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WikiLeaks Documents: What War Info Can Be Verified?

July 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the wake of the WikiLeaks whistle-blower website releasing thousands of documents detailing Afghan war operations, Jeffrey Brown discusses the military significance with Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, and documentary filmmaker Philip Smucker, who have both written about the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for a closer look at all this, we’re joined by two people who’ve written widely on the war, Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at “The New Yorker.” His latest book is “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.” And Philip Smucker, an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker, he’s author of “My Brother, My Enemy: America and the Battle of Ideas Across the Islamic World.”

Steve Coll, as an overview first, are we learning specific new things here, or is it a matter involve of seeing it in new detail and official documents?

STEVE COLL, president & CEO, New America Foundation: I think it’s more a matter of seeing it in new detail and official documents.

There are bits and pieces and suggestive new evidence about witness reports of ISI collaboration with the Taliban. You mentioned earlier the possibility of new evidence about civilian deaths in special operations raids, and some eyewitness reports about the use of heat-seeking missiles, although I have to say — obviously, I haven’t read all 70,000 documents, but the excerpts that are available — the testimony in some of these documents is hearsay, wouldn’t be courtroom-ready evidence.

These are eyewitness reports that often, in the case of aircraft incidents, turn out to be unreliable. And the testimony about ISI is almost all paid informants who claim to be someplace where the writer of the report wasn’t also present.

JEFFREY BROWN: Phil Smucker, what — what jumps out at you?

PHILIP SMUCKER, author, “My Brother, My Enemy: America and the Battle of Ideas Across the Islamic World”: Well, the preponderance of evidence that the Pakistani military is turning a blind eye, and there’s something of a discussion now between whether The Guardian is right to say there’s no smoking gun and the New York Times leading with this information.

Up on the border, it is almost a moot point, because you have the Pakistani military located there. And, often, they are just continuing with their business, not watching the jihadis as they go up into the mountains, cross into Afghanistan to kill Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stay there — stay for a moment with you. These are, as we said, kind of low-level reports. Now, does that affect how you read it, I mean, the rawness of some of these or the unvetted nature of some of these reports?

PHILIP SMUCKER: Well, certainly these are — they’re not like the Pentagon Papers. These are — this is a broad overview of what is going on, the nitty-gritty at the small American bases, which is kind of astounding, really, because it exposes even what the special forces are doing and the tactics.

So, it should be a huge embarrassment to the Pentagon.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Steve Coll you started by saying some of the caveats that you see in this. What — what is most significant to you in your reading so far?

STEVE COLL: Well, I agree with Philip that there is a preponderance of evidence, even though some of it is tainted and dubious, that reminds us of a historical pattern, which U.S. officials have occasionally commented on, but which they are often are reluctant to be fully honest about, in my opinion, which is that there is no reason to believe that the Pakistani intelligence service has altered its historical collaboration with the Taliban in pursuit of what it imagines to be its national interests in Afghanistan.

At the same time, that government is a major non-NATO ally of the United States in receipt of many hundreds of millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers. It should be unacceptable for the United States to have an ally actively collaborate with militias that are attacking and killing American soldiers. And if these documents raise that question, force it into the light, then I think that is a constructive contribution.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s look and — let’s try to walk through some of the other particulars.

Phil Smucker, one of them that got a lot of attention is the report that the Taliban used — perhaps used — heat-seeking missiles. What is the significance?

PHILIP SMUCKER: Well, we have seen sophisticated Chinese weapons. These are surface-to-air weapons. They are not Stinger missiles, not to be confused with the Stingers.

But one thing we can confirm, covering the story over the last four years, is that a lot of the tactics that have come from Iraq are being transferred by al-Qaida in Pakistan. It’s almost a value-added. What al-Qaida is giving to the Taliban in Pakistan, then they are taking it across the border to attack the Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Coll, what would you add to that on the heat-seeking missiles?

STEVE COLL: Well, I think that’s — well, I think it’s — the reports that have been excerpted — quote — “eyewitnesses” to the crashing of helicopters apparently struck by missiles, that could well be an indication of the use of Chinese or other missiles.

I just take note, as a journalist who has covered these things for a long time, that the world’s most unreliable witnesses are those that claim to see air disasters from the ground, because it’s just the eye isn’t very reliable. But perhaps there is much richer material than that available.

I actually think that the granular accounts of corruption by the Afghan government at the local level and the toll of civilian casualties in mistaken raids are probably even more significant than — than the rest, because they remind us that this war at the local level is experienced often as one in which neither the Afghan government nor the noble intentions of the United States translate into the experience of ordinary Afghans.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you make of that, Phil Smucker? I mean, certainly a lot of attention today on the number of what appear to be undocumented strikes against civilians.

PHILIP SMUCKER: Well, I think the bigger problem there is creating a policy that compensates for civilians when they’re — when they’re injured and killed, because, as General Petraeus has said, certainly, this summer is going to be bloodier than last summer. It could be the worst summer we have seen.

And the American public has to be prepared for that. But they have to know that the U.S. government cares about the civilians. And there are going to be accidents. And the bigger problem is that we don’t see in these reports a policy that — that really compensates properly for each case across the board.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — let me stay with you — what about one other particular, which is the detail on the covert effort by U.S. special forces to go after top Taliban leaders? Again, something that there has been a lot of talk about and I think people sort of know is happening, but, here, we get more detail.

PHILIP SMUCKER: Right. And I think it’s almost unclear. This is a very bird’s-eye view of what they are doing. Is this — can it be qualified as targeted assassination? We certainly know that that is going on in Pakistan with the drones. When we get a bead on an al-Qaida leader, we attack with a drone.

I think that the special forces are going on raids, and those raids often become bloody. Now, that’s war. That’s not targeted assassination.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you make of that, Steve Coll, more detail on those kinds of operations?

STEVE COLL: Well, we have known since 9/11 that much of the Eastern and Southern Afghanistan operations have been turned over to a combination of U.S. special forces and CIA paramilitaries, and that their main mission has been to identify, capture or kill Taliban leaders.

So, I don’t think, in principle, the mission is surprising. I think it’s useful to see it in its specificity, to understand its complexity, the nature of the mistakes that are made, the consequences of those mistakes for the broader strategy of persuading Afghans that the international community is still a constructive partner of their efforts to reclaim their country.

But the basic idea that we’re out there shooting bad guys in Eastern Afghanistan doesn’t strike me as — as new.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Steve Coll, just help our audience here. There is so much more in this, but just help people understand, as someone who has covered the military and intelligence for quite a while, how does something like this even happen, that all of these classified documents become public?

STEVE COLL: Well, obviously, we don’t know. And WikiLeaks isn’t saying. And whatever the three news organizations that partnered with them learned about the origin of the documents, if anything, they’re not disclosing.

I guess we can observe that, after 9/11, one of the criticisms of the intelligence community was that there wasn’t enough sharing and that information, even at fairly low levels of classification, tended to be compartmented into boxes. And we saw, in the run-up to 9/11, examples of how that got in the way of effective investigations and effective action.

And so there was a big push after 9/11 to encourage the intelligence community, through its technology systems and its protocols, to share information and to make it accessible.

It would seem that a single individual — I don’t know whether that will be borne out or not, but somebody had access to quite a lot of documents. It is notable that — the low level of classification. In the world we live in, 90,000 secret documents sounds like a lot, but we don’t actually know the total universe. It could be millions.

And, in any event, most of the — most sensitive operational information in the U.S. system is kept at the top-secret or even more secret, compartmented information level. And there’s, so far as I know, none or not much of that in this batch.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Steve Coll and Philip Smucker, thank you both very much.