Hard News by Russell Brown


More Secrets and Lies

As the latest round of Wikileaks disclosures, the Guantanamo Files, courses through the global media (more of which below) we should not shrink from confronting a story about our own small part of the same, grim map: Jon Stephenson's 'Eyes Wide Shut', in the latest Metro magazine.

It is the kind of journalism we very rarely see in New Zealand: developed over years; reported from the ground, via trusted sources and through scrutiny of the documents of war and politics. Other media organisations have baulked at this story, perhaps concerned about political fallout. Metro editor Simon Wilson did take it on, and worked closely with Jon on the feature that made print.

The thrust of the story is that New Zealand's political and military leaders have consistently sought to play down -- to the extent of covering it up -- evidence that our own SAS troops in Afghanistan have breached New Zealand's obligations under the Geneva Conventions by handing over prisoners to US and Afghani forces in the knowledge that they would likely be mistreated and even tortured.

The SAS troops Jon has spoken to were not happy about this. There is such a thing as the professionalism of war, and their supposed allies showed little of it:

SAS troopers I have spoken to stress they treated their detainees well, and trusted the Americans to do likewise. "I know we looked after them," one trooper says. However, he says, "we sort of knew what would happen to the prisoners, Americans being Americans". He climbed on a roof to get a look, and told me he saw head-shaven prisoners in jumpsuits: "It looked like Guantanamo Bay."

"Everything that came out of Abu Ghraib [the notorious US-run prison in Iraq], I could see how that would happen," says one of the troopers. "I lost a lot of respect for Americans during my time in Afghanistan. They’re just so brainwashed."

The political and military leadership knew they had a problem from at least the time of the ill-fated 2002 raid on the village of Band e Timur, which led to the accidental death of a six year-old girl and the shooting dead of a tribal leader. The story reveals for the first time that the raid was led by the New Zealand SAS. Prisoners were handed to US forces, who tortured at least some of them, and treated them all badly. The Americans simply dumped carefully collected personal ID and effects, wrecking their chances of identifying both the innocent and anyone who really was an insurgent. Nonetheless, three of the men captured in the raid are thought to have been transported to Guantanamo Bay.

There is a good deal more in the story, and I would urge you to get hold of a copy. It offers evidence that Phil Goff, probably Mark Burton, the present Defence minister Wayne Mapp and Prime Minister John Key have actively lied to the public. (Helen Clark, who did authorise a diplomatic cable noting the importance of "international humanitarian law and human rights law" in the light of a damning Human Rights Watch report on US abuses in Afghanistan, might also be looking to her laurels). Disturbingly, it further offers evidence that our next Governor General, former NZDF chief Jerry Mataparae, has also lied.

No one should pretend that the SAS and its political masters weren't in a terribly difficult position here: the lawlessness of both the Americans and, later, the Afghan security forces presented a problem that was in some ways intractable. But the British found a way: they instructed their forces not to hand over any prisoners. Our leaders sought other means to make the problem go away.

The Prime Minister has, inevitably, dismissed any prospect of an inquiry. We should not let him off so easily.

NB: Jon Stephenson and Simon Wilson will be joining me on Media7 this week, to discuss the story. If you'd like to join us for tomorrow evening's recording, we'll need you to come to the Victoria St entrance of TVNZ between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, drop me an email to let me know you're coming.


About 4pm yesterday, local time, this message spat out of the Wikileaks Twitter stream:

Domschiet, NYT, Guardian, attempted Gitmo spoiler against our 8 group coalition. We had intel on them and published first.

By then, the Nation's blogger, Greg Mitchell, had already offered a more disinterested account of the release of the latest tranche of Wikileaks secrets:

11:25  Who leaked the WikiLeaks files to The Times?  To summarize:  WikiLeaks gave its Gitmo files to 7 news outlets but not the NYT or The Guardian, probably due to falling out with them over previous leaks.  But someone leaked the files to the Times, which in turn gave them to The Guardian and NPR.  The Times decided to go ahead tonight with covering / publishing files tonight, and WikiLeaks and partners apparently then rushed to lift embargo and come out with their coverage an hour or two behind the Times.  At least that's all suggested by McClatchy and The Guardian.  Or did NYT learn that embargo was about to be broken and so moved "abruptly" first? In any case:  WHO LEAKED THE FILES TO THE TIMES? Remember, the Times is not claiming that it got them from a government or Gitmo or military source, or from the original leaker -- it says these ARE the WikiLeaks documents.  So does that mean they came from one of several disgruntled ex-WikiLeakers?

This isn't the first time that Wikileaks' attempts to engineer exclusivity have come adrift. The Guardian gave the New York Times copies of the "Cablegate" files last year, having itself already stared down a threatened lawsuit from Julian Assange. Assange had been enraged when The Guardian, having obtained its own copies from a second source (who probably got them from a disaffected former Wikileaks insider), declared that it was no longer subject to an agreement with Assange that meant it could only publish stories with his permission.

