The Wikileaks Afghan War Diary, One Month Later

by phil on Friday Aug 27, 2010 5:33 PM

Recently a friend of mine, with whom I never talk about politics, asked my opinion on the Wikileaks release of 70,000 secret documents about the War in Afghanistan. Somehow I sensed he knew that I would be diametrically opposed to his viewpoint. I'm a proponent of an open Internet, with pro-piracy attitudes, spouting quotes like "information wants to be free" or "the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." But then my friend sent me a news article stating that the Taliban are hunting down informants mentioned in the leak. I initially explained this away as a bluff or taunt. And I told my friend that Julian Assange (pictured), the Swedish hacker in charge of Wikileaks, assured the public that he scrubbed the docs of anything that could endanger lives.

In order to disprove the outcry about named informants, I went ahead and read the secret documents myself. After about an hour, I couldn't find any informants, and became more confident in my initial opinion. I was going to write a blog post about how the nature of the docs makes it very unlikely or impossible to contain the names of informants, and so I continued scanning the docs to bolster my case. Another hour passed, and still I found no mention of informants.

But then, at around 2AM, my heartbeat raced when I stumbled upon the full name and location of an Afghan civilian who gave valuable information to the US. And then a few minutes later, I found another informant, and a few minutes later, a few more. I was stunned by how easy this was (I won't reveal my search strategy, for fear of aiding the enemy). And I was haunted by each revelation. Reading each name felt like I was killing the ACs (Afghan Civilians) myself.

The next day, though, I sobered up and assured myself of a few mitigating factors. The Pentagon already has a task force of 100 intelligence analysts combing through the documents and notifying any targets possibly at risk. Also, the years these informants reportedly talked are like 2007, and so there's a good chance they've left their current location. Plus, If they talked, they were probably the first people to search for their names in the documents (or word must have gotten to them quickly).

My estimation is that there are a total of 15 informants named in the documents. And these aren't the kind of informants we see in movies like The Departed who work as undercover agents for years. Rather, these informants are just random civilians who point out where a cache of enemy weapons are. In exchange, we give them some petty cash. There are tens of thousands of ACs who've given little datapoints of intel about the Taliban. And so I'm going to step out on a limb and claim that no one has (nor will) die as a direct result of the leak.

The informants issue was the only materially negative thing I could see about the documents. Beyond the release of these informants, the leak provided no other national security risk. Defense officals have said multiple times that the leak posed no immediate threat to U.S. forces, and that they are not changing any military operations as a result of the leak.

So, what exactly was accomplished by the docs? The public didn't really learn anything new, except confirm various suspicions they already had: Karzai is corrupt, Pakistan is aiding the enemy, and the whole war is a quagmire. Part of the reason we got so little out of the docs is because the American public doesn't care about the War in Afghanistan. All the national priority polls show show that less than 10% of Americans consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan top priorities. This parlays well into Petraeus and "no-drama" Obama's strategy of making the war boring.

But there will be one major impact of the leak: the meta-leak. This is very similar to the impact of the Pentagon Papers, which was a leak of about 7,000 documents on the Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers came out after the serious anti-war events, like Kent State, already happened. And similarly, the papers talked about past conduct of the war, not current. What did result from the Pentagon Papers, though, was an extra clarification about freedom of speech. The New York Times, which initially reported on the Papers, won a Supreme Court case against the government. However, the victory was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the ruling stated that the government did not have a significant enough of burden of proof to justify "prior restraint," which is the preventing of the publication of unwanted information. On the other hand, the ruling re-asserted the Espionage Act which prohibits any attempt to convey information with the intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces, or to promote the success of the enemy.

Likewise the Wikileaks Afghan War Diary seems to be more of a media event about the act of the leaking itself. This parallels how my debate with my friend eventually evolved. Initially he was against the leaks because they harmed our troops, and initially I was in favor of the leaks because they informed the public's interest in war. But ultimately, we cast both those points aside, and discussed whether someone has the right to make such leaks in the first place. To which, we didn't arrive at a good resolution.

