July 27, 2010
The Unbearable Awesomeness of Wikileaks

Yesterday the world changed and a new epoch was ushered in with Wikileak’s release of the Afghan War Diary, 2004 – 2010. In case you’ve been vacationing off-planet, Afghan War Diary is a compilation of “raw data” derived from 90,000 leaked ground reports from the war in Afghanistan (approximately 15,000 have been held back for possible redaction before their release). The importance of this event is certainly not that the data uncovers shocking new revelations about how abysmally the war in Afghanistan has been conducted — an epic fail of such proportions is hard to cover up completely no matter how obedient the national media are. The true awesomeness of this development is that, in one brilliant and well-coordinated play, the rules of the game have been changed — forever after — and, not only has the playing field been leveled, it’s been moved out of town — no more home-field advantage.

Part of the genius of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange’s release was his gambit to assure that mainstream media would not obstruct or trivialize the importance of the leak — by giving them the scoop. Wikileaks provided the roughly 91,000 reports dated from January 2004 to December 2009 to three media outlets, The New York Times, the Guardian of London and Der Spiegel of Germany, under agreement to publish their individual coverage simultaneously on Sunday…



The “home team” however seems to be determined to ignore the change in game plan, at least for now. Despite a “heads up” from their loyal friends at The New York Times, the administration’s official flat-footed response was noticeably confused, and confusing. In my opinion, no one did a better job of parsing the White House’ official response than Jay Rosen; here are his reactions posted on NYU’s Pressthink blog:

The initial response from the White House was extremely unimpressive:

This leak will harm national security. (As if those words still had some kind of magical power, after all the abuse they have been party to.)

There’s nothing new here. (Then how could the release harm national security?)

Wikileaks is irresponsible; they didn’t even try to contact us! (Hold on: you’re hunting the guy down and you’re outraged that he didn’t contact you?)

Wikileaks is against the war in Afghanistan; they’re not an objective news source. (So does that mean the documents they published are fake?)

“The period of time covered in these documents… is before the President announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy.” (Okay, so now we too know the basis for the President’s decision: and that’s a bad thing?)

A great follow-up (that we’ll never see) from the White House would be a comprehensive analysis of how the “revolutionary Obama” strategy addresses shortcomings in the “lackluster Bush” strategy. For example, to the best of my knowledge, American taxpayers are still underwriting billions of dollars to continue the Sisyphean task of training an Afghan National Police Force.

As Tom Engelhardt put it, recently:

The Pentagon . . . hasn’t hesitated to use at least $25-27 billion to “train” and “mentor” the Afghan military and police – and after each round of training failed to produce the expected results, to ask for even more money, and train them again.

Engelhardt then follows up with the questions that lay bare the Coalition’s utter fecklessness in this endeavor:

“And here is the oddest thing of all, though no one even bothers to mention it in this context: the Taliban haven’t had tens of billions of dollars in foreign training funds; they haven’t had years of advice from the best U.S. and NATO advisers that money can buy; they haven’t had private contractors like DynCorp teaching them how to fight and police, and strangely enough, they seem to have no problem fighting. They are not undermanned, infiltrated by followers of Hamid Karzai, or particularly corrupt. They may be illiterate and may not be fluent in English, but they are ready, in up-to platoon-sized units, to attack heavily fortified U.S. military bases, Afghan prisons, a police headquarters, and the like with hardly a foreign mentor in sight.”

“Consider it, then, a modern miracle in reverse that the U.S. has proven incapable of training a competent Afghan force in a country where arms are the norm, fighting has for decades seldom stopped, and the locals are known for their war-fighting traditions.”

And if you think the Afghan Police Academy idea is stupid and wasteful, just go read Tom’s entire article describing the US plan to resurrect the Afghan Air Force (as soon as they can learn English) and procure some reconditioned Russian ‘coptors that the Afghans took a shine to in the last war. The timeline for that project? US Air Force personnel: guestimate 2016 – 2018 depending on how well the Afghans take to English, “the official language of the cockpit.” There are 450 US Air Force personnel tasked with this project @ $1 million/year/flight instructor plus, of course, pay and bennies for the Afghan recruits, and let’s not forget procurement and maintenance of the fleet of Russian helicopters — you do the math . . . .

What has changed, recently, was that the new Afghan “police academy” graduates will eventually be dealing with a possible “conflict of interest” with the freshly minted localized militias (that nobody wants to call militias) that Gen. Petraeus is so proud of successfully lobbying for.

Evidently, Catch-22 is alive and well in today’s army . . .

