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WikiLeaks Publishes 90,000 Stolen Classified Documents

The scumbags at WikiLeaks have published a huge trove of classified documents provided to them by one or more traitors in our military. Nick Davies and David Liegh for The Guardian:

A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.

The disclosures come from more than 90,000 records of incidents and intelligence reports about the conflict obtained by the whistleblowers’ website Wikileaks in one of the biggest leaks in US military history. The files, which were made available to the Guardian, the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel, give a blow-by-blow account of the fighting over the last six years, which has so far cost the lives of more than 320 British and more than 1,000 US troops.

Their publication comes amid mounting concern that Barack Obama’s “surge” strategy is failing and as coalition troops hunt for two US naval personnel captured by the Taliban south of Kabul on Friday.

The war logs also detail:

• How a secret “black” unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial.

• How the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

• How the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

• How the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.

In a statement, the White House said the chaotic picture painted by the logs was the result of “under-resourcing” under Obama’s predecessor, saying: “It is important to note that the time period reflected in the documents is January 2004 to December 2009.”

The White House also criticised the publication of the files by Wikileaks: “We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security. Wikileaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents, which may contain information that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who co-operate with us.”

Perhaps alone of all countries in the world, the United States operates on the principle that freedom of the press is so sacrosanct that there’s literally nothing that can’t be printed.  There is legal recourse after the fact for libel, but the bar is high.  In the case of classified documents, the only ones who can be punished are those obligated to keep them secret — i.e. government personnel who have been read into the program and obtain the information through official channels.   And, since journalists — and we define that term very broadly, indeed — don’t have to reveal their sources, it’s nearly impossible to catch the leakers.  And the damage is regardless long done by that point.

I haven’t seen any of the material, aside from a scan of the above-quoted Guardian piece and Spencer Ackerman‘s piece for Danger Room.   None of the highlights I’ve seen thus far surprise me any and, as Spencer suggests, even the “bombshell” that Pakistan’s ISI is regarded as an enemy even while their government is being treated as an ally is an “open secret.”

So, I don’t know that any serious damage has been done here.  Have sources and methods been compromised? Have Coalition soldiers or Afghan civilians who have put their lives in our hands been put in additional danger?  I have no way of knowing.

But, while I’ve long argued that we overclassify and need to revamp our system so that more information is available to the public, sooner, I don’t think the solution to the problem is for low level operators to violate their sacred trust.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    It’s hard to tell if any “damage” has been done. I’ve read some of this stuff and it didn’t tell me a thing I didn’t already know or suspect. And as you confirm Jim, it didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know or suspect. The leakage of this material is somewhat comparable to the Pentagon papers although the content is nowhere near as revelatory. Obviously the guy who leaked it broke the law, but you also have to ask what was the motive for keeping all this stuff secret when it was mostly as you say an “open secret.” And the inevitable conclusion is that it was kept under wraps for political reasons because the picture it confirms is not a pretty one. A campaign starved of resources for years; an Afghanistan polity that is every bit as screwed up as the media report; an enemy that is better equipped, far more agile and with more indigenous support than military “spokesmen” in Kabul ever admit; regular counter productive FUBARS; and all the other symptoms of a failing effort that we became very familiar with 45 years ago and which we seem intent on repeating. Yes the guy broke the law but in a wider sense is it a good thing for the country that this information is out there? I’d say yes because it makes abundantly clear to the American public the scale of the task we’ve taken on in attempting to pacify Afghanistan and turn it into an approximation of a functioning friendly state. In my personal judgement this is a task beyond our capacity although others may disagree. Finally, on the issue of freedom of the press, America is not unique relative to most European states who I’d regard as our peer group and not China. They regularly publish embarrasing material (embarrasing to their govt’s that is) and after all The Guardian and Der Spiegel were the chosen media outlets for this material and both have forces deployed in Afghanistan.

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  2. just me says:

    Well most of that doesn’t really seem surprising, but I am bothered by the fact that somebody leaked classified information and will essentially go unpunished.

    I also wonder at the role of media in all this. Ethically, when at war, is any document passed on to the media something they should print? Just because they can print it should they?

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  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    “and will essentially go unpunished.”

    The guy who almost certainly leaked the info is currently held awaiting trial.

