Wikileaks: Truth and its Consequences

POTTER: What’s the impact on journalism, security, public support and the military?

What is the impact of the War Logs leak? I think this is best split into at least four questions.

1.  What is the impact on journalism?
2. What is the impact on operational security?
3. What will the impact be on public support for the mission?
4. What is the impact on the military?
1.  Following Jeff Jarvis, we can frame this as the question of “what if there is no more secrecy”? Journalists are, more than anything, information brokers, gatekeepers, and editors.  The big career score is “breaking a story” – that is, being the first person to report on something that becomes a cultural touchstone.

But what happens when there are no more secrets? When, for all intents and purposes, everything is made public, when there is no more use for “access journalism”? I make some tentative explorations of this in chapter five of The Authenticity Hoax, where I’m quite skeptical of the positive claims that are made in favour of maximal transparency and openness.  It’s part of a broader debate being played out between publicity-maximalists like Jarvis and privacy advocates like Andrew Keen, and it is one of the relatively few areas where I’m closer to Keen than to Jarvis.

There’s no magic way of figuring out where the line ought to be between transparency and secrecy. In every case you have to ask who benefits from more transparency, and who benefits from secrecy. Jarvis has a good posting on this where he questions his own commitments:

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be move by force.

This is the nub of the problem. Jay Rosen’s post on this is excellent, and his key point is to note that Wikileaks is the first “stateless” news organization. Why does this matter? Partly because it means it is harder for governments to control it, which can be a good thing. But it also means that Wikileaks has less reason to be responsible and accountable. When newspapers and other “state-based” organizations break news, it is because they perceive themselves as serving the broader public good, and they have a natural constituency that keeps them accountable. Where’s the accountability here, with Wikileaks? I don’t see it, and it bothers me.

2. That said, what is the material effect on the release of these documents on operational security in Afghanistan? From what I’ve read in the documents so far, I don’t see much to be too worried about. I suppose one way of getting at it is to ask whether, if you were working over there, how you would feel about this release. Safer? Less safe? The same? I  don’t have the knowledge or the expertise to answer this adequately.

But perhaps this isn’t a good standard to use anyway. If the military had its way, virtually nothing would be released to the public, in the name of “OPSEC”. OPSEC is just the military version of the “national security” line that the government uses to keep information from the public. But OPSEC and National Security can’t be a get-out-of-jail free card, used to trump all requests for access or information. There is a lot in these documents that I think the public has a right to know about, and that the military could very well have chosen to share with the public years ago, on their own terms.

3.  A lot of people who support the mission are very upset about this leak. For example, my friend Brian Platt got “up on his high horse” (as he put it), arguing that unlike a targeted leak designed to unveil a scandal, this document dump is “a senseless leak, an act of pure treason,” whose only purpose was to screw over the military.

That’s no doubt true, and I share Brian’s suspicion of the motivations behind these leaks.  But just because someone has an agenda, it doesn’t mean the documents aren’t genuine, or valuable, or useful. But more to the point, I’m not convinced that this leak will have the knock-on effect of undermining support for the mission.

Most of the opposition to the mission is  fact-free ideological leanings by people who are against the war not because of what is happening on the ground, but simply because the war exists in the first place — they are opposed to the mission in principle. In which case, new information — however positive — is not going to change their minds. At the same time, a lot of the pro-war faction is pretty much immune to bad news of any sort, and will always be willing to double down on the military commitment no matter how poorly things are going.

The real action is in the fuzzy middle; people (like me) who are unsure of what the goals of the mission should be, and how best they might be achieved, and to what extent realism has to be balanced against idealism. These are people for whom facts on the ground matter, and there is nothing in the documents, on balance, that I can see that would lead the fence-sitters to become devoted anti-war lobbyists.

If anything, I think the opposite is true. The picture that emerges from the documents is of a professional military working in an intense and difficult situation, and performing its job as humanely as possibly under the circumstances.  Canadians have had no indication as to the pace and tempo and intensity of the conflict since the insurgency started in 2006, and that is by design. The military brass has acted under the assumption that if we knew what was going on – how much contact there was, how many IEDs were being found, how many friendly fire or civilian casualties there were – that the public would pull its support. I think that does the public and the military a disservice.

