WikiLeaks' Afghan story raises dilemma over safety of sources

The WikiLeaks log showed the failures of the Afghan war – but the media moved on, overwhelmed by the weight of material

US marines, Afghanistan
US marines take cover as they come under fire during while on patrol. The WikiLeaks files expose the failures of the war. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Plaudits first. WikiLeaks, the stateless site of secret data, seems like an information source turned irresistible force. And the Guardian, New York Times and Spiegel did a brilliant editing job last week as they took nearly 92,000 classified documents from and turned them into a compelling commentary on the failures of the Afghan war. This is what journalism – and data-handling in the 21st century – may turn out to be all about.

But now, as with anything new, for a couple of problems. First, the question of what happened next. We're talking impact, consequences, the difference that revelations can make. And scratching our heads.

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' founder, was brooding in similar vein a few months ago to Computerworld magazine. "It's counter-intuitive", he said. "You'd think that the bigger and more important the document, the more likely it is to be reported on – but that's absolutely not true. It's about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, because it has value. But as soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity – so the perceived value goes to zero."

Which, being interpreted, means: load 92,000 items onto a ubiquitously available website, and nothing much ensues. What every newspaper or broadcasting station has, nobody values for long. So Assange picked out three prime professional organisations and gave them a few weeks to sift, check and choose what to publish. Now, any impact assessment is bound to be subjective. You could hardly describe it as long-lasting, though. BBC News was more interested in police-force restructuring 12 hours later. Newsnight chose to lead on a tedious hike around broken coalition promises. The tabloids didn't clear the front page. And two American headlines on the second day spoke volumes. "WikiLeaks telling us the obvious ... disclosures unlikely to change course of Afghanistan war," said the Washington Post. "Document leak may hurt efforts to build war support," murmured a profoundly cautious New York Times. Enter Barack Obama himself, asserting how moth-eaten he found the entire package.

This wasn't – as initially claimed – the Pentagon Papers all over again. This was a sensation sinking below the horizon (save for David Cameron in India stirring up Pakistan).

Why? Because much of the torrid drift of the documents was known. Because Afghanistan is a war lost already, exit dates set. Because 92,000 bits of bad news equals a massive migraine. Because – unlike the Pentagon Papers, a top-down, not bottom-up series of revelations – no government moved to fight a court suppression battle, and thus to draw a censorship line that concentrated rather than diffused public concern.

But also because this is a fidgety, multimedia age. Websites bowed down by a sudden weight of traffic can't carry the load alone. Any huge story needs television for added oomph – but there's nothing very terse or visual about 92,000 documents on an overloaded site. TV moved right along its 24-hour path, attention-denuded span as usual. Beyond that, the story was simply too big (in an amorphous way).

Look back last year to the Telegraph and MPs' expenses, another massive collection of facts. The government, after suitable deletions, wanted to bung it all on a Commons website at the same time. The Telegraph, eschewing deletions, played it one moat, one duck house, at a time. On any single day, the tale was comprehensible, focused– and poised for fresh illustration. Momentum built. Anger mounted. Something had to be done.

But demand for the Afghan logs was just a "flash flood", said Slate, the online magazine. Could Assange have orchestrated more? Could he have released the truly shocking rise in civilian casualties one day, the killer units pursuing Taliban leaders the next, the evidence of Pakistani connivance the day after that? Of course. And the Guardian did some of that for itself. But day two saw the New York Times pretty well washed up and protesting its unimpeachable seriousness. The denials and the write-offs and the counterattacks had open season, which meant momentum faded – and, indeed, the course of the war seemed "unlikely to change".

The second problem follows naturally, then. The sharpest question about WikiLeaks' technique – asked by Obama, President Karzai, the Times of London and even the New York Times itself as days passed – was whether some Afghan Nato informants hadn't been unwittingly exposed in the process, whether Assange's inevitably scanty team of assessors hadn't put lives at risk by their mass data dump?

Assange called the New York Times "pusillanimous and unprofessional" for checking the documents it used with the White House before publication (on precisely these personal security grounds) and for not cross-referring its print stories to the whole experience. But "we're not in any kind of partnership or collaboration with him," said Eric Schmitt, one of the New York Times reporters on the case. Bill Keller, Schmitt's top editor, soon weighed in, too.

"Assange released the information to three mainstream news organisations because we had the wherewithal to mine the data for news and analysis. I think the public interest was served by that. However, his decision to release the data to everyone had potential consequences that I think anyone, regardless of how he views the war, would find regrettable."

Data-processing, yes: data-dumping, no? Not with necks on some faraway front line? The matter of source versus partner clearly has some way to run as assorted WikiLeakers grapple with the one dilemma no true investigative journalists wants: is it the story you're breaking that matters – or are you stuck with being the story yourself?

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  • Tanglong Tanglong

    1 Aug 2010, 12:35AM

    I've only seen people alluding to the possibility of someone's life actually being compromised by this information being in made public but has anyone actually proven this to be true?
    It's been several days now and I'd imagine the Yanks and all the media in general would've been all over it by now, like with the Karl Rove-CIA affair.

