WikiLeaks.org tried to coordinate coverage of its highly anticipated release of secret U.S. documents from the war in Iraq by sharing the material with a select group of news organizations weeks in advance, but it couldn't coordinate what they actually said.
In the end, the shadowy, decentralized organization couldn't even coordinate the release of its own documents. Al-Jazeera, one of the news organizations that it had given the documents weeks ago, broke WikiLeaks' embargo by publishing a six-minute video on its website late Friday afternoon. The New York Times, The Guardian of Britain and Le Monde, which also received the material under the embargo, followed swiftly with their extensive prepared reports.
Der Spiegel of Germany and Channel 4 of Britain, which also participated, said they would weigh in Monday. CNN said it had been invited to participate but declined because of "conditions" attached to the material, which it didn't specify.
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The Defense Department told NBC News that it didn't dispute the accuracy of the material released by WikiLeaks, which documented U.S. military officials' allegations of rape, torture and abuse by Iraqi soldiers and police, which U.S. commanders didn't investigate.
Because of the sheer mass of data dumped on the world — nearly 400,000 secret U.S. military field reports — and perhaps reflecting their differing stances toward the U.S. military operation, the privileged news organizations that published Friday approached the material from markedly different perspectives.
All of them reported the key points in the documents: that the United States has kept a running total of civilian deaths in Iraq, contrary to its frequent denials, and that the United States took little or no action to address abuse of detainees by Iraqi police and military forces.
The Guardian, Le Monde and Al-Jazeera splashed the more sensational revelations on their home pages under similar headlines skewering Washington for its inaction on Iraq's torture of more than 1,000 people.
- "Secret files reveal how US turned blind eye to Iraq torture," said The Guardian.
- "US turned blind eye to torture," Al-Jazeera said.
- "Iraq: The horror revealed by WikiLeaks," Le Monde said.
The Times' three equally played headlines, by contrast, revealed that "Reports Detail Iran Aid to Iraq Militias," "Civilians Paid War's Heaviest Toll" and "Detainees Suffered in Iraqi Hands." It characterized the U.S. response to allegations of Iraq torture as "brutality from which the Americans at times averted their eyes."
That's more in line with the official Defense Department position. A Pentagon official denied that Washington "ignored" the reports, telling NBC News that it passed along all claims to Iraq authorities and that "whatever they did with that information was up to the Iraqi government."
The Guardian and Le Monde have historically been regarded as liberal newspapers, while Al-Jazeera, a television network based in Qatar, was widely denounced for what critics saw as an anti-U.S. bias after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a characterization it disputes.
The Times, on the other hand, while aggressively reporting on alleged abuses by U.S. and Iraq forces, was accused of funneling CIA talking points bolstering U.S. charges that Iraq was seeking to build weapons of mass destruction in the years after the 2001 attacks.
In general, the three other organizations used much stronger language than The Times did throughout their reports:
- "The story these documents tell is ugly and often shocking," The Guardian said.
- The materials "record horrifying tales" and "throw light on the day-to-day horrors of the war,” Al-Jazeera said.
- "The 'incident reports' show that torture and mistreatment are commonplace in Iraqi detention centers," Le Monde reported.
The Times, by contrast, said the documents "provide no earthshaking revelations," similar to the official position of the Pentagon, which tried to minimize their impact by asserting that they revealed little new.Julian Assange, who is often called the founder of WikiLeaks, said in an interview on Al-Jazeera that the Pentagon rejected its offer to help review the documents.
"The Pentagon rebuffed us in relation to scrutinizing the documents. Their claims were they were not interested in any discussion of minimization ... or redaction," Assange said.
"Their demand was these documents be destroyed or returned to the Pentagon and that we destroy all future publications and all past publications."