WaPo, Time, and Others Play Catch-up on WikiLeaks

What to do when you don’t get the exclusive

Whereas The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel had a four week heads-up on the 91,000-document WikiLeaks dump, the rest of the media found themselves playing catch-up when the big story went live on Sunday. Reporters who’d heard mumblings of the incoming trove—and others who heard about it for the first time in a 6 p.m. Sunday night phone call from a flustered editor—suddenly had to let microwave dinners go cold and dash to the Times and WikiLeaks sites.

Washington Post military reporter Greg Jaffe was one such reporter. The call came in at around 6 p.m., and he had until 9 p.m. to turn a story over for the paper’s early edition today (he was aided by co-writer and Post associate editor Karen DeYoung). Jaffe was at home when he answered the phone, and WikiLeaks had not been on his radar. “You know, other people at the paper were [anticipating the WikiLeaks story],” he said over the phone from his office in D.C., where he is working on a follow-up for tomorrow’s edition, “but I wasn’t, I’m embarrassed to say. I somehow got left off the e-mail chain.”

Jaffe, like many reporters scrambling to meet deadline last night, pored over the Times, Der Spiegel, and Guardian stories, cross-checking them with the raw material posted almost simultaneously at Wikileaks.org (reading the Los Angeles Times story, we get the sense this was their approach, too). The Post story he and DeYoung wrote, which ran today—“Leaked files lay bare war in Afghanistan”—focused on the few revelations Jaffe says the public would not have been aware of: namely, the Taliban’s use of surface-to-air heat-seeking missiles and former ISI head Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul’s ties to the insurgency. He and DeYoung begin:

Tens of thousands of classified documents related to the Afghan war released without authorization by the groupWikileaks.org reveal in often excruciating detail the struggles U.S. troops have faced in battling an increasingly potent Taliban force and in working with Pakistani allies who also appear to be helping the Afghan insurgency.


The documents disclose for the first time that Taliban insurgents appear to have used portable, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters. Heat-seeking missiles, which the United States provided to the anti-Soviet Afghan fighters known as mujaheddin in the 1980s, helped inflict heavy losses on the Soviet Union until it withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989.

And later again:

The documents detail multiple reports of cooperation between retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who ran ISI in the late 1980s, and Afghan insurgents battling U.S. forces in the mountainous eastern region of the country. In the latter years of the anti-Soviet insurgency, Gul worked closely with several major mujaheddin fighters who currently are battling U.S. troops and trying to topple the Afghan government. The documents also include reports that Gul was trying to reestablish contacts with insurgent leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose fighters have been responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks on U.S. forces.

How did Jaffe choose his focus from the Times’s reporting? “You know, it seemed like it was pretty thin gruel, to be frank,” he says of the leaked documents. “The heat-seeking missiles seemed marginally interesting. Gul, he was a relatively senior guy. Most of the other stuff seemed like just such low-level spot reports, stuff you see on embeds all the time.” Jaffe, who has embedded with troops at various levels in Afghanistan and Iraq, added, “To be honest, as far as I can tell, I found none of it to be super compelling or surprising.”

The “not much to see here” meme is establishing itself quickly today in some prominent blogs and columns. It’s the approach taken by Michael Crowley in a post for Time’s Swampland blog, posted at 11.48 p.m. last night. Time, which also had no special early access to the documents but has focused heavily on the leaks, buffered its coverage today with a morning post from Joe Klein—comparing the leak to the Vietnam’s game-changing Tet Offensive—and solid reporting, focusing on Gul, from Aryn Baker in Islamabad. Baker, who writes that taken together the leaks are “about as useful as Googling ‘ISI aids Afghanistan insurgency’,” uses her local knowledge and personal experience with Gul to great effect, offering insight to match the big three outlets’ exclusives.

Hamid Gul is every inch the epitome of a retired Pakistani general. He is a gracious host, inviting foreign government officials, analysts and journalists into his home, located in the military cantonment of Rawalpindi. He presides over a silver tea service, offering cups of Chinese green tea he picked up on his travels, while waxing lyrical on his role in defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Taking pride of place on the mantel of his elegantly appointed salon is a piece of the Berlin Wall, presented by the West German government with an engraved plaque: “With deepest respect to Lieut. General Hamid Gul, who helped deliver the first blow.” It’s about the same size as the chip on his shoulder. From 1987 to 1989, Gul, director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, oversaw the funding, training and equipping of the Afghan mujahedin that helped turn the tide in the anti-Soviet war. For at least a decade he was considered a hero, feted not only in Pakistan but also around the world. These days, he is more likely to be dubbed a villain, particularly in the recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents linking Pakistan’s ISI with the insurgency in Afghanistan.

… But what is missing from the leaked documents is context. What exactly does Pakistan’s ISI hope to achieve in Afghanistan? For years, the short answer has been “strategic depth,” Pakistan’s longtime policy of maintaining a security buffer should archrival India attack. During the 1990s, when Pakistan maintained training camps in Afghanistan for jihadis heading for the contested territory of Kashmir, it made sense for the intelligence agencies to cement ties with the Afghan leadership. The ISI, with help from extremist mullahs and madrasah leaders (fundamental to its campaign to foment an anti-Soviet resistance based on Islamic jihad), was instrumental in helping the Taliban gain a foothold. But does the ISI, and by extension the Pakistani military that is the de facto leadership of the country, really want to see a return of Taliban rule to Kabul?

Interestingly, a quick visit to rival Newsweek’s Web site this afternoon saw no WikiLeaks story filling the lede space. Instead, and somewhat incongruously, there was a picture of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard with links to a story about the warning bells the upcoming Aussie election could sound for Democrats. Newsweek’s WikiLeaks story—Andrew Bast’s “The Pentagon Papers, Redux” way down the bottom of the homepage—cited highlights from the Times’s reporting, the White House’s irritable response to the leaks (a focus of the Christian Science Monitor’s report this morning), and contemplated the possible impact of the story for the president.

As the documents spread, more revelations, patterns, and possibly even more disclosures will follow. Certainly there will be talk of this journalistic moment’s likeness to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Not only did an epic legal battle ensue, but the damning revelations of the war in Vietnam mark a sea change in the way that the American public viewed the war. If the revelations here are as consequential remains to be seen. And, of course, the Pentagon Papers were an official history ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. What we have here, instead, is granular, scattered dispatches from the ground, much of it clouded by the fog of war.

What’s undeniable, however, is that President Obama’s administration—already staggering after firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal and a withering war strategy—will now have to spend the entire week defending a war to an increasingly disenchanted American public.

For Jaffe at the Post, the Pentagon Papers question is irrelevant. “I think there’s no comparison,” he said. And in what might be a preview of a more contextualized piece he says he is writing for tomorrow’s paper, he says, “I tend not to think that this is a major moment. I think it’s a more interesting media story than it is a military and foreign policy story at this moment. The folks at WikiLeaks seem pretty good at manipulating us, to get publicity for what they’re doing. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that but it does seem to be true.”

Did he consider that in his reporting? “I think we did an okay job of trying to put this in context and explaining to readers that this isn’t necessarily the Pentagon Papers, it’s something different. Given the incredibly short amount of time we had last night to turn stuff around, I thought we did an adequate job.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.