WikiLeaks shot to fame in April 2010 when it posted a video of a 2007 US Army assault in Baghdad. Not for the faint of heart, the grainy video is taken from a roving gunship circling a group of men suspected of being militants. Tragically, cameras are mistaken for RPGs and civilians for insurgents. After being granted permission the pilots engage the group, killing twelve, including two Reuters employees.
Reuters spent almost three years trying to obtain the video through the Freedom of Information Act. They didn't get it. WikiLeaks was given a copy anonymously. They posted it online for everybody to watch and millions did.
This time around, WikiLeaks published 75,000 "secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan." They're promising to release another 15,000 shortly. They also gave the New York Times, The Guardian, and Spiegel access to the cache a couple of weeks in advance to allow mainstream media the time to cover both the leak and the documents. All four organizations published their material in unison on Sunday.
At first blush, the documents are overwhelming and I admit that I was taken in by them. Here is a free and accessible trove of formerly classified materials that on any other day, grad students, academics, and journalists would have simply salivated over. There's a ton of information in here, much of it risqué. It's a treasury of official paperwork that helps corroborate events and developments in Afghanistan. Used as raw, quantifiable data, the documents should help test theories of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. In fact, I might have to revisit my dissertation because of WikiLeaks.
But beyond their academic value, there isn't much new in this material.
The documents tell us this: The Afghan war is a bloody slog. Civilians sometimes die. The Taliban is a ruthless and adaptable adversary. The US is selectively targeting and killings insurgent leaders. Friendly fire incidents occasionally occur. Afghan National Police and Army aren't up to snuff. Pakistan and Iran are feeding the insurgency. Elements of the Afghan government are corrupt. NATO's having trouble stabilizing the country. And military operations sometimes go awry.
"If any of this startles you," writes Fred Kaplan in Slate, "then welcome to the world of reading newspapers. Today's must be the first one you've read."
In reality, the WikiLeaks documents aren't a smoking gun because our governments have been open about the kind of struggles we're facing in Afghanistan. And mainstream media is doing its part by thoroughly covering the war effort.
As Andrew Exum writes in the New York Times, it is simply "ridiculous" to compare these documents with the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Those papers revealed that several US administrations had consistently and purposefully misled the American public during the Vietnam War.
The WikiLeaks Papers don't do that at all.
If anything, they help corroborate what our governments have been trying to tell us: that this war in complex, deadly, and far from over.