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  4. Ben Wolf says:

    The American people have every right to know the details of a war ostensibly being waged in their name. To suggest that releasing these documents is treason is to imply that our government should be able to operate with impunity, and without the oversight of its citizens. Traitors? More like patriots.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    The American people have every right to know the details of a war ostensibly being waged in their name.

    You’re not seriously arguing that there should be no such thing as military secrets, even during wartime?

    We have a system for classifying information that has been put in place by Congress and, one presumes, passed judicial scrutiny. As already noted, I think it’s over-used. But the route to fixing it is through legal channels, not the whims of individuals who are breaking their oath and the law.

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  6. just me says:

    But the route to fixing it is through legal channels, not the whims of individuals who are breaking their oath and the law.

    Absolutely true. Even if a person may find the classification system archaic or more in my opinion often over broad, it isn’t an individuals right to decide when, where and to whom classified information should be released.

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  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 08:44

    “not the whims of individuals who are breaking their oath and the law.”

    Get real Jim, most of the outrageous governmental cover ups from Dreyfus onwards arose from individuals breaking their oath and the law. Dreyfus would have died on devils island and Nixon have served two full terms using your criteria.

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  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    “it isn’t an individuals right to decide when, where and to whom classified information should be released.”

    Sounds just like the formula they had in the Soviet Union. Only the govt has the right to tell you what you need to know. Fortunately, in a open democracy it’s a lot more complicated than that.

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  9. Tano says:

    ‘You’re not seriously arguing that there should be no such thing as military secrets, even during wartime? ”

    I am guessing that he was saying no such thing. This is a strawman you build.

    We should acknowledge the obvious – that there is a tension between the right of free people in a democracy to know exactly what is being done in their name, and the need for some military, and even diplomatic secrets to be held – for the safety of our people and our chances of overall success. This is not a new issue – we have seen this tension be exposed publicly many times, most famously with the Pentagon Papers.

    You have admitted that there doesn’t seem to be any damaging revelations here. And you have admitted that there are a large number of classified documents that should not be classified.

    Your proposal – that everyone respect the rules, and we just leave it to the authorities to rein in their over-classification – to the point where everything that we are entitled to know, and is not damaging, would not be classified – that proposal strikes me as totally absurd. This is not how the world works, or could ever work. There is no cost to the military for over-classifying, and a large benefit – it gives them control and power. No institution will simply give up control and power over its own products if it doesn’t have to.

    The military will always try to keep secrets, including on matters that really should not be secret. Including, in fact, matters that very much need to be public knowledge (Pentagon Papers were a good example).

    Can the journalists go too far and damage America or some of our people? Its a possibility – and if they do so, there will be a great cost to them. But that does not seem to be the case here.

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  10. Ben Wolf says:

    I’m not suggesting at all that there should be no such thing as military secrets. I think we’d both agree such a viewpoint would be ridiculous. I do think a broad understanding of how a war is being waged, how effective current strategies and tactics are, is critical to a public making informed decisions on its leadership. I haven’t seen anything yet in these documents which does any damage to national security or puts soldiers in greater danger by exposing operational details (though that doesn’t mean it isn’t there). What I’ve seen so far seems to have been deemed secret because it reveals how ineffective our operations in Afghanistan have been, and embarassed the administration.

    You’re right that much of what is revealed are “open secrets”, but we have to keep in mind much of the American public is nevertheless unaware of them. They simply can’t make a reasoned decision in an upcoming election without being exposed to this kind of information.

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  11. […] James Joyner noted this morning, there is no small degree of concern over the question of who decided to violate the law and release […]

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  12. just me says:

    I do think there are some policy problems when something like this happens.

    The one revelation that I think is a big deal to some degree-the fact that elements of the Pakistan military and Intelligence service are helping the Taliban. Now it is one thing if it is a common suspicion, but now that it is clear the government knows and believes there is coordination from that corner of Pakistan, will it, should it change how we work with Pakistan now? Does the revelation now paint the US military and government into a corner since they can’t outwardly pretend as if Pakistan is our ally and friend?

    I think somebody choosing to release classified information in this manner has an impact, because it may force the government to take new steps they may not have wanted to take at this juncture.

    The relationship is no shocking surprise, but while it was still conjecture and suspicion the government had more freedom to play their hand when it came to Pakistan. Now that it is confirmed what the government knows, it is likely going to change how we are able to deal with Pakistan, and those changes may or may not be for the better, but it isn’t for some low level employee with a clearance or a beef with the government to decide.

