Tuesday, May 14, 2013

David Leigh's disgraceful performance at Frontline Club's Bradley Manning panel

Frontline Club panel (screenshot via Youtube)
On May 13, 2013, London's Frontline Club held a panel entitled "The Case of the U.S. vs Bradley Manning". On the panel was Chase Madar, author of "The Passion of Bradley Manning", former Guardian investigations executive editor David Leigh, and campaigner Naomi Colvin. The discussion was moderated by Richard Gizbert of Al Jazeera's Listening Post.

David Leigh is well-known to those familiar with WikiLeaks, mainly due to his publication of the Cablegate password in his and Luke Harding's book, "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy". This led to the release of all 251,287 unredacted State Department cables in September 2011.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half long discussion, David Leigh put a great deal of effort into downplaying the significance of the what WikiLeaks has released, thereby downplaying Bradley Manning's sacrifice. His comments show a broad range of insensitivity, misunderstandings, and grand understatements. For someone whose career has relied heavily on WikiLeaks in the past few years, and for someone who was invited onto a panel due to his prior experience with WikiLeaks, his attitude is contemptible.

All emphasis in quoted statements is my own.

WikiLeaks: "not that sensational"

Despite The Guardian having published over 240 articles using WikiLeaks cables and having pages dedicated to both the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, David Leigh stressed the idea that WikiLeaks' releases were fairly insignificant.

(00:21:39) LEIGH: Another thought about the coverage that occurs to me is, and it's kind of a paradoxical one: the truth is, the uncomfortable truth is, that a lot of stuff that Bradley Manning leaked, in fact all of the stuff that he leaked, was at the end of the day not that sensational, and that's why it wasn't classified so high. It was actually classified really low, when you consider the habit of overclassification. This stuff was relatively trivial.
(00:23:00) LEIGH: The State Department cables, although politically deeply embarrassing and probably caused a great deal of rage in the State Department, were not such a big deal. They didn't actually show anything really bad about the United States Government. What they showed was a fairly accurate graphic reporting by United States Government employees of the crimes of other Governments.

Leigh emphasizes his opinion that not some, but all of what Manning is accused of leaking is "not that sensational". In court, Bradley Manning admitted to the following leaks:

Within these leaks, come thousands of revelations. Chase Madar specifically mentions the contribution Cablegate made to the uprising in Tunisia and the revelations about U.S. attempts to stifle an increase in Haiti's $3/day minimum wage law. They also revealed a U.S. cover-up of child abuse in Afghanistan, the FBI training Egyptian tortures, warnings about nuclear plant safety in Japan before the Fukushima disaster, men being sent to Guantanamo solely for wearing a certain Casio watch, Yemen claiming responsibility for U.S. airstrikes, and 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths in Iraq. Cables have been used in multiple court cases and were sourced in half of The New York Times' 2011 issues. And all these make up just a small portion of the tens of thousands of headlines that continue to be made to this day.

At one point, Richard Gizbert asks David Leigh if Bradley Manning helped end the Iraq War, to which Leigh emphatically responds, "No". But, as Madar, Colvin, and Gizbert all say, there is quite a strong argument to the contrary. CNN reports:

These talks [between Iraq and the U.S.], however, broke down over the prickly issue of legal immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq, a senior U.S. military official with direct knowledge of the discussions told CNN this month.
The negotiations were strained following WikiLeaks’ release of a diplomatic cable that alleged Iraqi civilians, including children, were killed in a 2006 raid by American troops rather than in an airstrike as the U.S. military initially reported.

The cable details an event in which U.S. troops executed at least 10 civilians, including an infant and an elderly woman, then proceeded to call in an airstrike to destroy the evidence of the atrocity. CNN makes a clear connection between this cable and Iraq's unease at granting immunity to U.S. troops who commit such acts.

Yet to David Leigh, none of this shows "anything really bad about the United States Government". He admits that the cables did reveal crimes by other Governments, but of course these revelations are downplayed by his sweeping statement that the leaks as a whole were "not that sensational".

Furthermore, he comments:

(00:22:47) LEIGH: The rest of the stuff that was revealed about the Afghan fighting and the Iraq fighting show that the American troops were confused, brutal, ineffective, and killing civilians, but we knew that.

While David Leigh again dismisses the significance of WikiLeaks documents, Richard Gizbert tells an anecdote of a conversation he had with a T-shirt salesman:

(00:25:10) GIZBERT: I was surprised at how many people were affected, actually, by those WikiLeaks cables.
This guy said to me, you know that 8,000 of those WikiLeaks cables came out of Islamabad. They didn't tell us anything we didn't know, but it confirmed everything that we knew, that our Government was denying, that Washington was denying.

To only look to WikiLeaks for brand new revelations dismisses a huge part of its value. By publishing official documents, WikiLeaks provides concrete evidence for people's suspicions, which may never be confirmed otherwise. 

