One year ago, WikiLeaks released the Afghanistan war logs. Around seventy-six thousand previously classified military reports were released in collaboration with the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. The contents of the documents revealed several dark realities of the war. And, the release drew condemnation from the Washington establishment that made certain the war logs had a minor impact.
The significance of the documents, according to WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, was that they covered the war from 2004-2009 and provided details on incidents with Task Force 373, a US-assassination squad known as “the Squad Hunters.” The war logs showed this squad, comprised of Navy Seals and members of the Delta Force, kept a “kill-and-capture list” of targets believed to be drug barons, bomb makers or members of al Qaeda or the Taliban. The assassination squad would “seize” targets on the list for “internment” but in many cases the targets were simply killed.
Another significant aspect of the war logs was what they revealed on so-called “blue on white” events involving the shooting of individual civilians or air strikes on Afghans that resulted in hundreds of casualties. The Guardian’s assessment of these particular logs found they showed “how much of the contemporaneous US internal reporting” on air strikes is “simply false.” This was noted in conjunction with the reality “US and allied commanders frequently deny allegations of mass civilian casualties, claiming they are Taliban propaganda or ploys to get compensation, which are contradicted by facts known to the military.”
The logs also showed US drones were prone to system failures, computer glitches and human error, Pakistan had been actively arming the Taliban even as the US works to keep the country as an ally, the CIA had expanded paramilitary operations, intelligence agents were awash in data they didn’t know what to do with (a conclusion that the Washington Post‘s “Top Secret America” digital journalism project had just demonstrated as well), the US had covered up Taliban activity and Iran might be aiding the Taliban.
Despite the breadth of information, the reaction from the White House and other politicians was not to hold hearings and correct the abuses. Instead, the reaction was a deft blend of criticism rife with contradiction, a combination of claims that there was nothing new here and the release would “harm national security;” claims that “disconcerting things” in the logs had been addressed when Obama ordered a policy review of the war and, since those “things” had presumably led to a change in strategy, there was little reason for concern; and most damning of all, claims, which politicians, media and even leaders of human rights organizations hurled at WikiLeaks, that WikiLeaks was irresponsible—that it had blood on its hands.
No Evidence Any Afghan Informants Killed
Part of the focus of PBS’s WikiSecrets documentary (in addition to fabricating this idea that the accused whistleblower to WikiLeaks Pfc. Bradley Manning had somehow conspired to steal documents with Assange) involved the allegation that WikiLeaks had exposed Afghan informants to danger. The documentary, which aired last May, featured Investigations Executive Editor of The Guardian, who claimed Assange was “very reluctant to delete those names, to redact them” and said, “These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.”
Nick Davies of The Guardian, who helped convince WikiLeaks to enter into a media partnership for the release, suggested in the documentary that the failure to properly redact names had a “very damaging political impact on the way that the story played out, and also within WikiLeaks, where Julian’s colleagues were horrified that their Web site was carrying this material and very angry that it was carrying that material and they’d never been told.” [Interestingly, the Pentagon was not very satisfied with The Guardian’s handling of the release.]
The condemnation for the release of informant names has continued despite the fact that Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said on August 11, “We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the WikiLeaks documents.” This has been repeated despite Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ suggestion in the days after the release, “There has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” It has taken on a life of its own, even though the Associated Press concluded on August 17, “There is no evidence that any Afghans named in the leaked documents as defectors or informants from the Taliban insurgency have been harmed in retaliation.
Largely forgotten is the fact that one year later the public has yet to see 15,000 military reports, material the Pentagon claimed was “potentially more explosive, more sensitive.” The reports were held back because WikiLeaks performed a “harm minimization review” and determined that those reports needed to undergo further review and have certain details redacted and also be withheld until the situation in Afghanistan was at a point where it would be safe to release the documents.
The Pentagon suggested WikiLeaks had no interest in reaching out for help redacting names. This official line was disingenuous, in that it obscured the fact that between Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and the New York Times, an agreement, according to WikiLeaks, had been made that the Times would be the intermediary that consulted the White House on what should be withheld. The Times was to ask the White House for war logs vetting. The Times was to cooperate with the White House on what not to release and that was why there was no direct contact between WikiLeaks and the White House on the war logs release.
The Government/Media Conspiracy to Suppress the Impact
The White House released an official statement on July 25:
“We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security. Wikileaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents, which may contain information that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who co-operate with us.”
In a press conference on July 26, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed a small evolution in the White House response to the leak. He said the White House’s reaction to this “breach of federal law” was that it had the “potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military, those that are cooperating with our military, and those that are working to keep us safe.”
