What is Missing in Wikileaks’ Iraq War Logs

After my enthusiastic post, “Here it Comes!“, followed by the deflated and negative, “And There it Goes,” I do not want to add more negative critical commentary beyond this post. This latest Wikileaks release has generated, once again, a tremendous anti-war momentum and wave of criticisms of U.S. actions in its “global war on terror” (not just limited to Bush, but extending to his foreign policy successor, Obama, who has retained and even amplified some of the most pernicious features of that war), and that remains the most important aspect of this document release. Thus, after this post, I will dedicate myself to simply reblogging items from the copyright-free Bureau of Investigative Journalism, probably for the whole of the coming week. (Whether people read them or comment on them here does not matter as much as enhancing the overall visibility of the reports and  thus serving as a message force amplifier.)

There have been some striking revelations released via Wikileaks’ media partners, that deserve notice, including:

  • The number of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces, and by its Iraqi allies, is greater than the numbers made public by the U.S. during the Bush administration.
  • That the current regime in Iraq is just as brutal in its torture and abuse of detainees as anything that came before, and the U.S. has not only told its personnel to avert their eyes, and not report the abuses, but has also transferred detainees into the custody of the Iraqis, in what is a clear and very grave violation of international law.
  • That in almost 400,000 documents, for “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the word “democracy” appears only eight times; IEDs, however, are mentioned 146,895 times.
  • The lies of “counterinsurgency”: far from just working with civilians and winning hearts and minds, Iraq saw an 80% increase in Hellfire strikes after the arrival of counterinsurgency guru General David Petraeus.
  • That U.S. troops used Iraqi civilians as minesweepers, killed hundreds at checkpoints, and murdered insurgents who surrendered–all of which, and notably the latter, are direct violations of international law and constitute war crimes.
  • That Iran has been more directly and actively involved in fighting the war against the U.S. than was previously known, the two sides coming to actual blows on a number of occasions.

What is missing, and what is limited, about the publicly available files is also worthy of note. I will simply list the points below, quoting extensively from media sources:

Fragmentary, Incomplete, One-Sided:

As Der Spiegel, one of Wikileaks’ several media partners for this release, put it: the reports “are one-sided and subjective, unverifiable and, in many cases, were produced on the battlefield, making it easier for errors to slip through.” Der Spiegel also added, and this was a theme we explored before with the Afghan War Diary: “As is so often the case with raw texts from original sources, the documents have the advantage of authenticity, but the disadvantage of being incomplete.” Moreover,  “key events in the Iraq war do not appear in the reports and the political background and context is lacking.” Al Jazeera, which this time was another of Wikileaks’ media partners, also added: “an important caveat is in order: these reports only tell one side of the story, and a limited one at that; they lack higher-level analysis, and many of them are based on interviews with informants of often-questionable credibility.” Al Jazeera thus also raises the credibility issue and states with reference to records pointing to Syrian intervention: “Some of the reports, though, are hard to believe: A May 2005 cable claims that a Syrian ‘recruiter’ for al-Qaeda in Iraq recently returned to Iraq with ’50 Syrian suicide bombers/terrorists.’ Neither was the information sourced, nor was the report followed by a wave of suicide bombings.”

Limited Classification:

Der Spiegel explained that the “documents included in the WikiLeaks database aren’t of the highest level of classification — at most, they are ‘secret,’ but not ‘top secret’.” So once again, one should not operate under the illusion that what we get is the whole truth, even if just an American truth.

Missing Events:

Der Spiegel found that “many of the most sensational events in the Iraq war don’t make an appearance, including the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.” In addition, Der Spiegel added, “there is nothing to be found in the reports about the storming of the Sunni bastion of Fallujah, or about the killing of civilians in Haditha, or the years-long hunt for the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has since been killed.”


