The Unwinnable War I: Wikileaks Reax

Amy Davidson:

What does it mean to tell the truth about a war? Is it a lie, technically speaking, for the Administration to say that it has faith in Hamid Karzai’s government and regards him as a legitimate leaderor is it just absurd? Is it a lie to say that we have a plan for Afghanistan that makes any sense at all? If you put it that way, each of the WikiLeaks documentsfrom an account of an armed showdown between the Afghan police and the Afghan Army, to a few lines about a local interdiction official taking seventy-five-dollar bribes, to a sad exchange about an aid scam involving orphansis a pixel in a picture that does, indeed, contradict official accounts of the war, and rather drastically so.


WikiLeaks has given journalists and researchers a road map to begin tracking Afghan detainees and the activities of special forces units.

There are about 100 detailed references to something called  "OCF" detainee transfers to the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility. OCF stands for "Other Coalition Forces." Other Coalition Forces is the approved euphemism for special forces units, usually belonging to the Joint Special Operations Command. Researchers can now begin to track the dates when people disappeared and when they were transferred. By the time of the strategy turn, there were more than 750 people in custody in Bagram, out of more than 4,500 detainees that were there at one point. Where did the rest go? When where they released?


The Obama Administration policy I most disagree with was his decision late last year to double-down in Afghanistan. Although I am not an expert of Afghanistan, I opposed this choice it because everything I have learned about the world makes me doubt its central logic. That logic is: if we bear down for a limited time, in a limited way, that will make enough difference that we can then begin to leave -- rather than simply preparing to leave now. At first glance, these documents cast severe doubt on the idea that staying for another 18 months -- who knows perhaps another 18 years -- would truly "make the difference" in transforming Afghanistan.

Londonstani over at Andrew Exum's place:

There does seem to be a growing trend internationally away from control and direction by organisations and governments towards impetus for action coming from groups of individuals who are somehow harnessing technology. Organisations like Wikileaks leave grand old names like Reuters, BBC and the New York Times rewriting news they didn't break. (That said, the NYT is one of a few organisations investing heavily in original reporting, which shows in their output.) At the same time, a leaked video of a girl getting beaten by the Taliban in Swat  presented the Pakistani government with the political cover it needed to launch a campaign against the Pakistani Taliban last year.

Jay Rosen:

If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That’s what so odd about the White House crying, “They didn’t even contact us!”

Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what Wikileaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.

James Joyner:

I don’t know that any serious damage has been done here.  Have sources and methods been compromised? Have Coalition soldiers or Afghan civilians who have put their lives in our hands been put in additional danger?  I have no way of knowing.

But, while I’ve long argued that we overclassify and need to revamp our system so that more information is available to the public, sooner, I don’t think the solution to the problem is for low level operators to violate their sacred trust.

Gabe Schoenfeld:

WikiLeaks has evidently held back some 15,000 even more sensitive documents and is subjecting them to its own “harm minimization” procedures--whatever that is--before it releases them. Clearly, however, a Pandora’s box has already been opened. And we shall no doubt soon see the consequences. 


Information should be classified when making it publicly available would put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk. And maybe there’s something in this giant trove of documents that meets that standard. But surely Jones isn’t going to seriously maintain that every document in here meets that standard. This report on an orphanage with no orphans, for example, is clearly benign. 


Whatever else is true, WikiLeaks has yet again proven itself to be one of the most valuable and important organizations in the world.  Just as was true for the video of the Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, there is no valid justification for having kept most of these documents a secret.  But that's what our National Security State does reflexively:  it hides itself behind an essentially absolute wall of secrecy to ensure that the citizenry remains largely ignorant of what it is really doing.  WikiLeaks is one of the few entities successfully blowing holes in at least parts of that wall, enabling modest glimpses into what The Washington Post spent last week describing as Top Secret America.  The war on WikiLeaks -- which was already in full swing, including, strangely, from some who claim a commitment to transparency -- will only intensify now.  Anyone who believes that the Government abuses its secrecy powers in order to keep the citizenry in the dark and manipulate public opinion -- and who, at this point, doesn't believe that? -- should be squarely on the side of the greater transparency which Wikileaks and its sources, sometimes single-handedly, are providing.

Joe Klein:

The Wikileaks intelligence dump--more than 90,000 secret intelligence documents detailing the frustrations of the war in Afghanistan--has elements of both the Tet Offensive and the Pentagon Papers. But it seems more like Tet to me: the overall impact of this event is likely to make clear to a public, which has not been paying much attention, how futile the situation in Afghanistan is--and how utterly duplicitous our Pakistani "ally" has been.