Collateral Mistake

David Leigh also spoke in detail about the Collateral Murder video released by WikiLeaks.

(00:22:12) LEIGH: Even the notorious Apache video of the helicopter gun crew gunning down Reuters' employees in error in Baghdad, horrific as it was, wasn't ultimately a scandal on the level of Abu Grahib, say, because it was plain that the soldiers had made a mistake, they had not intentionally murdered these civilians.

Screenshot from Collateral Murder
Even military officials do not call the actions depicted in Collateral Murder a mistake; they say the attacks were justified. Throughout the video, the soldiers in the helicopter are constantly requesting for "permission to engage". A van, which was carrying a man and two children, is fired upon as it attempts to help one of the men shot by the helicopter.

Calling the brutal and intentional killing of civilians a "mistake" is frankly disgusting and severely disrespectful to the victims, their families, and all those who are affected by such violence each and every day. 

David Leigh continues:

LEIGH: And Reuters, it turned out, had already been shown a big chunk of the video, anyway, and chosen to keep quiet about it.

Some Reuters employees were shown the video in an off-the-record briefing. To say that they chose to keep quiet is entirely misleading. Reuters attempted to gain a copy of the video through a FOIA  request, but instead received documents stating the presence of weapons at the scene. After the release of Collateral Murder, Reuters "pressed the U.S. military to conduct a full and objective investigation into the killing of the two staff". Contrary to David Leigh's comment, Reuters showed a strong interest in discovering the truth behind the murders of their journalists.

"I'd like to think...."

Those who have been following the WikiLeaks saga for awhile, may be familiar with David Leigh's infamous 2011 tweet, which became a short-lived meme:

I like to think that if someone like #bradleymanning had first dealt with me at the #guardian, he wouldn't now be in jail

It seems David Leigh has not dropped his habit of imagining alternatives, as he spends a large portion of the discussion attempting to explain how Bradley Manning would be far better off had he leaked to The Guardian instead of WikiLeaks.

He initially dismisses the importance of the question, as he believes that the circumstance of Bradley Manning as a whistleblower was "over and done with" once the chatlogs between Adrian Lamo and Bradley Manning were released. (He also describes Adrian Lamo as a "fellow hacker" of Bradley Manning's, implying that Manning was a hacker as well).

(00:06:09) LEIGH: So the whole issue about whistleblowing and how you handle a source and how you look after them was already over and done with. Had it not been over and done with, I would have said the whole saga's raised some very serious questions about how you do look after sources, because the whole WikiLeaks notion that you could automate the process of leaking, that you could devise a mechanical system under which things could be uploaded and nobody would know who was involved and that you would never even know your source... that this sort of automated approach just doesn't work, because sources are human beings. And Bradley Manning was very much a human being in a very difficult human situation who cracked, talked, confessed to somebody he shouldn’t have done, who he didn't know. If... I don't know, if he'd been our source, I would've liked to think that we would've developed a relationship in which he could have been cared for a bit more and not proceeded to blow himself up. So that, you know, that's my main reaction as a journalist to the whistleblower situation. That you can't handle whistleblowers in a mechanical system or terrible things happen to them like this.

David Leigh blames two people for Bradley Manning's arrest: WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning himself. He blames WikiLeaks for not treating its sources as "human beings", and Bradley Manning for confessing the leaks to Adrian Lamo.

Leigh continues:

(00:35:50) LEIGH: If Bradley Manning had dealt with any professional journalist, I imagine they would have said to him, 'Now shut up, don't say a word of this to any other person'. It seems an obvious thing to say, and obviously he wasn't instructed in that way. And so he goes and talks to someone he doesn't know online and gets himself betrayed.

Leigh is managing to blame both WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning for the same act. WikiLeaks for not telling him to keep quiet, and Bradley Manning for telling Adrian Lamo. Of course, while David Leigh claims it is "obvious" Bradley Manning wasn't instructed to keep secret, that is not something we know. The interaction between Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, besides what was stated by Manning in his testimony, is largely unknown.

It is distressing that Leigh makes no attempt to define Lamo's role in the incident, as he is the person who turned Bradley Manning in, after explicitly telling him the conversation was protected and it was not for publication.

David Leigh continues to bash WikiLeaks' anonymous drop-box system multiple times throughout the panel.

(00:37:05) LEIGH: When this all happened, The Guardian, along with lots of other mainstream media, got very interested in the idea of setting up WikiLeaks-style anonymous dropboxes and so on. And then we all lost interest and thought, this isn't really what it's about. Y'know, these automated systems aren't what it's about; it's about human beings. And y'know, we all do it the same way we did before. If you contact somebody at The Guardian, I'd like to think that they deal with you in a secure and sensitive way as a person.

David Leigh implies that there was no interaction between Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, which, if you have read or listened to Manning's testimony, is entirely false.

