July 26, 2010
The Afghanistan War Logs Released by Wikileaks, the World's First Stateless News Organization
"In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new."
Wikileaks.org: Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010
Der Spiegel: Explosive Leaks Provide Image of War from Those Fighting It
New York Times: The War Logs
The Guardian: The Afghanistan War Logs
From my internal notebook and Twitter feed, a few notes on this development:
1. Ask yourself: Why didn’t Wikileaks just publish the Afghanistan war logs and let journalists ‘round the world have at them? Why hand them over to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first? Because as Julien Assange, founder of Wikileaks, explained last October, if a big story is available to everyone equally, journalists will pass on it.
“It’s counterintuitive,” he said then. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
2. The initial response from the White House was extremely unimpressive:
- This leak will harm national security. (As if those words still had some kind of magical power, after all the abuse they have been party to.)
- There’s nothing new here. (Then how could the release harm national security?)
- Wikileaks is irresponsible; they didn’t even try to contact us! (Hold on: you’re hunting the guy down and you’re outraged that he didn’t contact you?)
- Wikileaks is against the war in Afghanistan; they’re not an objective news source. (So does that mean the documents they published are fake?)
- “The period of time covered in these documents… is before the President announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy.” (Okay, so now we too know the basis for the President’s decision: and that’s a bad thing?)
3. If you don’t know much about Wikileaks or why it exists, the best way to catch up is this New Yorker profile of Julien Assange.
He is the operation’s prime mover, and it is fair to say that WikiLeaks exists wherever he does. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers from around the world help maintain the Web site’s complicated infrastructure; many participate in small ways, and between three and five people dedicate themselves to it full time. Key members are known only by initials—M, for instance—even deep within WikiLeaks, where communications are conducted by encrypted online chat services. The secretiveness stems from the belief that a populist intelligence operation with virtually no resources, designed to publicize information that powerful institutions do not want public, will have serious adversaries.
And for even more depth, listen to this: NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter formerly at the New York Times, about Wikileaks and what it does. (35 min with Q & A.)
4. If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That’s what so odd about the White House crying, “They didn’t even contact us!”
Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what Wikileaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.
5. And just as government doesn’t know what to make of Wikileaks (“we’re gonna hunt you down/hey, you didn’t contact us!”) the traditional press isn’t used to this, either. As Glenn Thrush noted on Politico.com:
The WikiLeaks report presented a unique dilemma to the three papers given advance copies of the 92,000 reports included in the Afghan war logs — the New York Times, Germany’s Der Speigel and the UK’s Guardian.
The editors couldn’t verify the source of the reports — as they would have done if their own staffers had obtained them — and they couldn’t stop WikiLeaks from posting it, whether they wrote about it or not.
So they were basically left with proving veracity through official sources and picking through the pile for the bits that seemed to be the most truthful.
Notice how effective this combination is. The information is released in two forms: vetted and narrated to gain old media cred, and released online in full text, Internet-style, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors at Der Spiegel, The Times or the Guardian may show.
6. From an 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.
7. If you’re a whistle blower with explosive documents, to whom would you rather give them? A newspaper with a terrestrial address organized under the laws of a nation that could try to force the reporter you contacted to reveal your name, and that may or may not run the documents you’ve delivered to them online…. or Wikileaks, which has no address, answers no subpoenas and promises to run the full cache if they can be verified as real? (And they’re expert in encryption, too.)
Also, can we agree that a news organization with a paywall wouldn’t even be in contention?
8. I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget.
Last week, it was the Washington Post’s big series, Top Secret America, two years in the making. It reported on the massive security shadowland that has arisen since 09/11. The Post basically showed that there is no accountability, no knowledge at the center of what the system as a whole is doing, and too much “product” to make intelligent use of. We’re wasting billions upon billions of dollars on an intelligence system that does not work. It’s an explosive finding but the explosive reactions haven’t followed, not because the series didn’t do its job, but rather: the job of fixing what is broken would break the system responsible for such fixes.
The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?
I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem. But the comment bar is open, so help me out.
