I was in Kabul a decade ago when WikiLeaks released a massive tranche of US government documents about the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. On the day of the release, I was arranging by phone to meet an American official for an unattributable briefing. I told him in the course of our conversation what I had just learned from the news wires.
He was intensely interested and asked me what was known about the degree of classification of the files. When I told him, he said in a relieved tone: “No real secrets, then.”
When we met later in my hotel I asked him why he was so dismissive of the revelations that were causing such uproar in the world.
He explained that the US government was not so naive that it did not realise that making these documents available to such a wide range of civilian and military officials meant that they were likely to leak. Any information really damaging to US security had been weeded out.
In any case, he said: “We are not going to learn the biggest secrets from WikiLeaks because these have already been leaked by the White House, Pentagon or State Department.”
I found his argument persuasive and later wrote a piece saying that the WikiLeaks secrets were not all that secret.
However, it was the friendly US official and I who were being naive, forgetting that the real purpose of state secrecy is to enable governments to establish their own self-interested and often mendacious version of the truth by the careful selection of “facts” to be passed on to the public. They feel enraged by any revelation of what they really know, or by any alternative source of information. Such threats to their control of the news agenda must be suppressed where possible and, where not, those responsible must be pursued and punished.
We have had two good examples of the lengths to which a government – in this case that of the US – will go to protect its own tainted version of events. The first is the charging of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for leaking 750,000 confidential military and diplomatic documents in 2010.
The second example has happened in the last few days. The international media may not have always covered itself in glory in the war in Yemen, but there are brave journalists and news organisations who have done just that. One of them is Yemeni reporter Maad al-Zikry who, along with Maggie Michael and Nariman El-Mofty, is part of an Associated Press (AP) team that won the international reporting Pulitzer prize this year for superb on-the-ground coverage of the war in Yemen. Their stories included revelations about the US drone strikes in Yemen and about the prisons maintained there by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The US government clearly did not like this type of critical journalism. When the Pulitzer was awarded last Tuesday in New York, Zikry was not there because he had been denied a visa to enter the US. There is no longer a US embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, but two months ago he made his way to the US embassy in Cairo where his visa application, though fully supported by AP and many other prestigious institutions, was rejected.
After AP had exerted further pressure, Zikry made a second application for a visa and this time he was seen by a counsellor at the embassy. He reports himself as asking: “Does the US embassy think that a Yemeni investigative journalist doing reporting for AP is a terrorist? Are you saying I am a terrorist?”
The counsellor said that they would “work” on his visa or, in other words, ask the powers-that-be in Washington what to do. “So, I waited and waited – and waited,” he says. “And, until now I heard nothing from them.”
Of course, Washington is fully capable of waiving any prohibition on the granting of a visa to a Yemeni in a case like this, but it chose not to.
Can what Assange and WikiLeaks did in 2010 be compared with what Zikry and AP did in 2019? Some commentators, to their shame, claim that the pursuit of Assange, and his current imprisonment pending possible extradition to the US or Sweden, has nothing to with freedom of expression.
In fact, he was doing what every journalist ought to do and doing it very successfully.
Take Yemen as an example of this. It is a story of great current significance because in recent days senior US officials have denounced Iran for allegedly directing and arming the Houthi rebels who are fighting Saudi and UAE-backed forces. Action by these supposed Iranian proxies could be a casus belli in the confrontation between the US and Iran.
John Bolton, the national security adviser, said on Wednesday that Iran risked a “very strong response” from the US for, among other things, drone attacks by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia for which he holds the Iranians responsible.
These accusations by the US, Saudi Arabia and whoever is their Yemeni ally of the day that the Houthis are stooges of Iran armed with Iranian-supplied weapons have a long history. But what do we know about what Washington really thinks of these allegations which have not changed much over the years?
This is where Wikileaks comes to the rescue.
The US embassy in Sanaa may be closed today, but it was open on 9 December 2009 when Stephen Seche, the US ambassador, sent a detailed report to the State Department titled: “Who are the Houthis? How are they fighting?” Citing numerous sources, it says that the Houthis “obtain their weapons from the Yemeni black market” and by corrupt deals with government military commanders. A senior Yemeni intelligence officer is quoted as saying: “The Iranians are not arming the Houthis. The weapons they use are Yemeni.” Another senior official says that the anti-Houthi military “covers up its failures by saying that the weapons [of the Houthis] come from Iran.”
Yemeni experts on the conflict say that Houthi arms acquisition today has likewise little to do with Iran. Yemen has always had a flourishing arms black market in which weapons, large and small, can be obtained in almost any quantity if the money is right. Anti-Houthi forces, copiously supplied by Saudi Arabia and UAE, are happy to profit by selling on weapons to the Houthis or anybody else.
In an earlier period, the embassy study cites “sensitive reporting” – presumably the CIA or another intelligence organisation – as saying that extremists from Somalia, who wanted Katyusha rockets, had simply crossed the Red Sea and bought them in the Yemeni black market.
Revealing important information about the Yemen war – in which at least 70,000 people have been killed – is the reason why the US government is persecuting both Assange and Zikry.
The defiant Yemeni journalist says that “one of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in that tragic condition it has reached today is the US administration’s mass punishment of Yemen”. This is demonstrably true, but doubtless somebody in Washington considers it a secret.
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