A leak in the armour
by Edward Osborne
The now-famous website Wikileaks.org publishes government documents that are forwarded anonymously and then verified by a small collection of journalists. They operate as a global whistleblower, bringing information from various governments into the public light. Essentially, they allow secrets to be exposed without risk to the individual responsible for the leak.
This summer, they received 90,000 documents pertaining to the Afghanistan war, and uploaded them online for the public to access and review. These documents were military after-action reports, which are filed by soldiers immediately after each event. Events range from controlled detonations of explosives to helicopter assaults and prisoner snatches.
Titled by Wikileaks as the “Afghan War Diary,” the records are un-edited and uncensored. They are provided as raw data, with some basic categorizing and keywording. The sheer number of them makes it one of the largest intelligence leaks in American history. Part of the reason they were released is more people are getting to look at more secrets in the intelligence community. After 9/11, a policy of information sharing was put in place, and the documents are part of that. General Michael Hayden, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the United States Security Agency told the BBC, “Most of us knew, although this was a good idea, that it empowered our military and security forces. That sooner or later someone was going to take advantage of this vast treasure trove of information.”
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke directly on the issue, dismissing it as containing “nothing new.” But the documents have shed light on a few interesting and unsightly aspects of the war. For example: U.S. special forces Task Force 373, which seems to have been roaming the hillsides of Afghanistan with the secret mission to kill or capture all Taliban leaders.
Operation Medusa was a gunfight in which four Canadian soldiers were killed. The Armed Forces reported that they were killed by Taliban fire, but now one of the War Diary reports brings to light whether it was actually a friendly air- strike that cost them their lives.
Some of the documents also give the names of local Afghan informers and supporters of NATO forces. This may not be important to us, but it is crucial to those on the ground in Afghanistan. These people have been exposed, and are now at risk of retaliation from the Taliban or other militia groups who oppose cooperating with the occupying armies.
The fallout from the release of these secrets has been substantial. Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, was arrested and charged with exposing military secrets. He had uploaded a contentious video of helicopter gunships killing civilians to the Wikileaks website only a few months prior. It remains unclear whether Pte. Manning is actually behind the Afghan War Diary leak or not.
And that is not the only shady response. In Switzerland the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, faced allegations of rape. Although an arrest warrant was issued, it and all charges were dropped within a day.
The leak of these documents has been a significant development in the war. Part of its significance is the public has been unofficially tasked with poring over the pages and extracting some meaning from them. No think tank, journalist, or analyst is doing it for us. Instead, anyone who wishes can access the pure, unfiltered data and draw conclusions from them. Even if they were to be censored or modified now, the raw text from the first day was available for download and is stored on hard drives across the continent.
We can create a chronology of the war for ourselves. The Afghan War Diary gives a wider picture than any book, movie or news report could. There haven’t been many large battles in Afghanistan, no dramatic storming of beaches for us to highlight. Instead, the reams of fragmented documents reveal a different war: a thousand tiny battles fought between mountaintops.