When I received word last night that WikiLeaks was about to set free a treasure trove of more than 91,000 secret military documents from the war in Afghanistan, a thrill ran down my spine.
Was it going to be another spectacular train wreck like their hyped “Collateral Murder” release? For those of you who missed that one, Julian Assange and his band of merry leaks had convinced themselves that the gun camera footage from an Apache helicopter was proof that U.S. servicemen were trigger-happy madmen that liked nothing better than blowing away innocent journalists, family men, and children. Unfortunately, the video actually proved quite the opposite.
Worse, the video was released to coincide with a fundraising appeal (the organization had only collected $370,000 of their estimated $600,000 operating budget), strongly suggesting the group was creating controversy merely to profit from it.
The newest release, the so-called “Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010,” is a document dump of over 91,000 classified military documents from our war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The UK’s Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and the New York Times have had teams of reporters pouring over embargoed copies of the files for weeks. Sadly, what they found offers very little in the way of news, revelations, or even entertainment.
Imagine walking down to your local police department’s archives and printing out 91,000 pages of reports. The vast majority would be mundane. Traffic stops, property crime reports, accidents, and yes, on much more infrequent occasions, even violent crimes. You’d also find really exciting stuff, like how much the department spends on printer ink, toilet paper, handcuff keys, and uniform allowances. What WikiLeaks has reported, for the most part, seems to be of this nature.
This is not to completely discount the document dump. As reporters and investigators continue to search their way through the tens of thousands of files, they have hit upon interesting nuggets here and there. Readers may be nodding along, saying to themselves: “I thought so.” But if you are someone that has followed the war through the blogs and reporters that cover this isolated beat, you won’t find anything exciting.
Pakistan’s intelligence service is playing both sides?
Michael Isikoff of NBC (himself with an impressive body count) states that the Pentagon hasn’t yet found anything worrisome in the leaked documents they’ve reviewed, and that the documents they’ve seen are marked “secret,” the lowest level of classified document sensitivity.
It isn’t hard to understand WikiLeaks’ position. This is a huge release of documents. It deserves a bit of press for the sheer novelty of its size. But despite Julian Assange’s best attempts to whip up a media frenzy, there simply isn’t much that has been released in this document dump that amounts to excitement in the media, or from the public that consumes the news.
Assange can claim possible evidence of “war crimes” all he wants, but he’s already cried that particular wolf before, with laughable results. The simple fact of the matter is that everyone knows that the most regrettable part of war is that the killing and maiming of civilians is a certainty. Just as assuredly, most recognize that the accidental deaths of civilians are horrible mistakes, but not war crimes.
None of this is to say that the release won’t provide some interesting archival information. Minor surprises may indeed lurk far under the surface.
And yet, it seems that the most intriguing part of this story are the storytellers themselves.
Julian Assange, the face of WikiLeaks, is an odd duck. A convicted computer hacker, activist, and sometime journalist, Assange had a bizarre, arguably unstable early life of non-conformist parents and life on the run from his step-father’s alleged cult, and his running has never ended. Few have doubted his intelligence or his talent. His ethics, opinions, and politics, however, are ripe for speculation. While WikiLeaks gained fame for it’s attacks on Scientology, reports of corruption in Kenya, and posting the hacked emails of Sarah Palin, that fame has been damaged by Assange’s apparent shift towards trying to profit from WikiLeaks’ fame.
The Apache gun camera footage Assange dubbed “Collateral Murder” was released at a time WikiLeaks was in dire financial straits. It seemed purposefully calibrated to ignore the mundane reality of a helicopter gunship identifying and then eliminating armed insurgents, in favor of touting the deaths of the two journalists collaborating with the militiamen as an assassination. Because of this exceedingly dubious claim, his new charge that the Afghan War documents reveal evidence of war crimes rings decidedly hollow.
And then there are the questions about where the documents originated.
Initial speculation has immediately focused on U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, a Lady Gaga fan who claimed he stole hundreds of thousands of classified documents and turned them over to WikiLeaks. Manning already faces a court martial, and an Army investigation will determine whether or not the military will bring further charges against him for the Afghanistan documents. Until the hundreds of thousands of documents he leaked have been thoroughly investigated and catalogued, the upper limit on the number of charges he could face is sky-high.
At the moment, the investigation into the leak promises to be the most exciting part of this entire drama. As Herschel Smith noted after personally sorting through hundreds of the documents: “To anyone with a computer, some time, and a little interest, none of this is news.”
Indeed, it isn’t.
But it is a chance for Julian Assange to stand in front of the cameras once again.