WikiLeaks and its media partners used software developed by an independent non-government organisation (NGO) to redact information that could identify individuals from 400,000 classified documents on the Iraq war, a court heard today.
John Sloboda, co-founder of the NGO, Iraq Body Count, which monitors civilian casualties in Iraq, told the court that WikiLeaks insisted on a “stringent redaction” of the documents to protect the identity of individuals before the documents were published.
He faced questioning from Joel Smith QC, representing the US government, who said the Iraq War Logs published by WikiLeaks in October 2010 included the names of Iraqis who had provided information to the US military.
Sloboda, speaking on the eighth day of extradition proceedings against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, told the court it was of the utmost importance to record the names of civilians killed in armed conflicts, for the benefit of their loved ones and because civilian deaths were a war crime.
“The war logs were a very meticulous record of military patrols in streets in every area of Iraq, noting and documenting what they saw,” he told the court.
The logs included records of deaths and injuries, and sometimes the names of individuals and precise details of the incident and the time it occurred, he said.
Sloboda, a psychology professor, set up Iraq Body Count (IBC) in 2003 to record civilian deaths following the invasion of Iraq. He did this by analysing media reports, hospital records, official figures and other records.
IBC approached WikiLeaks shortly after its publication of US documents on the war in Afghanistan, after hearing that WikiLeaks had information on the Iraq war, with a proposal to collaborate, Sloboda told the court
“We believed, with the information we had about Iraqi civilian deaths, we were in a unique position to say what was new in the logs,” he said.
Assange invited Sloboda to join a consortium of media partners, including, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times, to conduct serious analysis on the documents before they were released in October 2010.
“It was impressed on us from our early encounters with Julian Assange that the aim was a very stringent redaction of the documents,” he said, “to ensure no information damaging to individuals was present.”
It was not possible to manually redact 400,000 documents, said Slodoba. “That would have taken an army of people,” he said. “The call was out to find a method that would be effective and would not take forever.”
Sloboda said a colleague came up with the idea of developing a computer program to remove the names of individuals from the documents.
“I have a broad layman’s understanding. I am not a programmer. Basically, it was to take a relatively simple English language dictionary and remove every single word that was not in the dictionary,” he said.
The program removed the names of people and other identifying characteristics such as their professions. As a result, the documents were “considerably over-redacted”.
Sloboda said WikiLeaks had faced pressure from its media partners to speed up the redaction process because they wanted to publish.
“Those pressures were resisted consistently. They could not publish until the redactions were agreed. That was stuck to,” he said.
“Some of the media partners had redacted a small sample by hand and were willing and wanted to publish. WikiLeaks’ position was it did not want partial publication, it wanted the whole war logs published,” he said.
Sloboda said that when the war logs were published, they were over-redacted. “It was probably over-cautious,” he said.
Smith, representing the US government, asked Sloboda whether he had any experience in classifying or declassifying documents, or any experience in handling collaborating sources in an oppressive regime.
He also asked Sloboda whether he, or the four people who worked on the documents at IBC, had been through any vetting procedure before he was given access to 400,000 classified documents.
“We paid a visit to the offices of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the then director Iain Overton,” he said. “I don’t remember any vetting process.”
Sloboda said in written evidence that the NGO was aware that WikiLeaks’ earlier publication of the Afghan War Diary had constituted “a very challenging exercise” and was a “steep learning curve for all of those concerned”.
Under questioning from Smith, Sloboda said “there was a sense there needed to be a better process in the next round” and that the “redaction process was not as it should have been”.
Software delayed publication
It took a number of weeks to develop the redaction software for the Iraq War Logs. “It was a process of writing the software, testing it on logs, finding bugs, and running it again until the process was completed,” he said.
“The software was not ready by the original planned publication date, which is why the publication date was put back.”
Sloboda said the software removed identifying buildings, such as mosques, and the professions of individuals. “The software was constantly being modified to exclude different categories of information,” he said.
Smith for the prosecution asked whether a human reviewed the war logs to ensure there was no “jigsaw risk” that would allow people to identify individuals by collating different pieces of information.
“Clearly there was a process of checking a sample of the logs, but no human could go through them all,” he said.
Smith referred to a transcript of an interview Assange gave at the Frontline Club for journalists.
He said Assange had said in the interview that it was regrettable that WikiLeaks was not obliged to protect sources in leaked documents except from unjust reprisal.
“Today is the first time that I have read this transcript,” said Sloboda. “I remember nothing like that in our conversations about the Iraq logs.”
Smith asked whether Sloboda was aware that the Iraq War Logs published in 2020 contained unredacted names of sources who collaborated with the US military.
He read a witness statement from assistant US attorney Kellen S Dwyer that said the Iraq War Logs published in October 2010 contained examples of documents that named local Iraqis who had provided information to the US military that put lives at risk.
“If these were in the heavily redacted logs published in October 2010, this is the first I have heard of it,” said Sloboda.
He rejected a suggestion from the prosecution QC that Dwyer’s statement suggested Assange took a cavalier attitude to redacting documents.
Impact of war logs
Earlier, Sloboda told the court that the Iraq War Logs, known by the US military as significant incident reports, identified 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths.
IBC carried out a Google search that identified more than 40,000 media articles between 2012 and 2020 reporting on the number of civilian deaths identified by the Iraq War Logs.
The WikiLeaks release brought the issue of the very high number of civilian casualties in the Iraq war to the attention of the public, he said.
The case continues.