Meet Daniel Hale, former keyboard warrior – my use of the term is non metaphoric – on the US Air Force drone warfare programme. This morning I awoke to learn that yesterday, July 27, he was jailed for forty-five months. 1
Daniel had leaked detailed information, on how his employer chooses its targets, to show the high numbers of civilians killed by these allegedly precision attacks.
Headline today in UK newspaper, The Independent. Click the image for its report of the sentencing.
Virginia is Washington’s venue of choice for prosecuting whistle blowers. Its concentration of bread winners in military and intelligence sectors reduces the likelihood of anti-war jurors. So it was before a federal court judge in Richmond, the state capital, that Daniel took to his feet on 27/7/2021 to explain that he had wanted to expose “the lie that drone warfare keeps us safe”.
I stole something that was never mine to take; precious human life. I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretend that things weren’t happening that were. Please, your honour, forgive me for taking papers instead of human lives.
Since Obama launched it in 2004, the drone programme has by various reckonings killed many thousands of people, including children and US citizens. Prior to Daniel Hale’s revelations, truly accurate data on such ‘collateral damage’ had been hard to come by given the circular logic of DC’s routine depiction of all victims of drone strikes as, ipso facto, “enemies killed in action”.
As it happens, late last night I was surfing Netflix: too tired to write, too wired to sleep. Purely by chance I opted for Official Secrets, the story of Katharine Gun. Of whom a Guardian writer wrote in March 2013: 2
She had in February 2003 received an email … asking her and GCHQ colleagues to help in an intelligence “surge” to secure a UN resolution to send troops into Iraq. Horrified, she leaked it to the Observer. She lost her job and was tried under the Official Secrets Act.
The email from Frank Koza, chief of staff at the NSA, GCHQ’s sister org in the US, has shocking implications for British sovereignty. It was a direct order to employees of a UK agency to gather “information to give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals”. This included … “swing nations” on the security council: Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, “as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters”.
The story electrified the international debate during the weeks of diplomatic deadlock and bolstered opposition to the US position from Chilean and Mexican diplomats weary of American “dirty tricks”. The same countries demanded answers from the British government about its involvement in the spying. With the operation blown, the chances of Bush and Blair getting a direct UN mandate for war were now near zero.
For the Observer too it was a story full of risks. The paper had taken the controversial decision to back intervention in Iraq. 3 Yet this had the capacity to derail the war. It is to the credit of Roger Alton, the paper’s editor, that he stuck with the story.
Gun had hoped to prick the conscience of a British public already taking to the streets to oppose the war. Surely, when people realised that the UK was being asked to collaborate in an operation to find out personal information to blackmail UN delegates, they would be outraged and the UK government would halt its slide into war. She failed.
A decade on I asked if she stood by what she had done. “No regrets,” she said. “But nobody acted. The more we find out that the million-person march was a real worry for Downing Street and Blair, it makes you think we were so close and yet so far.”
Now there is the possibility that Gun’s singular life will be made into a movie …
That movie being the one I watched last night. It has Kiera Knightley as Katharine Gun, while Matt Smith (the eleventh Dr Who, and a convincing Prince Philip in The Crown) plays the man who penned the above: Guardian/Observer feature writer Martin Bright.
Let me draw out, with a brevity bordering on the cavalier, some of the implications here.
One, reporting war crimes as a crime.
Just as US prosecutors conceded, at the trial of brave Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning that no lives were put at risk by his (now her) revelations, there is no suggestion that Daniel Hale, sentenced yesterday to almost four years, endangered US or other lives by his acts.
As for the wider point, I think Edward Snowden makes it rather well. 4
Two, the real nature of the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with Washington
Just as the extradition hearing of Julian Assange showed a British state willing to play fast and loose with a sacred tenet of democracy – the separation of executive from judicial powers – to please its masters in DC …
a Spanish Security firm bugged Julian at the Ecuador Embassy and delivered the A/V files to the CIA. This alone should have seen the US case thrown out
… so did the email Katharine Gun courageously leaked show the same squalid realpolitik behind the “special relationship”. Like Hale’s and Manning’s, her whistle blowing posed no risk to human life. Quite the opposite. She had tried to expose an important brick in the wall of lies through which a war of aggression – “the supreme international crime” at Nuremberg – which would take at least a million lives 5 and unleash ISIS was being sold on both sides of the Atlantic.
(A third indicator of the true nature of the ‘special relationship’ is given by Tony Blair’s halting of a SFO investigation into Saudi arms bribes. It too features the ditching with breath-taking casuality of a separation of powers principle going back centuries. House of Saud is more than a valued buyer of British arms. That’s big, but bigger still is Riyadh’s Faustian Pact with Washington: as vital as Israel’s – some say more so 6 – to US control of the middle east.)
Three, the limited ability of corporate media to tell us the truth about power
I’m prepared to believe Official Secrets, the movie, to be – subject to the constraints of realist story-telling in a medium which must above all entertain us 7 – a fair depiction of what happened. In which case Matt Smith’s Martin Bright emerges with credit. So does the Guardian’s mercurial Ed Vulliamy 8 as played by Rhys Ifans of Notting Hill romcom fame. So does Observer Editor Roger Alton (Conleth Hill) who for all his regime change enthusiasm had the nous to recognise a monster when he saw one.
And the balls to run with it.
Which raises an issue I’ve spent many words on: the co-existence of subjectively honest journalists – at times courageously so – with corporate media systemically incapable of speaking truth to power on issues of non negotiable importance to those who, beneath an increasingly thin veneer of democracy, truly run the Western world.
This seeming contradiction is explored in my post of March this year – Journalists: are they hypocritical cowards?
