Another week, and another Big
Bombshell Story in the national security press, this time a series of
stories based on the leak by Wikileaks of over 90,000 classified cables and
reports from the Afghan theater. (A sidebar: The word "leak" just doesn't seem
adequate for a data dump and security breach of this magnitude. This is not so
much a leak as a gusher.)
After reading the stories, my reaction is similar to FP colleague Tom Ricks: There does not appear to be any bombshell revelation here. Perhaps the more interesting and damning revelations are to come, but presumably the newspapers led with their best stuff.
If so, I would go a step further: The bombshell is that, with 90,000 classified documents from which to cherry-pick, the reporters were obliged to conclude, "Over all, the documents do not contradict official accounts of the war." That is pretty significant, given the layers of distrust and skeptical reporting that have accumulated over the years. (By contrast, a few days of reporting from a very different kind of data dump, the archives of JournoList, seems to have generated far more damning revelations.)
In other words, the general understanding of the overall arc
of the Afghan war thus far that an attentive public audience would develop by
staying abreast of the information already in the public domain is what one
would glean if one digested 90,000 classified documents from the same period. That
is a big story, but it is not the one the editors are hyping.
Instead, they are hyping a few items that seem less significant upon closer inspection:
- Did the Taliban use heat-seeking missiles against
allied aircraft?Although this has been a concern from the earliest days of the Afghan
war, apparently neither NATO nor U.S. commanders have publicly and
officially confirmed an incident. The newspapers culling the Wikileaks
trove found a few tactical reports where some officers suspected an attack
might have used a heat-seeking Stinger missile, and the Guardian
story in particular trumpets
this as evidence of an official cover-up.
- Secret commando raids against top insurgent leaders have had "notable successes" but "have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment." I have no doubt whatsoever that this is all true. I just don't see this as new news.
- Drones do not work perfectly. Ditto.
- The CIA has been extensively deployed in Afghanistan. Ditto.
- Pakistan has been an uncertain ally, sometimes helping and sometimes hurting the war effort. Ditto.
Of course, this doesn't mean the leaks are without consequence. As Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued, the leaks further undermine the classification system on which sensitive national security collection, analysis, and decision-making depends. Moreover, the leaks -- and especially the hyped air-of-scandal coverage (see especially the way the sensationalized British press are covering the story) -- fuel public despair about the war and provide fodder for well-established anti-war arguments. This appears to be the reason why anti-war activists collected and disseminated the classified documents in the first place.
The leaked documents may even have put in jeopardy coalition troops and military missions. The editors at the New York Times assure us that they took every necessary step to ensure that the safety of the troops and their missions were not compromised by this leak. President Obama's National Security Advisor says otherwise, warning that the leaks could "put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."
One doesn't have to be a knee-jerk partisan supporter of the Obama administration to think that it is a better judge of how to preserve American national security than newspaper editors and anti-war activists.
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