WikiLeaks Documents Open To Interpretation The whistleblower website WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 secret Iraq war documents Friday. A handful of news organizations had more than two months to study the documents, choosing to highlight what they found significant. Everyone else, including NPR, had to rely on their judgment.
NPR logo WikiLeaks Documents Open To Interpretation

WikiLeaks Documents Open To Interpretation

The 391,832 classified U.S. military files released Friday by the WikiLeaks organization do not quite offer a secret history of the war in Iraq, but they do provide, in the Pentagon's own words, "snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane." Most are what the U.S. military calls "significant activity" reports, gathered in the field between 2004 and 2009 by the frontline U.S. units that actually fought the war.

American commanders expect their troops to report what they hear and observe each day on the ground, and the documentation of those confidential "initial, raw observations" makes fascinating -- if illicit -- reading. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, in his official response to the publication of the leaked files, attacked WikiLeaks for "cavalierly" publicizing military secrets and cautioned that the selected field reports "do not tell the whole story." Indeed, the reports cover such a variety of incidents and situations that they will be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the perspective of those who study them.

A handful of news organizations -- The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and Al Jazeera -- had more than two months to study the documents, and each did its own reporting and analysis of the material. Everyone else, including NPR, had to rely on the judgment of those five news outlets as to what points and documents to highlight.

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Al Jazeera and The Guardian, a British newspaper, emphasized those reports that suggested, in The Guardian's view, how U.S. forces in Iraq "ignored" the abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees by Iraqi security forces, even when they witnessed it firsthand. One document, for example, reported that U.S. troops witnessing abuse were told that "no further investigation" was necessary. The New York Times highlighted similar reports but also pointed to some reports that showed how U.S. forces on occasion did intervene to stop abuse and documented how the treatment of Iraqi detainees improved when they came under U.S. supervision or custody.

The Times, meanwhile, analyzed in considerable detail a facet of the Iraq war that other news organizations barely mentioned: the extensive aid and training that Iran gave to Shiite militia units in Iraq. Among the field reports released by WikiLeaks were documents that showed how Iran provided Iraqi militia fighters with rockets and "explosively formed penetrators" or EFPs, the deadly roadside bombs that have caused the death of many Americans and Iraqis in recent years.

It is not clear how representative these documents are of the whole of the field reporting from U.S. units during this six-year period, but there are numerous examples that suggest U.S. commanders downplayed or understated troublesome developments. A U.S. commander in Baghdad in November 2005, for example, reported that an investigation of Iraqi detention facilities had found no evidence that detainees were being abused, but the field reports from that same visit suggested otherwise.

The reports also document numerous cases of Iraqi civilians being killed by U.S. forces at checkpoints and in other locations, something U.S. officials have sometimes been reluctant to admit, and they suggest that U.S. commanders knew that the civilian death toll in Iraq was higher than they acknowledged in public.

Still, there are few shocking new revelations in the documents. "The period covered by these reports has been well chronicled in news stories, books and films," says Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, "and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq's past." Indeed, we already knew the history of the Iraq war is not a pleasant one.