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.”