WaPo’s Puzzling Stance on WikiLeaks

Despite paper's editorial claim, there's value in the logs

Yesterday, The Washington Post ran a troubling unsigned editorial essentially coming out against the release of 400,000 Iraq war documents by WikiLeaks.

It’s a grumpy read. The editorial claims that there’s noting worth seeing in those documents, and that the leak “mainly demonstrates that the truth about Iraq already has been told.” Outlining some of that old news, the editorial continues:

The news organizations granted privileged access to the documents, including the New York Times and Britain’s Guardian, have focused on reports that Iraqi security forces abused and tortured prisoners; that private security contractors often acted recklessly and violated rules of engagement; and that U.S. soldiers sometimes killed Iraqi civilians at checkpoints.

It’s true, as the editorial asserts, that able reporting has trod this ground before, and that those paying attention already knew much of this. Indeed, torture, contractor abuses, and civilian casualties were pervasive enough that it would be a sad thing had the press not picked up on them.

Of course, broad trends aren’t the whole story—the documents reveal countless unreported incidents that make up these broad trends. There’s value in that detail.

And the logs also revealed, as even the Post’s editorial had to concede, that General Tommy Franks and others weren’t telling the truth when they claimed the military didn’t “do body counts” of civilian casualties. There are other incidents where the logs present a different version of reality, on points large and small, than the line voiced by government officials.

Even if the logs contained no new information (and it’s clear they do—had you ever heard of Frago 242 before Friday?), what reporter wouldn’t like to have a treasure trove of official documents to back up previous work’s findings? A small example: the logs confirm Wired’s reporting that U.S. forces brought down an Iranian drone operating over Iraq in February 2009, which the government refused to acknowledge at the time.

And who can anticipate what information in the logs will be valuable to some other story that’s yet to break—to a book author telling some tale in a few years, or to a historian in the 2020s who would otherwise have to wait for the backlogged beyond belief National Archives system to release the documents?

This WikiLeaks release is similar to its smaller July dump of Afghanistan records, and we heard similar arguments about the value of opening up the caches back then. In July, my colleague Joel Meares deflated claims from a nothing-to-see-here crowd by suggesting that while the notion wasn’t exactly false, it was deeply misguided. To assume that the readers wouldn’t benefit in anyway from the additional information provided by the logs, Meares wrote, seemed “to argue against the very idea of journalism.”

Why was the Post moved to write this? If in the editorialist’s mind, the documents don’t reveal anything, at worst they would be a waste of time. But the Post takes it one step further, to argue that the releases are actually causing harm:

In Afghanistan, Wikileaks appears to have put the lives of courageous Afghans at risk, by identifying them as American sources. In Iraq, it has at least temporarily complicated negotiations to form a new government.

We are all for the disclosure of important government information; but Mr. Assange’s reckless and politically motivated approach, while causing tangible harm, has shed relatively little light.

Despite all of the reasonable concern voiced for the safety of the U.S. and its allies’s sources in the days following the Afghanistan leak, a “senior NATO official” told CNN nearly a month after the leak that not a single person had been killed or forced to move as a result of the leak. That doesn’t mean that any such people potentially named aren’t still at risk, but it certainly mitigates the idea that they’ve faced certain, “tangible” harm. And that’s an argument against what WikiLeaks did with the Afghanistan documents, not the Iraq set.

And as to the claim that the Iraq logs may have delayed the formation of a new Iraqi government, I’m scratching my head. Yes, such a delay could be a blow to the stability of Iraq, and to the U.S. mission to aid in the establishment of such a government. But since when did journalists go about arguing that information shouldn’t be exposed because it might complicate some political development wanted by some party? (And how exactly did this information, which supposedly everyone already knew, cause this political hiccup?)

The Post’s editorial is just another example, if an especially incoherent one, of some element of the press shrugging off the documents. It’s especially sad that it was voiced in our capital’s paper.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.