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WikiLeaks and the killing of bin Laden


Last Wednesday, Human Rights Watch issued a statement denying media reports that it had condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden. 

Human Rights Watch has said that we do not have enough information about the killing to draw conclusions about whether it was lawful or not. Human Rights Watch calls on the US government to provide that information.

White House press briefings over the past week suggest the US Government has not become more transparent since WikiLeaks. The information that it provides remains at best unreliable, at worst deliberately false and misleading. 

One day we're told that, at the moment of death, Osama bin Laden was armed, and he used his wife as a human shield. The next day, we're told he was unarmed, and his wife, also unarmed, rushed at a US attacker. What are we to believe?

If we have learned our lessons from WikiLeaks, we should be wary of believing anything we hear from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, or President Barack Obama himself, except perhaps his patronising assurance: 'You won't see Bin Laden walking on this earth again.'

Paradoxically President Obama issued a statement for World Press Freedom Day last Tuesday pointing the finger at the governments of countries such as Bahrain, China, Syria and Venezuela. As for the US, he said: 'We rededicate ourselves to the basic principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that every person has the right "to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas".'

In reality it seems WikiLeaks could be the only organisation we can expect to furnish us with reliable information on important high-level events and utterances that take place behind closed doors. We do understand that what we're told is often necessarily incomplete. We also excuse the fact that occasionally what we hear through official channels is unintentionally inaccurate or misleading. 

Also, at least prior to WikiLeaks, we were prepared to accept that some information was 'classified' for security purposes and needed to be kept from us for our own protection. But now, we know the security purposes are often mixed with political purposes, or are merely spurious. That is not good enough.

Why does knowledge matter? It matters because we are all rational actors on the stage of human life, and we need reliable information in order to draw conclusions that help us decide how we act on all matters of life and death.

We need to know before we're able to see, judge and act. If we don't know about things, we're diminished as human beings. We're blindfolded and not free. Actors handicapped, captive to those who do know. 

If we're told Osama was armed, our judgment is that the US operations personnel killed him in an act of legitimate self-defence. If we're told that Osama was unarmed, we conclude that it was an assassination, which is antithetical to the rule of law. 

It is our business because our society is based on the rule of the law, and we could well conclude that the US President is acting against it. If that is the case, we might want to request our government to review its alliance with the US, possibly establishing some distance, as New Zealand has in the past.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Osama bin Laden, Human Rights Watch, White House, Barack Obama



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Existing comments

There were several stories circulating about the death of Hitler and still do so today. In the end, the death of Bin Laden, whichever way it happened, is the death of a mass murderer, who did away with countless innocent people and wanted to destroy even more. The death of this blood thirsty murderousness is not something to celebrate - - there are too many innocent victims, who weep silently in memory of absent loved ones.

Skye | 09 May 2011  

Thanks Michael, the point about what is truth, reminds one of Pontius Pilate’s famous question, “Truth, what is truth?” I agree that we need all sources of information so that we can attempt to understand what actually happened in a given situation. Wiki Leaks have a role to play often painting a picture that is different from the official line. Freedom of information is fundamental to democracy and understanding what happened in a given situation. Osama’s death or execution does not seem to be a big ticket item of concern for most people; the fact that he is dead is enough. The way that he died or the lack of a trial seems to be of no consequence, even though advocates of democracy and justice could say that the apathy and indifference shown towards the manner of Osama’s death is another sign of the decay of democracy and Christian culture.

Peter Igoe-Taylor | 09 May 2011  

It is not just the assassination of Bin Laden that ought to outrage us, it is the continued use of propaganda and dissembling to hoodwink the public. Human Rights Watch, a US-based organisation, needs no doubt to be careful about their reaction to an official action that has been so widely praised in the US, but they should remember their commitment to their mission to human rights and the rule of the law. The US will continue to act in accordance with their own private interest and to achieve their own political goals, internally. It has worked very well for Obama who confirms himself as just another hawk in a hawkish nation. The administration has changed, but the country is always the same.