Ultimately, we did agree on one thing. That in a time of growing public unease about privacy (Google watching your every move, Facebook knowing your dirty laundry, and the U.S. granting 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances), this handsome hacker from Sweden is a natural folk hero.

Bonus dad comment: You can usually trust Swedish people

Here is my research dump:

  • Afghan National Army
    • Currently has 134,000 active troops.
    • Goal is to reach 260,000 active troops, costing $20B, supported by Obama.
    • History of foreign support:
      • Established in 1880s with the help of the British.
      • During WWI and WWII the Afghan army was supported by Germany.
      • From 1960s to the early 1990s, the army was trained and equipped by the Soviet Union.
      • Current support from US:
        • 4,500 Humvees
        • 104,000 M-16 assault rifles
        • 4,000 military trainers from the US and NATO
  • Afghan National Police
    • About 90,000 members. Expected to reach 160,000 in coming years
    • Currently being trained by NATO (primarily U.S.)
  • Afghanistan
    • Population (2009) is 28,150,000.
    • So the goal is about 1.5% of population either in ANP or ANA.
    • This is not an unusual level per other countries' active troop counts.
    • Land area is 647,500 km2, or roughly the size of Texas.
    • Population is roughly the same as Texas.
  • War in Afghanistan
    • Started in October 2001.
    • July 2011 is the withdrawl deadline set by Obama.
    • According to polls as of Aug. 27, 2010, the conduct of the war is a top priority for less than 10% of Americans.
  • Wikileaks
    • Wikileaks has 91,732 reports from the U.S. armed forces covering the Afghanistan War from Jan. 2004 to Dec. 2009.
    • 75,000 were released as of July 25, 2010.
    • Documents were classified as "secret" which is the 2nd highest secrecy classification. Release of secret documents may cause "serious damage" to national security.
    • Informants named
      • FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) from The Times
        • If you Google "informants wikileaks," as of Aug. 24, 2010, the top links, with headlines like, "Taliban hunting down informants" or "Leaked War Files Expose Identities of Afghan Informants" refer to the same Times article. Since its behind a pay-wall, this link by the Australian will suffice.
        • Taking a deeper look at the two particular documents cited by The Times:
          • A Mar 31, 2008 report has an interview with a named Taliban fighter considering defection. His father's name and village were included. However, if you read the document closely, the person in question is not an informant.
          • Nov. 10, 2007, "a report that read '[named person] said he would be killed if he got caught interacting with any coalition forces, which is why he hides when we go into [named location].'" However if you read the document it doesn't show the person is an informant, just someone the coalition is trying to recruit.
        • A former intelligence official is quoted in the July 28, 2010 article, "It's possible that someone could get killed in the next few days." As of August 27, 2010, no one has been reported killed in connection with leak.
      • The Register reported on Aug. 12, 2010 that 100+ intelligence analysts are going through the full 91,000 documents to identify Afghan citizens who might be at risk and reach out to them.
    • Jul. 28, 2010: Major General John Campbell, head of the 101 Airborne Division and in charge of a key regional command in eastern Afghanistan, said that the leaks have not resulted in any changes in military operations.
    • July. 27, 2010: The Pentagon made a preliminary review of the documents and said they posed no immediate threat to U.S. forces.
    • The Pentagon Papers
      • An internal, top-secret, encylopedic history of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967
      • Brought to public's attention by the New York Times in 1971
      • Vietnam War started in 1955, ended in 1975.
      • Includes 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents
      • Showed that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson misled the public about the war
      • Showed that the US deliberately expanded war by bombing Cambodia and Loas
      • It did not give secrets to the enemy
      • Nixon was generally laissez-faire toward the docs because they embarassed prior Administrations
      • The impact of the Papers had more to do with determining what latitude newspapers have in publishing such leaks.
      • I don't immediately see a mention of the Papers affecting public support for the war.

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