Monday, July 26th, 2010

The Wikileaks Data: Where to Start

TPS ACTIONIf you're going to spend the day digging in on the just-released 75,000+ reports from the U.S. military provided by Wikileaks, and why shouldn't you, you should start with their mirror site, as their main site has gone down due to massive, crushing fascination. But first! It's time to learn the Afghan base acronym list and figure out who's all fighting whom. Here are a few other ways to dip your toe in: what the data reveals about reconnaissance drones; how they show that "the Pakistani military has acted as both ally and enemy"; and, that old chestnut, where in the world is Osama bin Laden. Here's some unhelpful response-talk from the White House! "Wikileaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes US policy in Afghanistan." Oh, well then, let's ignore… the data from the U.S. military? (An organization that, by the way, works for us. This is our information.) The White House also said: "The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information." Sure! That's why Wikileaks withheld more than 15,000 of the reports, which will be released when "the security situation in Afghanistan permits." Let's not forget, as Guardian editor David Leigh points out: "All this information is historical, ending at 31 December 2009. Nothing in it can endanger current military operations."

36 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

So who's the Daniel Ellsberg in this?

carpetblogger (#306)

This is, officially, my favorite story ever! It's got something for everyone! Let's discuss it all day.

cherrispryte (#444)

Really? I spent about 20 minutes perusing, then got too depressed for a Monday.

carpetblogger (#306)

I don't think the info contained in it is all that revealing. It's more about the role wikileaks is starting to play. Are the major papers now just becoming filters and interpreters, on par (if they're lucky!) with hundreds of others who have equal access to the data? Does it signal the end of the BS responses from DC and Islamabad about the ISI that the major papers responsibly print, as if they have any relationship to the truth?

What's going to happen to this information now that everyone has access to it? How, if it all, will it shape public opinion in the US and AF-PAK about the war? What's coming next?

I think this is all very exciting today but I will be bored with it tomorrow.

Eric Spiegelman (#3,968)

Thank you, WikiLeaks, for making me feel old. I finally have sympathy for "the man." WikiLeaks is an asshole.

All these people are comparing this to the Pentagon Papers. They're all assholes, too. The Pentagon Papers revealed new information, the "secret history" of the Vietnam War, and much of that new information was distinctly contrary to what the US government was saying in public. They revealed Eisenhower's secret deal with the French to get the Communists out of Vietnam. They revealed Kennedy's use of provocation to expand the war, and also his involvement in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. They revealed Johnson's plans to expand bombing, made while he was campaigning on the exact opposite of this issue.

By comparison, the WikiLeaks dump showed that some people in the Pakistani intelligence community were helping the Taliban, which is something we already knew. The only discrepancy revealed by WikiLeaks is that the Taliban have slightly better weapons than the US govt says they have.

Also, the Pentagon Papers were a study, the result of research and analysis. The WikiLeaks thing is a hodgepodge random paperwork that may or may not be reliable, inviting laymen to draw their own conclusions.

In short, they're probably worthless. The only thing newsworthy about the leak is that it happened, which is really great for the WikiLeaks brand recognition.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I dunno. This all only serves to exacerbate my hopelessness and desperation. Good for Wikileaks, and the various publications, for getting this information out there, but I'm not sure how big an impact it will have. (I'm thinking of the collective ho-hum that resulted from last week's Washington Post series.)

The White House already has a built-in, spin-ready excuse ("The documents cover a period ending in December 2009! Most of it isn't our fault!"), which is to say nothing of the whistleblower-bashing this administration has become so adept at. While it may be utter bullshit, it'll probably be enough to deflect popular attention away from a close analysis of what's going on in Afghanistan today.

The most troubling thing to me, though, is the characterization I've seen in a lot of commentary so far, that a lot of the information is stuff "we" already know. Here's the Globe, for instance: "The documents cover much of what the public already knows about the troubled nine-year conflict: U.S. special operations forces have targeted militants without trial, Afghans have been killed by accident, and U.S. officials have been infuriated by alleged Pakistani intelligence cooperation with the very insurgent groups bent on killing Americans." So we've apparently known that we've been paying Pakistan to conspire with al Quaeda and the Taliban, and that's been deemed an acceptable state of affairs. Even if these stories publicize that fact more broadly, what's to be done? We already elected for the guy we thought gave us the best chance of getting us out of there.

(I'm not saying we should give up fighting the good fight, obviously. Never that. But my stores of umbrage are starting to run low. And sorry for the huge comment. I feel kinda strongly about this.)

