On Sunday, three news outlets published the results of their investigations into 91,731 classified U.S. military documents that they had received from secret-sharing Web site WikiLeaks. The New York Times, The Guardian , and Der Spiegel each led today with their findings on their front pages and online with multi-dimensional, interactive reports on “one of the biggest leaks in US military history.” The documents, spanning 2004 to 2009 and pertaining to the war in Afghanistan, were concurrently published on the WikiLeaks site.

Mostly, the papers highlight the same discoveries: high incidents of weapons failure among U.S. drones; the actions of task force 373, the secret commando unit tasked with capturing or killing top insurgent leaders; the Taliban’s possession and use of heat-seeking missiles; the hitherto suspected and assumed, but difficult to demonstrate, involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in, and instigation of, Taliban operations against the coalition; and revelations of a higher numbers of civilian casualties than previously acknowledged.

But in shaping their syntheses of these various findings, each paper manages to characterize the discoveries in different ways, mostly to emphasize their relevance to local concerns about the war. The two European papers, both historically against the war, find in the reports cause for great pessimism. The Guardian is particularly brutal in its editorial on the documents:

“These war logs – written in the heat of engagement – show a conflict that is brutally messy, confused and immediate. It is in some contrast with the tidied-up and sanitised “public” war, as glimpsed through official communiques as well as the necessarily limited snapshots of embedded reporting.



… However you cut it, this is not an Afghanistan that either the US or Britain is about to hand over gift-wrapped with pink ribbons to a sovereign national government in Kabul. Quite the contrary. After nine years of warfare, the chaos threatens to overwhelm. A war fought ostensibly for the hearts and minds of Afghans cannot be won like this.”

Der Spiegel finds the coalition vulnerable and its efforts in the region on course for failure. After a summary of the paper’s treatment of the documents, reporters Matthias Gebauer, John Goetz, Hans Hoyng, Susanne Koelbl, Marcel Rosenbach, and Gregor Peter Schmitz write under the subhead, “A Gloomy Picture”:

But such shows of optimism seem cynical in light of the descriptions of the situation in Afghanistan provided in the classified documents. Nearly nine years after the start of the war, they paint a gloomy picture. They portray Afghan security forces as the hapless victims of Taliban attacks. They also offer a conflicting impression of the deployment of drones, noting that America’s miracle weapons are also entirely vulnerable.



And they show that the war in northern Afghanistan, where German troops are stationed, is becoming increasingly perilous. The number of warnings about possible Taliban attacks in the region — fuelled by support from Pakistan — has increased dramatically in the past year.

Intriguingly, The Times chooses a similar lede in its main report, “View is Bleaker Than Official Portrayal of War in Afghanistan”:

A six-year archive of classified military documents made public on Sunday offers an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.



The secret documents, released on the Internet by an organization called WikiLeaks, are a daily diary of an American-led force often starved for resources and attention as it struggled against an insurgency that grew larger, better coordinated and more deadly each year.

However, its reading of the reports differs from its European counterparts, focusing less on military failures and more on inconsistencies between official accounts of the war from the White House and the revelations of the WikiLeaks reports. The front page story from which that excerpt was lifted documents many of these discrepancies, including incident reports, claiming the Taliban used heat-seeking missiles, that contradict official statements from the White House.

The Times’s reporting is perhaps the most distinguished of the three in that it is the least critical of the U.S.’s prosecution of the war, emphasizing instead revelations over which Americans are likely to feel betrayed. The big WikiLeaks piece the paper runs alongside its summary homes in on revelations that Pakistani’s intelligence agency ISI has been working closely and secretly with the Taliban. Mark Mazzetti, Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt, and Andrew W. Lehren’s article, “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan, Reports Assert,” opens:

Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long harbored strong suspicions that Pakistan’s military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants, according to a trove of secret military field reports made public Sunday.



Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.