* * *

The Pentagon, for its part, has harrumphed out a hasty announcement that it is launching a “robust probe” of the Wikileaks matter (to differentiate, I suppose, from the “rather lame probes” that it launches in the event of collateral damage leaks). That development is curious in the face of their much ballyhooed apprehension, months ago, of Bradley Manning, an Army information analyst stationed in Iraq (not Afghanistan), charged with leaking classified information to Wikileaks. The Pentagon is acting suspiciously in this, perhaps they know that there are many leaks in their midst, or, maybe they just already know it’s not Manning but it’s good to have a guy in custody.

And the State Department, on the basis of leaked reports that the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI is aiding and abetting the Taliban insurgents, is threatening to take back the $7 billion aid package that it proudly bestowed on Pakistan a few weeks ago, if the ISI doesn’t cut it out. Of course none of this is “news” and Hillary Clinton knew it when she delivered this money bomb on her latest trip. Ah well, it’s taxpayers’ money, there’s more where that came from . . .

* * *

The real importance of this event is so hard to grasp and appreciate fully that it’s going to take some time to digest. If you look hard enough, though, a number of people have noticed and are scratching the surface in credible ways.

The following are excerpts from the first impressions of respected sources on media and the new news ecosystem; taken together, I believe that their comments comprise a cogent analysis of the unprecedented actions taken by Julian Assange and the possible impact that those actions might have on the future of information distribution, transparency and governmental accountability.

From Jay Rosen of NYU’s PressThink blog:

If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That’s what so odd about the White House crying, ‘They didn’t even contact us!

Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what Wikileaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. 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. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.

And I can’t resist including a reader’s comment on Rosen’s article, because it says so much:

we enter an era now where we begin to be conscious of “collective consciousness” and its role as “prime mover” of the “world” and its events …”

analysis of the various parts and components proceeds only fitfully, because we do not yet have a language of whole …

the problem? adjusting to a pre-existing global reality larger than the individual thinking mind can grasp …

consciousness itself, however, has no problem with any of this … it is our limited self-concept that does …

solution? easy. identify with the whole…

inescapable and unavoidable, by the way … not if, but when

Posted by: gregorylent at July 26, 2010 2:56 AM | Permalink

From Alexis Madrigal, senior editor and lead technology writer for TheAtlantic.com:

The rogue, rather mysterious website provided the raw data; the newspapers provided the context, corroboration, analysis, and distribution. ‘Wikileaks was not involved in the news organizations’ research, reporting, analysis and writing,’ Times editors said in an online note. ‘The Times spent about a month mining the data for disclosures and patterns, verifying and cross-checking with other information sources, and preparing the articles that are published today.

The New York Times’ David Carr may have nailed the issue when he tweeted that it was the “asymmetries” that Wikileaks introduces into the equation that have the government spooked. An administration official told Politico, ‘[I]t’s worth noting that Wikileaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan.’ But the truth is that we don’t really know what Wikileaks is, or what the organization’s ethics are, or why they’ve become such a stunningly good conduit of classified information.

In the new asymmetrical journalism, it’s not clear who is on what side or what the rules of engagement actually are. But the reason Wikileaks may have just changed the media is that we found out that it doesn’t really matter. Their data is good, and that’s what counts.

From Glenn Greenwald at Salon:

Whatever else is true, WikiLeaks has yet again proven itself to be one of the most valuable and important organizations in the world. Just as was true for the video of the Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, there is no valid justification for having kept most of these documents a secret. But that’s what our National Security State does reflexively: it hides itself behind an essentially absolute wall of secrecy to ensure that the citizenry remains largely ignorant of what it is really doing. WikiLeaks is one of the few entities successfully blowing holes in at least parts of that wall, enabling modest glimpses into what The Washington Post spent last week describing as Top Secret America. The war on WikiLeaks — which was already in full swing, including, strangely, from some who claim a commitment to transparency — will only intensify now. Anyone who believes that the Government abuses its secrecy powers in order to keep the citizenry in the dark and manipulate public opinion — and who, at this point, doesn’t believe that? – should be squarely on the side of the greater transparency which Wikileaks and its sources, sometimes single-handedly, are providing.


And finally, for those who claim this is “old news” and “no big deal,” ponder this from Politico:

Whether WikiLeaks uncovered anything new isn’t actually important — it’s on the front page of every newspaper in the country; the media is now focused on Afghanistan, and that makes it a big deal,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on India and Pakistan.

The public is now more skeptical about the administration’s strategy in Afghanistan than they were last week, and that makes it real, said Markey, who was a South Asia analyst during the Bush administration.

Posted by Frumpzilla at July 27, 2010 06:16 PM
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