Bubble Boys

The WikiLeaks documents put an underreported war back on the nation’s radar. It doesn’t matter that the pundits are yawning.

The hardening conventional wisdom on the Afghanistan “war logs” is that they are not the Pentagon Papers. Nor are they, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange rather grandiosely claimed, the equivalent of opening the Stasi archives. Having digested to varying degrees Sunday night’s breaking story—poring through what they can of the 92,000 raw documents as well as lengthy pieces based on those documents from The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian—columnists, pundits, and editorial boards emerged on Tuesday to roundly echo the line Robert Gibbs gave reporters Monday: “There weren’t any new revelations in the material.” So, let’s move on.

This “nothing to see here” assessment has been pushed in some prominent quarters—the Times’s op-ed page, a Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday, and in much of The Washington Post’s Tuesday coverage. The central point is that even the reasonably informed newsreader would have been well aware of the revelations in those leaked documents that, the Guardian wrote, provided “a devastating portrait of the failing war”: the secret assassination squad, the collusion between the ISI and Taliban, the loss of civilian lives. This is simply war. And a war we’ve been reading about since 2001.

But in rushing to declare what the war logs are not, many in the media have been quick to pass over what they are. Or, at the very least, what they might be: If not something “new,” “shocking,” and Pentagon Paper-esque, certainly a trove of material to add texture, detail, and anecdote—in other words, reporting—to a war that, despite the good work of some brave and diligent correspondents, has gone largely underreported in recent years. To assume, as many commentators have, that the average reader is so well-versed in the Afghan war that nothing in the reports is revelatory, is perilous—and betrays the insider mentality that journalism too often suffers from. To assume further that they would not benefit from the extra information the reports provide—and the outlets to which the documents were leaked provided in synthesized form—seems to argue against the very idea of journalism.

Richard Cohen articulates the main criticism of the much-hyped leaks in a slightly snide column published in the Post yesterday (the paper’s front page story downplayed the leaks, “After war leak, anger but no calls for change.”)

The news in that massive data dump provided by the dauntingly mysterious WikiLeaks (who? what?) to one American and two European publications is that there is no news at all. We already knew that the war in Afghanistan was not going well. We already knew — or, in the words of the New York Times, “harbored strong suspicions” — that Pakistan’s military spy services was aiding the Taliban (with friends like this …) and we already knew that Afghanistan’s army and police would be reformed and able to stand up to the Taliban some time around when pigs fly and Washington balances the budget. No need to wait by the phone.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial yesterday repeated the charge, framing the leaks as affirmations of what the Bush and Obama administrations have been telling us all along.

Far from being the Pentagon Papers redux, the larger truth is how closely the ground-eye view in these documents reinforces what U.S. officials were long saying: that the war wasn’t going well, the Taliban were making gains, and a new and invigorated strategy was needed to combat them. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations made the same diagnosis in recent years, neither one kept it secret, and this year Mr. Obama followed through with an increase in troops levels and a renewed counterinsurgency.

The most politically explosive documents concern the conflicting loyalties of Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. Nearly 200 reports allege that the Pakistani military intelligence arm is in cahoots with the Taliban, despite claiming to side with America. This is undoubtedly true but also no surprise.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, arguing that classified material isn’t necessarily interesting, put it more bluntly:

“If any of this startles you, then welcome to the world of reading newspapers. Today’s must be the first one you’ve read.”

That is the central argument of Andrew Exum’s op-ed in Tuesday’s Times, “Getting Lost in the Fog of War”, which has drawn much comment online. Arguing that the three big revelations of the WikiLeaks documents—links between Taliban and ISI, Afghan civilian casualties, the secret commando taskforce—are not revelations at all to anyone generally abreast of the news, he opens dismissively:

ANYONE who has spent the past two days reading through the 92,000 military field reports and other documents made public by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m a researcher who studies Afghanistan and have no regular access to classified information, yet I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance. I suspect that’s the case even for someone who reads only a third of the articles on Afghanistan in his local newspaper.

It’s a pretty broad statement, especially coming from a writer who, though he has no regular access to classified information, describes himself as “a researcher who studies Afghanistan.” Head to Exum’s bio at the Center for a New American Security where he works, and you will also discover he served in the U.S. Army from 2000-2004 (including leading platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan), was an adviser on the CENTCOM Assessment Team and civilian adviser to General Stanley McCrystal, and in 2004 released a book titled This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Frontlines of the War on Terror.

I’m not surprised he wasn’t surprised.

Exum’s is typical of the response of some who live inside the media-military bubble; the assumption that because it is not news to those whose job it is to be well versed in and write about the issue, it must be not be news to those they assume are reading their work. And, if it’s not news, then why the fuss?

The first instinct is to dismiss the leaked material, and, in the case of Exum, train their sights on Assange, the leaker.

Mr. Assange has said that the publication of these documents is analogous to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, only more significant. This is ridiculous. The Pentagon Papers offered the public a coherent internal narrative of the conflict in Vietnam that was at odds with the one that had been given by the elected and uniformed leadership.

The publication of these documents, by contrast, dumps 92,000 new primary source documents into the laps of the world’s public with no context, no explanation as to why some accounts may contradict others, no sense of what is important or unusual as opposed to the normal march of war.

It’s necessary to push back against Assange’s claims, but it is also necessary to move beyond them. Rather than taking the bait and engaging with the rather inane question of whether the WikiLeaks dump resembles the Pentagon Papers, we should be asking ourselves what we can do with the stuff we now have on hand, whatever it is. How can we use all these detailed fragments to give readers a better understanding of this war that is being fought in their name? The Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel had a month to work that out. Many of the outlets given just the two days since Sunday night have, apparently, decided to do very little beyond downplaying the material’s significance and going to the White House for a response. And calling Assange names.

The question seems to be one of just how important the WikiLeaks documents are. And the answer seems to depend on how you define importance. Are they important in the sense that they are earth-shattering, policy-changing revelations? Today we’ve seen most weigh in with a thudding and unanimous “no.” But are they important in that they can provide added context to a war that, despite Exum’s claims, the public does not know a whole lot about? Absolutely.

Just look, for one example, at Times reporter C.J. Chivers’s reconstruction of the battle that killed eight U.S. soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan’s northeast. It has attracted singular attention for its ability to put readers in the moment. Details in the story of the frantic nature of the fighting, the confusion, and the sacrifice might not be new—Chivers is something of a specialist at such stories—but they add texture and gripping narrative to the story of the war. Chivers fills out a sketched narrative and provides contextualized first-hand understanding of how the war is conducted. Vignettes like this help readers navigate that “fog of war” Exum talks about.

Chivers, and many of his colleagues at the three outlets to which the logs were leaked, did some outstanding work—both in written reports and impressive multimedia pieces—with the raw material they were handed. It’s not expected that those not given the time advantage would be able to do the same. But it’s troubling that there is a reductive instinct to dismiss what might not be novel.

It’s equally troubling to see backlash against a story that has put the war so firmly back on the front pages. If we are to agree that the war is an important story—and none of the columnists, reporters, or editorial writers are suggesting otherwise—then, in the crudest sense, this leak represents a peg. It’s a reason to revisit it. A reason to recapture the attention of those for whom Afghanistan might have fallen somewhat off the radar. Remember, it’s a big country, and not everyone is a “researcher who studies Afghanistan.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.