Eveline Goy | 09 May 2011  

You are right, Michael, to point out our need to know the facts before we can draw correct conclusions and make a rational decision on what we want to do about the matter. One big problem for us is that we cannot even rely on the so called "free press" to give us the facts. In so many important cases they have to accept what the government of the day tells them and the press seems to publish this propaganda uncritically. The reliance of the press on what the lies and half truths are told them by governments and passed on to us readers are graphically reported by John Pilger in a brilliant film of is: "The War You Don't See." This film was recently shown on SBS television, and can be downloaded free from John Pilger's website. It is a wake up call for all of us who wish to make up our own minds independently of government propaganda passed on to us by the press.

tony Santospirito | 09 May 2011  

An excellent article but having heard Gillard's speech in the USA Senate, can you imagine, even for a minute that the government is likely to distance itself from the US? Unfortunately, it is not only the secular government which denies our right to judge based on evidence. The Catholic Church also denies our right to judge when the supremacy of our conscience over doctrine is denied or when a religious person is condemned by the Vatican with no evidence produced and no right of reply.

Maureen Strazzari | 09 May 2011  

Thanks for this clear analysis and account of things. WIKILEAKS is providing us with some knowledge of how information has been controlled for political ends and therefore as part of political power play but it does not make the people powerful. The rule of law no longer seems effective, so where to from here"

Lorna Hannan | 09 May 2011  

"If we don't know about things we are diminished as human beings." Now that is a big call. I won't debate it here. But may I recommend a book by John J Mearsheimer, University of Chicago political scientist, WHY LEADERS LIE. He argues that the nature of politics, at least in the oppositional/confrontational form we have in the West, is such that it perversely pushes leaders to mislead the very people who elected them. I'm beginning to see that The Vatican doesn't subscribe to Michael Mullins axiom since the current Pope and his predecessor seem to believe that if we don't know about things we are protected as human beings. That is, if it is true that Benedict XVI told Bishop Morris of Toowoomba that John Paul II decided "infallibly and irrevocably" that the Catholic Church does not have the right to ordain women to the priesthood. But then the Catholic Church doesn't claim to be a democracy. Its hierarchy doesn't have to answer to an electorate every 3/4 years and jolly them with only good news and shield them from the bad. It simply tells them this or that subject is not even to be discussed. Rome has spoken.

Uncle Pat | 09 May 2011  

It seems likely to me that any 'confusion' that has eventuated about the facts of the operation, it would have been deliberate on the part of the Obama Administration. It is in there interest now to slow leak themselves little bits of intelligence at a time to demystify Bin Laden and therefore disempower him in death. The very fact that they can claim to have a 'treasure trove' of information on hard drives and DVDs etc will serve to create confusion within the ranks of the al Qaida franchises unnerve the key operators in the chain of command and cause panic among 'sympathetic' foreign intelligence agencies. Even this morning on Fox -where else?- Mike Huckabee interviewed a certain inscrutable gentleman named John Yoo of Fairbanks, Alaska -yes, that place - who expressed great pride in his small contribution to 'Operation Geronimo' by being involved in 'Authorized Enhanced Interrogation Techniques!' I'm sure that John Ralston Saul and Don Watson would love to dine out on that one and I'm equally sure that the very mention of it will have the bomb throwers and their minders reaching for the danger nappies!

David Timbs | 09 May 2011  

I worry a lot about the growing tendency to be super critical about those who change their mind or correct statements proven to be wrong. Why an educated person like M Mullins would not mention the admirable correction by American leaders seems strange. Also the second last paragraph cites only two possibilities self defence and assassination---there are clearly more possibilities than that but M M for one reason or another adopts the line that he critices the Americans for. Maybe M M might investigate the possibility that the majority of those clamouring for capture and a trial are in fact Lawyers with their own vested interests.

John B | 09 May 2011  

I was staggered at the way President Obama, without equivocation and from the outset, equated the action of killing Bin Laden with the administration of justice -- there was no evidence - just an announcement. Sadly Obama has revealed himself as no less political than the people that he attacked in his leadup to the presidency - I am disappointed.

Noel Will | 09 May 2011  

Let's be honest: while we preach the above about making up our minds whether we are given the right information or not, the fact is you are asking us to base our thoughts and actions on information that is illegally purchased. Is that right??

