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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The Wiki leak is more and less important than you think

The pundits today are buzzing like angry bees in a bonnet over the publication of 92,000 classified documents from Afghanistan by transparency advocates WikiLeaks. This is, indeed, a big deal, but for reasons that may not be immediately clear.

Humor me for a moment: if your life was in danger, would you trust Julian Assange to keep your identity a secret? Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has dedicated himself to exposing secrets he feels should not be kept — but how he decides what’s worth staying secret and what isn’t is anyone’s guess. The latest leak from WikiLeaks, which posts 92,000 classified documents to the Internet and dares readers to find something noteworthy inside, puts a huge number of people at risk. And Assange doesn’t seem to care.

This is a much more serious issue than most people realize. Abaceen Nasimi, an Afghan who’s traveling around the country and tweeting about it, worries this morning, “The Wiki leaks is going to get lots of people into the hit list of Taleban, even if the names are not real.”

“What a mess,” he adds.

Adam Serwer, a staff writer for the American Prospect, tweeted this morning, “Former Military Intelligence Officer sez of wikileaks, ‘Its an AQ/Taliban execution team’s treasure trove.’”

This is a very real worry — despite Assange’s assurances that his organization is withholding 15,000 documents to “redact” or change any names, what assurances can we have that WikiLeaks will do a good job?

Can an organization whose sole purpose is exposing secret information really do a good job safeguarding the lives it endangers through exposure? They really cannot. The New York Times admitted as much, saying they took much greater pains not to provide readers the means to uncover the identities of anyone in the reports they mention (some of these efforts, like not linking to WikiLeaks, are almost cutesy on the Internet, but are nevertheless honest). “At the request of the White House,” the Times editors say, “[we] urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”

Small comfort, since WikiLeaks is barely trying. The materials in question mostly consist of immediate incident reports — seemingly downloaded directly from CIDNE, a massive reporting database the military maintains in Afghanistan and Iraq. These reports are about as accurate as first reports from a crime scene: often accurate in atmosphere, but usually wrong on details.

The military is rightly accused of overclassifying material, but in this case we have some idea of why: even with the names removed from these reports, you know where they happened (many still have place names). You know when they happened. And you know an Afghan was speaking to a U.S. soldier or intelligence agent. If you have times, locations and half the participants, you don’t need names to identify who was involved in a conversation — with some very basic detective work, you can find out (and it’s much easier to do in Afghanistan, which loves gossip).

If I were a Taliban operative with access to a computer — and lots of them have access to computers — I’d start searching the WikiLeaks data for incident reports near my area of operation to see if I recognized anyone. And then I’d kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.

Nothing to see here

At the same time, there’s almost nothing surprising in these incident reports. As Hamid Karzai said, he is shocked at the size of the leak, but its contents have been in the open for a long time. One of the “blockbuster” revelations the newspapers are talking about is how Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, supports the Taliban. This news is about as old as 2001, when Pakistani officials participated in the so-called “Airlift of Evil,” a period from November 2001 to January 2002, during which Pakistani military planes flew nonstop flights from Kunduz to Pakistan, ferrying away Taliban militants and ISI operatives in the face of the American advance. As recently as 2008, American officials were telling The New York Times that Pakistani intelligence operatives were responsible for incidents of terror throughout Afghanistan, including the deadly 2008 bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

Another “blockbuster” revelation is news that American military officials try to shape the “metanarrative” of the war. Yet the controversy surrounding NFL star-turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s death in 2004 — General Stanley McChrystal, recently removed from command in Afghanistan, participated in the coverup of his death — is evidence enough that the military leadership isn’t ashamed to try to spin reality to its own purposes (the story of Jessica Lynch’s capture and rescue in Iraq in 2003 is another example).

It’s unlikely we’ll find anything truly new in these archives. It’s possible the revelation that some Taliban groups might have stinger anti-air missiles is significant, though that story has also been around since 2001. Just as importantly, the helicopters that do get shot at and damaged see machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, not old heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles.

Ultimately, though, what these leaks help to show is that handling raw intelligence data — this is the source material for what eventually winds up in finished assessment products policymakers read — is both incredibly dull and incredibly tedious. You have to read thousands of incident reports to find hints of something interesting going on, whether a phantom chemical attack or news of an impending assault on a U.S. base. Ninety percent of it is, for lack of a better term, filler you can read in the open anyway.

The real damage to America

Quite possibly, the real damage this leak will do is to how the intelligence community operates. Last week, when the pundits were outraged at the revelations in The Washington Post’s expose on the intelligence community, much of it focused on how little agencies collaborate and share information. That is, when they find something important, they tend to keep it to themselves, rather than share it with the other 15 agencies that might be working on the same issue. The Post blamed this inability to share data, and the community’s inability to understand the sheer volume of data it collects, on several intelligence failures in recent months.

Think about what WikiLeaks has done, now. They have essentially told the entire IC that anything they write or say or make available to the broader defense community is, essentially, fair game to be made public. In a theoretical sense, that can be a good thing, such as when you’re exposing criminal wrongdoing. But these incident reports do not do that (despite Assange’s solemn assurances, there’s not yet any evidence of war crimes anywhere in the 92,000 documents). And now, these intelligence agencies that had been edging ever closer to sharing information and becoming more open to collaborating will, almost certainly, slam the doors shut and keep all their information locked down.

