Wikileaks – The Smear And The Denial – Part 2

The UK and US media smears described in Part 1 should be kept in mind when considering the gravity and importance of the latest WikiLeaks. In addition to thousands of previously unreported civilian killings, the leaks revealed more than 1,300 claims of torture by Iraqi police and military between 2005 and 2009. More than 180,000 people were detained at some point between 2004 and 2009, or one in 50 Iraqi males.

But these are only the incidents the US military knew about, or chose to know about, or chose to report; and the documents are an unknown sample of all documentation held by the US government. There are, for example, no reports from the “shock and awe” year of 2003, and none from the tens of thousands of after-attack Pentagon bombing assessments. The leaks also report no civilian deaths in major US atrocities, including the offensive that devastated Fallujah in 2004.

The leaks corroborate previous allegations that US forces turned over prisoners to the Wolf Brigade, the feared 2nd battalion of the Iraqi interior ministry’s commandos, infamous for their torture and extra judicial killings. This was not merely ‘turning a blind eye’ to torture, as investigative journalist Gareth Porter notes: “The implication was that the Shi’a commandos would be able to extract more information from the detainees than would be allowed by U.S. rules.”

US forces, then, were complicit in the torture. Indeed, under international law, as the occupying power, the coalition is accountable for all of these crimes.

US troops are actually commanded to not investigate the tortures by an order called Frago 242. Issued in June 2004, this instructs coalition troops not to investigate any abuse of detainees unless it directly involves members of the coalition. Where the alleged abuse is committed by Iraqi forces on Iraqis, “only an initial report will be made… No further investigation will be required unless directed by HQ”.
The leaks reveal that the US military was also aware that the Iraqi government had murdered detainees.

Civilian Deaths – The “Standard Accepted Figure”

The leaks reveal, not just a staggering level of violence and criminality in occupied Iraq, but also the determination of the Iraqi government and US forces to hide civilian casualties.

This is hardly surprising and fits with evidence that the US and UK governments have worked hard to smear credible scientific analysis of the likely death toll. A recent study by Professor Brian Rappert of the University of Exeter reported of the UK government: “deliberations were geared in a particular direction – towards finding grounds for rejecting the [2004] Lancet study [estimating almost 100,000 Iraqi deaths from the war] without any evidence of countervailing efforts by government officials to produce or endorse alternative other studies or data”.

Nevertheless, with a near-uniform intellectual sleight of hand, journalists have managed to turn evidence that civilian casualties are likely much higher (as much as ten times higher) than most media have been reporting into evidence that casualties are perhaps 15 per cent higher. As one seasoned journalist told us privately, “WikiLeaks has been Guardianised” – their true significance has been disarmed, defanged and contained by the media.

This has been achieved by ignoring obvious implications of the leaks for the media’s preferred death toll source, Iraq Body Count (IBC), and by ignoring much higher death counts altogether, notably those offered by the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies. It has been achieved by turning to IBC spokespeople and by blanking alternative sources offering a very different view.

Recall that, prior to the latest WikiLeaks, IBC had offered a “maximum” figure of around 100,000 civilian deaths by violence as reported by the media. The second (2006) Lancet study found 655,000 excess deaths as a result of the 2003 invasion. The BBC’s Paul Reynolds quoted IBC:

“‘On the basis of these analyses [of WikiLeaks] IBC is able to conclude that some 15,000 hitherto unrecorded civilian deaths will be added to the public record from the Iraq War Logs, and that these, together with new information on combatant deaths contained in the logs, will bring the recorded death toll since March 2003 to over 150,000, roughly 80% of whom were civilians.’”

Reynolds added:

“So 120,000 might well become the standard accepted figure for civilian deaths in the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, unless an examination of all the new logs shows otherwise.”

We asked Reynolds why he had quoted both IBC’s figures and personnel without even mentioning the Lancet studies. Why had he not turned to Lancet co-authors Les Roberts and Gilbert Burnham for their opinion? Reynolds replied:

“Calm down, David… I have e-mailed Les Roberts and have added his reply.” (Email to Media Lens, October 26, 2010)

In his reply, Roberts wrote:

“I remain confident that because people are systematically prone to under-report deaths, our 600,000 violent death estimate by mid-2006 was too low!”