Gibbs added, “I don’t think that what is being reported hasn’t in many ways been publicly discussed, either by you all or by representatives of the U.S. government, for quite some time,” and went on to discuss how the press was fully aware of how Pakistan may have “safe havens” that were aiding the Taliban and the White House had been making progress in addressing this problem.
Those who remember the Obama Administration’s blocking the release of photos allegedly showing troops abusing detainees at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan have likely heard this argument about risks to troops before. In a video posted by The Guardian, Assange responded to the argument and said, “Militaries keep information secret to prosecute their side of a war but also to hide abuse.” He noted there was a military argument for information on “where troops are about to deploy” from, but, since the information is all from 2004-2009, none of the information was particularly sensitive.
Gibbs’ remarks that there was nothing new on Pakistan showed part of the evolution from the initial response released to the press and public. The Obama Administration appeared to have made a calculation that the nature of Wikileaks was too remarkable to wholly dismiss solely with an argument that they had used routinely to argue for the protection of government information. A tweet from Admiral Mike Mullen and other remarks showed the Obama Administration would instead attempt to curb enthusiasm for the leak and forewarn those who were interested that if they took interest in the logs they would likely find no new information.
As previously mentioned, the New York Times who consulted the White House and asked the White House for permissionand guidance on what to publish and what not to publish. Presumably, the meeting gave the White House time to prepare for the oncoming release by Wikileaks.
A file circulated to press, which featured many of the president’s and the administration’s leaders’ remarks on the role of Pakistan in the Afghanistan War, indicated there was likely a development of a media or public relations strategy between the White House and the New York Times before the “war logs” went public July 25th. This file provided a way for journalists uncomfortable with the ethics of Wikileaks to cover the contents of the documents leaked. The .PDF file provided the basic talking points for critical conversation among the press on the Monday after the leak.
The effect was that the possibility that war crimes were uncovered was, for the most part, conveniently omitted or glossed over; illumination of the US-assassination squad Task Force 373 was virtually absent from the Times‘ analysis of the logs on Sunday.
Threatening the Media’s Role as Gatekeepers
The Afghanistan war logs release involved a major media partnership that WikiLeaks had not employed for the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, which showed a 2007 Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters journalists and an Iraqi civilian, who tried to save the journalists. The sheer magnitude of information led WikiLeaks to work with other newspapers so context could be added to the material, so journalists could use the data to tell a story that would make it easier for the public to understand what was being revealed. But, in the US, the media was primarily interested in diminishing the release and making it seem like there was no reason the new information should influence or shift the trajectory of the war.
Days after the release, Time magazine published a cover story of an Afghan woman who had a hole on her face right where her nose was supposed to be. The woman, Aisha, provided the focal point for the magazine’s story, “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” Jeremy Scahill of The Nation examined Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel’s accompanying editor’s letter that attempted to contrast the war logs release with the Time story. Stengel argued the logs failed to provide “insight into the way life is lived” in Afghanistan. They also failed to address “the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.” As Scahill pointed out, this really wasn’t true; the war logs uncovered details on killings being covered up, the hunting of civilians, incidents of mass outrage that were sparked by outrage at civilian killings—all relevant to how an Afghani lives life in the war-ravaged country.
Attempts to manage the impact of the war logs, in addition to deviously amplifying the idea that Afghan informants would die as a result of the release, were symptomatic of the media’s fear of WikiLeaks. The press in America remains largely uncomfortable with the practice and ideology of Wikileaks, the credo that information organizations have spent economic effort on to keep secret should be public. The press thinks, if such a credo was supported by members of the US press, media access to the White House and other institutions would be threatened. The socialization process that the press engages in with government officials in order to form ties so that news stories featuring top-ranked officials would also be inhibited.
The media see their role in society as one that involves deciding what to report and what not to report to the public. The media traditionally works as a gatekeeper for government, limiting reporting to coverage of government operations that the government permits the press to cover. [This was recently made clear yet again by the way the press undermined Jeremy Scahill's report on CIA secret prison sites in Somalia.]
To create the guise that the press is still a watchdog press, there are occasional instances where the White House or other agencies in Washington come under sharp scrutiny. Those cases are typically the result of selective leaking, like when the Bush Administration selectively leaked details to the NYT’s Judith Miller to help make the case for war in Iraq. Or, if journalists somehow managed to get the information, a journalist will “do the right thing” and work with the White House on the story.
