The White House’s response to Wikileaks’ release of 92,000 classified military documents covering operations in Afghanistan from 2004 until 2009 has been to say the accounts are unreliable, irrelevant and cover a period preceding the announcement of President Obama’s new strategy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor, drew reporters’ attention to a report in The Guardian which said:
A retired senior American officer said ground-level reports were considered to be a mixture of “rumours, bullshit and second-hand information” and were weeded out as they passed up the chain of command. “As someone who had to sift through thousands of these reports, I can say that the chances of finding any real information are pretty slim,” said the officer, who has years of experience in the region.
But if the White House truly shared this retired officer’s opinion, why push the line that everything here precedes the new strategy and say: “[s]ome of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy”?
The White House is clearly scrambling desperately to get its story straight.
The nearest analog is The Pentagon Papers, which was released in the early ’70s. That exposed how the United States was prosecuting the war in Vietnam. That was some 10,000 pages, and some of those pages were accepted and put into the New York Times and other US newspapers. It wasn’t for several years that a book was published — 5,000 of those pages by Beacon Press.
This situation is different in that it’s not just more material and being pushed to a bigger audience and much sooner — if you like, everyone has the book, the whole lot at once — but rather that people can give back. So people who around the world are reading this are able to comment on it and put it in context and understand the full situation. That is not something that has previously occurred and that is something that can only be brought about as a result of the internet.
The Guardian describes how the Pentagon tracked down the source of the leaks.
On 21 May, a Californian computer hacker called Adrian Lamo was contacted by somebody with the online name Bradass87 who started to swap instant messages with him. He was immediately extraordinarily open: “hi… how are you?… im an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern bagdad … if you had unprecedented access to classified networks, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?”
For five days, Bradass87 opened his heart to Lamo. He described how his job gave him access to two secret networks: the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, SIPRNET, which carries US diplomatic and military intelligence classified “secret”; and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System which uses a different security system to carry similar material classified up to “top secret”. He said this had allowed him to see “incredible things, awful things … that belong in the public domain and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … almost criminal political backdealings … the non-PR version of world events and crises.”
Bradass87 suggested that “someone I know intimately” had been downloading and compressing and encrypting all this data and uploading it to someone he identified as Julian Assange. At times, he claimed he himself had leaked the material, suggesting that he had taken in blank CDs, labelled as Lady Gaga’s music, slotted them into his high-security laptop and lip-synched to nonexistent music to cover his downloading: “i want people to see the truth,” he said.
He dwelled on the abundance of the disclosure: “its open diplomacy … its Climategate with a global scope and breathtaking depth … its beautiful and horrifying … It’s public data, it belongs in the public domain.” At one point, Bradass87 caught himself and said: “i can’t believe what im confessing to you.” It was too late. Unknown to him, two days into their exchange, on 23 May, Lamo had contacted the US military. On 25 May he met officers from the Pentagon’s criminal investigations department in a Starbucks and gave them a printout of Bradass87’s online chat.
On 26 May, at US Forward Operating Base Hammer, 25 miles outside Baghdad, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning was arrested, shipped across the border to Kuwait and locked up in a military prison.
Gathered from 92,201 records of individual events or intelligence reports, The Guardian presents a selection of 300 of the key ones.
Piecing together details from the reports, The Guardian describes the operations of an undisclosed “black” unit of special forces, Task Force 373, whose mission was to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial.
On the night of Monday 11 June 2007, the leaked logs reveal, the taskforce set out with Afghan special forces to capture or kill a Taliban commander named Qarl Ur-Rahman in a valley near Jalalabad. As they approached the target in the darkness, somebody shone a torch on them. A firefight developed, and the taskforce called in an AC-130 gunship, which strafed the area with cannon fire: “The original mission was aborted and TF 373 broke contact and returned to base. Follow-up Report: 7 x ANP KIA, 4 x WIA.” In plain language: they discovered that the people they had been shooting in the dark were Afghan police officers, seven of whom were now dead and four wounded.
The coalition put out a press release which referred to the firefight and the air support and then failed entirely to record that they had just killed or wounded 11 police officers. But, evidently fearing that the truth might leak, it added: “There was nothing during the firefight to indicate the opposing force was friendly. The individuals who fired on coalition forces were not in uniform.” The involvement of TF 373 was not mentioned, and the story didn’t get out.
However, the incident immediately rebounded into the fragile links which other elements of the coalition had been trying to build with local communities. An internal report shows that the next day Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Phillips, commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, took senior officers to meet the provincial governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, who accepted that this was “an unfortunate incident that occurred among friends”. They agreed to pay compensation to the bereaved families, and Phillips “reiterated our support to prevent these types of events from occurring again”.
Yet, later that week, on Sunday 17 June, as Sherzai hosted a “shura” council at which he attempted to reassure tribal leaders about the safety of coalition operations, TF 373 launched another mission, hundreds of miles south in Paktika province. The target was a notorious Libyan fighter, Abu Laith al-Libi. The unit was armed with a new weapon, known as Himars – High Mobility Artillery Rocket System – a pod of six missiles on the back of a small truck.
The plan was to launch five rockets at targets in the village of Nangar Khel where TF 373 believed Libi was hiding and then to send in ground troops. The result was that they failed to find Libi but killed six Taliban fighters and then, when they approached the rubble of a madrasa, they found “initial assessment of 7 x NC KIA” which translates as seven non-combatants killed in action. All of them were children. One of them was still alive in the rubble: “The Med TM immediately cleared debris from the mouth and performed CPR.” After 20 minutes, the child died.
The coalition made a press statement which owned up to the death of the children and claimed that troops “had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building”. That claim is consistent with the leaked log. A press release also claimed that Taliban fighters, who undoubtedly were in the compound, had used the children as a shield.
The log refers to an unnamed “elder” who is said to have “stated that the children were held against their will” but, against that, there is no suggestion that there were any Taliban in the madrasa where the children died.
The rest of the press release was certainly misleading. It suggested that coalition forces had attacked the compound because of “nefarious activity” there, when the reality was that they had gone there to kill or capture Libi.
A New York Times report focuses on revelations in the documents about collaboration between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban “in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.”