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Blog Reax to WikiLeaks’s Leak (Afghan War’s Pentagon Papers?)

July 26, 2010

Once you’ve finished reading the 90,000-plus mostly classified Afghanistan-related U.S. military documents brought to you by WikiLeaks, you can read what feels like as many blog posts reacting to the documents and the reports based upon them, assessments of what’s there (are these, as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange suggests, the Afghan war’s Pentagon Papers?) and what it all means (here, we’ll look specifically at discussion of what it means for the media).

A quick blog round-up:

Former Washington Post military reporter Tom Ricks is among those “Underwhelmed by Wikileaks’ Leak.” Writes Ricks at

A huge leak of U.S. reports and this is all they get? I know of more stuff leaked at one good dinner on background. I mean, when Mother Jones yawns, that’s an indication that you might not have the Pentagon Papers on your hands. If anything, the thousands of documents remind me of what it is like to be a reporter: Lots of different people telling you different things. It takes awhile to learn how to distinguish the junk from the gold.

You know how Robert DeNiro used to shout once in every film, “You got nothin’ on me, nothin'”? (I think it was in his contract.) This data dump reminded me of that.

From that Mother Jones “yawn” (it’s ex-defense contractor and now copy editor Adam Weinstein’s take on the documents and, specifically, what they are):

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Here’s a cliche for you: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And here’s a fact: A little knowledge is precisely what Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks cohorts have given us in the “Afghan War Diary.” The intimation by Assange (and the media outlets he cherry-picked to preview the data) is that these are the Pentagon Papers of the Afghan war. Certainly there are a few eyebrow-raising details in the bunch, as Mark Mazzetti, Chris Chivers & Co. at the New York Times point out. But in truth, there’s not much there there. I know, because I’ve seen many of these reports before—at least, thousands of similar ones from Iraq, when I was a contractor there last year.

…[M]ost of what you see on WikiLeaks are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports). These are theoretically accessible by anyone in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Tampa, Florida-based US Central Command—soldiers and contractors—who have access to the military’s most basic intranet for sensitive data, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). Literally thousands of people in hundreds of locations could read them, and any one of them could be the source for WikiLeaks’ data. I regularly went through the daily SIGACT reports in Iraq, not because my job required it, but because my colleagues and I were curious.

…So, each morning when I entered my office on Camp Victory, I fired up my SIPR terminal and checked the SIGACTS for interesting stuff.

The first time I did it, my pupils dilated. A vein in my throat warmed. The reporter in me did backflips. I was about to breathe pure oxygen.

By day three or four, I was bored to tears…

Andrew Exum, blogging at Center for a New American Security, is also blasé about what’s there, posting:

Here are the things I have learned thus far from the documents released via Wikileaks:

1. Elements within Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) support the Taliban.
2. The United States integrates direct action special operations into its counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, targeting insurgent leaders through capture/kill missions.
3. Civilians have died in Afghanistan, often as the result of coalition combat operations.

Among the things Exum expected he could learn if he read more of the documents rather than going to bed? “’Afghanistan’ has four syllables,” and “LeBron is going to the Heat.”

Spencer Ackerman, in his initial post on the matter at’s Danger Room, is less dismissive both of what’s there and of what it means. Per Ackerman:

WikiLeaks just published a trove of over 90,000 mostly-classified U.S. military documents that details a strengthening Afghan insurgency with deep ties to Pakistani intelligence.
WikiLeaks’ release of a 2007 Apache gunship video sparked worldwide outrage, but little change in U.S. policy. This massive storehouse taken, it would appear, from U.S. Central Command’s CIDNE data warehouse — has the potential to be strategically significant, raising questions about how and why America and her allies are conducting the war.

Not only does it recount 144 incidents in which coalition forces killed civilians over six years. But it shows just how deeply elements within the United States’ supposed ally, Pakistan, have nurtured the Afghan insurgency. In its granular, behind-the-scene details about the war, this has the potential to be Afghanistan’s answer to the Pentagon Papers. Except in 2010, it comes as a database you can open in Excel, brought to you by the now-reopened-for-business WikiLeaks.

