Wikileaks: Truth and its Consequences

POTTER: What’s the impact on journalism, security, public support and the military?

What is the impact of the War Logs leak? I think this is best split into at least four questions.

1.  What is the impact on journalism?
2. What is the impact on operational security?
3. What will the impact be on public support for the mission?
4. What is the impact on the military?
1.  Following Jeff Jarvis, we can frame this as the question of “what if there is no more secrecy”? Journalists are, more than anything, information brokers, gatekeepers, and editors.  The big career score is “breaking a story” – that is, being the first person to report on something that becomes a cultural touchstone.

But what happens when there are no more secrets? When, for all intents and purposes, everything is made public, when there is no more use for “access journalism”? I make some tentative explorations of this in chapter five of The Authenticity Hoax, where I’m quite skeptical of the positive claims that are made in favour of maximal transparency and openness.  It’s part of a broader debate being played out between publicity-maximalists like Jarvis and privacy advocates like Andrew Keen, and it is one of the relatively few areas where I’m closer to Keen than to Jarvis.

There’s no magic way of figuring out where the line ought to be between transparency and secrecy. In every case you have to ask who benefits from more transparency, and who benefits from secrecy. Jarvis has a good posting on this where he questions his own commitments:

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be move by force.

This is the nub of the problem. Jay Rosen’s post on this is excellent, and his key point is to note that Wikileaks is the first “stateless” news organization. Why does this matter? Partly because it means it is harder for governments to control it, which can be a good thing. But it also means that Wikileaks has less reason to be responsible and accountable. When newspapers and other “state-based” organizations break news, it is because they perceive themselves as serving the broader public good, and they have a natural constituency that keeps them accountable. Where’s the accountability here, with Wikileaks? I don’t see it, and it bothers me.

2. That said, what is the material effect on the release of these documents on operational security in Afghanistan? From what I’ve read in the documents so far, I don’t see much to be too worried about. I suppose one way of getting at it is to ask whether, if you were working over there, how you would feel about this release. Safer? Less safe? The same? I  don’t have the knowledge or the expertise to answer this adequately.

But perhaps this isn’t a good standard to use anyway. If the military had its way, virtually nothing would be released to the public, in the name of “OPSEC”. OPSEC is just the military version of the “national security” line that the government uses to keep information from the public. But OPSEC and National Security can’t be a get-out-of-jail free card, used to trump all requests for access or information. There is a lot in these documents that I think the public has a right to know about, and that the military could very well have chosen to share with the public years ago, on their own terms.

3.  A lot of people who support the mission are very upset about this leak. For example, my friend Brian Platt got “up on his high horse” (as he put it), arguing that unlike a targeted leak designed to unveil a scandal, this document dump is “a senseless leak, an act of pure treason,” whose only purpose was to screw over the military.

That’s no doubt true, and I share Brian’s suspicion of the motivations behind these leaks.  But just because someone has an agenda, it doesn’t mean the documents aren’t genuine, or valuable, or useful. But more to the point, I’m not convinced that this leak will have the knock-on effect of undermining support for the mission.

Most of the opposition to the mission is  fact-free ideological leanings by people who are against the war not because of what is happening on the ground, but simply because the war exists in the first place — they are opposed to the mission in principle. In which case, new information — however positive — is not going to change their minds. At the same time, a lot of the pro-war faction is pretty much immune to bad news of any sort, and will always be willing to double down on the military commitment no matter how poorly things are going.

The real action is in the fuzzy middle; people (like me) who are unsure of what the goals of the mission should be, and how best they might be achieved, and to what extent realism has to be balanced against idealism. These are people for whom facts on the ground matter, and there is nothing in the documents, on balance, that I can see that would lead the fence-sitters to become devoted anti-war lobbyists.

If anything, I think the opposite is true. The picture that emerges from the documents is of a professional military working in an intense and difficult situation, and performing its job as humanely as possibly under the circumstances.  Canadians have had no indication as to the pace and tempo and intensity of the conflict since the insurgency started in 2006, and that is by design. The military brass has acted under the assumption that if we knew what was going on – how much contact there was, how many IEDs were being found, how many friendly fire or civilian casualties there were – that the public would pull its support. I think that does the public and the military a disservice.

It does no one any good if the public is kept in the dark about what the war is really like. If there is material in these documents that will undermine the effort in the mind of a reasonable public, then that is an argument for making them public. A war that relies for its support on keeping important truths from the public is not a legitimate war.

4. Ultimately, I think that the effect of this leak will be counterproductive for all concerned, in the same way that access-to-information laws have been  counterproductive. In Canada, ATI legislation has helped construct what has been called “the neurotic state” – a government and bureaucracy that is paranoid, highly media-averse, and reluctant to put anything of any consequence in writing.

This is probably what will happen with the military. This leak of very sensitive material is going to convince the government bureaucracy and the military brass that they simply can’t put any points of dispute or debate down in writing. There will be an increasing trend towards pseudo-transparency – the release of lots of communiqués and reports that say nothing at all. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be points of contention or matters of urgency; it just means there won’t be a record of it anywhere.

For journalists, coming on the heels of the Rolling Stone piece on McChrystal, it means access will be more difficult to come by. Sources will dry up, interviews will be cancelled, strict and useless talking points will be the order of the day.

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