Earlier this week, WikLeaks dropped an international bombshell that quickly splashed across front pages and television sets: the release of about 75,000 confidential documents (making it one of the largest US intelligence leaks in history) that detail the War in Afghanistan. And, depending on who you listen to, the Afghan War Diary amounts to either "putting lives at risk" or "nothing we didn't already know." So where does the truth lie?
Do help understand the answer to this question, we must first know more about these leaked documents. How confidential are they? What are they? What do they say?
The New York Times, one of the news organizations given early access to the documents, has published its own rational for using the documents. Among other points, it notes that the most of the documents are classified with a 'secret' ranking. While 'secret' information is supposed to be classified as such because it would do 'serious harm' to national security if it were made public, in practice it is a low-level ranking that most classified information is kept at. There are no top secret documents among the leak.
Adam Weinstein, a Navy veteran and former Iraq military contractor, explains much better than I can what these documents actually are, and where they come from:
Most of what you see on WikiLeaks are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports). These are theoretically accessible by anyone in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Tampa, Florida-based US Central Command—soldiers and contractors—who have access to the military's most basic intranet for sensitive data, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). Literally thousands of people in hundreds of locations could read them, and any one of them could be the source for WikiLeaks' data.
Adam's entire article is an interesting and enlightening read, and I recommend you check it out. He explains while there are some good starting points for journalists will to dig deeper, most of the leak "is tactical nuts and bolts, devoid of context, and largely useless for a war narrative."
Unfortunately, among the more sensitive parts of this data dump are KLEs or "key leader engagements." Again, Weinstein explains these reports better than me:
Military officers, as well as officials from State, USAID, and other agencies regularly meet with important players in a war zone to get their take on the situation. Often they're dull and tell the interviewers little they didn't already know; sometimes, though, they give insight to "atmospherics"—how Afghan locals feel about US forces or the Taliban. Many of these key leaders take their lives into their hands; from my experience in Iraq, I know that numerous Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds with high standing among their tribes—and among our enemies—took time to brief US officials, often to dish dirt on crooked or violent elements in their vicinity.
In response to criticism that they are putting lives in danger by releasing all of this information, WikiLeaks has been quick to note that it held back approximately 15,000 documents because they could potentially harm Afghan informants. Unfortunately, it has not done a very thorough job, because there are dozens of pages of these reports freely available in their database, with none of the names redacted.
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks has himself admitted that their organization has only read between 1,000 to 2,000 of the documents. At best, that's about 2% of the total data.
By not first carefully examining the information it had and in a rush to get their name and story out, WikiLeaks does indeed appear to have threatened the lives of some Afghanis, a conclusion the Times of London also arrived at in this morning's edition.
There has been some confusion about the numbers floating around regarding the Afghan War Diary. In total, there are 91,731 documents, however this number includes the approximately 15,000 that were intentionally withheld, making the actual number of documents publicly accessible somewhere are 75,000.