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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.