Saturday, July 31, 2010

A WikiLeaks roundup

As with many an explosive headline, the real meaning of the WikiLeaks release didn't really become clear until the second day's story - and each day has brought some new perspective. Having followed the releases, the responses, and the discussions, I'll offer a brief summary for those with less free time:

Possible revelations
A debate about what the documents really add to our understanding of Afghanistan soon began. None of the reports contained anything that was both revelatory and verifiable - some of the RUMINT reports delve into wild territory, but most of the wilder speculation they contain vanished into the database unsubstantiated and likely ignored. Professional Afghanistan-watchers soon noted the consistency of the documents with public information on the war, disputing the Pentagon Papers analogy. Others pointed to the difference between day-to-day reporting and the sort of big-picture coverage the WikiLeaks trove had inspired, as well as reminding the pundit class that not everyone follows Afghanistan coverage in all its detail, and that the bold headlines could still surprise casual news readers.

The best reporting using the WikiLeaks documents put the reports in context, incorporating other sources to weave a complete narrative out of these incredibly narrow snapshots. C.J. Chivers used the documents to add very-human detail to the already-known tragedy of Combat Outpost Keating, while Noah Shachtman described his embed last summer in order to illustrate the gaps left by a situation-report view of the war.

And finally, retaliation against Afghan informants appears increasingly likely. Their identities are carelessly redacted, and the Taliban have issued threats against them. If (for the most part) the content of these reports is mundane and hardly worth its Secret classification, the WikiLeaks staff's lack of concern for non-military identities is one glaring exception.

The true value - and costs - of the leak remain undefined. The sheer quantity of information here is a researcher's dream, and valuable work could yet come from the repository. The possibility that a series of WikiLeaks murders take place in Taliban-controlled areas also looms large, however. Sometimes even the sixth-day story doesn't bring a full conclusion.

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