He added:

“There are just so many things that are not consistent with 120,000 deaths! The ORB 11/07 and BBC polls that are completely at odds with the IBC implication that 1 in 20 or 1 in 25 Iraqi households have lost someone to violence. The ORB implication that 1 in 4 households have lost someone matches all the ground reports I hear. You cannot have the Iraqi Ambassador reporting half a million new war widows or UNICEF speculating that there are a million orphans if there are 120,000 war deaths.”

As we will see, this is a rare exception to the media rule of ignoring the Lancet authors.

The New York Times reported that the leak “does seem to suggest numbers that are roughly in line with those compiled by several sources, including Iraq Body Count…”

In the Guardian, assistant editor Michael White, wrote:

“The war logs suggest 109,032 deaths, including 15,000 that the Iraq Body Count (IBC) survey was unaware of, far fewer than others claim, as [Princeton University’s] Jacob Shapiro points out in his warning note.”

White added:

“One last point here. As Shapiro points out, the war logs cannot be the last word on the Iraq war and occupation’s death toll. But, even allowing for its likely failings, the war log total of 109,032 is still way short of the 655,000 deaths – including indirect ones – reported by Johns Hopkins University via the Lancet magazine in October 2006. Yet again the Lancet’s figures fail to tally with another source by some distance.” (White, ‘Iraq war logs: who did the killing?’ The Guardian, October 25, 2010)

We have seen many foolish comments from journalists over the years, but this truly numbs the mind – the fingers (temporarily) rest motionless on the keyboard. What to say? Perhaps this: the war logs record an unknown portion of violent deaths reported by US troops in the field; they are only as good as the military calling them in, and we know the military has sought to suppress the truth. As we have noted, the logs do not even contain the tens of thousands of after-attack Pentagon bombing assessments. They cannot conceivably be considered comprehensive, complete, or in any way scientific. By contrast, the 2006 Lancet study estimated +all+ excess deaths as a result of the war (not just from violence) through proven epidemiological methods. To criticise an apple because it is not an orange is simply to make a lemon of oneself.

To his credit, White did at least mention the Lancet studies – a rare feat for our media. On November 4, with the help of US-based media analyst David Peterson, we conducted a LexisNexis search of media reporting on WikiLeaks. Using several search categories, we checked for articles mentioning ‘WikiLeaks’, for articles mentioning ‘WikiLeaks’ and ‘Iraq Body Count’, and for articles mentioning ‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Lancet’ between October 23 and November 4. This is what we found:

UK Broadsheets
‘Wikileaks’: 103 mentions
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Iraq Body Count’: 17
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Lancet’: 0

UK Nationals
‘Wikileaks’: 137
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Iraq Body Count’: 21
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Lancet’: 0

UK Newspaper Stories
‘Wikileaks’: 204
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Iraq Body Count’: 28
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Lancet’: 0

UK Publications
‘Wikileaks’: 320
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Iraq Body Count’: 31
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Lancet’: 1 [Michael White‘s Guardian article]

UK Wire Service Stories
‘Wikileaks’: 11
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Iraq Body Count’: 1
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Lancet’: 0

On November 4, we also conducted a Factiva database search covering October 23-November 4 under the categories ‘Wires’ (twir) and ‘Newspapers: All’ (tnwp). Factiva covers major sources in the US, UK, and elsewhere:

1. rst=(twir or tnwp) and Wikileaks: 1,374
2. rst=(twir or tnwp) and Wikileaks and Iraq Body Count: 107
3. rst=(twir or tnwp) and Wikileaks and Lancet: 5

The tiny handful of mentions of Lancet are as follows:

Michael White, ‘Iraq war logs: who did the killing?’ The Guardian, October 26, 2010

‘WikiLeaks “truth”; The secret history of the Iraq war turns out to be pretty familiar,’ Editorial, Washington Post, October 26, 2010

‘U.S. editorial excerpts,’ Kyodo News, October 26, 2010 (a reprint of the Washington Post editorial)

‘WikiLeaks’ release of war files gives little new on Iraq,’ Editorial, Winnipeg Free Press, October 27, 2010 (also a reprint of the Washington Post editorial)

Les Roberts and Gilbert Burnham, ‘A clouded view from Iraq,’ Letter, Washington Post, October 29, 2010

The 126-word-long letter in reply from Roberts and Burnham published by the Washington Post constitutes the +only+ defence of the Lancet studies we have been able to find (apart from the BBC‘s inclusion of Roberts’ comments on our prompting, mentioned above).


