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Afghanistan WikiLeaks are wikilame

Afghan National Army doing a route clearence patrol exercise at the Kabul Militairy Training Centre (KMTC). Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The release of more than 91,000 intelligence documents out of the U.S. Department of Defence has re-opened festering debates and controversies about the War in Afghanistan. WikiLeaks, a stateless “whistleblowing” organization that exists only online, sent the documents it received from an insider to three major newspapers -- the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spegiel, who then published it, inevitably picking and choosing which angle to take on the stories.

The rather banal truth of this whole controversy is thus found in exactly what happened with the three newspapers -- no matter who you are, you can find something in these 92,000 documents that confirms your prior view of the war. This is because these 92,000 documents are unwashed intelligence reports from the field. They are, for lack of a better word, a first draft of a battle. They represent often one angle, often quite incomplete. The documents do form part of the nucleus of the amalgamated intelligence reports that reach internal circulation among governments and Defence ministries, but this is only after much investigation, vetting, analysis, and review. If you can get your hands on those, WikiLeaks will probably want to talk to you.

But aside from being a microscopic, unfiltered view of the war, the documents also simply fail to reveal anything of substance not already known by the public and the media. It was widely known that the ISI, Pakistan’s Machiavellian intelligence service, was covertly supporting elements of the Afghanistan Taliban, while, confusingly, fighting tooth and nail against other elements of the Taliban within Pakistan. Nowhere is this more widely known and resented than on the ground in eastern Afghanistan.

The documents also gave after-action reviews that indicated there may also be more civilian casualties than previously reported by US and NATO forces. They also reveal more evidence that the Taliban is a particularly malevolent enemy, with suicide bombings of civilians apparently part of the norm. Another groundbreaking revelation the documents make is that the Afghan government is blatantly corrupt. Shockers, all of them. No, the reality is these 92,000 documents (for lack of a better title) are no repeat of the famous Pentagon Papers. Those documents, released by a RAND corporation analyst in the early 1970s, revealed a highly deceptive narrative highlighting the U.S. Department of Defence’s campaign to wage war in Vietnam. Even with the help of three ideologically moderate news organizations, no common theme could be unearthed from this scattered information.

While the documents themselves are relatively innocuous and at best only add to a general feeling that the Afghan war is not proceeding as the Pentagon or President Obama would like, the leak and the organization that made it possible should receive further scrutiny. WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has defied governments, defence departments, religious cults, even fraternities in a bid to ensure that whatever ‘they’ want to remain hidden, isn’t. He and his organization have been remarkably successful. They have essentially made themselves stateless, as in they require no state sanction or protection to operate. They exist entirely on the web, and are seemingly invulnerable to punishment. Purportedly, in order to take down WikiLeaks, one would have to take down the entire world wide web. Not even the Pentagon could do that (not at least, without resorting to 500 or more Minuteman III ICBMs).

With this stateless freedom, WikiLeaks has revealed reputation smashing evidence. The most inflammatory was the combat video from an American Apache attack helicopter, where two Reuters reporters and several Iraqi civilians were killed. The video was buried by the US Defence Department, but revealed by an insider through WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks, to be fair, did a public service by exposing what could be a war crime. Generally too, WikiLeaks should be lauded (in some instances) for balancing the increasing inclination of states and organizations towards classification and secrets. Indeed, in this most recent case, WikiLeaks has allegedly shown some due discretion and withheld some of the more tactically important documents, some of which could bring NATO soldiers into harm's way.

However, one must not lose sight of what WikiLeaks represents. While WikiLeaks founder, Mr. Assange, seeks to take down “bastards” who hide damaging information from the public, one cannot help but wonder who decides who the “bastards” are. Thus, in seeking more accountability from states and organizations, Mr. Assange reveals that his own organization lacks accountability. In other words, who polices WikiLeaks? Like governments, corporations, and other organizatons, Mr. Assange, whether he admits it or not, has an agenda. He has his targets. He has the information he will post and the information he won’t post. But, unlike governments or corporations, WikiLeaks has no Auditor General, no Freedom of Information Act, and no shareholder meetings.

In essence then, WikiLeaks is conducting a form of information piracy, with its only loyalty towards those who blow the whistle. While this is at times necessary and good, one must apply the same critical reading of WikiLeaks as one does for government news release, corporate statements or, indeed, editorial opinions. After all, who is to prevent a government or a corporation from simply leaking to WikiLeaks whatever it wants released through a contrived whistleblower? How is WikiLeaks to know a plant from a legitimate whistleblower? It may well have been able to sniff them out hitherto, but it's something we all must keep in mind while listening to this guerrilla media. Read everything, even the whistleblowers, critically.

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