9. Few people realize how important leaking has been to the rise of the political press since the mid-18th century. Leaks were actually “present at the creation” of political reporting. I’m moving quickly this morning, so I only have time for a capsule version. Those with a richer knowledge of the British Parliament’s history can confirm or correct this outline. Once upon a time, Parliament’s debates were off limits to newspapers. But eventually, through a long period of contestation, the right to report on what was said in Parliament was securely won (though not constitutionally guaranteed.) John Wilkes is the pivotal figure and 1770 the date when the practice became institutionalized.
A factor in that struggle was the practice of leaking. The way it worked then is essentially the same as it works today. There’s a bitter dispute in Parliament and people line up on one side or the other. Unable or unwilling to accept defeat, the losing faction decides to widen the battlefield by leaking confidential information, thus bringing the force of public opinion into play. It’s a risky maneuver, of course, but the calculation is that fighting it out in public may alter the balance of forces and lead to a re-decision.
Each time the cycle is repeated, the press becomes a bigger factor in politics. And internal struggles for power remain to this day a major trigger for leaks. Conscience, of course, is a different trigger. Whistleblowers can be of either type: calculating advantage-seekers, or men and women with a troubled conscience. We don’t know which type provided the logs to Wikileaks. What we do know is that a centuries-old dynamic is now empowering new media, just as it once empowered the ink-on-paper press.
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Posted by Jay Rosen at July 26, 2010 1:31 AM
(Sorry about the length of this comment, I got carried away!)
I think Dave Winer's comment about the blogosphere was based on the effect it creates, which is emergent, whereas Wikileaks has the same effect by design.
Individual blogs are rarely set up redundantly to avoid being shut down by the government of the country where they are hosted. I can't think of a single blog that couldn't be 'turned off' by an enthusiastic government.
However, by virtue of the way in which interesting content is copied and pasted onto other blogs, and in blog comments, a single explosive story will almost certainly spread to blogs based in multiple physical countries much quicker than the original blog could be silenced.
So we get an emergent behaviour that looks exactly like planned redundancy. I believe that's what Dave Winer was talking about.
With Wikileaks, we have the same end result, but it's contained entirely within a single root domain name and the redundancy is designed into the system from day one purely because they *expect* to be shut down in certain countries.
There was a case a year or so ago when a single Judge in the US caused the wikileaks.org domain and US-based server to be shut down very quickly after UBS (the Swiss bank) asked for this action. The wikileaks.org address stopped working but the content was already on multiple overseas servers and they simply had to publicise the various URLs that could now be used instead of the .org address. I believe this has been improved now so that the .org address will continue to work no matter what gets turned off.
Anyway, Dave Winer's comment about the blogosphere, while accurate in one sense, is still pointless because it's not the first example of such a thing. USENET has had this characteristic for decades, and before that the BBS systems like FIDOnet showed exactly the same characteristic.
I could even go back to the 1980s and talk about the dial-up networks used by software pirates, some of which had the same ability to survive attacks from multiple physical locations. The same architecture (implemented with modern networks and software)is used by the modern-day equivalents such as the Pirate Bay.
Bringing up these examples tends to diminish the genuine revolutionary aspect of Wikileaks. The other systems had this robustness as a happy side-effect of their architecture, but WL was designed to be like this specifically because their activity makes it necessary, so I think it's still fair and accurate to call Wikileaks the first stateless news organisation.
It's also significant that Wikileaks has this protection because of the inherently *political* and secret nature of their work, not just because what they are doing is illegal.
@Mayflower and @ the idealist, JohnP,
Mayflower, claiming an anti war position while accepting the impotence of the anti war public to take any action, however small, deduces that, because this will have no effect and does not educate americans with any NEW information, all it does is reveal to foreign nations (who, presumably we must always fear and assume underhanded, which I think is only partly true but still somewhat true), american secrets about methods of engagement. Therefore, the context of an apathetic public makes any subversive, rebellious, leaking to be an act of treason by default, because it only benefits foreign powers, by default.
Obviously, that's the problem with any open society. Enemies can observe how you function. Do you want to live like an authoritarian regime, with the public blind to all major government actions to protect against that?
But further, a question to ask:
if the american public were NOT apathetic, would the risk of foreign observation be worth the potential benefit of an informed, reactive public?
