Sunday, August 08, 2010

Wikileaks and the War in Afghanistan

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told us he released all his documents to get people talking about Afghanistan. The US has charged 22-year-old Pfc Bradley Manning with releasing the files and has demanded Assange take them down from his site, but Assange said he and Bradley were not the problem. "The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped," he said. Assange is right to question the intent of the war which is showing no signs of success after 9 years. So far however, all people are talking about is the tool itself: Wikileaks.

For several years Assange has been acting in the best tradition of news: revealing something someone wants hidden. People sent him electronic files under the cloak of anonymity and he published them on his European-based servers. Many governments including Australia’s have been embarrassed by his findings. But the Afghan documents were his biggest coup yet. On Sunday 26 July, Wikileaks released 75,000 detailed secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.

But Wikileaks weren’t flying solo. Aware in advance Assange had access to something extraordinary, a Guardian editor convinced him the files needed the sense-making capabilities and resources of journalism. Assange was not immediately convinced but compromised by giving the information to three newspapers to do what they wanted with them. He knew the three papers would add perspective and attention. The Guardian with its links to both Manchester and London and its ownership locked in trusts, is one of the few genuinely left of centre broadsheets in the English speaking world. Germany’s Der Spiegel is a weekly newsmagazine mostly owned by its Hamburg workforce – it would give a non-Anglosphere view.

The third is still generally regarded as the best newspaper in the world, despite many failings. The New York Times under the old family money of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr added the ultimate prestige to Assange’s enterprise. Although the NYT’s motto is “All the News That's Fit to Print” even it had to condense down the narrative to a few thousand words. All three news angles were similar in that they said the release of the data itself was the biggest story.

With so much data still left to go round, Assange encouraged the crowdsharing potential of the Internet. The reports described the majority of lethal military actions the US military were involved in. They were categorised by the type of mission or engagement. Between them enemy action (27,000) and explosive hazard (23,000) accounted for over half the files. They showed the number of people killed, wounded, or detained during each action, together with the precise geographical location of each event, and what military units involved and major weapon systems were used. In the one and only file marked “counter terrorism”, the data states:
“Weapons seized in Herat City, Injil District, Herat Province 15 Jan 08: Counter Terrorism Department reported Anti-Terrorism Directorate personnel located and seized 1x 82 mm mortar launcher and 1 x PK machine gun from local Herat City (41S MU 25688 01079) residence (Source ARSIC-West ROC)”.
While the data are pure intelligence reports which are terse and difficult to interpret, Wikileaks provided a reading guide to help out but it not very exciting stuff.

When releasing the documents, Wikileaks said they hoped it would lead to “a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and provide the raw ingredients necessary to change its course”. But what they forgot was that the rest of the media which did not get the exclusives might have a different slant. Murdoch's papers expressed mock outrage over their release. The Washington Post were also so annoyed at not being chosen, they got Mark Thiessen from neo-conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute to write an op-ed calling Wikileaks a criminal enterprise which had to be shut down. He also wanted the US to arrest Assange regardless of whether jurisdiction he is living under gives its consent. Thiessen may be living in a forgotten Bush-Cheney fantasy world but he is not alone in wanting Assange eliminated.

The New Yorker called Assange a “trafficker” which made him sound like a drug dealer. But it did make the useful point Assange has made diverse enemies including failed British bank Northern Rock, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi and the “Church” of Scientology. Assange sent back a lovely letter to demands from the Scientologists’ lawyers: [We] will not comply with legally abusive requests from Scientology any more than Wikileaks has complied with similar demands from Swiss banks, Russian offshore stem-cell centres, former African kleptocrats, or the Pentagon.”

While perhaps nettled by being listed next to kleptocrats, The White House response merely expressed its annoyance about what Assange’s “irresponsible leaks” wouldn’t do. “[They] will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people”. Otherwise National Security Advisor General James Jones was agreeing with everything leaked because he said they had already acted on its problems.

That leaves most of the case against Assange about consequences. “Innocents will die” is a short summation of it. Under this argument it does not matter what good can come from the documents in the public domain, because the possible death of Afghans identified as helpers is too high a price to pay. The right to kill innocents is an option the armed forces wants to keep exclusively for itself.

Noticeably this argument has not been used against the three newspapers each of which used the data for their stories. They are part of the social responsible press who are also answerable to laws both at home and wherever they publish. Wikileaks does not have these constraints. Jay Rosen calls Wikileaks the world’s first stateless news organisation. Wikileaks releases information onto the Internet without regard for national interest. Rosen said that up to now, the press was free to report on secret matters only so far as their local law protected them. “Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it,” Rosen said. “This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.”

This spatial elasticity means Wikileaks gets to be play by multiple sets of rules. Assistant Professor of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island CW Anderson sees it as asymmetric journalism which can either go it alone or else perform a dance between two informational cultures “one of hackers and one of reporters”.

With so much information in the public sphere, Jeff Jarvis asks where the line should be drawn. His conclusion is that “the line has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency.” Jarvis said the “sane response” to leaks was to open up as much as possible. “Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked,” he said.

Good. Now that we’ve got that straight we can move beyond the infatuation with the stateless tool and get back to Assange’s question, which is simple and grounded in geographical reality. Why are we in Afghanistan?

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