While still sifting through the documents, James Fallows offered these first thoughts over at

The interaction between “traditional” and “new” media is the most immediately arresting “process” aspect of this event. It’s structurally similar in one sense to the Pentagon Papers case nearly 40 years ago. Back then, Daniel Ellsberg worked with the New York Times to publicize the documents. Otherwise, how could he have gotten them out? This time, Wikileaks worked with the Times — and the Guardian and Der Spiegel — to organize, make sense of, and presumably vet the data. Wikileaks could have simply posted the raw info even without the news organizations’ help. At first glance this is a very sophisticated illustration of how newly evolving media continually change the way we get information, but don’t totally replace existing systems. The collaboration of three of the world’s leading “traditional” news brands makes a difference in the way this news is received.

Recalling when the Pentagon Papers came out, Fallows writes:

By that point American involvement in Vietnam was “ending” — even though it would be another four years before U.S. troops left the country after the fall of Saigon, and even though many, many American, Vietnamese, and other people were still to die in the “wind-down” phase. The major effect of the Papers was to reveal that for many years officials closest to the action had understood that the war could not really be “won,” at least under the real-world political circumstances the U.S. faced..

At first glance, these documents cast severe doubt on the idea that staying for another 18 months — who knows, perhaps another 18 years — would truly “make the difference” in transforming Afghanistan.

That’s what I’ll be looking for in the Wikileaks documents: evidence that the project we’re now committed to in Afghanistan could ever have worked, or might still work now.

Also at, Alexis Madrigal contends that “Wikileaks May Have Just Changed the Media, Too,” noting how “traditional media organizations are increasingly reaching out to different kinds of smaller outfits for help compiling data and conducting investigation,” and writing that “the publication of these documents will be seen as a milestone in the new news ecosystem.”

Jay Rosen, too, has a thoughtful take on what it means over at PressThink. In part:

In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new.

Ezra Klein, at, writes about WikiLeaks’s “press strategy” behind this leak, as does Dan Kennedy, proclaiming it “brilliant.”

On the Pentagon Papers comparison, Amy Davidson offers this at

This stash will be compared to the Pentagon Papers, and in some ways that’s right—WikiLeaks, like Daniel Ellsberg, has been accused of ignoring the national interest. (An unfair charge, unless by “national interest” one means the political interests of a particular Administration.) But the Pentagon Papers were a synthetic analysis, a history of the war in Vietnam. WikiLeaks has given us research materials for a history of the war in Afghanistan. To make full use of them, we will, again, have to think hard about what we are trying to learn: Is it what we are doing, day to day, on the ground in Afghanistan, and how we could do it better? Or what we are doing in Afghanistan at all?

Finally, speaking of the New Yorker, Steve Clemons at TPM Café reacts to it all by calling for more Seymour Hersh. Clemons:

One of the best investigative journalists who has been reporting on America’s wars is Seymour Hersh. Hersh has been ahead of the pack — revealing hard-to-believe atrocities far before the political marketplace was often ready or willing to accept his reporting.

The extraordinary posting on WikiLeaks of more than 92,000 classified documents on America’s military activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan confirms Hersh’s claims of battlefield executions and death squads.

The New Yorker‘s key commentators on Afghanistan have been Steve Coll, George Packer, Hendrick Hertzberg, and editor David Remnick.

I am a big fan of all of these brilliant writers. However, although these generalizations may be unfair to them and may overstate, Remnick, Coll, and Packer have been mostly in the camp of supporting the administration’s general course in Afghanistan and Pakistan — though there are exceptions in the portfolios of each…

Given what has just been released in this disturbing dump of classified documents, we hope that The New Yorker removes any constraints — real or nuanced — on Hersh and gets him back out in the field on this stuff soon.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.