Naomi Colvin responds:

(00:34:32) COLVIN: What Bradley describes is... he talks about trying to go to New York Times first, and actually New York Times responded to this... sort of, quite dismissive of it.
After going to The New York Times, trying to contact The Washington Post, what Bradley Manning describes with dealing with WikiLeaks is pretty much a conventional source-journalist relationship.
So I think that trying to draw the hard line between this is how WikiLeaks deals with sources and this is how other media outlets deal with sources, probably isn't all that justified, if you go by what Bradley says.

In Bradley Manning's testimony, he stated the follwing:
Bradley Manning. Photo via AP
Due to the strict adherence of anonymity by the [WikiLeaks organization], we never exchanged identifying information. However, I believe the individual was likely Mr. Julian Assange [he pronounced it with three syllables], Mr. Daniel Schmidt, or a proxy representative of Mr. Assange and Schmidt.
As the communications transferred from IRC to the Jabber client, I gave 'office' and later 'pressassociation' the name of Nathaniel Frank in my address book, after the author of a book I read in 2009.
After a period of time, I developed what I felt was a friendly relationship with Nathaniel. Our mutual interest in information technology and politics made our conversations enjoyable. We engaged in conversation often. Sometimes as long as an hour or more. I often looked forward to my conversations with Nathaniel after work.

According to Bradley Manning himself, there actually seemed to be a great deal of conversation between him and a member of WikiLeaks, which completely contradicts David Leigh's representation of WikiLeaks' submission system as something entirely mechanical, with no respect for the sources.

Furthermore, Leigh never touches on how anonymous drop-boxes are helpful to sources, i.e. that even WikiLeaks is not able to reveal its sources, as they never know who they are. Leigh instead suggests that a less technical approach would be better, referencing Cold War tactics of hiding letters in holed out trees and how the Offshore Leaks were transferred using a harddrive sent via FedEx. (00:40:50) Yet Leigh fails to realize that, had Bradley Manning sent physical items as opposed to digital uploads, Adrian Lamo still would have turned him in, the records of his access would still be on the computers, and the likelihood of his arrest would still have been very high.

Chase Madar also combat Leigh's attacks on WikiLeaks' submission system.

(00:33:33) MADAR: I don't think it's entirely fair to beat on Wikileaks for failing to protect Bradley Manning as a source. Certainly, the New York Times has a terrible record of this. They left Daniel Ellsberg flapping in the breeze 40 years ago, and Ellsberg is still very upset about it.

There is no evidence backing up David Leigh's claim that Bradley Manning would have been better off had he leaked to The Guardian or any other media outlet. In fact, knowing that Bradley Manning attempted to contact mainstream media outlets before WikiLeaks, and knowing past records of poor source protection, Manning quite possibly would have been worse off had he gone to The Guardian.

But David Leigh goes even further, questioning whether Bradley Manning should have even leaked in the first place.

"I sometimes wake up in the night"

(00:23:30) LEIGH: "I hate to say this as a journalist, but in a way, I sometimes wake up in the night and wonder whether it was worth it for Bradley Manning, what he did."

Having stated his belief that all of WikiLeaks' recent releases have been mediocre, David Leigh questions whether it was worth it for Manning to have leaked at all, which put him through long, sometimes torturous confinement, and the possibility of life imprison. While it may seem like Leigh's trying to be sympathetic toward Manning, in reality he is completely undermining Bradley Manning, his morals, and his justification for the leaks.

Naomi Colvin responds, referencing comments made by Manning to Adrian Lamo:

(00:29:16) COLVIN: I just wanted to come back on what David said, about y'know, was it worth it, would Bradley Manning have thought it was worth it. In that conversation with Adrian Lamo that led to Bradley Manning being arrested, he was asked what he wanted to see from what he did. And he said, 'worldwide discussions, debates, and reforms'.

She proceeds to detail the worldwide political action throughout 2011.

COLVIN: All that, that spark of enthusiasm started in the middle east. And the State Department cables are at least a contributing factor to that. I hope that Bradley Manning is sitting wherever he is, in Fort Leavenworth or in Washington, wherever it is, I hope he's very pleased with himself and I hope he's satisfied with what he's done because I think he has every right to be.

David Leigh asking whether it was "worth it" for Bradley Manning shows complete disrespect for Manning's decision to blow the whistle. Because Leigh is dismissive of WikiLeaks' impact, he fails to recognize the importance of Bradley Manning's sacrifice. But as Colvin says, Manning leaked these documents because he wanted to affect the world and inform the public. He was well aware of the risk he was taking, but sacrificed his freedom in order to expose wrongdoings within the U.S. and other governments.