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  13. Franklin says:

    Okay, I think it’s easy to establish that there is very good reason to classify some material. But I also believe in whistle-blowing. If we’re going to hide information about accidentally killing a bunch of civilians, I think somebody should be able to release that information without fear of serious punishment.

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  14. Wilhelm says:

    Whoever leaked the documents to wikileaks (and it seems pretty obvious who that was) did his duty to his country far more effectively than the hundreds or thousands of mindless drones who reviewed the same documents and then honored their “sacred trust” by not disclosing them. We need more Dan Ellsbergs in this world, not fewer.

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  15. Brett says:

    I haven’t looked at all of the documents, but many of the ones that the NYT was showing had the names of informants and operatives redacted. One can only hope that applies to the rest of the document pile.

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  16. just me says:

    The problem is who gets to decide what information that is leaked was “okay” and what is “bad form” because as often as not leaks aren’t made out of some altruistic desire to make things better but to harm someone in an administration.

    Sometimes you can say “that was whistleblowing and it was a good thing that person released that info” but some people may not have the same opinion, and who gets to decide who is right?

    There is a reason to have classified information, and I think sometimes things are classified for nefarious reasons or other times just because the government wants to keep their thumb on information, but I don’t think people with clearances who agree to keep things classified secret should be the ones deciding what to release to the media and when. Or if they do so, they should come forward with their names clearly stated as the person doing the releasing and take whatever fallout occurs.

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  17. Franklin says:

    I don’t think people with clearances who agree to keep things classified secret should be the ones deciding what to release to the media and when.

    Well you’ve hit the big problem here. You can’t have people without clearances looking at classified data to determine if it should be unclassified.

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  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    It’s always interesting to me that those who are usually most vocal on the subject of shrinking govt, reducing govt intrusions into citizens lives, introducing more daylight into govt, etc etc are invariably those that swing towards authoritarianism, the govt has an absolute right to keep info from its citizens, and so on, whenever there’s a test of the principle as in this case. So far there’s nothing that’s come out that is not in the public domain. Even the fact that elements of the ISI have been covertly supporting the Taliban has been news fodder for years. All this info does is confirm what we already knew.

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  19. James Joyner says:

    It’s always interesting to me that those who are usually most vocal on the subject of shrinking govt, reducing govt intrusions into citizens lives, introducing more daylight into govt, etc etc are invariably those that swing towards authoritarianism, the govt has an absolute right to keep info from its citizens, and so on, whenever there’s a test of the principle as in this case.

    I believe that government has a right to keep certain secrets and that government officials are the ones who get to decide which things those are. There are multiple checks and balances available to would-be whistleblowers short of taking it upon themselves to dump national security secrets into the public domain.

    There’s the chain of command.

    There’s Congress.

    Frankly, if everyone in the chain of command and the relevant players in Congress all think that the thing that’s classified ought remain so, my tendency is to trust their judgment over that of some random captain or sergeant.

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  20. just me says:

    So Brummagen what is the point of classified documents if anyone who has access to them gets to decide whether they remain classified or not because they don’t like what’s in them?

    Either there are classified documents, and some secrets a government needs to keep and the chain of command is in charge of what they are, or there aren’t any.

    The system won’t work if there isn’t some kind of built in policy and procedure for what is classified and how it remains classified.

    I think there is good evidence that the government over classifies a lot of things that don’t really need to be classified, but the average guy working the intelligence doesn’t get to decide those rules, that is something the government has to decide.

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  21. mannning says:

    While there may not be the ability to prove just who leaked these documents, it should be quite easy to confine the list to a few with adequate access, say ten or twenty people. These ten or twenty should be reassigned in the theater to harmless duties and then ultimately to the US, pending further investigation to root out the traitor or traitors. Perhaps it might be 50 men; but, so be it. Such actions cannot be tolerated.

    My respect for journalists that acquire and publish such finds is at zero.

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  22. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 13:12

    “Frankly, if everyone in the chain of command and the relevant players in Congress all think that the thing that’s classified ought remain so, my tendency is to trust their judgment over that of some random captain or sergeant.”

    just me says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 13:32
    I think there is good evidence that the government over classifies a lot of things that don’t really need to be classified, but the average guy working the intelligence doesn’t get to decide those rules, that is something the government has to decide.

