Two short essays that address the public circulation of supposedly secret information. The first, “Collateral Murder and the After-Life of Activist Imagery”, is by Christian Christensen, and concerns the video clip released by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder in April 2010. I’ve discussed this edited video of a US Apache helicopter attack in New Baghdad in 2007 before, together with the two documentary films that it provoked, and it forms part of my ‘Militarized Vision’ project (you can find links to the clip and to subsequent commentary in that original post).
Christian doesn’t explore the content of the video so much as its inscription and re-inscription within public debates, part of the mediatization of later modern war. He does make a sharp point about the status of the imagery:
One could argue that the repeated use of this imagery (and corresponding audio) has created an entirely new genre of military reporting. It is a genre with specific, often disturbing conventions: the grainy images of those on the ground, the flat, bland coloring, the “narration” of the aircraft operators which swings between the clinical and the cynical, the silence of those under surveillance or attack, the sound of the weaponry as it is discharged, and, importantly, the “overtness” of the technology, by which I mean the way in which the screen is filled with evidence of the technology being used in the form of the cross-hairs in the middle and data visible at the top and the bottom of the screen…
The Collateral Murder video not only shatters the mythology of humane warfare and benevolent US power, but also causes us to question the notion of neutral technology at the service of human development: a theme which has regained a central space in public debate in recent years.
But he also thinks there is another, no less sharp point to be made about the very act of reporting:
Within this context, the killing of two Reuters employees by the US military was particularly poignant. At the most basic level, this was the symbolic killing of Journalism (with a capital “J”) by a military unaccustomed to critical coverage or investigation at home. The killings, of course, then went unreported until Manning leaked the material and WikiLeaks published it: itself an act of journalism. With Collateral Murder, there is a layering and re-layering of meaning, and, for me, journalism lies at the heart of the clip. These are humans first, of course, and most of those killed or wounded in the attack were not journalists. But, in addition to the tragedy of human death, there is also the tragedy of what is symbolically destroyed: Transparency. Democracy. Knowledge. Critical thinking. And it took an act of journalism to bring these tragedies to light, an act of which has now itself been subjected to the full force of the state via the imprisonment of Manning, and the threat of criminal charges being brought against Assange in the US.
Incidentally, the essay is the text of Christian’s presentation to the ‘Image Operations‘ conference held at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) in Berlin earlier this month; the program is here.
The second essay is Adam Morris‘s wide-ranging review of ‘The geopolitics of the Snowden Files‘ at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Its immediate provocation is the publication of the Obama administration’s self-serving ‘NSA Report’:
The NSA Report — commissioned by the White House in August, published on its website in December, and now available in print via Princeton University Press— was authored by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. As suggested by its official title, “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” the Report was intended to advise President Obama on how to reform the data collection practices of the Intelligence Community (IC), in particular the NSA. Its authors include such veterans of the US security sector as Richard A. Clarke, Michael J. Morrell, and Peter Swire. This insiders’ perspective, in theory, is balanced by the addition to the group of constitutional lawyers Geoffrey R. Stone and Cass Sunstein. The unofficial purpose of the Report, however, was the Obama administration’s attempt to put a lid on the NSA scandal by pretending to be interested in reform. As Luke Harding points out in The Snowden Files, the Review Group was working out of the offices of the Director of National Intelligence, currently occupied by the felonious General James Clapper, w _ho knowingly lied in Congressional testimony about the bulk collection of Americans’ communication data.
The essay provides a fine, critical reading of the Report –
‘The anodyne language of these and other recommendations signals the imperial agenda out of which they are born: The NSA Report is obsessed with framing the debate over surveillance around the neopositivist vocabulary of “risk management,” but we know from history that political liberty will always suffer when a dominant regime deems a nation, its leadership or its population a “national security threat”…’
– but it also spirals off into a vigorous mapping of the context in which the NSA set about its covert operations and Edward Snowden‘s principled decision to go public (Adam also provides a commentary on Luke Harding‘s The Snowden Files: for another review, see Daniel Soar at the London Review of Books here). And here too, of course, investigative journalism is a vital, enabling and even empowering practice.