When Daniel Ellsberg was trying to bring the information in the Pentagon Papers to light, it was difficult to find a viable means of disseminating the information to policymakers and the public. In order to garner media attention for the detailed, confidential war records, Ellsberg eventually had to turn the Papers over to the New York Times, who published the contents of the records in a series of articles. In an eerie case of history repeating itself, The New York Times, The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel were recently given access to a significant cache of classified reports known as the Afghan War Diary.
But unlike Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the source that brought the reports to public attention wasn’t a high ranking US official, it was a website. WikiLeaks, a website dedicated to publishing leaks while maintaining the anonymity of its sources, gave the three aforementioned publications access to the Afghan War Diary weeks in advance under the condition that they wouldn’t report on the information until July 25, the day WikiLeaks published the diary to their site.
One of the most remarkable parts of this story is the sheer size of the Diary, which includes nearly 92,000 reports on the war in Afghanistan from 2004-2010. The Diary includes day-to-day reports from Afghanistan that show the American’s often lacked resources and the insurgency gained power year after year. According to the Diary, the loyalty and competence of the Afghan government, police army continually wavered, often putting the war effort in jeopardy.
Of course, it will take many weeks of continuous poring over the records to glean all of the information the documents contain. But the initial interpretation, from the New York Times at least, paints a grimmer picture of the Afghan War than we are accustomed to, saying that the Diary is “an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.”
However, the Times did also state that, “over all, the documents do not contradict official accounts of the war. But in some cases the documents show that the American military made misleading public statements.”
The release of these documents will obviously alter the public’s perception of the war in Afghanistan, but it also highlights the changing role of the internet. Now whistleblowers, or simply those who want to divulge confidential information, have an easy means to do so. However, the site does review all of the documents that are submitted to ensure their authenticity. Since WikiLeaks runs its operation out of several countries, it’s unclear whose jurisdiction—if any—they fall under. One thing is for sure, however: The US government isn’t pleased with this leak.
“[The US] 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,” said General James L. Jones, the White House national security adviser.
The US military has acted quickly and decisively in an attempt to quell the threat of leaks, already putting one man in custody. But this isn’t the first time WikiLeaks has made headlines by releasing private information. In recent months, the site has also posted e-mails from governor-turned-pundit Sarah Palin and a video of US soldiers killing civilians. And with this wave of media coverage, we can expect more people to go to WikiLeaks and other online sites with confidential info.