The “Mouse Journalism” That Didn’t Roar

In a Guardian article, IBC’s Harmit Dardagan and John Sloboda noted that “the war logs are likely to add some 15,000 previously unreported deaths of civilians and police to public knowledge”.

What the IBC authors failed to acknowledge is that the logs have obvious and serious implications for the comprehensiveness of their study.

The logs +prove+ that the US and Iraqi governments lied about civilian deaths and sought to cover them up. This is a problem because the IBC study is based on media reports in a country where the ability of journalists to report civilian deaths, and indeed to stay alive, is absolutely dependent on US and Iraqi government support and military cooperation.

As we have described in previous alerts, IBC-style media counts tend to record +less+ deaths when violence increases, particularly when journalists are being targeted for attack. Patrick Ball, co-author of the book ‘State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996’, was questioned about the disparity between the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies, and figures from media-based counts like IBC. Ball replied:

“I’ve found a similar disparity between reported deaths and likely deaths in other conflicts that I’ve studied in Guatemala, Kosovo, Peru and Timor-Leste. Methods such as media reports typically capture violence well when it is moderate, but when it really increases, they miss a great deal. There are a series of biases regarding what gets reported – we get very good reports about journalists killed, but not rural peasants; we know about big landowners, but not grassroots union organizers.”

This is significant because Iraq is the most dangerous conflict journalists have covered since the Second World War. The evidence that they have been barely able to function is overwhelming. In 2005, the Independent’s Robert Fisk told the Toronto Star:

“Right now, coverage of the war in Iraq has been reduced to ‘mouse journalism,’ says Fisk. That’s because it’s too dangerous for journalists to venture into the streets for more than 20 minutes or so. That’s all it takes for a cellphone call to be placed and a car of men to arrive.

“‘NBC lives behind a kind of cage on the 7th floor of a hotel. Their armed security men tell them they can use the cafe downstairs but not the swim pool which is overlooked by an apartment block in which Iraqis live. The Associated Press lives behind two steel walls in the Palestine Hotel. It takes 10 minutes to negotiate your way into the newsroom. The New York Times has a stockade of concrete and steel with four watchtowers and Iraqis wearing T-shirts with New York Times on them and armed with Kalashnikov rifles.

“‘My objection is not that they don’t leave their hotels. My objection is that they don’t tell their readers, listeners and viewers that they don’t leave their hotels – giving the impression that they can make a tour d’horizon, they can check out stories on the streets.’”

In reporting the latest WikiLeaks, Paul Jay of the Real News Network asked Iraqi journalist Sahar Issa about the threats facing journalists. Jay began by quoting from a speech Issa made in 2007:

“To be a journalist in violence-ridden Iraq today, ladies and gentlemen, is not a matter lightly undertaken. Every path is strewn with danger, every checkpoint, every question a direct threat. Every interview we conduct may be our last.”

In his interview, Jay asked Issa if it was less dangerous in Iraq now. Issa replied:

“It is less dangerous. However, the targets now are more defined (before, it used to be more random), so that journalists are targeted. We don’t know where from, exactly, whether it is by people who don’t want Iraqis to work with the foreign agencies, whether it is by hardcore Islamists who simply don’t want the news about the violence and the chaos that is taking place in Iraq to be out. And at the same time, we have suspected very much that some of the violence also came from the political side, because so much that was questionable, nobody wanted a witness there for the things that were happening, and that’s what we were, witnesses.”

JAY: “By ‘the political side’ you mean the Iraqi government.”

ISSA: “The Iraqi government, yes, of course.”

JAY: “Or US Forces.”

ISSA: “The US Forces, Iraqi government. Now, because generally speaking the violence has gone down, we can see that the targeting is more defined. So now in Iraq who is being targeted? It is journalists, it is security forces, and it is government officials. So we know.”

