Sunday, August 1, 2010

The WikiLeaks Documents and the Eye of the Beholder

The top story of the week is—or at least should be—the release of tens of thousands of classified documents by WikiLeaks. The responses have been predictable. Supporters of the wars in Iraq and particularly in Afghanistan sniff that we learned nothing new and endangered lives in the process; it’s even been suggested that the release of the documents was in fact orchestrated by the Obama team to embarrass the Bush administration, although it escapes me exactly how discrediting a Bush policy that is being echoed by Obama serves the latter politically.

Meanwhile, opponents of the war(s) claim that we now have proof of what we’ve suspected all along: that the war in Afghanistan is not going at all well, that the Pakistani government is more of an enemy than an ally, that the US is underwriting the actions of drug lords, that there have been far more civilian casualties than previously reported. Hey, and remember that really cool scene at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War” when the Mujahideen finally have the ability to counter Russian air power? Well, guess who those folks are now, and whom they’re using those weapons against?

The White House immediately condemned the release of the documents. On Sunday, the day the documents went up on the WikiLeaks website, National Security Advisor James Jones said in a statement that “The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.” The next day, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a press briefing that:
I think our reaction to this type of material, a breach of federal law, is always the same, and that is whenever you have the potential for names and for operations and for programs to be out there in the public domain, that it—besides being against the law—has a potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military, those that are cooperating with our military, and those that are working to keep us safe.
Not long afterward, however, the tone had changed. Michael Isikoff reports that David Lapan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations, said that:
a preliminary review by a Pentagon “assessment” team had so far not identified any documents whose release could damage national security. Moreover, he said, none of the documents reviewed so far carries a classification level above “secret”—the lowest category of intelligence material in terms of sensitivity.
On Thursday, though, there was another reversal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen held a press conference. Gates warned that the incident is:
a pointed reminder that much secret information is treated as such to protect sources of information, to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, to deny our enemies the information about our military operations, and to preserve our relationship with friends and allies…. the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships in that key part of the world.
Mullen, meanwhile, argued that WikiLeaks founder/point person Julian Assange “can say whatever he likes about the greater good he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier.”

It’s really a spectacular example of the eye-of-the-beholder phenomenon. Private Bradley Manning, who may or may not have been responsible for the leak (my commentary here), is a whistle-blowing hero who brought abuses to light… or a traitor who endangered the lives of American servicemen and –women and/or those who have cooperated with American forces… or a very disturbed young man who made the whole thing up.

Assange may be correct in his assertion that there is no single event or revelation that is the most damning, but rather, as he said in a press conference part of which is posted on the website of The Guardian, “it’s war; it’s one damned thing after another.” Still, it’s difficult to justify the release of documents which give names and other identifying information about Afghanis who aided the US military: this charge was first leveled by the Times of London; alas, the article in question is now behind a pay-wall, but the coverage of The Australian is not. Whatever we may think about whether the war is good policy, or whether American soldiers have been paragons of virtue, the Taliban are not the good guys in any rational assessment of what’s going on in that part of the world. Indeed, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared in an interview on the UK’s channel 4 and quoted by The Telegraph’s Robert Winnett, “If they are US spies, then we know how to punish them.”

It is reasonable to distrust a government which invokes largely if not exclusively fabricated threats to national security every time it gets embarrassed by a revelation or every time it needs a “wag the dog” moment: this was standard operating procedure in the Bush administration, and, though the practice may have waned in the Obama regime, it has by no means disappeared. That said, recklessness is recklessness, and Assange’s after-the-fact protestations—that many Afghani informants were “acting in a criminal way,” that the Obama administration knew about the release of names but “did nothing to help WikiLeaks to vet the data,” that “any risk to informants' lives was outweighed by the overall importance of publishing the information,” that, as he said in another interview, the information was “not of tactical consequence”—ring rather hollow.

