Around seventy-six thousand previously classified military reports were released in collaboration with the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel two years ago. Drawing stern condemnation from the Pentagon, various US officials and even human rights groups, revelations from the Afghanistan War Logs included details on a US assassination squad, civilian casualties, the CIA’s expansion of paramilitary operations and how US drones were prone to failure.
What was uncovered on the assassination squad, which was called “Task Force 373,” is worth revisiting. Der Spiegel described the squad as being comprised of Navy Seals and members of the Delta Force. It kept classified lists of enemies known as Joint Prioritized Effects Lists (JPEL).
On June 17, 2007, a mission was undertaken to kill “prominent al-Qaida functionary Abu Laith al-Libi.” The squad staked out a “Koran school where he was believed to be located for several days.” An attack was ordered. The squad ended up killing seven children with five American rockets. Al-Libi was not killed.
Days before this failed assassination attempt, according to coverage by Nick Davies of The Guardian, the squad “set out with Afghan special forces to capture or kill a Taliban commander named Qarl Ur-Rahman in a valley near Jalalabad. As they approached the target in the darkness, somebody shone a torch on them.” There was a firefight. An AC-130 gunship was called in to fire its cannon and clear the area. The squad discovered “the people they had been shooting in the dark were Afghan police officers, seven of whom were now dead and four wounded.”
On October 4, 2007, the squad confronted Taliban fighters and then called in air support to drop five hundred pound bombs. The carnage that resulted included: “12 US wounded, two teenage girls and a 10-year-old boy wounded, one girl killed, one woman killed, four civilian men killed, one donkey killed, one dog killed, several chickens killed, no enemy killed, no enemy wounded, no enemy detained.”
About five years since these described attacks and two years after details on this squad were revealed, the administration of President Barack Obama now has an official policy of executing so-called militants, insurgents or terror targets without judicial process. What the CIA or dark side squads like Task Force 373 would typically carry out covertly is now well-known to the world and Obama stands firmly behind it. Like squads under Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Obama appreciates forces like Task Force 373 that can operate in almost complete secrecy. Both the rule of law and the political climate place constraints on counterterrorism policy, but secret squads that can exercise lethal force extrajudicially whenever and wherever are not subject to these limitations.
Nick Turse has covered the use of secret squads or special forces like Task Force 373 under Obama. Commando units have been engaged in operations in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. Squads under JSOC have even been involved in the operation of secret prisons, “perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone” that are “used for interrogating high-value targets.”
While Task Force 373 was a key revelation that merited close scrutiny, the US government paid no attention to the legal or inhumane issues posed by the use of assassination squads. It approved the proliferation and expansion of Task Force 373-like squads. It had human rights lawyers like Harold Koh pioneer the development of legal justification for extrajudicial killings. Such legal justification was for targets being eliminated by drone strikes but that does not mean it could not or would not ever be twisted to justify secret squads killing targets instead of capturing them, especially if these kill-or-capture teams are being deployed in countries where the US has not declared war.
It is not the fault of WikiLeaks that no real reform or that the Obama administration doubled down on policies of vigilantism. The impact of the “document dump,” as critics called it, was undermined by a singular focus on whether “informants” were now in danger or would be inevitably killed. Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said on August 11, 2010, “We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the WikiLeaks documents.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ suggested days after the release, “There has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” The Associated Press concluded on August 17, “There is no evidence that any Afghans named in the leaked documents as defectors or informants from the Taliban insurgency have been harmed in retaliation.” However, Amnesty International, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), the Open Society Institute, International Crisis Group and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) all signed on to a letter that warned of “deadily ramifications” for Afghans “identified” in the release.
The “informants were endangered” concern developed into a full-blown smear, as Guardian personalities appeared in the PBS FRONTLINE documentary, “WikiSecrets.” The documentary, which aired May 2011, featured Investigations Executive Editor David Leigh of The Guardian, who claimed Julian Assange was “very reluctant to delete those names, to redact them” and said, “These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.”
Nick Davies of The Guardian, who helped convince WikiLeaks to enter into a media partnership for the release, suggested in the documentary that the failure to properly redact names had a “very damaging political impact on the way that the story played out, and also within WikiLeaks, where Julian’s colleagues were horrified that their Web site was carrying this material and very angry that it was carrying that material and they’d never been told.” [Interestingly, the Pentagon was not very satisfied with The Guardian’s handling of the release.]
The United States government welcomed this criticism, as it enabled it to wholly ignore any revelations in the war logs, but that did not mean there was no public relations strategy to ensure the release had a minimal impact. The White House first issued a statement on July 25 that strongly condemned the disclosure and WikiLeaks for making “no effort to contact the US government about these documents,” which the government alleged contained “information” that could “endanger the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who co-operate with us.” A day later, then-White House Press Secretary said something about how it would be potentially harmful to the military but then added, “I don’t think that what is being reported hasn’t in many ways been publicly discussed, either by you all or by representatives of the U.S. government, for quite some time,” and went on to discuss how the press was fully aware of how Pakistan may have “safe havens” that were aiding the Taliban and the White House had been making progress in addressing this problem.
The New York Times had consulted the White House ahead of the release. As the establishment newspaper tends to do with all major news stories involving national security issues, great deference was shown and this presumably gave the White House ample time to prepare for the disclosure of the logs. In fact, a file that featured many of the president’s and the administration’s leaders’ remarks on the role of Pakistan in the Afghanistan War was circulated to the press. This file provided a way for journalists uncomfortable with the ethics of Wikileaks to cover the contents of the documents leaked. It included basic talking points for “critical conversation” among the press on the Monday after the leak.
Nothing may have changed as a result of the release, but that is no reason to suggest the logs should have never been made public. A clear military record of the Afghanistan War from 2004-2009 was made available to people making it possible for citizens all over the globe to see the reality of war, including war crimes and other abuses that were taking place. Also, as this anniversary is marked, scientists at Edinburgh University in Scotland believe the data in the logs can predict attacks by “insurgents” in Afghanistan. They’ve apparently developed software that can “predict long-term trends in the most volatile parts of the country.” As this shows, transparency is not valuable initially but can continue to produce dividends weeks, months and years later. (In fact, it is possible the military has been using these reports for the purpose of “pattern analysis” throughout the war.)
Finally, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier alleged to have released the military reports on Afghanistan, has been in pre-trial confinement for nearly eight hundred days and is in the midst of a court martial. The US government accuses him of “stealing, purloining or knowingly converting” these records for his use. He is charged with “prejudicing” the “good order and discipline in the armed forces” and bringing “discredit upon the armed forces.” It is one of twenty-two charges he faces for allegedly releasing the “Collateral Murder” video, both the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, the US State Embassy cables, the Guantanamo Files, etc, to WikiLeaks.
If “good order” includes policies that enable task force teams which carry out state-sanctioned murder, then, yes, Manning has “prejudiced” and brought “discredit” to the military. If “good order” includes the ability to have military teams operate like death squads, then, yes, Manning—if he released the war logs—is guilty.