Given this climate of fear, how likely is it that the public would even talk to journalists about civilian deaths, much less Iraqi state agencies? Last week, Saleh Al-Mutlaq, head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, the largest Sunni party in Iraq, told Al Jazeera:

“Nothing will change until the [Iraqi] government will be changed. And when it will be changed, then we will find out that the number of the crimes that have been reported in this [WikiLeaks] report will be multiplied by a high factor. At that time the Iraqis will have their own right, they will be free to say what had been done to them. Now the reports are only coming from outside. The Iraqis are not being able to tell the world what happened in this country.”

Asked why Iraqis were not free to report the truth now, Al-Mutlaq answered:

“Because if they say anything, they will be taken to jail. I have seen many people who were released from jail and freed because they had done nothing. But they were tortured in a very inhuman way. And then when I asked them, ‘Why don’t you tell the media?’ They said ‘They [the torturers] told us if you tell anything, then we will get you back.’ So everybody now is silent, they are waiting the time when they will give their cases to the court.”

In light of this evidence, how can journalists justify relying solely on IBC’s media-based figures, while ignoring the credible, peer-reviewed epidemiological science of the Lancet studies?

Reviewing the WikiLeaks, Professor John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies, comments:

“The most authoritative review of all the mortality estimates – passive and active – appeared in the professional journal Conflict and Health in March 2008, and concluded that population-based surveys are superior (for the reasons discussed here), and that ‘of the population-based studies, the [Lancet] studies provided the most rigorous methodology.’ The passive reporting, these experts agree, suffers from under-reporting and inability to capture indirect deaths, and thereby called into question the estimates of IBC, the Brookings index, the U.N. office in Baghdad, and other such efforts.

“There is also the matter of corroborating evidence, which typically is overlooked. Two pieces in particular are powerful. The first is the number of displaced Iraqis, estimated between 3.5 and 5 million. Hundreds of interviews of those in Syria and Jordan suggest nearly all fled because of violence in their neighborhoods. No war has produced more than about a 10 to 1 ratio of displaced to dead, and in most wars the ratio is about 5 to 1 or narrower. The 5 to 1 ratio would translate into at least 700,000 deaths in Iraq. The second and less reliable number is the overwhelming number of widows, some from earlier wars, which the Iraqi government has variously estimated at about 750,000.”

Tirman concludes:

“The evidence, then, is rather clear and compelling. Something like 700,000 or more Iraqis have been killed either through direct or ‘structural’ violence in the period since the U.S. invaded more than seven years ago. The number could easily be as high as a million.”


Iraq’s Lethal Morgues

In recent years IBC has not relied solely on media reports; it now also includes state sources such as morgues. An insight into the problems surrounding this data was provided by a long-serving journalist working in Iraq for a major news organisation. We asked him:

“How do journalists go about learning of civilian casualties in Iraq? Where do they normally receive the information? Are they informed by Coalition forces or by the Iraqi government? And do they then travel to the scene? Is there some other mechanism for finding out?” (October 27, 2010)

The journalist, who preferred to comment anonymously, responded:

“accurate casualty figures were always tough to come by: the best way was to phone the morgue in any given city after an attack, as under Iraqi law any violent death was supposed to be submitted for an autopsy. They kept the most thorough lists, although of course plenty of bodies were dumped in rivers and lakes in the worst days and may never be found, although the authorities did send divers down in some of the worst spots.

“The US casualty figures were always sketchy at best (and as the WikiLeaks showed, they consistently lied about not keeping a tab) mainly because they were frequently based on a battlefield assessment, ie some grunt who was scared witless claiming that he’d shot X number of people, but with no verification afterwards. The ministry of health was supposed to keep its own figures, but it took years for it to start functioning properly after the invasion, and for key periods of the civil war was controlled by the Sadrists, whose information was liable to be questionable (though the ministry did have some very professional civil servants working for it who gave us good assessments of the situation).” (Email to Media Lens, October 29, 2010)

We replied the same day:

“I read that Iraqi families often don’t come forward when family members have been killed because they’re terrified of being associated with the insurgency and warring factions. Where does all this leave the Iraq Body Count figure of 100,000 deaths based mostly on media reports?”