Indeed, when the White House denied that Assange had contacted them, he backtracked, saying that he had done so through the New York Times; it is clear that the administration had been in contact with the Times, but not that the Times had relayed Assange's alleged offer. Department of Defense spokesman Col. David Lapan denied the allegations in a statement Friday:
It's absolutely false that WikiLeaks contacted the White House and offered to have them look through the documents…. We never had the opportunity to look at any of the documents in advance to determine anything. The documents were brought to the attention of the White House, but no copies of documents, or opportunities to review were given.
Anyone else find it interesting that this release came from the Pentagon and not the White House?

Needless to say, Fox News is claiming that the fact that Assange said that he had offered, through the Times, to give the administration the opportunity to vet the documents and the White House acknowledged that they’d talked to the Times means that the offer was made and ignored. It doesn’t. It may be that the offer was never made, whether because Assange is lying or because the Times didn’t do what he asked of them. It may be that the White House made a blanket request to stop the publication of any documents at all and Assange refused to comply. But the Obama administration certainly wouldn’t be the first to commit a sin of omission and try to cover their tracks after the fact. Someone is covering their butts here—Assange? The Times? The White House? Your guess is as good as mine.

On the other points, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said, “Whether those individuals acted legitimately or illegitimately in providing information to the NATO forces, their lives will be in danger now. Therefore we consider that extremely irresponsible and an act that one cannot overlook.”

One more point can be made here: apparently all three of the major newspapers which had advance copies of the documents—the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel—published only selected, redacted examples of the documents. They apparently had both the journalistic desire to cover the story and the common sense not to publish material that stands a good chance of getting specific people killed. Why WikiLeaks couldn’t do that, too—they claim to have vetted all the documents, after all—is a mystery.

There’s an interesting piece by Tunku Varadarajan on The Daily Beast website—we’re not talking Fox News here!—which compares Assange to Andrew Breitbart, describes him as a “fraud,” and concludes, “WikiLeaks is a brothel of self-promotion, Assange its puffed-up pimp.” I fear there’s more than a kernel of truth there.

There’s one more element to the story: there is evidence that “strongly suggests,” in the words of, that “Manning has some sort of LGBT identity, and that the man who snitched on him exploited this to win trust.” The Telegraph declares that he is “openly homosexual,” an interesting assertion in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” age. The Gawker article includes a screen capture photo of Manning’s Facebook page, showing such “likes and interests” as “,” “Stonewall Democrats,” and “LGBT America.” These aren’t conclusive, of course, but they do suggest a little more than do his fondness for the Rachel Maddow Show and the National Center for Transgender Equality. The Telegraph also cites a status update in which Manning claimed to be “‘livid’ after being ‘lectured by ex-boyfriend.’”

And here again we are going to see a divide. There will be those who, ignoring the thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers who have served honorably for years, will perceive the unsuitability of homosexuals for military service. Conversely, there will be those who argue that had Pvt. Manning been able to talk openly to a comrade or a superior about his recently-failed relationship, he would not have reached the level of despair and agitation that precipitated his action. Moreover, they would claim, à la Gawker:
Adrian Lamo is an out bisexual, while an increasing number of clues suggest that Manning is, if not transgendered, deeply uncertain about his sexuality and/or gender. Interviews with Lamo's acquaintances and a close reading of the chat logs suggest Lamo traded on this identity to exploit Manning at his most vulnerable, as questions about his sexuality were unbearably pressing on his personal and professional lives.
While this latter scenario is plausible, the fact remains that there is much we don’t know, up to and including whether Pvt. Manning had anything to do with this. Even assuming he was responsible, his motives are at best unclear, and it’s anyone’s guess whether his sexuality is in any way related to all this.

What we’re left with, then, is even more questions than we had before. But a few things are clear: if someone gets singled out by the Taliban and killed (or worse), someone—probably more than one someone—has blood on his hands. And it’s beginning to look as if Julian Assange’s halo is slipping.

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