The risks taken by the Observer in 2003, when it front-paged Katharine Gun’s email from Frank Koza at NSA, are not to be downplayed. (The film is worth watching for its plausibly fly on the wall view of the heated exchanges leading to Alton’s decision to publish.)
But nor should those risks be overstated. Noam Chomsky:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
The objective mission of Guardian Media Group is to cater to a segment of that spectrum. (A segment itself a spectrum, taking in an intelligentsia of centre-right through to ‘soft’ and even ‘hard’ left stripe.) Its market position obliges it to take calculated risks on pain of losing out to competitors who might outscoop it. But it takes these risks within the context of corporate media subject to market forces through advertising: hence to ruling class agendas pursued, without need for conspiracy, by a mix of (a) ideology absorbed as common sense, (b) business realism and (c) career focus.
To Upton Sinclair’s insight – it’s hard to get a man to see a truth his salary depends on him not seeing – we can add that journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. Editors who know what’s good for them please owners. Owners not only crave honours and a place at the high table (the risk of losing access to Whitehall corridors is momentarily aired in Official Secrets). They also need advertisers and/or, in the case of a Guardian now far more Atlanticist than in 2003, wealthy donors.
Says former Guardian columnist Jonathan Cook, aptly enough in a CounterPunch piece on the most hounded whistle blower of them all:
The Guardian depends on advertising and is premised on maximising its market share, just as Mail, Sun and Times are. In this, newspapers are no different from supermarkets. If they fail to corner their section of the market, another corporation will seize it from them.
Assange understood this, as he explained in 2011 after learning that the Guardian had been breaking its agreements with Wikileaks and sharing confidential files:
What drives a paper like the Guardian or New York Times is not inner moral values. It is that they have a market. In the UK, it is called ‘educated liberals’. Educated liberals want a newspaper like the Guardian so an institution arises to fulfil that market.
Most Guardian writers cater to the general “educated liberals” market. But some are there to keep more specific niches of that market from looking elsewhere.
Owen Jones is there to mop up left wing supporters of Labour and persuade them the Guardian is their friend, as he continued to do even as the paper was helping to destroy its elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Jonathan Freedland is there to reassure liberal Jews the Guardian is on their side, which he did by playing up evidence-free smears that Labour had an especial antisemitism problem under Corbyn. Hadley Freeman, like Suzanne Moore, is there to represent liberal women deeply invested in identity politics, and to keep them away from class politics …
George Monbiot’s position is plagued by the biggest internal contradiction of all: he must sell environmental concern in a newspaper embedded in the economic logic of the very neoliberal system that is destroying the planet.
And so it goes. Do I read the writers Cook lists? Some, yes. Jones can be excellent on a corrupt British Establishment, Monbiot on capitalism’s irremediably ecocidal drive. (Both have been clueless, and nasty with it, on Syria.) But Jones’s employer is bound tight, for reasons just set out, to that establishment while some of Monbiot’s finest pieces feature on pages which also house ads for mega carbon emitters and their financiers.
In similar vein the employer of Roger Alton, Martin Bright and Ed Vulliamy continues – in ways both overt and sly, and through lies both of commission and omission 9 – to serve power at its most ruthless.
Ask Julian Assange.
* * *
- Should you have the time, this 8400 worder by Kerry Howley, professor at University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, is richly rewarding. Beautifully written, it blends psychological aspects of Daniel Hale’s trajectory with glimpses of the US Deep State and a surveillance dystopia which is now our world. Published in New York Magazine on July 19, after Hale’s conviction in March but a week before yesterday’s sentencing, my link is to a version the next day in Intelligencer.
- My extract from Martin Bright’s 2013 piece is abridged purely for brevity. Likewise the Jonathan Cook passage.
- Three years ago I wrote a post on the very editorial – Iraq: the case for intervention – Martin Bright links to in the passage cited.
- Snowden’s point – “if exposing a crime is a crime then we are ruled by criminals” – is echoed, with her trademark pithiness, by Caitlin Johnstone: The world doesn’t work as we were taught in school. The very worst bad guys are not locked up by the good guys who run things because the very worst bad guys are the ones who run things.
- The true death toll of the deceit ridden war on Iraq will never be known but before it even began Bill Clinton’s sanctions had killed, according to a UN count famously not disputed by Madeleine Albright, half a million Iraqi under-fives. As for the real drivers of the Iraq slaughter – more transparent now in view of later wars on Empire defiant states in the Middle East – I recommend the Stephen Gowans account linked from this post, and the Tim Anderson video linked from this one.
- One of those who say Saudi Arabia is even more central than Israel to US aims in the middle east is economist Michael Hudson, a man I take very seriously, as evidenced by how frequently his words are quoted on this site.
- “a medium which must above all entertain us …” You get a sense of what I mean by the fact that the real Katharine Gun, briefly shown at the end of the film, looks a good deal more like the woman next door than does Keira Knightley!
- Ed Vulliamy once called the Media Lens duo – their invaluable work often referenced on this site – “fucking wankers”. The two should wear that as a badge of honour. Their email exchanges with journalists – especially those whose objective role is to give left cover to outlets like the Guardian – show how quickly initial co-operation turns ugly as Media Lens do their work with politeness, to be sure, but with a persistence deflected by neither intimidation nor charm.
- To give two examples of the Guardian’s power-serving lies of omission, see its silence on (a) the Icelandic revelations that a key witness in the Assange Extradition Hearings lied in exchange for FBI immunity and (b) revelations that, under US pressure, a supposedly independent OPCW doctored its report on the alleged chemical attack at Douma then lied about the fact repeatedly.