A story developing just today. Wikileaks, a site that has made itself infamous around the world, has topped its recent sensational (and to my taste misleadingly annotated) Apache video from the war in Iraq, by releasing some 91,000 pilfered US Government documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan.
They have given advance access to certain media outlets, including the Guardian in the UK, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel. The Guardian has highlighted such issues as the Taliban’s SIGINT threat to NATO forces; the operations of an alleged “black SOF” unit called Task Force 373; Iranian covert action in Afghanistan; and civilian casualties. The New York Times’ take is that the documents show the war to be going even worse than is officially admitted. (And nobody in the US Government can be confused of seeing Afghanistan through rose-colored glasses. The White House has noted that the leaked documents cover a period before the implementation of President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.) Aside from the main story, the Times is focusing on Pakistani aid to the Taliban and al Qaida.
The New York Times has adopted a rather amusing approach toward publishing classified material. They noted that most entries in this database were classified SECRET, “a relatively low level of classification.” They also say that the have decided not to publish any information which could prove dangerous to friendlies. For instance, they did not publish the names of the sources of any of the reports that appear in the document collection, nor did they publish the names of any “operatives.” All good moves, but worthless, really, given that Wikileaks and the Guardian are making the whole kit and kaboodle available to the public. That made the Times’ prim comment that for security reasons they would not link to the whole database and that at the request of the White House they had urged Wikileaks to redact potentially damaging information utterly laughable. Telling Wikileaks to show withhold information from classified documents is, after all, about like asking Hugh Hefner to stop hitting on young buxom blonds. You can say it all day, but you shouldn’t delude yourself that it will make a real difference.
What effect will all this have? Speaking as a historian, this will provide a great deal of information for people to work with in understanding this war. Domestically, it will probably reinvigorate the debate over the war in Afghanistan, but I have a hard time imagining that it will lead to any fundamental policy changes. It will also lead to a new round of complaints by Government officials and many members of the public over the alleged irresponsibility of the press, coming as it does on the heels of the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” series. It probably will have a similarly modest effect in the UK which has recently undergone a change of government. However, it can only be bad news for the German government and the German commitment to ISAF. You’ll remember that last year there was a big uproar in Germany over an airstrike ordered by a German officer which ended up killing civilians. Even if there are no further such German incidents in this database, the German public probably won’t want to be reminded that its forces are participating alongside Americans and Brits and others who do kill civilians.