Radical transparency sounds like a really great idea until you ponder the real consequences. We keep secrets all the time, for very good reasons, whether personal or professional. In the IC, those secrets are kept secret for a very good reason: releasing them to the public will cause irreparable harm to our country’s security. From an analyst’s perspective, it’s already incredibly difficult to gather information: database tools like Pathfinder are unwieldly and require significant training to use. Many databases are not indexed somewhere discoverable, and thus require a lot of sleuthing on the IC’s networks to uncover. Many things just aren’t posted somewhere discoverable, and you have to know whom to ask for access.

That entire, laborious process of doing research will probably become even more difficult. A slow process will become an impossible one, as people hunker down and become paranoid about their own fellow analysts leaking information to the outside world. If nothing else, it ratchets up tensions and slows down research within the community, something no one in their right mind should want to do.

While he’s trying to spin it otherwise, the only real winner of this massive leak is Julian Assange himself. WikiLeaks gets another scoop, the public gets flooded with too much data to reasonably understand (sound familiar?), and we’ll all be barraged with intrepid reporters selectively excerpting single pieces of data to justify whatever their pet theories were about the war. In a way, this can be a teaching moment to the public — let’s try to make sense of this single source of information and ponder what it’s like to sift through dozens of archives just like it — but, at the end of it, the costs of so much exposure are just too high.


  • jangal

    Our government’s track record for honesty is unarguably poor, thus it is necessary to under take these types of actions to increase transparency. We are on a moral crusade to spread “freedom” and “democracy”, there is nothing wrong in doing this, we do, however, need to practise what we preach.

    If we are truly a free and just society let’s show the world.

    Kudos to wikileaks and members of the IC for their bravery and perseverance. If we choose to supress wikileaks we are renforcing what everybody already believes about American government – it is corrupt.

  • WikiLeeks

    Great article, and great reporting. Thank you for exposing another side of this from such a reputable organization.

  • jeff

    Go back and read this article again especially about part on people will die because of this. While you sit at home whinning for transparency it shouldn’t be at the price at someone’ death. This isn’t what I thought it would be in fact Assange should give up his sources.

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  • Nick

    There is the presumption that this sort of transparency will potentially result in the death of others. This may be true, but we must remember that people were already being killed before this leak began dripping. To suggest Assange and his crew are to blame for anything is to “shoot the messenger;” the Bush and Obama administrations are responsible for this mess, not the people exposing their faults.
    This certainly humanizes the war (the previous video of the Apache helicopter was incredibly powerful), but I feel as though the public shares the administration’s shrug towards such information. Americans care about the economy and jobs, not the wars. It is unrealistic to think this is the catalyst for troop withdrawal and the mobilization of Americans to denounce the wars, but there’s been enough chances for that to have already happened.

  • Roy Reese

    Let’s be quite clear that the possibility of someone being killed as a result of the release of these documents qualifies more as an excuse than anything else. How many have died because of the release of classified documents? When we have an answer to that question, then we can address the issues of “leaks” and mortal danger. Until then it is nothing more than idle speculation that feeds the overzealous classification of documents — if not outright efforts to conceal the truth from the public. Assange makes this point more forcefully in an interview published in the international, online edition (English) of Der Speigel. That same issue also has articles related to the leaked documents which suggests that the German government has been at least as guilty as the US one of “prettying up” the picture in Afghanistan. So, we best not be too ethnocentric in thinking that only the US government may be “on trial” as a result of the release of these documents.

    If the documents are a boring and of such little intelligence value, why have they been classified? Documents of little value should enter the public domain after only a brief period of classification, not be withheld as long as they are now.

    As far as encouraging greater disfunction in the US intelligence community, what should be clear from The Washington Post series is just how out of control that community is. Is is plausible to believe that a few leaked documents will matter? The entire system needs radical paring and reform.

    Last, as pointed out above, it is not Assange and Wikileaks who have put lives in danger, but those who invaded Afghanistan percipitously and have further destablized the region.

  • Roy Reese

    An addendum to my prior comment: Are we to praise the New York Times for its concern when the same paper was responsible for fanning the flames of war before the invasion of Iraq as its reporter, Judith Miller, relied on “news” shaped and hand fed by an aspirant to power there, namely Ahmed Chalabi? And how much better would the world be if the full National Intelligence Estimate leading up to the invasion had been made available so that the bias of executive summary would have been more clearly and widely known? My own conclusion based solely publicly available information was that Iraq likely did NOT have WMDs. However, by keeping the full NIE secret the administration not only covered up the distortions of the summary, it also allowed people to say, gee, the government has access to secret information that must indicate that Saddam Hussein really DOES have WMDs — a position only supported by the revelation of selected data in Colin Powell’s UN appearance.