    Essentially you are both saying put your trust in the system. Unfortunately, history is littered with examples where the system was working against the public good. As several above have observed there’s a tension between the desire of govt to keep the maximum amount secret and the public’s right to know since they are providing the money and human resources for wars and suchlike. Obviously no one is going to condone the release of secret military info that is going to aid an enemy, but was Ellsberg or Deep Throat wrong to blow the whistle. I don’t think so.

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  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    “There’s the chain of command.

    There’s Congress.”

    So what do you do Jim when the administration was routinely lying or withholding information from congress, or passing it to only a tiny number of members who were barred from making it public, as was common practice during the previous administration. The system is a very leaky vessel at times.

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  24. James Joyner says:

    So what do you do Jim when the administration was routinely lying or withholding information from congress, or passing it to only a tiny number of members who were barred from making it public, as was common practice during the previous administration.

    First, that’s nonsense. The members of the House and Senate intel committees had information and could use it to conduct their oversight responsibilities. I doubt that they could have been help liable in court for going public, frankly, but even if they didn’t they could hold closed door hearings and stop the practice. Instead, they tacitly agreed to it.

    Second, my point is that, rather than leaking to a scumbag website, you could take your concerns to Congress. That’s a different thing: Members take letters and calls from constituents very seriously.

    Essentially you are both saying put your trust in the system.

    The choice is either: Have a classification system with responsible authorities making the calls or don’t have one. If any yahoo can leak the info to the press, the system collapses.

    Ultimately, SOMEONE has to make the call. I’d rather it be the elected president and the chain of command than some scumbag with a leaks website.

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  25. just me says:

    So what do you do Jim when the administration was routinely lying or withholding information from congress, or passing it to only a tiny number of members who were barred from making it public, as was common practice during the previous administration. The system is a very leaky vessel at times.

    There are members of congress with the same intelligence level. If I were the low level soldier and concerned about some of those secrets, and the chain of command wasn’t handling them, I would contact one of those congress members on the intelligence or relative committee with my concerns. I wouldn’t send it to the New York Times or Wikileaks. My congress member or a congress member with clearance would be defensible, the Times would not and should not. The risk of going to the times, even if I am justified is conviction of releasing the materials and the person should be convicted.

    The system is there, it isn’t perfect, and perhaps there should be some other avenues built into for legal whistle blowing, but the times shouldn’t be a defensible option within the system.

    Ultimately, SOMEONE has to make the call. I’d rather it be the elected president and the chain of command than some scumbag with a leaks website.

    Exactly.

    It is also important to note that a person with a security clearance for highly classified materials is still only going to have “need to know” documents and information. They are very likely not going to have all the information that the president or higher level intelligence officers will have. I am just not sure we should be convincing somebody with a complaint or beef about how some things are classified when they may not have the whole picture. Better to trust it to the president and congress and if you don’t trust them, vote for somebody you can trust than to hail these people as heros and give them immunity from prosecution because they chose to go outside the established system.

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  26. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 17:28

    “First, that’s nonsense. The members of the House and Senate intel committees had information and could use it to conduct their oversight responsibilities”

    Well that’s not what many of them have said or implied as you well know!

    “Ultimately, SOMEONE has to make the call. I’d rather it be the elected president and the chain of command than some scumbag with a leaks website.”

    This would be fine if we didn’t have a mountain of evidence spread over fifty years that the govt routinely lie not only to the American people but also congress.

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  27. Brummagem Joe says:

    just me says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 17:47

    “If I were the low level soldier and concerned about some of those secrets, and the chain of command wasn’t handling them, I would contact one of those congress members on the intelligence or relative committee with my concerns.”

    Yeah right, take it to your congressman when you’re a serving soldier.

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  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 17:28
    “First, that’s nonsense. ”

    Perhaps you missed these Jim, and that was just a 60 second google. The notion that the congress wasn’t routinely lied to or evidence witheld over the Iraq war and other related matters just doesn’t accord with the facts.

    http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenote/2009/05/pelosi-cia-lied.html

    http://thinkprogress.org/2007/10/07/harman-not-fully-briefed/

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/06/05/divided-senate-committee_n_105374.html

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