WikiLeaks Offers Lesson in Narrative Control

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The WikiLeaks.org video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed two Reuters employees may not be the 21st Century version of the Pentagon Papers. But it does offer yet another lesson in controlling the narrative.

WikiLeaks.org decrypted the 38-minute video that Reuters tried for more than two years to get via a Freedom of Information Act request. The site posted an edited 17-minute version, titled “Collateral Murder,” that includes much editorializing; a quote from George Orwell, the transcribed conversations of the Apache gunners apparently reveling in their mission, and an on-screen narrative that casts the episode as an “unprovoked” attack on unarmed civilians, including two children who survived. It has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube.

The video has also spurred a raft of coverage about WikiLeaks.org, which is soliciting donations on its web site. (”We have raised just over $370,000 for this year,” it says on the site. “Our yearly budget is around $600,000.”)

The military has said it conducted an internal investigation. Despite mistaking the Reuters’ photographer’s camera for a gun, the review found that U.S. military personnel acted appropriately.

But what if the government had simply granted Reuters’ FOIA request?

“By digging in their heels on the FOIA request,” says independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “They’ve actually made people pay more attention to this.”

WikiLeaks.org was formed three years ago as a destination for leaking sensitive information. The site does not have a brick-and-mortar headquarters. And it stores its digital content on a torrent site in Sweden, where there are very strict press freedom laws.

When Daniel Ellsburg released sensitive intelligence documents about U.S. conduct in Vietnam to the New York Times and other newspapers, it set off a legal challenge by the Nixon Administration that reached the Supreme Court. Wikileaks.org has found itself in the crosshairs of multiple entities. The Australian government put the site on a blacklist. U.S. intelligence investigated the site. A 32-page report was leaked to Wikileaks.org in which the Department of Defense asserts that the site is a “threat to the US Army.”

It’s not quite Nixon’s White House Plumbers. But WikiLeaks has obviously raised the ire of U.S. intelligence.

“The possibility that current employees or moles within DoD or elsewhere in the U.S. government are providing sensitive or classified information to Wikileaks.org cannot be ruled out,” the report stated.

The site, says Tyndall, has “done the equivalent of FOIA. Their contribution has been to make the [video] available. They’re the national security version of TMZ. People are collecting stuff. With TMZ they’re collecting paparazzi stuff. Here they’re collecting spook stuff.”

Military officials claim that they cannot find their version of the video. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command told the Associated Press that forces in Iraq have been unable to locate the video.

“Maybe this the way you actually change the stranglehold on FOIA,” muses Tyndall. “If WikiLeaks proves time and time again that they can actually hack the thing or decrypt it and make it available, does the Pentagon sooner or later say, oh we might as well let you have the thing?”

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