talking to be interrupted (the "filibuster"). Everything the Senator said automatically became part of the proceedings of the Senate and thus on the public record. The publication of this information was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam war and the start the process of withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Fast forward to 2010. The US is once again embroiled in unwinnable wars, launched on dubious grounds, that continue indefinitely without any clear strategy or goal. Every extra day that these wars continue, more civilians and soldiers die.

And now there are new people who leak secret information about the wars, in the hope that the resulting political pressure will bring them to a close. The Xerox technology in 1969 has been replaced by a global computer network that uses encryption to protect the identity of the whistleblowers. Even Wikileaks does not know their identities – this is safer for both the whistleblowers and Wikileaks.

But the media’s response is simply surreal. The bulk of the attention and the debate is about the Xerox machine – or at least the 21st century equivalent of it, the Wikileaks website. Questions such as "is WikiLeaks journalism?" and "should you be allowed to leak classified information?" are discussed in exhaustive detail by apparently intelligent media pundits – who with alarming regularity seem to have little understanding of the very technology they are discussing.

Iraq Deaths EstimatorThe first ‘big’ coup from Wikileaks, the “Collatoral Murder" video, led to a huge debate about the culpability of the helicopter pilots and whether or not it was reasonable for them to be able to distinguish between a camera and a grenade launcher. The key topic that was not discussed was the simple fact that the Pentagon had knowingly, for three years, lied to both Reuters and the families of the civilian casualties in Baghdad about the circumstances surrounding the shooting by an Apache helicopter, which was one kilometre away and which riddled two children with bullets from its cannon. The Pentagon made a statement in 2007 saying that it knew nothing of any injuries to children, even though it had been in possession of this video from day one and it leaves nothing to the imagination.

The deliberate lying from the start of the Iraq war continues to this day. The Dutch late night talk show, P&W, led the news on TV with "Dutchman involved in leaking attack video": that, after all, is news – apparently far more important than the fact that children were shot and there was a cover-up.

Wikileaks has already been the top story in the news for more than one week, and that’s a problem. The Xerox machine is not important. Illegal wars of aggression launched on the basis of lies are important. The torture of innocent citizens in secret prisons is important. Spying on UN diplomats is important. Messing about in the internal political decisions of other countries is important.

So why is the entire media is so busy with the Xerox machine and the person with his finger on the copy button? Dear journalists, you have been presented with a cornucopia of scoops, many of which make Watergate pale into insignifcance. If African dictators were doing the things Western countries are being accused of, they would be dragged in handcuffs to the International Court in The Hague. Get to work!