John McCain lashed out at Wikileaks and Julian Assange yesterday, calling for their prosecution for releasing over 91,000 field reports and documents about the Afghan war. In the same breath, he called the document release “old news.”
This has been the tightrope that some in the government have tried to play with the Wikileaks release, downplaying the content of the documents while condemning their release. To some, “old news” must be kept from the public at all costs. Even the Pentagon isn’t trying this line. It’s more important for them to label the documents familiar or unsurprising to try and blunt their impact and keep the war machine moving:
New evidence that the war effort is plagued by unreliable Afghan and Pakistani partners seems unlikely to undermine fragile congressional support or force the Obama administration to shift strategy.
The disclosure of what are mostly battlefield updates does not appear to represent a major threat to national security or troops’ safety, according to military officials [...]
White House and Pentagon officials sought to diminish the significance of the leak by arguing that there were few, if any, revelations in the documents. Instead, they expressed alarm that the group WikiLeaks.org had posted such a large amount of classified material that could compromise the safety of U.S. forces and their Afghan allies.
“What is new and unprecedented is the scale and scope of this leak,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “But the content of it is neither new or very illuminating.”
First of all, the idea that the content is neither new or illuminating is only true in a 10,000-foot view. Even in this same WaPo article, you can read about a helicopter raid killing seven children, and an Afghan police commander raping a 16 year-old. While the reports contain raw intel, and some rumor, much of it is verified, and if it wasn’t, nobody would be calling it old news.
So I don’t buy this idea that it isn’t illuminating. And neither does someone in the position to know: the reporter behind the Pentagon Papers:
On what the Afghanistan war logs have added to what we know:
They show how difficult the war in Afghanistan is. It’s a very complicated situation. You’ve got a government in Kabul which is corrupt and untrustworthy. You’ve got Pakistani allies which are not necessarily always your allies. You’ve got a Taliban movement which is resurgent, but also isn’t unified. It has its own factions, but it’s a resilient movement.
The WikiLeak revelations are very valuable, I think. They show how hard it is going to be to reach the objective the U.S. wants to reach, which is basically pacifying the country. Coming up with a sort of agreement which will pacify the country and end the insurgency. It shows how difficult it is to deal with your own allies [...]
On the criticism by some who point out that the latest leaks don’t bring to light much new information:
They may not contain a lot of new information, but they get public attention. That’s important, that the American public understand what’s going on. I’m not saying it’s necessary that they quit Afghanistan, but that the public understands the price being paid.
One value from these logs is it shows things are much more difficult on the ground than what you get from high-level briefings where they talk about counterinsurgency and use all these terms. When you get down to nitty-gritty here, these guys are trying to deal with a village that’s divided against itself. You don’t know who to trust, because people in the village don’t know who to trust.
Comparing these to the Pentagon Papers is a false comparison. The Pentagon Papers came in the midst of a well-documented, well-described war, and showed that the government was lying to their own people for decades about Vietnam. This document set comes in the midst of a largely forgotten war and does more to tell the narrative than anything from the government. That’s why the White House, while officially using the “old news” line, is worried about the ability to sustain support in Congress for the war effort.
That ability gets tested today, when the House votes on a war supplemental measure that was stripped of much of its domestic spending. For some reason, they are trying a test vote under a suspension of the rules, rather than taking the bill through the Rules Committee. That means it requires a 2/3 vote rather than a simple majority. This could be a tall order for passage, unless Republicans vote for it en masse. The major result of a losing vote would be trying to adopt it under a rule, or perhaps even stripping out the domestic spending still intact – mostly for disaster relief in flooded areas and the Gulf – to get a “clean bill,” which all Republicans would presumably support. So while the funding can be delayed, and no Democrat should vote for it whatsoever and take ownership of a failed policy, in reality the funding will eventually get through.
However, the Wikileaks release does represent a potential turning point, with the White House now trying to defend a policy that doesn’t look all that defensible.