We should feel glad that Assange's attempt to limit the publication of the files on the basis that they were his commercial goods never got anywhere -- and that the unfavoured papers defied him this time too.

More so, given the slightly bizarre take of one of the press "coalition" (the others are listed here in a useful article at WL Central); his new friends at the Daily Telegraph: "Dozens of terrorists were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, along with more than 150 innocent people, top-secret files disclose," blared its home page.  Well, yeah: but weren't they all supposed to be the "worst of the worst"? The lead story opens thus:

Al-Qaeda terrorists have threatened to unleash a “nuclear hellstorm” on the West if Osama Bin Laden is caught or assassinated, according to documents to be released by the WikiLeaks website, which contain details (from) the interrogations of more than 700 Guantanamo detainees.

However, the shocking human cost of obtaining this intelligence is also exposed with dozens of innocent people sent to Guantanamo – and hundreds of low-level foot-soldiers being held for years and probably tortured before being assessed as of little significance.

I'm not sure that this one, unverifiable, line obtained in dubious circumstances, counts as "intelligence". Indeed, I think we've been through this one before, haven't we?

But if Assange's attempts to deny his erstwhile allies access to his secret bounty continue to be in vain, the actual substance of this tranche of leaks -- which apparently comes from the same source, very probably Bradley Manning, as nearly all the organisation's leaks in the past two years -- is considerable.

Unlike the Cablegate documents, The Guantanamo Files come from a tightly defined context: they are the official records and reports from America's benighted military prison at Guantanamo Bay, itself a grim symbol of the "War on Terror". We're specifically warned this time that the Gitmo assessments of the "value" and "threat" posed by 759 prisoners are not necessarily reliable.

What they reveal is alarming and depressing. Almost half the 212 Afghans shipped to Guatanamo were innocent or had been forced to fight for the Taliban. Some were abducted merely because someone thought they might know something. They included, as the New Yorker's Amy Davidson notes in a withering, deadpan commentary:

A sharecropper because he was familiar with mountain passes; an Afghan “because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khost and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver”; an Uzbek because he could talk about his country’s intelligence service, and a Bahraini about his country’s royal family (both of those nations are American allies); an eighty-nine year old man, who was suffering from dementia, to explain documents that he said were his son’s; an imam, to speculate on what worshippers at his mosque were up to; a cameraman for Al Jazeera, to detail its operations; a British man, who had been a captive of the Taliban, because “he was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics”; Taliban conscripts, so they could explain Taliban conscription techniques; a fourteen-year-old named Naqib Ullah, described in his file as a “kidnap victim,” who might know about the Taliban men who kidnapped him. (Ullah spent a year in the prison.) Our reasons, in short, do not always really involve a belief that a prisoner is dangerous to us or has committed some crime; sometimes (and this is more debased) we mostly think we might find him useful.

Others ended up at the base simply through corruption in the Afghan or Pakistan authorities.

An Al Jazeera cameraman was taken and held for six years because officials thought he would provide information about the TV network that employed him. He was never told what he was thought to have done.

(Australian would-be jihadist David Hicks' file is fascinating for different reasons: assuming he told his interrogators something like the truth, he was able to simply to turn up in Kosovo, East Timor, Pakistan, Afghanistan, present himself for military training -- and meet very senior Al Qaeda officials.)

The upshot of the way this terrible project was run was not only the suffering of the innocent, but the dreadful, stupid fact that many of the guilty can never now be prosecuted because of the way evidence was obtained. Some who might have been charged have simply been released. Others seem set to rot in custody. Julian Glover, writing in The Guardian, nails it hard:

... what is given new prominence by these latest Guantánamo files is the cold, incompetent stupidity of the system: a system that tangled up the old and the young, the sick and the innocent. A system in which to say you were not a terrorist might be taken as evidence of your cunning. A system designed less to hand out justice than to process and supply information from inmates, as if they were not humans but items of digital data in some demented storage machine programmed always to reject the answer "No, I was not involved". The clinical idiocy of this dreadful place is the most chilling thing of all, since it strips away even the cynical but persuasive defence: it was harsh but it worked and it kept the world safe ...

The final indictment of Guantánamo is not just that it broke the rule of law temporarily, but that by doing so it made the breach permanent. Justified as a way of gathering information from the guilty, it forced the innocent to invent falsehoods as well. The security forces and politicians who permitted the camp often accuse its critics of being simplistic and squeamish. They say that the things that happened inside it were much less nasty than the things the people it contains did to others. In some cases that's right. But the Guantánamo system piled lie upon lie through the momentum of its own existence, until no one could know which those cases were, or what was true.

At times, I have feared that obsessing over the injustices of Guantánamo Bay has become a surrogate for a wider hatred of America. Read the files, and you'll realise that obsession is the only possible humane response.

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