Shirley McHugh | 09 May 2011  

Osama bin Laden was assassinated on the orders of the President of the United States presumably because bin Laden was held responsible for the deaths of about three thousand innocent people during the destruction of the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001.

Later, Iraq was invaded on the orders of President Bush and Crime Ministers Blair and Howard, because, they claimed that Sadam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We now know that that was a lie but as a result of the invasion and its aftermath several hundred thousand Iraq civilians, men, women and children, were killed along with many troops of both the ‘coalition of the willing’ and Iraqi troops. It is worth noting at this point that Pope John Paul II was opposed to the war.

What would our reaction be if the three leaders of the coalition were kidnapped by three separate terrorist groups and handed over to the United Nations for trial. After all, the UN had not completed its investigation into the charge that Iraq did indeed have WMD?

Ken Thomas | 09 May 2011  

Re Santospirito on John Pilger. Pilger has long been a smug and self righteous apologist for the left and if he ever had any credilility it's long since vanished. I wonder what he had to say about his friend Hugo Chavez and his support for Colonel Gaddaffi?

Jim Williams | 09 May 2011  

When will Americans understand why these events happen 9/11 for example and many others.

If the roles were reversed and other countries interfered in the USA what would happen then?

Mess with other countries and expect these type of actions, leave them alone and things will change over time.

Inventor | 09 May 2011  

After living in China for 10 years and using VPNs and proxies to seek info I've learnt that Aussie mainstream media is weak, thin and reactive, rather than looking into stories to determine credibility. Your comments are refreshing and I look forward to Aussie's awakening intellectually before my return to the 'clever country'.

morry | 09 May 2011  

What amazes me is the amount of technology, personel and intelligence being used by the West to fight what seems to be a unequally matched and fragmented group, and ten years later they finally track down the leader leaving the country in a shambles. This War is about the Wests insatiable lust for more Power for the already powerful and more misery for the majority. Time it all ended or take it to the Moon and leave the earth in peace & harmony.

Peace | 10 May 2011  

"If we're told Osama was armed, our judgment is that the US operations personnel killed him in an act of legitimate self-defence."

How did you get there? They come in massively armed and storm his house -- in another sovereign country -- and you claim that killing him in those circumstances would be "self-defense" on the SEALs part as long as he was holding a weapon? I'm sorry but that's just crazy. About as crazy as Israel storming the Mavi Marmara in international waters, and then claiming they killed nine of its passengers in "self defense". It defies all logic. Especially as the blockade of Gaza is illegal in the first place. Just as extra-judicial killing is illegal, in the case of bin Laden.

International law applies to everyone. It is not there to be twisted for the benefit of the USA or Israel.

Dreoilin | 10 May 2011  

What about the photograph of the President and his team watching the assassination of Bin Laden in Pakistan - LIVE - on Television in the White House?

What has our world come to that this photograph should be the lasting image of this event?

Very disturbed | 10 May 2011  

Why did't they take him alive?? Thats what i would like to know given they were unarmed when the troops arrived????

rhonda | 11 May 2011  

Well said, except for this: "If . . . Osama was armed . . . US operations personnel killed him in an act of legitimate self-defence."

Legitimate? Surely not if they were there without the knowledge or consent of the Pakistan government?

Gordon Rowland | 13 May 2011  

Hi Michael, You touch on many issues directly relevant to my thesis. I was wondering whether you would do this survey and encourage others to do it also. I'm writing a thesis on Public Trust in WikiLeaks, the Media and the Government. The online survey is multiple choice and will take approximately 10 minutes to complete. Please follow the link: http://www.kwiksurveys.com/?s=ILLLML_9669e09d. Would be great if you would encourage others to do the survey also.

James Hyams | 13 May 2011  

What the Americans of course should have done was to (nicely) approach the Pakistani authorities and ask them if they would be kind enough to arrest the principal inhabitant of the compound and, if possible, extradite him to the United States, there to stand trial. If he should escape before that could happen, then the U.S. authorities could only shake their respective heads and say, "What a pity!"

Saul | 14 May 2011  

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