As of two days ago Wikileaks has released 92.000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, leaked (most likely) from within the US military. After discussing this with quite a few folks, we all agreed that this will be one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of 2010.

As a former media and political science major, as well as a former editor, this stuff is pure gold to me.

First, what I am not going to go into: the Afghanistan conflict, its sense or legitimation or political implications; or the legalities of this kind of thing: does a leak like this break US law, and would that even be applicable? That’s for US lawyers to decide.

The basics first: What happened? Wikileaks got hold of some 91.000 military documents regarding the Afghanistan conflict, from analyst papers to ground reports. (What is Wikileaks?) Before releasing these documents themselves, they gave them in advance to three traditional news media: New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany). (All of the links go directly to the Wikileaks specials.) After these media ran their exclusives, Wikileaks went public with the leaked documents, called the Afghan War Diaries:

The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. (…) The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

So why is the Wikileaks story so big? It’s big not just because it’s something new and a huge scoop, but because it touches on so many complex and highly relevant issues:

  • the issue at hand, the conflict in Afghanistan
  • the way the US government handles information
  • … and by extension, the bigger questions of truth & trust
  • the relationship between governments and their citizens
  • the relationship between US government and their allies, and how information flows between them
  • the way media work today
  • the (new?) role that media play today (trust center verifying information scoops rather than gathering them)
  • the way the internet changes politics and media (and how news media not bound to nation states operate under different circumstances than we are used to)
  • Is it irresponsible to leak documents?

For some great background and discussion, I recommend you jump straight to Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both who have great write-ups.

Trying not to repeat to many of Rosen’s and Jarvis’ points, there are a few things I find worth considering.

Truth & trust, governments & citizens The White House was clearly pissed off after seeing the Afghan War Logs emerge. Understandably so, after all those documents will clearly make a dent in the war effort, so to speak. However, legalities aside and assuming the documents are the real thing – the documents leaked are internal military documents. While it’s always painful to be called out on your own mistakes, it’s not job of the media to support certain policies; and it’s most certainly not the job of a whistleblower site like Wikileaks to support any policies. It’s their job to get out information so folks can make informed decisions.

It’s probably part of winning a military conflict to occasionally bluff and put a game face on. But it’s fair game to call that bluff; I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this can happen to a government just like to any poker player. These war reports seem to be such a case where the bluff (“the war is going kinda alright”) is called. The question is: Could the US government – instead of trying to clamp down on Wikileaks and the internal military source – try to make the best of the situation, for example by trying a crowdsourced effort to analyze the patterns of what has been going wrong in the conflict? (Might not work, but should be looked into by some of the smart folks within or around the US government.)

The new role of media What I found particularly interesting is the new role that media played in this case. This is not a case of investigative journalism by the media, but by a third (non-journalistic) party. We are talking about three of the most distinguished media outlets world wide. Yet, they did not get the scoop here, they did not have the sources inside. They were not the address the military sources wanted to talk to. (Why might be a moot question, but an interesting one still. Get back to that in a minute.) Instead, the media were there to a) spread the news and b) verify the information, to lend credibility. They served as a trust center for another organization’s scoop. Once they got the information, the media then did what they do best: sift through the material and make it more accessible, as well as spread the information.

As Jay Rosen put it, referring to a New York Times editor’s note:

“At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.

So, why Wikileaks not New York Times? We can only speculate why the internal source leaked the documents to Wikileaks and not to one of the major newspapers. But there are a number of considerations at play here: First, Wikileaks is much harder to subpoena than any traditional news organization that operates under US (or European) law. Second, Wikileaks is by nature very much distributed. They are a true internet-based, decentralized organization, making it harder to suppress information. Third, Wikileaks is independent, donation-funded, without anyone to report to. This can be good or bad, of course. And on certain topics, a political biased can be assumed. But again, it makes it harder to believe there could be a reason for Wikileaks to withhold this kind of information, much unlike the news organizations that also want to send their reporters into war zones as embedded journalists along the military. Fourth, Wikileaks knows about secure communications. Maybe Guardian, Spiegel and New York Times do too, but a source wouldn’t want to take any risks. Wikileaks are strong on anonymity. They are strong on crypto. They really know how to keep communication channels secure and anonymous. All of these combined make them a more secure place to go to than any single newsroom.

Is Wikileaks acting irresponsibly? One could make the case for either the value of keeping information secret, or for absolute transparency. In a military conflict, that’s a tough one. But it seems to be like Wikileaks is going to great lengths to be as careful and responsible as the overall context allows (once it’s decided to publish leaked info, that is). They are holding back a significant number of documents until further review and clean up (think removing names etc):

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

Giving the documents to some trusted traditional newspapers of making sure the information is getting a decent journalistic treatment, followed by full disclosure of all the source material for extra vetting.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of getting it all right: Responsible dealing with the information as well as working the media right.

Jeff Jarvis raises an interesting point in his post: Will leaks like this incentivize organisations not to write down as much because they fear leaks, leading in the long run to less transparency? I certainly hope not, but it’s not a fear I share. Large-scale organizations need documentation, and where there is documentation there is a chance of leaks.

What I’d hope for instead is that the mere chance of leaks alone will lead to more transparency up front. After all, if an organization is more transparent the chance of getting called out on grounds of hiding information is a lot lower.

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, if you do appreciate this kind of document leak, I do recommend you consider donating for Wikileaks.