What if the public will react? Shouldn't any chance be taken to inform the public?
If there is no new info here, then foreign powers ALREADY know the methods and at worst here are revealed some minor details.
If there is new info, then the public is being informed at the cost of informing foreign powers.
My personal question though isn't concerned with the paranoia of frightened old men who love to read war books and fantasize about being strong and accuse hippies of treason.
why is it that new information doesn't transform the attitude of someone who already has a position. They can absorb the info and digest it to rationalize anything.
@ Jay Rosen,
your italics about Assange's expectations reveal a will, a hope, not a reliable prediction.
ASSANGE AND WIKILEAKS, activists, take action. But as you may have observed, activism is easily dismissed in the US precisely because it doesn't spread.
The right accuses activists of being communistic brainwashers and the left accuse right wing activists of being conspiratorially fascist.
This may be true or not, but in fact none of it seems to become a movement. The tea party are not gaining momentum just as the anti war protests on the eve of Iraq did not take hold of the whole country.
Perhaps camille paglia (for all her flaws) was correct with her recent NYT piece, we are too middle class, too repressed and too meaninglessly individualistic and careerist to just "go for" some action (in her article the action was about sexual adventure but I think you could apply it to political action. even artistic.... )
Assange is not an american and perhaps has a better view of his own europe. This massive information publication may provide more fuel for anti war moves in the politics of multi party european nations.
But the news that the europeans "aren't with" the USA anymore in AfPak, at all, should it come to pass, will hardly worry American pro war voters nor surprise anti war voters.
Leaving aside a reaction from a political class that is so suffused with corruption and self regard that it seems to breathe better in toxic air than fresh (honestly, after seeing obama and the dems win and seeing what has come to pass, I feel like I've witnessed the end of all illusions about dem versus repub and some more creative politics are needed, simple as that).
Maybe there's some other information, of a different kind, that's required? Anyone have any guesses as to what KIND OF INFO will get us off our duffs?
I appreciate your articles and tweets. I found your perspectives on the Bill Moyers show fascinating several months ago.
This leak may not do much. It may not change much... That said it will introduce that nagging doubt in many voters.
As for Manning, how can he be accused of treason when McChrystal leaked a classified assessment on Afghanistan. Why is there a double standard when a General leaks a document for political purposes versus a private leaking documents for naive reasons. I hear constant criticism of Manning yet McChrystal gets a free ride.
Today's leaks will finally conjure up some sense of chaos the US military structure has fallen into since the Cold War. Its a monstrosity that has yet to adapt to a new world that is void of awesome superpowers planning great land wars. The lack of discipline is splintering down the chain of command, from the generals to the common infantryman. The dual reality many soldiers confront will slowly fade as the public becomes aware of the great difficulty the military has yet to confront.
I do not expect any radical departure from the current war plans but I do sense a catharsis moment for the administration and serious war planners. Pakistan has always been the origin of the problem. How do a bunch of rag tag tribal leaders enforce complete submission of a populace? This isn't about democracy and nation building as much as a moment where the facts are laid bare and the time for practical realities in Afghanistan will be confronted. What has measured as success in Iraq and Afghanistan has been based on "activity" not "outcomes." We commit to many activities but not many outcomes.
As for the new media... It's fascinating but I think its a new age. HH is correct about the NetState. The NetState is emerging. The marketplace much ensure it continued existence and virulent dissemination. Wikileaks is the first successful manifestation of an organism giving life to the NetState. Unfortunately James Orlin Grabbe did not live long enough to see it.
Wikileaks is the first organism of the NetState. As long as crypto-anarchism can exist it will survive. The next organism of the NetState to emerge will be anonymous trading markets/anonymous digital banks. J Orlin Grabbe attempted it and some others are trying.
These organisms will transplant themselves on the current institutions of the day and absorb them. They will exist as supranational entities in a stateless regime.
Wikileaks gave privileged access to three large media outlets, but it got the better end of the deal, credibility. Given enough time, Wikileaks will have the credibility blindly given to these institutions.
These changes are fast, unpredictable, and will exert themselves on elites and nonelities.
