Blinken, Assange, And The 20th Anniversary Of The Palestine Hotel Bombing

Blinken, Assange, And The 20th Anniversary Of The Palestine Hotel Bombing
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong (middle) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) | Photo from the Defense Department and in the public domain.

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When Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Australia in August, he was, as expected, asked about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Blinken confirmed that he discussed the Assange case with his Australian counterpart Foreign Minister Penny Wong. He stated that while he understood Australians’ views on the matter, Australians needed to recognize the United States’ position. “Mr. Assange was charged with very serious criminal conduct."

Blinken’s remarks were outrageous for a number of reasons. The most glaring and obvious reason is that Assange is charged with exposing human rights abuses by the U.S. one might label “very serious criminal conduct.” The fact that the U.S. now seeks to extraterritoriality apply its Espionage Act to a journalist for exposing these crimes could reasonably be deemed “very serious criminal conduct.”

But an extra layer of perversity is attached to Blinken’s hypocritical remarks when one considers that the State Department cables published by WikiLeaks document how the U.S. works to evade accountability for its serious crimes. The one that was most on my mind  involved the U.S. efforts to squash criminal indictments of three U.S. servicemembers over their alleged involvement in the death of Spanish photographer Jose Couso.

Since the early 1990s, the U.S. had bombed Iraq, including the capital city of Baghdad. In 2003, invading U.S. forces entered Baghdad during "Shock and Awe," the campaign of overwhelming military violence designed to terrorize the Iraqi people in the hopes that their government would submit. By April 3, ground forces had mounted an offensive to seize control of Baghdad.

It was on April 8, near the end of the “Battle of Baghdad,” when Captain Philip Wolford ordered a US tank commanded by Sergeant Thomas Gibson to launch a mortar. The mortar did what mortars are built to do—it took two human lives. Yet the U.S. soldiers did not fire on an Iraqi military target or even a government building. They fired on the Palestine Hotel.

Not only was the hotel not a "legitimate" military target, but it was also known to house members of the international media who were there to report on the war. As a result, Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Telecinco cameraman Jose Couso were killed.

Media Bombed Three Different Times In One Day

April marked the 20th anniversary of this bombing. The milestone received very little recognition in the English language press. Yet at the time (and for many years after), it garnered international attention. Press freedom groups and the U.S. military even battled over the core claims of what happened in the attack.

The bombing generated a showdown over the independence of Spain’s judiciary, as those investigating the murder ran up against officials in their own government, who were more interested in appeasing the powerful U.S. government than seeking justice for Couso and his family.

The official position of the U.S. was that the deaths were an accident and that the soldiers followed the rules of engagement. The U.S. military claimed that it had responded to rocket fire from the direction of the hotel. However, those who survived the attack and the families of the deceased questioned this claim. Witnesses heard almost no gunfire around the hotel; the tanks, they say, were too far away, to have come under rocket fire.

The same day the U.S. launched an airstrike on Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau, and U.S. troops opened fire on the Baghdad offices of Abu Dhabi TV. Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayoub perished in the strike on Al Jazeera. Similar to the Palestine Hotel attack, the U.S. claimed it was a mistake. Yet in November 2005, a memo revealed that a year after the U.S. bombed Al Jazeera Baghdad bureau, George W. Bush had spoken with United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair about bombing the network's headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

Deliberate or not, in one day, U.S. soldiers were responsible for three different attacks on the media. According to a 2013 article in The Progressive by María Carrión, Couso's brother believes the bombing of the Palestine Hotel, along with the attacks on Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, were deliberate. Their purpose, he maintains, was to silence the international media reporting on the brutality of the U.S.’s illegal war.

NSA Whistleblower Warned Chain Of Command That Journalists Were In Palestine Hotel

The belief that the attack on the Palestine Hotel was a deliberate act received a serious boost in 2007 and 2008 when military insiders blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance of US military personnel, aid workers, and journalists. One of the whistleblowers was Adrienne Kinne, a reservist who was called into active duty after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.  

Kinne had previously worked in military intelligence and was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia, where she participated in the NSA’s eavesdropping activities. The NSA at this time was intercepting calls coming from Iraq to the U.S. Many of these calls were placed by journalists, aid workers, and after the invasion, U.S military personnel.

On one occasion, Kinne recounted overhearing a conversation between a British aid worker and a U.S. aid worker. The British aid worker warned the U.S. aid worker that the American government was listening to their calls. The U.S. aid worker scoffed at the suggestion. As a U.S. citizen, their government couldn’t just listen in on him, he said, citing United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18.

Within the NSA, this comment caused concern. Not because they were spying on an American, but because U.S. citizens shouldn’t know about internal NSA documents.

Kinne recounted eavesdropping on calls between journalists staying at the Palestine Hotel. Their conversations were largely about their own safety and fears with the impending invasion. Still, they believed that they enjoyed a relative degree of safety inside the Palestine Hotel.

When Kinne saw the Palestine Hotel included on a list of military targets for the impending invasion, she remembered these conversations. Kinne alerted her superior Warrant Officer John Berry. She informed him that journalists were staying at the hotel. Berry dismissed her concerns and informed Kinne that those higher up in the chain of command knew what they were doing.

'We Have Fought Tooth and Nail'

The death of Couso, who was a Spanish national, prompted a protracted, on-again, off-again legal investigation in Spain. Spanish magistrates attempted to receive information from President George W. Bush's administration, as well as requested interviews with soldiers involved.

In 2005, when the Bush administration refused to cooperate, a Spanish magistrate issued an arrest order for three U.S. soldiers—Thomas Gibson, Philip Wolford, and Philip de Camp--so they could be interviewed about the case. By 2007, the three soldiers were formally indicted.

The Spanish National Court later dismissed the charges and argued that Spain lacked jurisdiction. Then Spain’s Supreme Court reversed the decision. Thanks to this ruling, in 2011, charges were brought anew. But in 2015, due to a change in Spanish law the case was closed for good.

The U.S. government, unsurprisingly, was vehemently opposed to the indictment and refused extradition. When WikiLeaks released State Department cables given to them by U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, they revealed new information on how the U.S. had worked behind the scenes to thwart the case.

A May 2007 cable from the U.S. embassy in Madrid made clear that pressuring Spanish officials over the Couso case and indictment of U.S. soldiers was a key goal. The cable stated, “While we are careful to show our respect for the tragic death of Couso and for the independence of the Spanish judicial system, behind the scenes we have fought tooth and nail to make the charges disappear.”

The cable further indicated that U.S. diplomats had met with Spain’s Vice President (“she was supportive but uncertain that direct GOS involvement would be productive”) and the Deputy Justice Minister. The embassy had prodded the Spanish government to appeal a decision in the case.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether the attack on the Palestine Hotel was a deliberate attack on journalists or not. If it was,  it is unclear to me who in the chain of command was responsible.

But the charges brought by Spain involved “serious criminal conduct," and the juxtaposition between the U.S.’s own attempts to thwart a war crimes prosecution, versus its obsessive pursuit of Assange for exposing U.S. war crimes, make Blinken’s remarks on the political case against the WikiLeaks founder all the more maddening.