It does no one any good if the public is kept in the dark about what the war is really like. If there is material in these documents that will undermine the effort in the mind of a reasonable public, then that is an argument for making them public. A war that relies for its support on keeping important truths from the public is not a legitimate war.

4. Ultimately, I think that the effect of this leak will be counterproductive for all concerned, in the same way that access-to-information laws have been  counterproductive. In Canada, ATI legislation has helped construct what has been called “the neurotic state” – a government and bureaucracy that is paranoid, highly media-averse, and reluctant to put anything of any consequence in writing.

This is probably what will happen with the military. This leak of very sensitive material is going to convince the government bureaucracy and the military brass that they simply can’t put any points of dispute or debate down in writing. There will be an increasing trend towards pseudo-transparency – the release of lots of communiqués and reports that say nothing at all. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be points of contention or matters of urgency; it just means there won’t be a record of it anywhere.

For journalists, coming on the heels of the Rolling Stone piece on McChrystal, it means access will be more difficult to come by. Sources will dry up, interviews will be cancelled, strict and useless talking points will be the order of the day.




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Wikileaks: Truth and its Consequences

  1. 1) Had the media, here and in the US, been doing it's job all along there would be no 'leaks' because they wouldn't have been necessary. The media has instead led the cheering section.

    2) Operational security isn't at risk because the info is 7 months old.

    3) Most of the public has long since turned against the mission. The leaks won't change that.

    4) When someone in the military is being asked to die for a mission, they like everyone else, will want to know as much about it as possible.

    • You can find a lot of information in the media about Afghanistan. It is a little optimistic to think the media can report every IED, every civilian run over, etc, etc.

      I am skeptical of this data. Although, I guess the combined US Military/Intelligence community would qualify as the biggest bureaucracy in the world – ripe for leaks. But, even at minimum wikileaks is altering info to protect their source – and who are their sources?

      • No one asked them to report every incident.

        But something other than 'it's going swimmingly, be happy' would have been nice.

        • I have rarely seen any "it's going swimmingly, be happy" reports

          • More than anything, Wikileaks can rely on the sub-par skills of the MSM (especially in Canada) to take this basic info and create a left-wing narrative around it. You can already see it unfolding – talk of War Crimes, comparisons to the Pentagon Papers etc.

          • And if we were all to leave, the Left will build the bloodbath, without a thought, into their narrative.

          • This 'left' you speak of is an amazing thing.

            Apparently it's all powerful and all seeing.

            It just bears no relation to anything on the planet.

          • DND puff pieces are everywhere.

    • Pretty sure news outlets (that are American) have provided much information on Afghanistan. Possibly not as detailed as the leaks (yes I've seen the leaks). VOA, RIA, RIA Novsti, etc… have pretty solid information on whats going on in the Afghanistan and Iraqi war… Check out http://www.globalsecurity.org

  2. Afghan Wikileaks a design against the hawks – is it BP etal? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CORz3UenJ0E
    My take on the Wikileaks is this is intentional undermining of the hawks by other elites. Very possibly a backlash from BP being sabotaged. If the hawks crippled BP because it was doing business with Iran and Libya etc. One effect would be to consolidate all those opposed to hawkish concerns – like the war in Afghanistan.
    Wikileaks is also not the independent voice we are led to believe it is.[youtube CORz3UenJ0E http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CORz3UenJ0E youtube]

    • So this is this guy that busted multiple classified encryption keys at the Pentagon, NSA, Pentagon, and US Embassies world-wide then gave 3 weeks notice to some of the largest publications in the western world that he had done so and recovered all the damning info of the giant fascist war machine? – You would think they would of just killed him.

  3. Support for the war in Afghanistan has been crumbling as we get ever closer to the 10 year mark with very limited success. (Personally, I thought it was necessary at the time but now realize I should have listened to everyone who predicted it just wouldn't work). This could hasten fence sitters towards the tipping point.