  • whasayu whasayu

    1 Aug 2010, 2:58AM

    What strikes me as less than surprising (more surprising here perhaps than other mainstream sources) is the lack of critical observation regarding the minimizing observations being made by the US Pentagon and President's office. Why are their attempts to devalue the Wikileaks release, or paint it as irresponsible and dangerous (the contrast of the two official positions is ironic), not being critically analysed in terms of their spin value? In other words, why is nobody on the mainstream even considering the 'official' positions in terms of a disingenuous PR spin?

    It's not like that would be a novel or unique approach...

  • hotairhead hotairhead

    1 Aug 2010, 8:16AM

    Maybe it is a triumph of hope over reality but I expect this to be a slow burner that will have massive impact over time, as will the entire wikileaks phenomenon, not just on journalism but on the quality of our governance.

    Stop and think for a moment. A convicted computer hacker, albeit a very good one with the help of more than a thousand accomplices, has batted back, only for a moment so far, admittedly, the mis-directed and misguided power of the entire U.S. military-industrial complex. And it's only the start of it. If nothing else, that's plain hilarious.

    Assange is an extraordinary character, combining unusual intelligence and technical skill with a fierce, and probably personally exhausting morality. I am delighted that he exists and grateful for his personal investment in something other than money-driven personal gain. He might just as easily have sat hunched over a networked hard drive in a sweaty California garage creating the next multi-billion-dollar mobile-social-networking-self-publishing nano-blog. Good on him for seeing bigger than a mouse.

    It is curious that it is the techies who are leading the world forward on these important questions - the fruits of their labour have put a welcome bomb under the self-satisfied champions, or chumps rather, of representative democracy. This is the exact opposite of assymetric political warfare, it is the many overcoming the monied few. It's called real democracy and it works through mass participation, through deliberative assemblies, with plenty of simple, workable ways of managing and dangers of tyrannical majorities. There is much, much more to come on this. Alternative Vote? And some.

    Talking about the safety of Afghan informants is the reddest of herrings. Informants have declared their allegiance in this war, that is not a moral statement or a condemnation of their actions, it is a fact. They take a calculated risk by passing information to the U.S.-led coalition, for money, under coercion from that same coalition or out of personal, political conviction that the coalition is on the side of the good, the brave and the beautiful. It is a risk that they have already taken for whatever reason they took it, it's not Assange's fault if they get killed. Theirs is a very dangerous choice.

  • frankoman frankoman

    1 Aug 2010, 12:26PM

    If we accept that, after nine years of this obsene war, we still have to keep all collaborators' names secret to pretect them, than isn't this an admission of abject failure?

  • frankoman frankoman

    1 Aug 2010, 12:32PM

    If we accept that, after nine years of this obsene war, we still have to keep all collaborators' names secret to pretect them, than isn't this an admission of abject failure?

  • 56000xp 56000xp

    1 Aug 2010, 1:02PM

    Assange called the New York Times "pusillanimous and unprofessional" for checking the documents it used with the White House before publication (on precisely these personal security grounds) and for not cross-referring its print stories to the whole experience.

    I would use the word ostensibly instead of precisely.

    Talking about the safety of Afghan informants is the reddest of herrings. Informants have declared their allegiance in this war, that is not a moral statement or a condemnation of their actions, it is a fact.

    Yes, this is a war not a criminal investigation by Team America World Police with witness protection programs, the idea of the war shifting between a criminal prosecution and a war depending on which is more advantageous (eg it's a war when civilians are killed by collateral damage, criminal investigation when they need to quash any questioning or scepticism about the war) started after 9/11. The media in the US which (as John Pilger tends to point out a lot in his writings) was actually always docile when it came to questioning power and that Vietnam wouldn't have lasted so long if the US media hadn't been so... 'pusillanimous' - great word, i had to google it...).

    Of course there are also Laws in place in the US now such as Patriot Act that weren't there for Vietnam and the ability of a paper like the NYT to operate in an unrestrained manner might not be there anymore - yet it is still cowardly not to test it if that is the case. I lost a lot of respect for the NYT back when Judith Miller became a propagandist for the war on Iraq using fake WMD information, speaking of Miller she herself was also involved in the Plamegate scandal when a CIA agent was outed and this was linked to the release of sensitive political information by the CIA agent's husband that threatened the official lies about the Iraq war, which is a very ironic fact really given this debate about putting lives in danger, when an undercover agent was telling a story that made it harder to sell the war the US media was all over it like white on rice.

    If we accept that, after nine years of this obsene war, we still have to keep all collaborators' names secret to pretect them, than isn't this an admission of abject failure?

    Even in Iraq though the powers that be there are pro-US and appreciate what they did, the pro-US Sons Of Iraq militia are still being targetted for assassination for their perceived treason now and it is years since control over the country was won by pro-US forces there. Collaborators would never be safe in the country, enemy soldiers that attacked each other in daylight can bury the hatchet with respect but collaborators aren't forgotten or forgiven.

  • Theodore11 Theodore11

    1 Aug 2010, 2:23PM

    Distraction. Wikileaks is doing a good job. The fact that there are ppl in the military who think there is a reason to leak this material is important to contemplate on.