He responded again:

“Journalists do go out and cover individual incidents – it used to be incredibly dangerous to do so, less so now, although still risky. In 2005-07 simply getting outside the hotel involved military-style planning, and a bunch of hacks still got lifted as soon as they left their hotel compounds. Now you can get to most places, though some are still quasi off limits to just show up in without setting up meetings in advance. But while that gives you the individual accounts, it’ll never give you an accurate overall death toll of a sprawling war like Iraq.

“I think the figures were blurred mainly for the reasons I mentioned earlier, but also, as you said, on occasion because of the problems associated with reporting any death. For a while, for example, Sunnis were terrified of going to the morgues, because the Shia militias (many of whom were ‘legit’ policemen) would wait for them at the morgue and pick them up, then ask the families for a ransom – then usually kill them anyway, so the business of registering a death produced another series of deaths. But generally the morgues would register the arrival of bodies, no matter how disfigured and even if they remained unidentified…

“There may be a more accurate picture of the death toll years down the line, but I think it will take time – they’d need a lot of security to check all the remote dumping sites of bodies from the death squads, and at the moment there are still too many of the civil war politicians in place to have a real interest in doing so. For example, Bayyan Jabr was the interior minister when whole streets of people were being carted off in police trucks in broad daylight, then being found days later drilled to death with no eyes or kneecaps – last time I checked, he was still the finance minister.” (Email to Media Lens, October 30, 2010)


A Disservice To Truth?

In their Guardian article, IBC’s Dardagan and Sloboda had nothing at all to say about these factors limiting the reliability of their count as a realistic death toll. This takes some explaining. IBC are well aware that mainstream journalists have, for years, presented their figures as a likely maximum +total+ for civilians killed in the war. Even more troubling, IBC works hard, not merely to identify the limitations it perceives in other studies, but to trash them! In a blog on their website with the sober title, ‘Exaggerated claims, substandard research, and a disservice to truth,’ IBC wrote in May:

“There have been several survey-based attempts to roughly estimate the number of Iraqis killed as a result of the 2003 invasion and subsequent conflict. It is unfortunate that… the most flawed and inadequate work has dominated public discourse. This has been largely due to the shocking (but ultimately numbing) effect of their hugely exaggerated death toll figures.”

Recall that IBC is a website run by a professor of music psychology and other helpers (one of IBC’s key analysts, Joshua Dougherty, has been described on the website as “a guitarist”) involved in what they accept is the humble work of data collection. Nevertheless, they feel qualified to offer scathing judgements of the peer-reviewed science:

“Iraq Body Count (IBC) applied an early and so far unanswered set of reality checks to the Johns Hopkins survey published in the Lancet in October 2006, a paper which has recently been comprehensively discredited in a new study by Prof. Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway University. Even among the generally inexact survey results for deaths in Iraq the ‘Lancet estimate’ was an extreme outlier…”


“In a meticulous and detailed analysis of ORB’s survey [an Opinion Research Business survey estimating one million murdered Iraqis between 2003-2007], IBC researcher Josh Dougherty and Spagat have laid to rest any notion that ORB’s massive estimate is even nominally sound, let alone capable of providing validation for another outlier.”

Moreover, we are told, neither the Lancet studies, nor ORB, have anything to “contribute, even in broad outline, to the work that lies ahead”, for they are offering “the manipulation of numbers disconnected from reality”.

This, we need hardly note, is the language of propaganda, not science. But it is language that has appealed to, and influenced, journalists who have turned to IBC as a one-stop shop for opinion on the Iraq death toll.

Responding to criticism from a leading professional epidemiologist that he and his colleagues are in fact “amateurs” in the field of mortality studies, IBC’s John Sloboda responded:

“Our position is, and always has been, that reading press reports, which is what this job is, requires nothing other than care and literacy. The whole point about it is that it doesn’t require statistical analysis or extrapolations.”

But claiming that a study published in one of the world’s leading science journals has been “comprehensively discredited” involves much more than just “reading press reports”.

Why, we have to ask, would IBC subject other studies to such fierce criticism while failing to highlight even the most obvious limitations of its own study? And why are journalists not able to see that the latest leaks make these limitations even clearer?

As ever, the commentators asking the important questions will be “the people who comment online under articles”, while “responsibility” will remain “the preserve of professionals”.



The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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