Friday, July 30, 2010

White House or WikiLeaks to blame for release of Afghan informants' identities?

If  the leadership of the Pentagon is to be believed, the White House could have blood on its hands. No, I'm not referring -- not here, at least -- to the hundreds of Afghan civilians or NATO soldiers that have been killed since Obama took the oath of office.  

Rather, I'm referring to the implications of a story at the top of CNN's website.  The headline reads: "Top military official: WikiLeaks founder may have 'blood' on his hands."  The article begins, "The top U.S. military officer said Thursday that Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, was risking lives to make a political point by publishing thousands of military reports from Afghanistan."

After reading the transcript of a recent interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (via Susan Sunflower commenting on a Glenn Greenwald post), it struck me that the accusation made by US military leaders against the WikiLeaks founder left out some critical information.
TONY JONES: Well, not according to the Pentagon. They're accusing you of revealing the identities of Afghan informants and putting their lives at risk. Afghan's president, Karzai, agrees with that he says 'the breach is extremely irresponsible and shocking.' Your response to those comments.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well we have yet to see clear evidence of that. I mean the London Times is also making this allegation today and in a quite disingenuous way, for example they mention some informers' names they say they had found and with a headline Afghan informer already dead, but when you actually read the story what you see is in fact that individual that they're mentioning died two years ago.

So there's a little bit of media manipulation occurring here. In terms of the Afghan government, it's in their interests to sort of play up the irresponsible, irresponsibility of the United States that they say has been involved in sort of collecting and permitting this data to release, be released.

Now we contacted the White House as a group before we released this material and asked them to help assist in going through it to make sure that no innocent names came out, and the White House did not accept that request.
Qualitatively, the content of the recent leak was not exceptional.   The leak was distinguished from most previous leaks by its magnitude, by the sheer number of documents involved.   When it has come to incidents involving qualitatively similar information, past administrations have routinely cooperated with the press. In fact, cooperation between the government and press organizations has long been the norm in the United States whenever the news media has found itself poised to publish potentially sensitive names.  In such circumstances,  past governments have agreed to work with the press not because it was politically expedient to do so, but for the good of the country.   Why was cooperation not forthcoming from the White House in this instance?

When it refused to comply with the press group's request, did the White House put politics before its constitutional responsibilities?  Given the expectation -- indeed, the long established tradition -- that administrations cooperate with the press when national security may be at stake, a strong argument can be made that by having sought the assistance of the White House to expunge names, the leaking organizations absolved themselves of the responsibility for the release of whatever names were in the documents.    In this instance, WikiLeaks might -- understandably -- have concluded that if the White House was not concerned about release of this or that person's name (evident from the fact it did not take the group up on its request), then it need not unduly concern itself with the matter. Thereby, any worries Assange may have had about the implications of inadvertantly releasing names may have been put to rest. In other words, WikiLeaks might have trusted that the Obama White House put country first.

If the White House knew that sensitive Afghan informants' names were contained in the documents but refused the group's request to help expunge names from the documents, then the administration knowingly failed to do its utmost to mitigate a known and entirely avoidable national security risk (arguably also neglecting its constitutional responsibility to defend the First Amendment).  Knowing what WikiLeaks was about to do, and aware that WikiLeaks might lack of resources and expertise to catch all the names, the White House ought to have agreed to the group's request.

The question arises: What did the president know about the names in the Wikileaks documents, and when did he know it?

 It's worth noting that WikiLeaks represents a challenge not only to government secrecy, but to a mode of journalism by which a handful of news outlets serve as exclusive gateways to information. WikiLeaks represents a new, more open model of  journalism, an open-source approach to the dissemination of knowledge.  What distinguishes WikiLeaks from other press organizations is that WikiLeaks is committed to publishing source material.   The Times reported:
At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.
Whereas the Times dutifully delivered a vague request by the White House, the White House gave no heed to a far more concrete -- and therefore actionable -- request made by the press group.  The White House may have  objected to  the release of "source material" in particular, but its objection was no excuse for intransigence.  After all, the First Amendment rights of the people are not supposed to be contingent upon the opinions of an administration.

Of course, the work of checking to ensure that all Afghan informants' names had been removed from 92,000 documents sounds onerous.  Might "database size" have been grounds for the White House to have rejected the request?  Not if we consider the resources at the disposal of the administration.   As the Washington Post reminded us last week, the Obama administration has access to upwards of 800,000 Americans with security clearances working at over two dozen intelligence agencies, 1,931 private contracting firms -- not to mention the CIA, the NSA, and the Department of Defense -- any number of which could easily and efficiently have carried out this kind of request. 

The conclusion I draw is that the White House wanted to seize an opportunity to embarrass or discredit WikiLeaks more than it wanted to protect the identity -- and perhaps lives -- of any of its Afghan informants.


  1. Dear Jotman,

    I can appreciate the job that Assange and others do when it comes to exposing corruption. - And maybe there's an advantage in making source documents public. But that doesn't cancel the responsibility for the potential negative consequences of their releases.

    You're saying: "The conclusion I draw is that the White House wanted to seize an opportunity to embarrass or discredit WikiLeaks more than it wanted to protect the identity -- and perhaps lives -- of any of its Afghan informants." I'd say the same could be applied to WikiLeaks folks.

    The way I see it, if you don't have the resources to handle a dangerous job, just don't do it. Or do you it, and face the consequences. Frankly, if I were among the Afghan informants potentially affected by the info release, I wouldn't care who had and who had not the resources to screen the papers. I would want to know who was the final guy making the choice of whether or not make the papers with my name available to the public. To me, that person would be the one responsible. I'd think "here's the guy being a hero at my expense". Excuses such as "we asked the government and they refused to screen the papers" would seem extremely lame to me.

    Yes, the govt was wrong to refuse providing the resources. But, still, to me, the final responsibility would be with the person putting my stuff online.

    In any case, there's both pros and cons for the WikiLeaks team from this situation. More tensions with the US, yes. Increased publicity, yes. The US off less clear. For the Afghan informants if their names have leaked out, the payoff is probably negative, unless they can use this situation to negotiate their pullout from the area.

    As for the 10,000 plus government and private agencies in the national security field - I do suspect many if not most of them are embezzlement vehicles that provide little or no value. I would not trust them with anything truly sensitive.


  2. Sanjuro,

    The way I see it, if you don't have the resources to handle a dangerous job, just don't do it. Or do you it, and face the consequences...

    One point I was trying make was that when it comes to sensitive names, only the government is often in a position to know which names-- if any -- need to be kept secret. No press agency has the resources to figure this kind of thing out for itself. That's why the government works with the press to clear names. Cooperation was not forthcoming in this instance -- for whatever reason -- and the White House ought owes the public a full explanation as to why not.


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