Julian Assange was running WikiLeaks in 2010 when it released a vast hoard of US government documents revealing details of American political, military and diplomatic operations. With extracts published by the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País, the archive provided deeper insight into the international workings of the US state than anything seen since Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the media in 1971. But today Ellsberg is celebrated as the patron saint of whistleblowers while Assange is locked in a cell in London’s Belmarsh maximum security prison for 23 and a half hours a day. In this latest phase of the American authorities’ ten-year pursuit of Assange, he is fighting extradition to the US. Court hearings to determine whether the extradition request will be granted have been delayed until September by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the US he faces one charge of computer hacking and 17 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917. If he is convicted, the result could be a prison sentence of 175 years.
I was in Kabul when I first heard about the WikiLeaks revelations, which confirmed much of what I and other reporters suspected, or knew but could not prove, about US activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The trove was immense: some 251,287 diplomatic cables, more than 400,000 classified army reports from the Iraq War and 90,000 from the war in Afghanistan. Rereading these documents now I’m struck again by the constipated military-bureaucratic prose, with its sinister, dehumanising acronyms. Killing people is referred to as an EOF (‘Escalation of Force’), something that happened frequently at US military checkpoints when nervous US soldiers directed Iraqi drivers to stop or go with complex hand signals that nobody understood. What this could mean for Iraqis is illustrated by brief military reports such as the one headed ‘Escalation of Force by 3/8 NE Fallujah: I CIV KIA, 4 CIV WIA’. Decoded, it describes the moment when a woman in a car was killed and her husband and three daughters wounded at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Fallujah, forty miles west of Baghdad. The US marine on duty opened fire because he was ‘unable to determine the occupants of the vehicle due to the reflection of the sun coming off the windshield’. Another report marks the moment when US soldiers shot dead a man who was ‘creeping up behind their sniper position’, only to learn later that he was their own unit’s interpreter.