Iraq Body Count, which also had the unredacted records for months before the release, noticed some very important errors in the logs they were given, along with major omissions:

We have, however, noticed some problems with the logs that may be relevant. One such issue is the presence of numerous simple coding errors. For instance, there are many records where the numerical columns register zero deaths yet the verbal summary descriptions mention specific deaths. This is another reason why every log requires detailed human examination before the casualty information it contains can be fully extracted. Such coding errors make it impossible to accept simple summations of the numerical columns in the logs as providing a fully accurate representation of the fatal incidents that these logs contain. In addition to such technical errors, some examples of major omissions have already been found, such as the complete absence of any substantive reports of civilian casualties in the two major US military operations in Fallujah in April and November 2004. Corroborated sources that have been incorporated into the IBC database provide evidence of at least 1,226 civilian deaths in these two assaults. The logs do record almost 800 deaths classified as ‘Enemy’ during these assaults, but appear to register no more than a few deaths classified as ‘Civilian’. The reasons for the almost total absence of civilian deaths recorded in these cases are not clear, but this does show two instances where many civilian casualties already established in the public record are not recorded in the logs. This and other such instances will likely contribute to explaining the more than 25,000 civilian deaths recorded in IBC that appear to be missing from the logs.

Excessive Editing:

Unlike the Afghan War Diary, the extreme degree of deletion of details in these records makes reading them become something like a “fill in the blanks” game. The New York Times (another Wikileaks partner for the release) says that the degree of redaction is due to a few factors:

“WikiLeaks has been under strong pressure from the United States and the governments of other countries but is also fraying internally, in part because of a decision to post many of the Afghan documents without removing the names of informants, putting their lives in danger.”

There is no standard guide to follow when making such redactions, and Wikileaks seems to have opted for extremes–from virtually no redactions of the Afghan War Diaries, to extreme redaction of the Iraq War Logs. It makes the promised release of the remaining 15,000 Afghan war documents (under redaction), something that is far less worth anticipating now that we see how Wikileaks’ heavy hand works. That it was a deliberately heavy hand is explained (even justified) by Iraq Body Count:

Given that such scrutiny cannot possibly be applied by NGOs, or even by major media organisations, within a matter of weeks to 390,000 multi-entry logs, WikiLeaks has consulted widely on possible solutions, including with IBC, and has decided to heavily redact the content of the Iraq War Logs prior to release. Although such intense redaction will fall far short of the ideal of transparency for such releases, we agree with WikiLeaks that this is the best solution short of postponing the release of the logs indefinitely – the very situation this release aims to remedy.

Documents released by the Pentagon, under the Freedom of Information Act, remain by far the most telling documents. CNN noted this in one of its recent reports–that the Pentagon reveals more itself than does Wikileaks, and Wikileaks itself seems to have taken pride in this shown by its tweeting about it. In “WikiLeaks redacted more information in latest documents release,” CNN tells us:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told CNN’s Atika Shubert the site was more ‘vigorous’ this time compared to the Afghanistan process. But concerns of exposing civilians to harm did not seem to be the motivation. ‘In this case we have taken an even more vigorous approach than we took in relation of the Afghan material, not because we believe that approach was particularly lacking [but] rather just to prevent those sort of distractions from the serious content by people who would like to try and distract from the message,’ Assange said.

Surely, missing information distracts from “the message.” Assange’s explanation here is exceptionally weak, and is at odds with what Iraq Body Count tells us.

CNN goes further and does a side-by-side comparison between documents released by Wikileaks and the exact same documents released by the Pentagon–here is an extract:

An initial comparison of a few documents redacted by WikiLeaks to the same documents released by the Department of Defense shows that WikiLeaks removed more information from the documents than the Pentagon.

CNN accessed the Department of Defense versions from the official U.S. Central Command website, where it posts items that have been released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The first incident examined by CNN was the case of a car that drove toward a group of soldiers moving on foot through Tall Afar on January 18, 2005. The version of the “significant action” (SIGACTS) report released by the Pentagon said the unit involved was the A/1-5 and it was a patrol (abbreviated PTL). When the car failed to stop after a single warning shot, the patrol “engaged the car” and killed two civilians. The same document released Friday by WikiLeaks does not include the unit, the A/1-5, or that its members were on a patrol. In a summary of the incident, WikiLeaks redacted the number of killed civilians, but the accompanying narrative included the number.

So What?

At least two things are clear: One is that the Iraq War Logs do not tell “the story” of the Iraq war, and are, at very best, one component of the information that can help to give a more complete picture, along with the mountains of newspaper articles, FOIA records, books, documentaries, etc. Second, we cannot rely on Wikileaks alone and should not have a centralized and singular locus/focus for all future leaks of importance. This is the Web, and it permits wide diffusion, decentralization, and anonymity such that unredacted raw files can be seeded quietly in numerous locations, and authors using those documents then take full, individual responsibility for what they publish based on those documents. At the very least, Wikileaks should make the unedited files available to academics and other specialists, and not let the media have a complete monopoly of ownership of access to the originals. This then degenerates into further reinforcement for the mainstream and corporate media, and excessive “harm minimization” that seems to primarily benefit the Pentagon.