Jay, re: point #8, Jane Jacobs's book, Systems of Survival -- have you read it? -- has a very interesting take on this issue, which might be framed more broadly as the question, 'Why, when we know what's wrong in our world, are we so powerless as a people to correct it?'
Jacobs's says the problem in not as simple we usually surmise; It's not that we don't have enough information, or that we have too much. It's not that there isn't a consensus (though the degree to which consensus exists is obscured by he said/she said journalism and similar ills you have diagnosed).
Instead, she says human culture evolved an interlocking pair of systems of survival -- she calls them the guardian syndrome and the commerce syndrome -- that have broken down because we have lost sight of the need to keep them separate. Our survival depends on us keeping these syndromes distinct from one another, she says, and our current powerlessness stems from our failure in this regard. Institutions that should be acting as guardians have adopted some of the precepts of commerce. Some commercial institutions have become corrosive to society's needs because they have taken on some of the characteristics of guardians. We've developed what she calls "monstrous hybrids" such as HMOs, the military-industrial complex, and the Soviet Union.
Most news organizations are splendid examples of the mixture of these syndromes, trying to act as guardians while also having to make a profit. As I recall (been a long time since I read this book), Jacobs allows as how journalism may be an exception.
There's more to her argument, but I thought I'd point you to it, since it might be relevant to point #8. The ability of journalist's mental model to successfully bring about reform rests on the ability of those in guardian roles to act as guardians and not cede their responsibilities to commercial interests. It similarly depends on those in commercial roles not undermining guardians by co-opting elements of the guardian's roles. As we have seen, self-regulation doesn't work--not for building inspections in New York City or default credit swaps on Wall Street.
If Jacobs is right that our powerlessness to reform systems which produce bad results stems from our failure to keep these ethical syndromes intact and distinct from one another, it might explain why even the best journalism runs aground on its course towards reform.
ROBERT GATES - SEC. OF DEFENSE ALSO LEAKS JUST LIKE BRADLEY MANNING/WIKILEAKS
The memo by Mr. Gates, a former C.I.A. director, also demanded greater adherence to secrecy standards, issuing a stern warning against the release of classified information: “Leaking of classified information is against the law, cannot be tolerated and will, when proven, lead to the prosecution of those found to be engaged in such activity.”
A copy of the unclassified memo by Mr. Gates was provided to The New York Times by an official who was not authorized to release it. Douglas B. Wilson, the new assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, verified its content.
KARL EIKENBERRY LEAKS JUST LIKE BRADLEY MANNING/WIKILEAKS
Meanwhile, Mr Eikenberry’s doubts about US strategy and its reliance on Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, were aired in a leaked memo that left Gen McChrystal feeling, in his own words, “betrayed”.
But it is Gen McChrystal who has been most at odds with his colleagues – as is seen by the swipes by him and his aides in this week’s Rolling Stone article against everyone from Joe Biden, US vice-president, to Senator John McCain.
FORMER GENERAL MCCHRYSTAL LEAKS LIKE BRADLEY MANNING/WIKILEAKS
His position was particularly exposed, precisely because Mr Obama’s strategy, unveiled at a speech at West Point military academy, was ultimately so influenced by the plans Gen McChrystal drew up, which had been leaked in an apparent – and seemingly successful – effort to put pressure on the administration.
In his new command, General McChrystal assumed responsibility for a military plan for Afghanistan. In late August, General McChrystal submitted his 66-page confidential report to your Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Three weeks later, General McChrystal's confidential report leaked to The Washington Post in what some have described as the most egregious leakage of national security documents since the Pentagon Papers.
We didn't vote for or elect any of the above individuals but they all engage/engaged in leaking documents to achieve their own political/institutional agendas.
Why is Bradley Manning in trouble if the leadership has failed to demonstrate any adequate judgement relating to confidential documents.
At least we got the beef with the Afghan War Logs...
The military leadership has lost all discipline and the lack of discipline is stirring up the infantry.
Why doesn't MSM criticize the receivers of the above mentioned leaks?
Where were those operational/safety concerns of our soldiers? Where were those concerns about our relationships with allies and enemies?
