The Wikileaks Papers

Yes, the title does mix together two conceptually related if temporally separated phenomena: the Wikileaks memoranda and the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. As the Wikileaks “scandal” unfolded a week ago, however, it was impossible not to hearken back to Daniel Ellsberg a generation ago. Different times, different kinds of document, but much the same effect.

The Pentagon Papers, for those who were not around at the time, involved Ellsberg’s leaking the contents of a classified Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War titled United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, to the New York Times, which was subsequently published as The Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg, who has since become a venerable liberal hero, was excoriated for photocopying the document and releasing it, accused of heinous crimes (up to and including treason) that are now being directed at the hapless young Army private who hacked his way into Pentagon documents on Afghanistan that subsequently were released by Wikileaks. The documents that are part of the 90,000-plus record of Wikileaks, however, are different than the Pentagon Papers in that they are raw data (field reports and the like), rather than some official, if secret, intepretation of events.

Both Ellsberg and the private committed crimes in releasing the documents, since a condition of obtaining security clearance (and thus access to classified material) is that one agrees not to divulge any classified material under penalty of law. In both cases, the leakers found themselves in what they considered a quandary, since the documents they could not legally reveal represented, in their judgment, a more or less purposeful attempt to obscure the real situation in two wars from the public. In the end, both concluded the public’s right to know that the people were not being faithfully informed outweighed the government’s right to keep secrets. Ellsberg survived government attempts to suppress his activities; because he was in uniform when he did what he did, the Wikileaker will probably be dealt with more harshly.

The two documents do, however, serve a common end. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had been obscuring relevent, negative facts about the Vietnam War from the public, and their release helped undermine the government’s case for continuing the war and thus contributed to its end. Whether that was good or bad, of course, depends on what one thinks about the wisdom of the Vietnam war effort. The Wikileaks documents apparently (no, I have not read them either!) paint a similarly negative picture of the impact on the ground in Afghanistan, one that does not comport with any sense of “progress” against the Taliban. In the process, they reinforce the arguments of those who argue the war is futile and should be concluded post haste. Whether they will have the effect of shortening the war by strengthening the anti-war forces remains to be seen. Whether what they are attempting to accomplish is a good or bad thing depends on whether one thinks the war is a good idea.

It is impossible not to comment on some of the pure puffery that has come out of official (and officious) Washington about all this. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been accused of a good deal of misdeeds because of the leaks, in effect aiding and abetting the enemy by releasing information from our forces in the field to the Taliban. Much of this is pompous nonsense. One instance struck me as particularly egregious. The Wikileaks documents apparently reveal that the Taliban have used shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles against American helicopters in Afghanistan (in much the same way as the mujahadin did with American-supplied Stinger missiles against the Soviets). The announcement is a revelation because the American military had previously effectively squelched information the Taliban had these weapons, presumably to keep anti-war forces from drawing invidious comparisons between our effort and that of the Soviets. The Pentagon reaction, however, was that this was somehow a breach of operational, tactical intelligence, since some of the messages assessed the effectiveness of the attacks in bringing down American helicopters and thus helped the Taliban assess their effectiveness. What nonsense! Does the Pentagon expect us to believe that the Taliban, after firing these weapons, did not observe whether or to what extent they worked? Of course they did! This is all standard DOD CYA, the purpose of which is to obscure that we are not succeeding in the war.

The Wikileaks Papers will, of course, pass and become a footnote to this war in much the way the Pentagon Papers have; like the Pentagon Papers, they will be viewed as infamous or courageous depending on which side of the war one occupies. Personally, I was always thankful to Daniel Ellsberg, and I suspect I will remember the Wikileakers fondly as well.


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