Continued: Debating the Pros and Cons of Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary

Posted on 2 August 2010 by

In today’s online issue of CounterPunch, you can find my article dealing just with the Wikileaks release that it called the Afghan War Diary, now the Kabul War Diary. The article was originally two, and originally destined for Al Jazeera Arabic. This is an overview of the CP article, followed by a link to a continuing debate on this blog between David H. Price, anthropologist, and myself (David having actually worked with Wikileaks and Julian Assange), and what I have not yet done anywhere: propose an alternative.

August 2, 2010, CounterPunch
Reason for Celebration, Cause for Concern:
The Wikileaks Afghan War Diary

A version in Arabic was published on Al Jazeera, 08 August 2010:
نواقص في تسريبات ويكيليكس

A. Reasons for celebrating the Wikileaks release?

  1. Support for the anti-war movement.
  2. Empowering citizens.
  3. Imposing limits on the state.
  4. Counter-surveillance.
  5. Soft Power in reverse.
  6. Working around the mainstream news media.
  7. Distributed training in information warfare.

B. Reasons for concern?

  1. Not much new support for the anti-war movement.
  2. New support for fighting the Taleban.
  3. Support for expanding the war to Pakistan and Iran.
  4. The incomplete and fragmentary nature of the records.
  5. The records are not the same as “the truth.”
  6. The lack of ethical concern, and an inadequate review process.
  7. Dependence on the mainstream news media.
  8. Crowd sourcing: an ideal with little substance?

As mentioned, David Price and I have been debating the ethics of the release, in comments starting here.

Two more points that I wanted to make clear: First, I am not opposed, in an absolute sense, to the release of these records. I think it should have been done, and needed to be done, but it also could have been done very differently (more in a moment). Second, concerns for national security, the safety of the troops, are not my prime concern in my comments about ethics. I leave that to the various, mutually self-referencing policy wonks and pundits, whose bread is buttered by the war. Indeed, even if my bread were buttered by the war, I would still have sense to say the meal stinks and that the cook is a maniac.

My prime concern is instead the safety of Afghan civilians, those listed as informants and collaborators, who are being judged too quickly by individuals such as Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Anthropologists, and especially political anthropologists, are extremely familiar with the work of middlemen, brokers, and chiefs in colonial situations and in societies undergoing transformation from chiefdoms into states–enough to have great sensitivity and perhaps even sympathy for the impossible pressures that these people have to manage. In particular, I have spent years in the company of such collaborator chiefs and brokers, and have collaborated with them in return. About the Afghan collaborators, we do not know if one day they collaborated with NATO, and the next day with a Taleban unit. We do not understand, from far away, what their motivations may have been. The Taleban are not promising any trials either–just swift punishment once they hunt them down, using Wikileaks’ records as their hit list, and if they do not find them, they promise to impose the punishment on their families.

Can we blame the U.S. for placing Afghan civilians in these positions of danger, as David Price argues? Of course, we can: otherwise we would be forgetting the context in which all of this unfolds. But do I get to blame the U.S. for my own unethical stupidity? And in blaming the U.S., do I then turn a blind eye to the fact that those who are made to suffer, yet again, will be Afghan civilians? And if the source of the leaks to Wikileaks is to be protected, and his/her identity covered up, then why doesn’t that privilege extend to the Afghan sources of the leaks documented in these records? Is one source better, more valuable, and more human thus deserving of rights, than all of these others? What do you think?

An alternative?

No genius here, anthropologists are trained to think about these issues, and apparently some journalists are also mindful of them. Again, I think the records needed to be released, but not all, and definitely not in this state, and with this process. If 92,000 records were released, then that is 92,000 conversations that needed to take place among a range of Afghan specialists, Afghan human rights workers, intelligence agents, military experts, experts on ethics, and so forth. Yes, a very slow process. But then, what’s the rush? These documents are already about events that happened in most cases years ago, so why not wait several more months at least? In addition, at least a redaction process was needed, like what Channel 4 News in the UK insists on doing even with the released records, fearing that it is not ethical to republicize them in their current state–this is what they say:

There has been mounting concern among media organisations, including Channel 4 News, about the ethics of publishing some of these reports, even though the material is now openly available on the internet….We, in common with other news organisations, have redacted parts of the text, including names of individuals, which might make it possible to identify people.  But the raw material is viewable online.

In four days of trawling through the files, which are at times difficult to decipher due to the use of military acronyms, Channel 4 News has discovered scores of reports referring to named informers and collaborators.  Many of these reports give the exact location of the individual concerned, their tribe, the names of other family members and other biographical details which make them readily identifiable.

Even individuals that are not named can be traced through the information they’ve supplied – whether it’s from their attendance of secret meetings or from their apparently precise knowledge of covert weapons shipments or the movements and locations of top Taliban commanders.

And this is what a redacted report would look like, and that is even without the benefit of all of the conversations I mentioned above:

Why couldn’t Wikileaks do this? More importantly, why didn’t they do it, and why did three top media houses participate in this? And even more important, what argument can you make against such redaction?

Did all of these records need to be released? They are already a fraction of all records produced by the U.S. military in the Afghan war, let alone all NATO nations combined–so the argument for having a complete picture cannot be used here.

Since Wikileaks went first to the media, was there any need for the public to see all of the records, once the media had written up stories based on the records? Do we normally get to know who their sources are, and read the raw reports for ourselves? I agree, I would like to as well, but in conditions where serious bodily harm could come to that person, I am not that sanguine. In other words, could you not have released stories, to be confirmed by one or more specialists vouching that they had read the records, without releasing the records themselves? I am not saying in all cases, just in the most sensitive cases.

Feel free to post your thoughts below.

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