    My point with all this is that we can see ready examples of secrecy that has cost lives, while it is much harder to make the case the revealing secrets has. That this seems counterintuitive has to do with the overclassification of information, an abuse that impedes the functioning of a democracy far, far more than it undermines its security.

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  • paradoctor

    Releasing these documents might endanger some lives; but _not_ releasing these documents would _certainly_ endanger even more lives.

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  • à bennet

    What complete and utter whining rubbish. putting life at risk! are you towing that gov line?

    Its invalid as this is a picture of the war from 2004 to 2009 – if the american gov and media had been telling the truth to begin with then there would be no need for leaks. but thats just it you don’t like it when hypocracy and crime from the usa and its allies is exposed.

    Once you stop the illegal wars then you can expect the leaks to stop and until then expect more leaks and we will expect you to cry and whine about saving lifes and the irony of those who are repeated KILLED by the illegal actions of the allied forces.

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  • Gen Von Clapper


    Excellent piece of reporting. I am glad to see your comments capture the gravity of the leak. Defense of the constitution is the swore oath of all military personnel. Why is it always a Private First Class that remebers this? Having served in an active duty combat unit overseas I can tell you that I don’t mind doing my job in the field as long as the REMFs focus on the troops. These funny money games in Wall Street will undermine our national security. Let’s get the house in order at home in support of the troops. If I have to I’ll contract veteran 10th mountain troops, clear Wall Street and move it to Dallas or LA just to shuffle the desks. I’m not supposed to discuss this but Wall Street has mirror sites in case of attack. The only problem with moving those boys and girls is listening to them whine. Those ADMIN boys went through basic. Ruck up your ledger and inside trader pen drives and bring the whole lot under a new commander. Those boys are too cozy and out of touch. They think this war is a god damn fund raising party with the battalion commanders’ wives club. The wives clubs are critical for troop support and care of loved ones when we deploy. It’s not the national planning committee.

  • anon1

    @ Roy Reese re:” If the documents are a boring and of such little intelligence value, why have they been classified? Documents of little value should enter the public domain after only a brief period of classification, not be withheld as long as they are now.”

    Mr. Foust did not say that they were of little intelligence value–simply that there were no globally important revelations in them.

    Having been responsible analyzing similar documents in a different theater of operations, I know from experience that hes is correct in calling them tedious. Mounds and mounds of data that is important on a tactical level is not necessarily worth much to the public. It is only useful on a local level or as data points for use in a more global analysis.

    This does not mean that the reports should be declassified immediately. Seventy five years is the norm. One of the main reasons for classification is to protect those who risk their lives by sharing information with us. True, not everyone who chooses to cooperate with us is 100% altruistic. That is beside the point though. These sources of information have put trust in us to protect their identity just as the source who gave this info to wikileaks is trusting them to hide who he or she is.

    The difference as I see it is that the person who gave this information to wikileaks is breaking trust with those who count on him to preserve their anonymity while expecting wikileaks to protect his own.

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  • Mamosta

    all those documents were made up .Non of them are real or true,it used just for deceiving and decoration. hhhhhhhhhh

  • Nuwants

    The leak of these documents actually exposes the lies and corruption of not just my country, but the world community. Lives are at risk with or without the documents as world leadership is and has been failing miserably due to the egocentric corruption that is fueled by GREED, and HATRED.
    Both greed and hatred cause FEAR, which those who would dominate and control use to better situate themselves as masters of us all.
    Do I agree with leaks, NO! Do I feel it is time for not just my country to come clean, but the worlds leaderships to do the same, YES! Will they, not until someone or something forces them to. This often is in the form of leaks.
    This world and its leadership and policies should change if we as a people are to find the happiness we so long for. The “War System” that has for so long been the only system must change.
    Problem is that as most of the people of the world have been conditioned to see them selves as just “Little People”, who require others to lead them. As most people have been conditioned to “Let the other guy do it”. As most people do not care to see the truth of the miserable leadership supported all over the world, it will take some leaks from all over the world to possibly wake all the “Little People” up and teach them how big they can be when we all stand together and say “ENOUGH”.
    I am an American, born and raised here, served my country, and come from a family who has done the same more than one time. I love my country, as many in other countries do. For some time I have not cared for the leadership and its politics here or in other countries as all seem to be deceptive in many ways, bought by rich and corporate interests. If it takes leaks to get the ball rolling toward a better world then leaks it should be. To be sure, America is NOT the only country with stuff to hide and it is about time all the dirt is exposed.

  • Anonymous

    Bugs Bunny would call the author of this article a maroon.

    According to Wikileaks, in four years of publishing, not a single person has been killed as a result of Wikileaks publication. This story is a gigantic American wank, and is using total trash reporting. What names have been released? Now, months have passed. Bring out your death lists.

    Oh. Nobody has been killed? Well, that underlines the fact that PBS is publishing the same low-quality garbage we expect around the world from the rest of the US press.

    It is no wonder that, when Rupert Murdock decided to launch an American news network, he gave America Fox News. It is a perfect fit for the moronic American masses. Anywhere else in the world would be insulted, but the US is entranced. And it really is a perfect fit. Wild conjecture is the American substitute for reporting.

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