  4. "The picture that emerges from the documents is of a professional military working in an intense and difficult situation, and performing its job as humanely as possibly under the circumstances. "

    Why would the professionalism of the military have any impact on whether you support the war? I think a lot of people will be affected by the concrete examples of our military killing civilians and arming military/police who then deliberately kill each other (or civilians). Although, maybe you're right, and the fact that our soldiers are polite and well-groomed wil completely outweigh those facts…

  5. It's always been a question (to me) that the "enemy" from which the materials are to be held
    "secret" is probably already well aware of much of it. Who is more aware of civilian deaths, torture,
    and corruption in Afghanistan than the Aghanis. There are not many secrets on the street corners
    of Kandahar. So, who is the target of the "secrecy" ?

  6. 1) This sort of massive military leak is not really a new phenomenon – see the Pentagon Papers for something similar. There have long been whistleblowers.

    Aside from that, it's interesting that Wikileaks seems to have tried to keep the journalists involved inclined to run the story by giving out three "exclusives". How could the Times sit on the story, even if they wanted to, when the Guardian would run it?

    2) I don't really get this – like BGLong. The Taliban, I presume, already know that they have heat seeking missiles; the Afghans shot at and wounded already know about the rampage the Marines went on that day on their way back to base; and so on and so forth.

    3) Public support is already moving away from the mission. This will serve to keep that trend going up until victory is declared in 2014 and the foreign armies leave.

    4) The military will have to look at document security.

    • This is not the Pentagon Papers

  7. And this Guardian article seems disconsonant with your descriiption of a military performing its job as humanely as possibly – although, I suppose, there are less humane ways to slaughter people than shooting randomly from your armored vehicle as you ram through traffic. Still the young bride shot dead in the field is pretty much staying shot dead. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/26/afgha

  8. 1. Journalists, can still break stories, for instance what is with Suncor's lobbying last month? Does it have to do with that G20 measure you mentioned? But it's going to require a bit more analysis. Like the WaPo's special.

    But journalists, also need to summarize, People don't have time to keep track of tweet level detail of knowledge, for every story. Would be nice to have long-form accurate summaries.

  9. I haven't seen anything (at least in the NYT article I read) that is so explosive. Corrupt Warlords? ISI support of the Taliban? Civilians being killed? Less than professional Afghan Soldiers/Police?- This has all been widely reported.

    • This has been widely speculated. This is a written unfiltered account of how the US military, at least on an operational scale, sees it. It thus backs up the speculation to the point of further credibility.

  10. The military brass has acted under the assumption that if we knew what was going on – how much contact there was, how many IEDs were being found, how many friendly fire or civilian casualties there were – that the public would pull its support. I think that does the public and the military a disservice.

    I think that it isn't the responsibility of the military to be making this decision. If we are talking about information that everyone in the theater already knows, then there's no harm releasing it to the public. And its the public's decision to make from there. The military works for the Canadian people, not the other way around.

  11. 3) I think Andrew Potter needs a new friend.

    One that would tell him that it's illegal under US law to keep documents classifieds for pure political reasons, to whitewash an already unpopular war.

    I hope that anyone who has been helping to keep these type of documents classifieds so the war machine could indiscriminately kill hundreds of civilians while there clearly is no end of combat in sight,gets locked up for a long, long, time.

    Potter, isn't it time for better friends?

  12. How much trust is to be given to any of the Wiki sights? On their own they aren't anything without being supported by another source. A position that could lead to abuse if journalists begin to rely on it as a source of factual information.

    • Hey there,
      Spelling and grammar mistakes aside, your comment seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what Wikileaks is. It is in no way related to wikipedia. Wikileaks is not a secondary source as Wikipedia is, but is instead a hub of primary sources. To comment on this issue without even understanding at a basic level what is being discussed is irresponsible at best. Cheers!

      • Apologies for the grammar. ( The posting date was during a trial switch to decaf.) Just be try be a little more shall we say sceptical of their motives. Everyone has an agenda. Even yourself it would seem.

  13. Potter's gone potty. Silkwood, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and other "leaks" far more significant than anything from Wiki had none of the "counterproductive" effects that trouble poor Potter. Quite the opposite in fact: all served to enhance public accountability.

  14. Perhaps wikileaks will be the ones to break the much ballyhoed 'Stephen/Laureen Harper split'.

    (No, I don't know if it's true).

  15. Additional question: How many courageous Afghans, working secretly with the coalition agains the taliban, will be tortured and executed because their names and villages were included in the leaked documents? Take note: each will represent blood on Assange's lily-white hands.

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