  • prairie prairie

    1 Aug 2010, 3:22PM

    Wikileaks made two things very clear.
    1. If you don't have nuclear weapons there is nothing you can do when Murder Inc. comes calling from America.
    2. If you have nuclear weapons you can get away with murder.

  • northcroft northcroft

    1 Aug 2010, 5:26PM

    "The dilemma over the safety of sources"
    Having read the article I am not sure that I have made the slightest progress understanding the problem - an important problem.
    How many sources were exposed? In what way are they exposed? What kinds of sources? What new data has been exposed? Where are the sources? How could things be arranged differently?
    I am in favour of every bit of communal life - including the military and intelligence gathering - being open, and open source.
    It would cause problems of course - but we should work towards fixing those problems.
    My experience of secrecy has been dire - wherever I find it I find bad decisions being made, unfairness, duplicity, the complete lack of systematic way of learning from mistakes.
    Everybody I have ever met in any position of power has always preferred secrecy - because it lets them get things done more easily. The way THEY want. Which causes all the problems. I have never seen stuff done secretly have any real lasting benefit, except to those doing stuff secretly.
    It is such a stupid way of doing things - but basic to human nature.

  • georgef georgef

    1 Aug 2010, 5:36PM

    A huge gulf has opened up between the elites running the war and the citizens of the various nations paying for it all. The typical citizen no longer supports the war, so they don't really care what happens to the informants. Any MPs making impassioned pleas? Why not?

    Fear not I trust the informants and their extended families will be living comfortably in the US or UK within the next five years, agitating for continues intervention.

  • HadEnoughYet HadEnoughYet

    1 Aug 2010, 5:56PM

    The one thing that should be glaring about this whole episode is that it proves John Pilger's point about the mainstream media and their policies of omission. Another danger might be to the 'democracy' of all of those citizens whose governments conduct the public business behind closed doors.

  • HadEnoughYet HadEnoughYet

    1 Aug 2010, 9:21PM

    How about a story, that if presented with honesty to Americans and others, would enable them to make better judgment calls. Here's an example: Now if an American visited this site (rather than just watching Fox News or reading the TIMES) and read this article, they would get a much more balanced view about the subject of woman in Afghanistan or the war effort in general. Notice that the Wikileaks line and link in this article, "confidential CIA document", exposes the American pub as nothing more than a PR campaign to keep the support for fighting. Certainly Wikileaks has provided a valuable service to those being manipulated however, having posted it in March and the TIMES article occurring in July, the connection is lost without a direct link from a site like france24.

    It is too much to expect people, as they scurry about with their daily lives for survival, that they will ever put 2 and 2 together, especially since special interests have a vested interest in keeping them in the dark so........ Perhaps, Wikileaks in their postings could go just that one step further and, when an article such as that listed on france24 becomes available (wherever it becomes available), link to it from their own exposed article and move it back into main view.

  • GeoffreyEngland GeoffreyEngland

    2 Aug 2010, 5:47AM

    The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort," General Stanley McChrystal said.

    The Purpose of the War is to Secure the Peace
    'Preventing the Taliban from reimposing its brutal and repressive theocracy on Afghanistan makes it a just war.' Bosbevok.

    The idea is to prevail in war and to keep wars short. Hemingway said he had, 'experienced war and had come to hate it. But there are worse things than war and all of them are associated with defeat.'
    What is needed is a crystal clear perception of exactly what the conflict is about. At bottom, life on earth is a religious conflict. The issue being the divinity of Christ. That is, whether Jesus Christ is actually the son of the living God. In short whether Christ is actually God. Islam reduces Christ to the status of a prophet.
    In the present liberal secular feminist world, Islam is regarded as a cultural phenomenon of a people finding their own way to God. But Islam is a living breathing religion which in the spiritual realm is the reaction to the corruption of the western Christian church and a religion of the sword.

    The Pope in 608AD instituted the worship of the Virgin Mary in the public worship of God, owned only to Christ, as an acceptable form. In 610, Mohammed the prophet began receiving his illuminations from the spiritual realm that grew into the Islamic conquest.
    This is the sequence laid out in the ninth chapter of the Revelation where the star, the emblem of the gospel ministry, fell from the heaven of the purity of preaching the primitive gospel of Christ and was given the key to the bottomless pit. The practice of substitionary and oppositionary idolatry.
    The bishop of Rome opened the bottomless pit and in the smoke that arose were the locusts or Saracens who swept North Africa from Spain to India under the impetus of the fallen angel Apolluon. Whose name in both Hebrew and Greek means destruction. This is the essence of Islam. A false faith born of a false faith used by Christ as a scourge since releasing the four angels from beyond the Euphrates, who went on to destroy Constantinople; the original sponsors of the Popes and their elevation and corrupt modes, in the seige of 1453.
    Sooner or later in order to prevail in this war on terror, the west is going to have to vacate the view Islam is a mere cultural phenomenon and admit it for what it is. Eventually having to attack the actual faith along with the corruption of the Church in the West.
    However as this is not going to happen until the era changes, the war in Afghanistan will continue to prove a lingering affair.

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