The green eye of jealousy emerges because Wikileaks has done something without kissing up to current political/military establishment.
MSM is jealous and upset. Kinda like when Microsoft beat Apple...
There is nothing new under the sun, in one form or another.
A state, defined as a state of existence, is nothing new. Wikileaks could be considered its own state and hence just as corrupt as a territorial nation state. However, since there is no longer a lawless frontier, or at least not one that is mutually recognized or even partly recognized in our totally colonized and jurisdictioned and internationalized world, Wikileaks is at least, if not new, a counterweight to the dominant form of authority, the nation state.
But since a bullet can travel across a border and international agreements allow the possibility of one state reaching into another, wikileaks, to the extent that it is composed of physical people who must stand within some state at any given time (unless they are on, over or under the high seas, or visiting antarctica or the moon), must suffer itself to be within a state or a variety of nation states at any given time.
An open society will still be required for something like wikileaks to succeed. It may be the fact of US government and military propaganda and actions that threaten to "crack down" (implying god knows what from arrests to assassination) that pushed a panic button on wikileaks to just get the information out there, before they were stopped/jailed/killed.
Hence the fumble with the names of afghan informants.
It sounds paternalistic or infantile to suggest that a government can only be challenged if it's a little kind, but that doesn't make it a false assertion.
Maybe if the obama administration and the pentagon hadn't been so viciously targeting and intolerant of any leaking and publication, maybe wikileaks would've been in less of a panic mode to save the world and would have spent more time and been less uncritically forthright about the afghan names.
So if wikileaks can be blamed for that fault, even aside from the hypocrisy of (plausibly but not necessarily racist) war mongers pretending to give a shit about dark skinned muslim losers they could do without, isn't it also hypocritical not to blame the overbearing, immeasurably more powerful, shadowy government that has already openly declared it will assassinate war suspects, even far from any battlefield, merely because they "might" pose a threat?
Just to reiterate my earlier point in propagandistic repetitiousness:
genuine anti war voters will focus on the good that the leak has done,
war monger voters will ignore everything and hypnotically repeat what treason it is.
There isn't even a substantial DISagreement, it's just about affirming who you are without taking action, and letting the political elites collect their campaign financing and extra-curricular patronage.
Actually, I kind of thought he was talking to me, because most liberals (and more to the point, academics in the humanities and journalists) don't take very kindly to be questioned by a voice that might also be a liberal. They prefer to be criticized by right wingers whom they never meet and never talk to face to face.
So I actually DID go and read the paranoid style. And I agree with your dismissal of the article as an ad hominem (despite the fact that I actually like a lot of Harper's issues and have a subscription, without agreeing with everything they say).
But it's again just one's perspective.
To say that paranoia is the right wing view of big government is to imply that big government is the solution. Which implies that wikileaks has no business existing since it erodes government authority and challenges official positions.
Since the "liberal elite media" doesn't actually attack corruption and corporatism and militarism, I wish someone would just start calling them "democrat elite media".
Is an attack on the "power" of the party that actually IS "in power" (as we say of election winners), is that a "paranoid" explanation of the power politics du jour?
Wikileaks and Assange want to make a difference among elite politicians. But that smacks of trusting politicians to change, not the people.
It's very hard to see a reasonable, calm, civilized interaction between a population that doesn't have time and an elite that doesn't care.
The left and the right today both have that attitude (albeit for often different reasons) and I'd like to see it refuted if it's without merit, instead of categorized as paranoid.
I mean, I downloaded ALL the articles on sunday, from the 3 newspapers AND all the archive packages from wikileaks. AND I STILL haven't even gotten through most of the 3 newspapers' articles (there aren't really that many).
I'm holding off looking at the wikileaks massive dump because I know I
A. won't be able to do anything about it
B. won't be able to put it down, and it's ninety-freaking-thousand entries long.
The only thing that I'd accept to call paranoid is that Obama gives lectures. He READS lectures that were written for him and he reads them badly and I'm horrified and ashamed of "my side" for having swooned so ridiculously over his orations. If conservatives feel that someone as dull as Obama is talking over their heads, that just proves that they read even less than the already illiterate liberals.