The early consensus, thankfully, is that the leak of 92,000-odd classified intelligence documents contain little information of note to close observers. As Tufts professor Daniel Drezner snarks, "So it turns out that the war in Afghanistan is not going well and Pakistan is playing a double game? Well, knock me down with a feather!!"
As BBC North America editor Mark Mardell puts it, throwing water on a comparison that’s been tossed around today, "The Pentagon papers revealed lies. These detailed logs confirm a truth that has been long suspected." Given that three highly regarded newspapers — The New York Times, The Manchester Guardian, and Der Spiegel — reportedly had weeks to sift through the documents and have come out with nothing particularly surprising to me or the dozens of foreign policy experts I follow, we’re unlikely to see any major scandal from this document dump.
But that doesn’t mean the release won’t be harmful to both the war effort and the national security of the United States and its allies.
Undermining Confidence in the Mission
While those of us who follow the AfPak story on a daily basis are fully aware of the enormous complexities of the mission, normal people may be surprised at today’s news and the ensuing discussion. They may have been vaguely aware that civilians are getting killed on a routine basis, that the Afghanistan government is corrupt, and that Pakistan’s intelligence service is boosting the enemy while their government is an ostensible ally. But they’ll be hit with those stories like a ton of bricks now, reframing the debate at a time when public confidence is already quite low.
As numerous polls have shown, our European allies — never as enthusiastic about the mission as the American public — are on the verge of open revolt against the war. This latest development may well speed that up. As Mattias Gebauer and colleagues write for Speigel ("War Logs Illustrate Lack of Progress in Bundeswehr Deployment")
A comparison between the German government’s reports on Afghanistan to the federal parliament with the events described in the American war logs quickly reveals the extent to which important information is withheld from the German public. Government officials in Berlin keep their lips sealed when it comes to incidents in the region where Bundeswehr soldiers are stationed if they do not directly affect the German troops. But these incidents paint a more accurate picture of the real situation in northern Afghanistan and the kinds of threats the German troops there might face.
Countless reports in the war logs describe how the Afghan police and army in the north are bitterly fighting an enemy that is constantly advancing. In these clashes, German soldiers usually serve, at most, as advisors or medics tending to the wounded in field hospitals.
Day after day, police checkpoints are attacked or come under fire, patrols are targeted in deadly ambushes and roadside bombs explode. The number of Afghan security forces wounded or killed exceeds the German casualty count by far. It demonstrates that Afghanistan’s armed forces are still a long way from being able to pacify the country, and that Afghanistan is in fact perilously close to the brink of a new civil war.
The numbers also illustrate something else as well: How little the Germans have achieved.
This is likely to be the prevailing reaction.
Bringing this discussion to a head, taking it out of the realm of propaganda and into that of cold reality, may be a good thing. Indeed, it’s pretty much the mission of the site publishing these illegally obtained secrets. But having the conversation redirected by those oblivious to the lives of those in harm’s way is lamentable.
Undermining Confidence in the Security of Shared Intelligence
The more important legacy of this controversy and others like it is the realization that we live in a new era for security. In the United States, at least, it has long been understood that, as a legal matter, there can be no prior restraint on the freedom of the press. As we saw in the aforementioned Pentagon Papers case, the courts have steadfastly sided with the right to publish.
But, up to now, we’ve been able to count on the responsible citizenship of the major papers. The owners and publishers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, who were directly involved in the Pentagon Papers dispute and countless other judgment calls balancing the pressures of journalistic competition for scoops, operated under the ethic that the public in a democracy has a right to know what their government is up to and with the understanding that there are legitimate threats to the nation’s security that must be safeguarded. While their decisions have often been controversial, sometimes leaning a bit too far towards deference to politicians in the executive branch and sometimes leaning a bit too far toward the sensational, they’ve largely exercised that judgment well.
Now, though, we’ve entered into the age of what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen terms the "stateless news organization." The Internet makes the press essentially above national lawmakers and the ubiquity of publishers makes trusting them to safeguard security perilous. And there’s probably nothing that can be done about it, making it a mere fact to be lived with.
But, rather than heralding a halcyon age of new transparency and a rethinking of a bureaucracy that doubtless needlessly over-classifies information, it’s likely to lead rather to more stovepiping and secrecy. The first natural reaction will be for those who hold classified information to be even more stingy in sharing it. If we can’t assume that people who’ve been read into the system will keep their word, then we’ll define “Need To Know” even more stringently.
Relatedly, allied governments are less likely to trust the United States intelligence system to keep their secrets. Why would they share information with the U.S. Defense Department or CIA if it might soon appear on the Internet?
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.