Toward the end of the panel, WikiLeaks staffer Joseph Farrell, present in the audience, asks David Leigh the following:

(1:20:42) FARRELL: The Guardian, during the three major leaks of the Afghan, Iraq, and Cablegate, increased their print run and their sales and clearly benefited a lot from these leaks. And I was wondering, has The Guardian helped towards Manning's defense? Do you know?

David Leigh responds:

LEIGH: Well, I made a donation. That's all I can tell you.

He then refuses to answer a question from Richard Gizbert asking how much.

David Leigh benefited greatly from the WikiLeaks saga. He authored a book on his experiences and The Guardian gained increased sales due to interest in WikiLeaks' coverage.

So, while David Leigh may toss and turn over the possibility that Bradley Manning could have chosen to stay quiet, it seems there is little that he and The Guardian have actually done to support him.

Of course, Leigh couldn't end a WikiLeaks panel without taking a few jabs at Julian Assange.

"The Ecuadorian regime"

During the Q&A session, David Leigh is discussing Julian Assange's situation at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

(1:10:15) LEIGH: He could stay there indefinitely as far as I can see, or until the Ecuadorian regime is replaced by a different el presidente.

Richard Gizbert immediately questions him about using "regime":

GIZBERT: "Regime? You see it as a regime, or..."
LEIGH: "Well, you know, I mean the administration."

Regime carries the connotation of a non-democratic, authoritarian government. To use it in reference to Ecuador, a democratic republic with an elected president, is extremely misleading. Although, it is of little surprise coming from David Leigh, as The Guardian is one of the papers who decided to publish multiple articles attacking Ecuador shortly after Julian Assange took refuge in the Embassy. David Leigh's description of it as a "regime" does not fall short from The Guardian tree.

"I'm a professional journalist"

Another audience member asks a detailed question about David Leigh's appearance in Channel 4's documentary "WikiLeaks: Secrets and Lies":

(1:14:30) AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you not think that by trashing and by character assassination of Julian Assange in the Channel 4 documentary you have assisted Julian and Bradley Manning's detractors and even detracted from the broader principle that we're all looking for out of this, which is of freedom of information?
David Leigh. (screenshot via Youtube)
After listening to the question, David Leigh asks, "Me?", as if in surprise, despite the question being directly addressed to him.

LEIGH: What, because I gave an interview on a Channel 4 documentary about Assange.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Uh, you gave more than an interview in a Channel 4 documentary. Looked to anybody who was watching the film as if you had appeared with the sole intention of assassinating the character of Julian Assange.

LEIGH: Well, if you think that then there's no discussion to be had, because that's just dumb. I'm a professional journalist, I'm not an assassinator.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: The way you describe Julian Assange, now I can't quote from the documentary, but there was a constant preoccupation with his personality, which you found displeasing or inadequate or in some way, you know, there's something wrong with it. So, the impression you're left in that documentary was that Julian Assange is barmy, and that therefore the unfortunate outcome of that documentary was that public were persuaded that what he was trying to do was lacking in any value.

LEIGH: Well, I guess people can come to their own conclusions. People who have watched that documentary would have come to very different conclusions to you. And if you think I'm a person that spends my time assassinating Julian Assange, you don't understand the practice of professional journalism.

The documentary discussed came under a huge amount of controversy due to its biased take. Not only was David Leigh interviewed in the film, as he claims, but he was also "the programme's fact-checker and was paid 'consultancy fees' for this role", as reported by WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks filed an Ofcom complaint over the inaccuracies of the film, however the complaint was ultimately dismissed. I previously wrote on "Secrets and Lies" in 2012, noting comments from Der Spiegel's Holger Stark about omitted facts. For David Leigh to berate the audience member as "dumb" for bringing this up is far from "professional".

And one last point, David Leigh seems to believe that "mainstream media" is some crazy term coined by Julian Assange:
(01:17:12) LEIGH: We're the mainstream media, as he calls it. And from the get-go, Julian disliked us, the mainstream media, the MSM, as he calls us.

Wikipedia defines "mainstream media" thusly:

Mainstream media (MSM) are those media disseminated via the largest distribution channels, which therefore represent what the majority of media consumers are likely to encounter. The term also denotes those media generally reflective of the prevailing currents of thought, influence, or activity.

It's not "the mainstream media, as Julian Assange calls it" it's the mainstream media, as everyone calls it. As The Guardian is the third most circulated newspaper in the UK, there's little to argue against it being part of the MSM.

David Leigh's attitude throughout this entire event was hugely disrespectful, not only to WikiLeaks, but to Bradley Manning, to victims of the Iraq War and their families, and to all those who have discovered important truths hidden within WikiLeaks documents. For someone who has benefited so greatly from WikiLeaks, Leigh shows absolutely no gratitude. His attempted sympathy for Bradley Manning falls flat, as it shows no understanding of Manning and his stated motives.

To have David Leigh describe himself as a "professional journalist" after this disgraceful display of ignorance and disrespect is truly laughable.