The last few days have seen a fury of debate about Wikileaks’ latest disclosures. To my mind, Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq and earlier Afghanistan documents is a public service—throwing critical light on the way in which America has pursued its wars at ground level.
Some have dismissed the documents as nothing “new.” Of course, it is true that we have had information about the wars, human rights violations, and civilian casualties in everyday stories by the media. But much of that, among reporters “embedded” by the military, has been carefully screened. Moreover, what has been written is also of course filtered through the eyes of journalists, with their own biases.
I think it is extremely useful for the public to have the opportunity to see ordinary soldiers’ day-to-day experience of the wars in any number of incidents that have not in fact received attention. This in my view makes the information “new”—and clearly worthwhile. That is why the world’s headlines over the last few days have been full of stories about civilian casualties, torture, and the role of military contractors–based on the Wikileaks disclosures.
As to the argument that the releases put civilians and soldiers at risk,
I of course believe those risks should be minimized. It certainly cannot be denied that these documents could put some civilian informants in the two countries “at risk”—or more precisely at greater risk than they have already placed themselves. And, as Charli Carpenter and others have argued previously, it does seem that Wikileaks might have done more to reduce that risk, particularly in the Afghanistan release. But it is probably impossible to eliminate the risk of harm—other than not to have released the documents in the first place. With regard to the actual level of risk from the Afghanistan disclosure, however, we do have some information. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly someone to underestimate the peril, wrote in August that the Pentagon’s “review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.” Days ago, CNN also reported that “a senior NATO official in Kabul told [the network] there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” (h/t Vikash Yadav)
Charli’s older idea that Wikileaks should do targeted document releases of potential war crimes may have some merit–but such an approach would essentially turn Wikileaks into a human rights NGO. Admittedly, the world could use more of them, particularly in war zones. But I see no value in Wikileaks transforming itself into something it is not, nor do I see anything wrong with Wikileaks’ continuing the mass data releases that it specializes in, albeit with some enhanced protections that it appears to be implementing already.
Nor do I have a problem with lack of transparency about the organization’s internal operations—or, if you will, a lack of symmetry with its efforts to illuminate government activities. Wikileaks, as a private entity, is under no obligation to disclose its internal operations, funding, and decisionmaking, beyond that required by law of other private concerns. As a matter of organizational strategy, I would argue for Wikileaks to tell more—because failing to do so raises legitimate questions about the group. But I would not dismiss its activities or discount its disclosures for this reason. Nor would I focus attention on this side issue, rather than the main one–the information’s substance.
By contrast, democratic governments do have an obligation to disclose information to their citizens, except in rare and particular circumstances. Yet from the U.S. to South Africa, governments’ knee jerk approach, especially when officials solemnly intone the magic word “security,” is exactly the opposite–with dire costs to citizens who are paying the bills and soldiers who are doing the dying.
In any case, all of the worry about Wikileaks possibly putting civilians and soldiers at risk must be placed in context. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which the U.S. started with so little justification and so little vision, have put millions of civilians and soldiers at actual risk. Of course, it is far worse than “risk.” Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians have actually died as a result of our wars, with far larger numbers gravely wounded. Thousands of American soldiers have actually been killed, and tens of thousands have had their lives shattered by injuries.
The wars have also put our nation as a whole at greater “risk”—although it is critical to realize that the danger to individual Americans and certainly to our “national security” remains small and easily manageable. Certainly, it does not justify the vast and wasteful expenditures we are making in the “GWOT.” (This does not even take into account the huge direct and indirect monetary costs of the wars—or the costs in civil liberties eroded.)
A major reason that the Bush administration was able to start these wars was lack of information. The evidentiary “basis” for them—and certainly against them–was not fully analyzed, the rationale for them not fully debated, and the exit strategies not wisely considered. In this, many of our key “watchdogs”—journalists, “opposition” politicians, and academics—blindly bought the Bush administration’s line on the “threat.” More information does not of course mean that misguided politicians will avoid doing stupid things. Nor does it stop journalists from becoming handmaidens of power. But it probably makes it more difficult for these things to happen.
In this context, the more information we have today about these misbegotten wars, the better. In the past, much of what we have had came from government or military sources, with a clear incentive to paint a rosy or incomplete picture. Journalists often ignored their obligation to be skeptical of officialdom. A vast “top security” industry has grown up in the wake of these wars, full of private contractors and government employees only too happy to keep information from the public. Because of the Pentagon’s strategic decision not to report civilian casualties, the human costs to the Iraqi and Afghan people can be found only through third parties. Through clever accounting practices, the government has been able to hide and postpone payment of the war’s monetary costs. And because of our volunteer army, the human costs to Americans have been confined to a tiny minority of our population.
In other words, these wars have been conducted with the American people—who pay their costs and in whose name they were started—very much in the dark. The mantra from our leaders is, “Trust us.” And the furious response to the disclosures is to attack Wikileaks and, most pathetically, Julian Assange–for his personal life.
Wikileaks is fighting against this self-servingly secretive mindset and may help bring these wars to an end sooner. In that, the group will help our country be stronger, more secure, and more responsible. I applaud the disclosures!
I also recommend Steve Walt’s blog and especially Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts which get to the heart of the story: what Wikileaks is doing; and how it is being attacked by government officials and much of the U.S. (but not foreign) press.