For example, consider the digital journalism project, “Top Secret America.” The Washington Post worked closely with the White House and other agencies. Had it attempted to do this under the radar with help from whistleblowers or anonymous sources, the White House would have condemned the Post. The reporters would likely have been fired from the newspaper and would likely be facing prosecution like James Risen, who wrote a story on NSA wiretapping under the Bush Administration and used anonymous sources without the consent of the White House.
WikiLeaks’ release of war logs clearly threatened this tradition of colluding with the government on matters of war and national security. The release, as Assange described, made it possible for people around the world to read the logs, comment on them and put them into a context and understand the full situation. The Internet made it possible for people to check the media and see what had been vetted and judge how the data and the logs had been presented.
By providing the war logs themselves to the public, the media’s subservience to the government could be directly questioned. The public could challenge an estate that manufactures consent and the federal government’s role as an entity that protects state interests by crafting an official narrative for why wars must continue.
One could demonstrably disprove claims that “nothing new” was revealed or scrutinize whether abuses revealed had been reviewed when Obama put together a strategy for a surge in Afghanistan. Historically, the US has not included the American people in US foreign policy decisions. Julian Assange and Wikileaks display a belief in the value of citizen participation and interest in the business of governments worldwide.
As Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University and author of the blog PressThink, declared, WikiLeaks was the “first stateless news organization.” He explained that the release of information without regard for so-called American national interest was indicative of the fact that WikiLeaks had no “terrestrial address or central office.” He wrote, “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.”
The Afghanistan War Since the Release
WikiLeaks hoped the war logs would promote a “deep understanding and scrutiny of the war in Afghanistan and as a result changes in policy about the prosecution of the war.” They had hoped it would lead to a “deep consideration” of “whether the war should continue.” They consciously didn’t advocate for an end to the war believing that decision was up to the governments involved and what was most important was stopping the ongoing abuses.
Sen. John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was almost moved to launch an inquiry into the release. He concluded, “However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan.” And, added, “Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.” But, as the charge of having blood on their hands escalated, Sen. Kerry didn’t hold any inquiry. His words were typical political posturing.
Today, if an inquiry were held, it would likely not be a sincere review of war policy and more like a McCarthyist hearing that focused on how to hold WikiLeaks responsible for this release and other releases. The government has no interest in assessing the material that has been published and maintains that it has not been properly declassified so the material is still classified information. They have subsequently launched a grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks hoping to build a case against WikiLeaks on charges of espionage. They have targeted WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning supporters like Bradley Manning Support Network co-founder David House, who had his laptop and other belongings unreasonably searched and seized when he was in an airport in November 2010.
As for the Afghanistan war, Obama has committed to ending a troop surge and returning the level of troops in Afghanistan to where they were at when President George W. Bush left office. He stood before the world in June and declared that the tide of war was receding and certain goals that had been laid out prior to the troop surge had been achieved (reversing the Taliban’s momentum and training Afghan security forces). But, he has ignored calls from even within the Washington establishment to bring the war to an end now. His administration has also refused to address any abuses revealed; in fact, his administration has committed to using assassination squads for extrajudicial killings especially since the public saw their capability on display with the state-sanctioned murder of Osama bin Laden.
Obama has deceptively presented the options Americans have with the Afghanistan war as a choice between retreat and overextension. He has fought to maintain the appearance that America is an “anchor for global security” and cannot withdraw, but it also cannot confront every evil in the world so it must be “pragmatic.”
Such pragmatism legitimizes the abuses WikiLeaks uncovered in the war logs. It legitimizes brutal night raids that have led Afghanis to fear US forces more than the Taliban. It has allowed the US to show no remorse for the bombings of weddings because at the end of the day this is all part of some measured approach toward war. It has made it possible for people to overlook the torture and abuse of detainees at Bagram.
WikiLeaks has made the world a party to injustice, thus making it so a wide population has an obligation to provide an answer to abuses and crimes or be complicit.
The organization may not have been able to get the powerful to change war policies, but that failure cannot be blamed on WikiLeaks. Indeed, human rights organizations and the media might suggest this shows “document dumps” are not useful in protecting civilians and ensuring human rights aren’t violated during wars. They would be missing the fact that war is a supreme human rights violation in and of itself and that there appears to have been a clear conspiracy by the powerful to make sure the details in the logs did not have a proper impact.
Regardless of whether anything has changed with the war as a result of the release, there now exists a clear record of the government’s (especially the military’s) handling of the war. In addition to the war logs, there are also US State Embassy cables on the Afghanistan War. Together, it is impossible for any person to say there is no way to know about the war crimes and abuses that have taken place.