WikiLeaks has struck again, this time with even greater force and more devastating political effect than in its two earlier operations. In those, the sights were set on the United States: with the April 2008 broadcast of the video, “Collateral Murders,” that featured images of a massacre of civilians in Baghdad in 2007, and last July’s release of 90,000 classified documents on the war in Afghanistan. Both were seriously compromising with regards to the performance of U.S. forces, their ability to fight the Taliban, the double-dealing of Pakistani secret services, errors, and civilian casualties. This time, as previously announced, nearly 400,000 documents were published on the website of the informative organization, referring to all forms of abuse: armed incidents, the murder of civilians, torture and humiliation inflicted by both U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies between Jan. 1, 2004 and Dec. 31, 2009, only days before Obama entered the White House.
The documents are messages and reports exchanged by U.S. troops and, as in the earlier event, exhaustively illustrate well-known facts about the disasters of war and the conduct of troops. Nevertheless, this leak has provided strong evidence of the number of civilians killed in armed incidents during the 6-year period, most of whom were victims of bloody incidents, and not mass killings. According to the organization, Iraq Body Count – who has analyzed the documents – these accounts raise the number of dead accounted for since 2003 to 150,000 people, 80 percent of them civilians. It has also been able to document the intense involvement of Iran in the civil war between Shiites and Sunnis.
Despite the abundance of raw information provided by WikiLeaks, as important as its publication is the time when it was published, carefully chosen: just one week before the Tuesday U.S. election, in which Barack Obama gambles the Democratic majority in the House and Senate. We are facing a political earthquake that affects information services and restricted documents; that calls into question the maintenance of military secrets in the era of global technology. One cannot forget that in countries like Russia or China, where there is firm control over telephone and Internet, there are no leaks of this kind, nor will there be in the foreseeable future.
The leak, in addition to interfering with the political campaign in the U.S., represents a severe setback for the U.S. image abroad, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, where Obama has expended considerable effort toward reversing the loss of prestige suffered in recent years — mainly because of the war in Iraq. Although Obama is not seen as directly responsible for the actions taken by U.S. soldiers under the previous president, it is impossible to disregard the many continuities between the two presidencies, beginning with the tenure of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, nominated by George Bush and adherence to the “Do Not Look Back” policy practiced by Obama, who has consistently wanted to avoid anti-Bush revenge.
The publication also sows discord between the U.S. and its allies, who cannot take these numerous data simply as an inventory — already apparent in the U.K. and Denmark. There are many governments and international institutions that want explanations from Washington, who since July has made numerous efforts to prevent the publication of these documents. Furthermore, the Iraqi regime installed after the invasion is amply discredited; some critics say, because of abuses and violations of human rights, it deserves no more respect than the previous regime.
Efforts to prevent the spread of the documents are perhaps the determining factor in assessing the WikiLeaks decision, which constitutes a test of strength between a small, almost clandestine nonprofit organization and the premier superpower, as well as a litmus test on new forms of the distribution of power in the world — in which not only nations count, but also numerous global, private organizations do as well. But this is part of another chapter, in which one cannot discount the role of personality and the leadership of Julian Assange, the man who has defied the power of Barack Obama.