KarenUhOh (#19)

But I think the accretion of detail is what finally killed the Vietnam Beast. If this mammoth pile of documents can show just how deep into the military establishment itself the sense of hopelessness and miasma runs, perhaps the public, and, ultimately, the Administration, will have to admit that the war has been a colossal waste of life, resources, international goodwill, etc. etc. etc.

Which all doesn't make me feel the least bit better about the past, but gives something of a glimmer of light moving on.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I hope that's the case, Karen. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a pessimist and a cynic. I just don't know what line there could be, on the other side of which it's clear to everyone, including the folks making the decisions, that this war was a colossal waste of life, resources, etc. etc. etc. Reasonable people already know this.

You're right that the accretion of details should just wear everyone down at some point so that the will to continue the war just isn't there, but isn't the point of studying and interpreting history that we recognize patterns and can make better decisions in the future? We shouldn't be waiting until the gruesome details in Afghanistan become public enough that the decision to leave is politically easy. We should be doing the right thing.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, blah.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Blah indeed. Blah to the number of reasonable people there apparently aren't.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I was feeling really positive about so much information becoming public until you gave me all that stuff to be hopeless and desperate about, BOD. Thanks, jerk.

riggssm (#760)

Cable's talking asshats had such a narrow focus this morning (Dr Brzezinski on MSNBC was an exception, but they never give him enough time.)

How is it* (see note) that the US populace still doesn't draw lines from the situation in Afghanistan, to the Taliban in Pakistan, to Pakistan's relationship with Iran, to Pakistan's posturing against India, and the fact basically the US is fucked because we won't/can't commit what it would take to "clean up" this region once and for all.

Given the religious and historical elements, can it ever be ended? Didn't the Soviets try? And wasn't the (failed) US alternative to pay off the lesser of all the other evils? What's next? August 6, '45 to the tenth power?

It may be isolationist or just simplistic/stupid, but I say get the fuck out and focus some of that money on legit security measures in the US.

* I answer my own question here: a woman on the T wondered aloud to her seatmate why there wasn't anything in the Metro newspaper about the information the military leaked about Palestine. /sigh

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Sorry, Doc. To salvage your day, I won't say anything about how the sycophantic Beltway media corps will pervert the commentary on this story to be about whether it should have been published in the first place, as opposed to leading an informed discussion on the grave policy implications of waging an expensive, unwinnable war. It sounds like riggssm might have something to say on the topic, though.

Also, because I still feel bad, here's a picture of monkeys wearing human clothes.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

D'aww! They're like people – but not! All is forgiven.

keisertroll (#1,117)

Wake me when Wikileaks exposes the truth about the Wolf-Biederman comet.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

The thing that boggles my mind is, who thought that getting into a protracted war in Afghanistan was a good idea in the first place? I mean – I'm no history/military/policy expert by any means (don't let that state school poli sci education fool you), but I could have told you back in 2002 that we'd end up right here in 2010. All it takes is a rudimentary grasp of history and a little realism…which, unfortunately, are in very short supply these days.

Pretty much everybody in the US on September 12, 2001, minus the "protracted."

petejayhawk (#1,249)

But see, the protracted part is the important thing.

Sadly, only a very slim minority had the foresight to predict a protracted war.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I just would have liked those kind of people to be the sorts of people who craft our foreign/defense policy.

Crantastical (#4,127)

I don't like the war as much as the next person, but is Wikileaks really the one to be determining when to release classified documents per the changing situation in Afghanistan? There's a lot here to be uncomfortable with…

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Sure, just leave it up to the government. They'd never do us wrong.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

The problem is that the Pentagon is definitely not who should determine that stuff.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

You also need to consider the problem of over-classification of documents. The Pentagon has a vested interest in maintaining a tight grip on the information that's available for public consumption, so it makes sense that they would err on the side classifying more documents rather than classifying less. There's an argument to be made on an individual basis that a given document could threaten the mission, but just because an item is classified doesn't give it the imprimatur of crucial national security information.

Also, as I might have said above, one of the administration's arguments to discredit the leak/deflect blame, is that the time period the documents cover ended before Obama's "surge" strategy in Afghanistan began. If things have indeed changed so much, you can't credibly make the argument that old documents threaten the new reality. (I'm rehashing a point I originally read here: )

Crantastical (#4,127)

If not the Pentagon, then who do you think should be determining the classification level of documents?

And as far as these documents being historical, nothing exists in a vaccum, this information came from somewhere, and those sources could now be put at risk.