7 thoughts on “What is Missing in Wikileaks’ Iraq War Logs

  1. CM

    It’s true. People are putting the entire onus on Wikileaks to release war documents submitted to them and now to redact or withhold certain ones. Their site is certainly unusual but it’s not the only one. Although there are thousands of people in the organization, no one is really sure who they are or exactly how many. This was deliberate because of the nature of their work. Before the war documents, not many people had even heard of them.

    Julian Assange became the “face” of Wikileads, which lead to all sorts of problems and internal disarray. There were reports of intentional hacking and disruption of their site in recent weeks by the war machines of various countries. We’ve heard overt threats by the U.S. for months.

    They’ve said that the battlefield reports were inaccurate. I wonder how they propose to get accurate ones. It also makes you question any information from any source about these things.

    Interpretation is everything, of course. The different take on the last release about Afghanistan from the individual news organizations showed that reporting was very much dependent on national interests.

    What’s happened, of course, is that people have abdicated their responsibility to either find things out for themselves or to hold their media responsible for incomplete, biased or even totally absent reports…or their governments for secrecy, obfuscation or blatant propaganda.

    It’s just much easier to watch Canadian Idol, I guess.

    Wikileaks did a brave thing. I don’t think they even realized the danger they exposed themselves to. Now it’s time to spread the weight.

  2. buch leser

    The released documents show the daily life of the conflict, as U.S. soldiers have experienced it. In addition, it appears from the thousands threat analysis, attack reports and arrest records but also reconstruct exactly how has unfolded, the Islamic brother struggle between Shiites and Sunnis, how society brutalized, such as abductions, executions and torture of detainees routine was. Even activists from neighboring Syria, Iran and Jordan mingled the documents revealed in this war. It is shown again and again. A war benefits no one. Only the people suffer.

  3. Ishtar

    I have not read them all, but I have these observations alongside those mentioned in the article above:

    1- the logs are the kind of reportage that is made by soldiers in action. They are just plain observations about what is seen, what is done, and some simple conclusions.

    2- The logs are on the same line of US army propaganda in Iraq: Al qaeda, zarqawi, mental retarded women and children bombers, Syria involvment, cooperation between qaeda and Iran, etc. This seemed very strange to me.

    3- The only benifit of the leaks as I think, is that it has helped bringing back the Iraq war strongly to the front of the world stage, after Obama had announced recently “folding the page of Iraq”.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      …but it’s good to know that Iraqi torture is so much better now than under Saddam. Apparently, there is a “good” acid bath. Let’s not forget how many forget that the U.S. transferred detainees from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan, where a number of them were boiled alive. The war crimes have been piling up and there has not been one single international trial, and in the U.S. in most cases the few trials they have had have let off the accused very lightly, and were often *not* charged with war crimes.

      I agree with your points, and this is why Al Jazeera’s commentary is important. A lot of these troops are saying what they think they want superiors to hear, or offering as fact what were in fact beliefs they formed in advance. When U.S. troops were first approaching Baghdad in 2003, and I remember this very clearly, one crew took one of the mainstream U.S. TV news media on a night time mission to “uncover” a depot of what were assumed to be WMDs. Speaking breathlessly and excitedly into the night vision camera, like little kids on a Halloween outing, one soldier pointed to a very ordinary bundle of dynamite with a timer attached and said: “See that! Just like on 9/11.” I was wondering then how deeply fucked up his ignorant little head was already. Some of these morons are writing the reports or providing the information for them.

      Your third point is of course very correct. The notion that North Americans and Europeans could believe for a moment that we can all just move on, is grotesque, and this exposure needed to happen if anything to correct the willful blindness and wishful thinking. The Iraq War was a supreme crime, and the longer no one is brought to justice, the more that justice will need to be served by other means.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    I have lost the link to the video now, but in one televised interview Julian Assange has in fact said that he believes these logs have been “too heavily redacted” and even “over redacted.” Assange is quite conscious of the limitations, the criticisms, the contending perspectives, and I give him credit for usually moving toward addressing the main ones in light of each debate that ensues. Again, I do not believe there is one correct way of proceeding, and I recognize the constraints operating on Wikileaks, which has done such a tremendously important job, for years now.

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