The Irresponsibility of WikiLeaks

Until yesterday I was a strong supporter of the work of WikiLeaks: democratic governments are not transparent enough on the whole, and certainly in the “war on terror” there has been far too much empowering of the security services and far too many civil liberty abuses.  And both the Bush administration and Blair government lied to their publics – and the World – about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. The disclosure recently by WikiLeaks of a video showing the killing of likely non-combatant Afghans was a public service.

But Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been offensively cavalier with his uploading of 75,000 leaked battlefield reports and other secret and classified U.S. military material from the war in Afghanistan. As the New York Times among others has reported, the names of dozens of Afghans who have provided information to the U.S. military and NATO troops can be identified from many of the reports. A cursory search of some of the documents that I did today reveals informant family and village names: pinpointing them will not be that demanding for the Taliban.

Assange maintains that WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 reports to minimize the danger to informants. Asked on NBC’s Today show about whether he would view the killing of an informant by the Taliban as “collateral damage” in his bid the make public more of the details about the war, he responded: “If we had, in fact, made that mistake, then, of course, that would be something that we would take vey seriously.”

That isn’t good enough. Assange doesn’t describe himself as a journalist – he’s more of a transparency activist. But while he may not consider himself a journalist, he is engaging in journalism and, for the better sort of journalist, there are ethics and professional standards that are to be observed – that is if reputation is to be maintained. Journalists at the Guardian, New York Times and Der Speigel observed those standards at the beginning of the week when given by Assange exclusive access to documents ahead of their full online release. The three publications posted online documents but ensured informant information was redacted.

That is the approach I took when revealing for past stories and investigations the details of hundreds of leaked classified intelligence and law enforcement documents. And, yes, I engaged in self-censorship and erred on the side of caution. It wasn’t my job to assist narco-traffickers or terrorists or other spies to identify informants and to pull the trigger.

Assange has been highly irresponsible in what he has done. Both transparency and bringing home to Americans and Britons the futility and savagery of the war in Afghanistan could have been accomplished by more restraint – the kind of restraint shown by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel.

Backfiring Predator

It apparently took 16 drone-missile attempts by the CIA before they got Pakistani insurgent leader Baitullah Meshud. His death on August 27 – he died along with his second wife in the attack in South Waziristan near the insurgent chief’s home village of Narkosa – was greeted with jubilation by U.S. and Pakistani officials. Although none of them detailed the earlier failed assassination efforts that killed hundreds of civilians, they were keen to point to Baitullah Mehsud’s death as a turning point in the war on terror in Pakistan.

The insurgency was now a snake without a head, or so the claim went. The CIA drone attack had left the Islamic militants in disarray, the officials maintained.

Events in Pakistan since late August have shown what a hollow accomplishment it was in taking out Baitullah Mehsud. The terror response from his Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, including Al Qaeda, illustrates clearly what the limits are in policy results in killing top terror leaders.

Back in 2002 then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised the tactic of using drone-missile attacks to vaporize the enemy leadership. Speaking on CNN after a CIA Reaper firing a Hellfire missile killed Al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, Wolfowitz claimed such attacks not only got rid of dangerous people but disrupted the terror organizations, forcing them to change tactics and operations, making them less effective.

The same kind of talk was heard in August from Obama officials But since the assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, TTP and its allies have hardly drawn breath. Take October. One week saw three spectacular attacks – one on the World Food Programme office’s in Islamabad, another on a crowded market in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar that killed more than 50, and then a stunning finale with an assault on the headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi leaving 20 dead.

Another October week and more blood-letting. Islamic militants attacked key police facilities in two Pakistani cities, killing at least 28 people as insurgents firing automatic rifles and carrying grenades stormed the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency and two police training centers in Lahore.

And on and on, Pakistan’s Islamic militants have shown that they can assault an array of different targets. In the wake of the August 27 drone attack, the TTP promoted senior lieutenant Hakeemullah Mehsud to take on its leadership and he has been successful in encouraging the various Islamic militant groups in Pakistan to coalesce more and to coordinate.

In short, the Hellfire missile that killed Baitullah Mehsud backfired.

Moral and legal disputes aside about the use of the drones and the targeted assassinations – and there are plenty of compelling arguments against this tactic none more convincing than that hundreds of innocent civilians are being killed in the process – the tactic is simply not working.

President Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for undertaking yet another review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – his second review this year. Critics have been up in arms about his resistance to sending more troops to Afghanistan. But if the review involves identifying a political strategy and subduing the military approach to the conflict, then the time will have been well-spent.