Honestly, there's going to be nothing here. This data was all pulled by a low level cog, a 22 year old with a secret clearance (the lowest possible one). Does anyone really think he had access to anything damning on the war?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

When the classification system functions correctly (which is rarely), it's most often because higher-ups in the Executive Branch, as well as powerful committees in Congress, are pressuring the Pentagon to declassify. At the moment, the president has pretty much abandoned his promise of transparency, and "congress" and "powerful" are ingredients in a hilarious oxymoron. Citizen activism is pretty much all that's left.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

That's @Crantastical above.

Crantastical (#4,127)

I work in defense here in DC so I have a different perspective. As Paler Side of Pale asserts below, they aren't all goons.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Cran: You said earlier that there's a lot to be uncomfortable with here, but then later said there's going to be nothing here. So what are you uncomfortable with? The leaking of the documents in the first place? (Trying not to come across snotty and finger-pointy here, but it's the Internet and I might have failed, so please interpret the question as not snotty and finger-pointy!)

Crantastical (#4,127)

What I'm uncomfortable with is the leaking of the documents in the first place. I work in the defense community, so this is a big deal. People take their clearances very seriously. That can make or break a career. The guy who snuck this data out to begin with is going to be in jail for a while.

The other thing that I don't think is being taken very seriously is the sourcing of this data – the people who provided the military with the intelligence to begin with. Presumaby they are still out there. Where those people who trying to get the taliban out of their neighborhood?

What everyone else (the media and the world at large) is looking for, the "smoking gun", if you will, probably isn't going to be there. Some huge scandal that makes the front pages. The USA is using Afghan babies for MREs, or whatever.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

What the Pentagon does to keep its own house in order is their business. I trust that whoever the sources of these documents were, they understood the consequences of divulging classified information. Whether/how they should be punished, though, is an issue entirely separate from the content of the documents they leaked.

See what we're doing, though? We're talking about the leaking, and what the media is and is not paying attention to, and over/under-classification, but not the fact that things like thousands of civilian deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to a country that's actively conspiring with our enemies don't rise to the level of "smoking gun." In fact, that's stuff we already knew and made our peace with!

@boy: I thought that the duplicitous nature of Pakistan's leadership was common knowledge. I really did. I mean, they've had how many coups in the past few years? Of course there are fissures, of course there are anti-U.S. factions. Whether or not the administration should take a harder line with them is an important policy question, and I'm sure that it will be addressed soon. But I don't see anything wrong with buying off the Pakistani government for a while so that we can conduct critical missions.

Also, if you really think that U.S./ISAF leadership is just sitting back and accepting that we don't have all of Pakistan working on our side, and that they aren't doing something to try and reverse or remedy that…but you don't think that. You just can't.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

The significance of the leaks is that they synthesize and document a lot of disconnected facts that everyone already "knew" (nebulously), and, by doing so, increase pressure on the state to wind things down there. That is an important effort, because it's pretty clear that our being there is counterproductive to our stated aims.

At this point, taking the risk that some of the leaks will compromise the security of U.S. forces–and it is not at all clear yet that that is the case–is outweighed by the clear advantage of ending the occupation, because our flailing around there for the last ten years is certainly not making us any safer.

the teeth (#380)

Cran: not being a member of the defense community, I'm not sure how much I should care about how this effects people's careers. Or I care, I guess, but I'm not sure how or how much this should effect my judgment of the righteousness of the leaks.

As to the sourcing of data — I've only looked through a few dozen entries, but everything I saw appeared to reported directly by US forces. "We were in combat here." "An IED blew up here." "There was a ceremony for a community center opening over here." It's possible that entries like "propaganda pamphlets are being distributed here" might be indirectly sourced from sympathetic locals, but I really don't see anything suggesting that these documents are going to out any sources we should be protecting.

the teeth (#380)

And of course there are tens of thousands of entries, and it's possible that some include sensitive information that really does need to be protected, but at the very least the broad categories of information that are included don't seem to be areas likely to expose vulnerable people. And if that ends up being the case, it'll do a (whole) lot to support my suspicion that the military classifies a whole mass of things they have no business keeping secret in an open society.

Personally, I'm much more in favor of over-classification rather than hoping that potentially sensitive information doesn't fall into the wrong hands. And I trust the Pentagon to do that. They're not all goons.

Of course, I'm here inside the Beltway drinking Kool-Aid, so my perspective might be warped.

Liquid (#546)

I think Wikileaks is closer to the Second Amendment than carrying around a pistol is.

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