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Congress's response to WikiLeaks: shoot the messenger

The 92,000 documents about the Afghanistan war released by WikiLeaks Sunday generated more anger in Congress at WikiLeaks than at the war effort.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (l.) talks with Vice Chairman Sen. Kit Bond during confirmation hearings about Director of National Intelligence nominee James Clapper July 20. Senator Feinstein criticized the WikiLeaks report Monday.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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By Gail Russell Chaddock, Staff writer / July 27, 2010

Washington

Despite the release of some 92,000 classified documents that cast doubt on the success of the US war effort in Afghanistan, all but the staunchest antiwar members of Congress focused their most scathing words Monday on WikiLeaks, the website that published the material.

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The controversy is far from over – it remains unclear how Americans might react to revelations about apparent indiscriminate killing of Afghan civilians and potential double-dealing by Pakistan. But Monday's comments from Congress suggest that, for now, Capitol Hill is unlikely to use the WikiLeaks revelations to try to recast US involvement in Afghanistan.

Taking a cue from the Obama White House, some top Democrats dubbed the decision to leak the documents “irresponsible” and a threat to American lives. Others called on the Pentagon to launch a major investigation and bring leakers to account.

“This was a clear and pronounced effort to secure several years’ worth of communications, e-mails, and reports, and without any approval put it out to the world,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Republicans were, if anything, more critical of WikiLeaks.

House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R) of Indiana said that publication of the documents by news organizations was indefensible. “The fact that thousands of classified documents were leaked in a clear violation of law is an outrage,” he said in a briefing with reporters on Monday.

But he added that he did not believe that the documents would change the war debate. “My constituents back in Indiana remember who attacked us on 9/11,” he said.

Old news?

As for new reports that the Pakistan intelligence services were helping the Taliban, he said: “These references in classified documents don’t belong in the public domain, but are not consistent with any briefing I’ve received,” he said, citing a January visit to the region.

Unlike the leaked Pentagon Papers that fired up a congressional debate on the war in Vietnam in 1971, lawmakers say that these documents include no bombshell revelations. Reports that Taliban insurgents were gaining ground and working with Pakistani intelligence were already part of the congressional debate, although reports that the Taliban have used heat-seeking, surface-to-air missiles against US helicopters set off alarms.

“The emerging picture from this leak adds up to little more than what we knew already – that the war in Afghanistan was deteriorating over the past several years, and that we were not winning," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In fact, the dispiriting accounts of how poorly the war was going is precisely why Congress and the Obama administration authorized a surge of troops into Afghanistan, he said. “This is why a concerted effort has been made since 2009, both in the Administration and in the Congress, to make changes to our strategy, to increase our commitment of troops and resources, and to bring new and better leadership to the mission. As a result, we are finally beginning to address many of the problems highlighted within these leaked documents,” he added in a statement.

Both opponents and defenders of the war noted that the leaked documents end in December 2009 – just before the Obama administration announced its decision to a new Afghanistan strategy.

Crucial moment

The controversy comes at crucial moment for funding a surge of US forces into Afghanistan, as Democrats press to complete a war funding bill this week.

The Senate last week rejected $22.8 billion in domestic spending that the House added to the Senate’s $58.8 billion war-funding bill for fiscal year 2010. The House measure, including $10 billion to avoid teacher layoffs in the fall, failed even to win a majority in the Senate, which sent its initial bill back to the House on July 22.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi commented to reporters today that she did not expect controversy over the leaked documents to delay completion of a war funding bill this week. The documents “predate the change in the president’s policy,” she said.

But antiwar Democrats say they hope to use the controversy to recharge the war debate this week.

“These documents provide a fuller picture of what we have long known about Afghanistan: The war is going badly,” says Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio. “We have to show the ability to respond to what’s right in front of our face: This war is no longer justifiable under any circumstances.”

Others have suggested that the documents might prove more important to American foreign policy.

"However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent."

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