Jekaterina Saveljeva

WikiLeaks video ‘electrified’ public to civilian war deaths, court hears

New Zealand investigative journalist and author Nicky Hager said that WikiLeaks’ publication of a video showing a US helicopter firing on civilians, along with the publication of secret war logs, ‘electrified’ the world to civilian deaths

WikiLeaks’ publication of a video showing US forces killing innocent people in Iraq “electrified” the world to the impact of war on civilians, a court heard on Friday.

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager said that the video, coupled with WikiLeaks’ publication of 400,000 Iraq war logs, had a profound effect on the public.

Hager, who has written books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Central Criminal Court that the material was of the highest public interest and ranked as some of the most important material he had used in his life.

The impact of the video, which showed helicopter gunmen shoot at least 18 people, was equivalent to the impact footage of George Floyd, who died after saying repeatedly “I can’t breathe” when he was knelt on by a US police officer.

Until that point, civilian casualties had not been given attention, said Hager, but the rules of engagement were changed in Afghanistan as a result of WikiLeaks’ publications.

Julian Assange, 49, faces 18 charges, including 17 under the US Espionage Act 1917 related to WikiLeaks publishing a series of leaked documents from Chelsea Manning, a former US Army soldier turned whistleblower, in 2010-11.

Assange has been charged with a superseding indictment, which introduces new allegations that he conspired with hacking groups to obtain classified documents, including publishing a list of the most wanted leaks.

Hager told the court that confidential sources and unauthorised leaks were essential to allow journalism to perform its role of informing the public, supporting democracy and deterring wrongdoing.

“There are some subjects so secret that we cannot work on them to an adequate standard,” he said. “We need classified information if we are going to inform the public.”

Questioned by Mark Summers, QC for the defence, Hager said that whenever previously classified or hidden information reaches the public, it is invariably met with claims that the publication will do great harm.

“Invariably, in my experience, the information quite quickly becomes an accepted and uncontroversial part of the great sum of knowledge in democratic societies,” he said. “The claims of harm are shown to have been widely exaggerated and no serious harm results.”

Hager said he had spent a lot of time studying the Afghan War logs, which were made public by WikiLeaks in 2010, for his book Other people’s wars.

They revealed multiple layers of the war, including psychological operations, tactical intelligence and special forces operations, and CIA-paid forces effectively running a separate war.

Julian Assange in court

Hager visited the UK in 2010, met with Assange and was offered advanced access to the US embassy cables to prepare stories for New Zealand and Australia.

He said WikiLeaks had come up with a way to have a more rigorous process of simultaneously vetting and publishing documents to make sure no one was harmed.

It had brought in media partners from different parts of the world to read documents, write stories and be the local eyes to see where the risks were.

“My experience was that they were very serious about what they were doing and they were being very serious and responsible,” he said. “My memory was of people working hour after hour in total silence getting on with their work.”

Hager said he found Assange to be thoughtful, humorous and energetic. “I saw nothing of the difficult character portrayed in the media,” he said.

Assange faces ‘mishmash’ of charges

Under cross-examination by James Lewis QC, representing the government, Hager said Assange appeared to be facing a “mishmash” of charges.

“There are charges of publication of official information and it appears to me that various things have been appended to it to strengthen the charges,” he said.

Hager agreed with Lewis that Assange had not been charged with publishing the “Collateral murder” video, but he said it was the combined effect of the video with other information published by WikiLeaks that was important.

“The way that information has an effect on the world through media and public debate does not happen in a neat way as in a court room,” he said. “The war diaries, the video, the Guantanamo detention reports affect the world as a whole.”

Lewis pressed Hager on whether he had ever paid a government official to disclose a secret, conspired with a government official to hack a computer, or conspired with a government official to crack a password.

“What you are asking here is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the work that I do,” said Hager. “The part I am picking up is passivity. You might imagine investigative journalists protect themselves by only receiving information passively.”

Investigative journalists go out and find sources, encourage them to provide information, to provide documents or a memory stick, he said. “We work with people who are, in most cases, breaking the law when they work with us. We have to talk with them how to protect themselves. We have pastoral responsibilities.”

Questions over unredacted documents

Lewis followed a line of questioning he has pursued with other defence witnesses.

He quoted an article from The Guardian criticising a decision by WikiLeaks to publish its full archive of secret US diplomatic cables without redaction, “potentially exposing thousands of individuals named in the documents to detention, harm or putting their lives in danger”.

Hager responded: “WikiLeaks did not release it until it came out in other places. That is my understanding.”

Lewis referred to claims reported in the Los Angeles Times that WikiLeaks had published 133,000 state department cables that contained some names marked “strictly protect” and had put lives in danger, asking whether Hager would like to revise his answer.

“I am sure you know those facts are disputed facts,” said Hager. “I don’t want to give an answer to a hypothetical question when the facts are disputed.”

Lewis also questioned Hager about the book Inside WikiLeaks written by journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding.

Taken with a pinch of salt

According to the book, one evening at the Moro restaurant in London, Leigh raised concerns with Assange about the risk of publishing documents.

“Well, they’re informants,” Assange is quoted as saying. “So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”

Hager said he knew through investigative journalist networks that there was bitter antagonism between Leigh and Assange at the time.

“I would take anything written with a pinch of salt,” he said. “If I think a source is unreliable, there is no basis in me making a comment.”

Lewis said the prosecution had footage of an interview with Assange at the Frontline Club for journalists in 2010, in which he said it was regrettable that sources disclosed by WikiLeaks may face some threat.

Lewis said that Assange said in the interview: “We are not obligated to protect other people’s sources, military sources or spy organisations unless from unjust retribution.”

Hager said he did not agree with that statement.

Questioned by counsel for Assange, Hager said it was significant that WikiLeaks had not published unredacted documents until they had previously been published in other media.

He said WikiLeaks had taken great care to redact information when he was working with the organisation. “I don’t believe that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks changed their mind and did not care any more,” he added.

Hager said there was a nine-month gap before WikiLeaks’ publication, which meant the US government had nine months to contact anyone at risk. 

Assange led efforts to contact the State Department, so it could contact vulnerable sources, he said.

Other websites published the documents first for their own reasons, after a password related to a database of documents on the internet was published, Hager told the court.

He said that in his view, the quote from Assange in Leigh and Harding’s book was unreliable given that The Guardian and WikiLeaks had fallen out. “If I was writing a book, I would not use that as a solid piece of evidence, not in those circumstances,” he said.

Hager said he was aware that one of the charges against Assange concerned receiving and obtaining the military’s rules of engagement.

“There was a realisation that civilian casualties were out of control during those wars,” he said. “It was a highly relevant document to be published.

“The idea that publishing them [the rules] puts troops at risk is a based on a severe misunderstanding.”

Read more about Julian Assange’s September extradition hearing at the Old Bailey

Read more on Hackers and cybercrime prevention

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