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“An AQ/Taliban Executioner’s Dream.”

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Quoting an anonymous former military intelligence officer, that is how Adam Serwer described the Wikileaks’ archive published Sunday in an op-ed earlier this week. Joshua Foust concurred in a PBS essay:

If I were a Taliban operative with access to a computer — and lots of them have access to computers — I’d start searching the WikiLeaks data for incident reports near my area of operation to see if I recognized anyone. And then I’d kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.

Even with the names removed from these reports, you know where they happened (many still have place names). You know when they happened. And you know an Afghan was speaking to a U.S. soldier or intelligence agent. If you have times, locations and half the participants, you don’t need names to identify who was involved in a conversation — with some very basic detective work, you can find out (and it’s much easier to do in Afghanistan, which loves gossip).

This morning, the New York Times confirmed that the presumably heavily redacted leaked reports contain numerous data-points, including specific names, that will identify Afghan informants who have provided intelligence to US forces. The Afghan government is rightly appalled:

“Whether those individuals acted legitimately or illegitimately in providing information to the NATO forces, their lives will be in danger now,” said Mr. Karzai, who spoke at a press conference just after he said he discussed the issue with his advisors. “Therefore we consider that extremely irresponsible and an act that one cannot overlook.”

While the government mulls options for prosecuting Assange (more thoughts on that shortly), consideration should probably be given to the legal or ethical culpability of the mainstream press as well. There are professional standards in most industries about the protection of sources. (As a political scientist, if I published my human subjects data in such a way as to put their lives at risk, I would face serious professional consequences.) Yet the paper is blithely oblivious to its own role in publicizing and legitimizing Wikileaks’ actions:

A search by The New York Times through a sampling of the documents released by the organization WikiLeaks found reports that gave the names or other identifying features of dozens of Afghan informants, potential defectors and others who were cooperating with American and NATO troops.

The Times and two other publications given access to the documents — the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel — posted online only selected examples from documents that had been redacted to eliminate names and other information that could be used to identify people at risk. The news organizations did this to avoid jeopardizing the lives of informants.

They may have redacted names in their print versions, but they publicized the archive and linked to it, ensuring its contents maximum exposure. Does this fall within the bounds of appropriate conduct for professional journalists? Based on a reading of the “minimize harm” rules in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, I have my doubts.

Even if there’s no legal requirement, it seems to me that the mainstream news media could and should play a significant role in cases like this in disseminating rights-based norms for reporting and sourcing to online journalists. There is no professional association for bloggers, no oversight for users who generate content on YouTube, Facebook or other social networking sites, no codes of conduct for one-URL entities who make it their business to raise awareness of specific issues. However, when mainstream news organizations cover the actions of those organizations or individuals in a way that raises their influence and profile, they have an ethical responsibility to consider the fall out to vulnerable individuals of that coverage.

I would argue this extends to negotiating terms with people like Assange that make cooperation contingent on guarantees of certain ethical standards in their own work. Most likely such a socialization process would have helped an amateur like Assange avoid what he himself admits were mistakes, and resulted in a set of wikileaks that minimized the “collateral damage” to Afghan citizens.

In the absence of such guarantees, the mainstream news media could have published a different story, as soon as they understood the contents of the archive: a story about the evolving relationship between new media and human security, perhaps headlined “Wikileaks Founder Poised to Endanger Civilian Lives in Afghanistan.”

Instead, they treated him as a fellow journalist without holding him to any journalistic standards. Whatever the merits of the rest of the archive, The Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel dropped the ball by cooperating fully with Assange instead of reining him in.

I wonder if an outcome of this fiasco might be the establishment of offices within mainstream news outlets specifically designed to review the ethics of complicity in publishing stories like this, staffed by individuals with human rights and ethics training whose job is to liase in a responsible manner with new media information sources upon which mainstream news reporting has increasingly come to rely.

UPDATE: I don’t usually find myself in agreement with folks at the Weekly Standard, but here is a post that also considers the NYT’s complicity and puts it in the context of a 1931 Supreme Court case, Near v. Minnesota.

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  • DocAmazing

    Not to minimize the potential threat to Afghans who have cooperated with NATO forces, but expecting the comment of an anonymous former military intelligence officer “an anonymous former military intelligence officer” to be anything different is pretty silly, nicht wahr?

  • ajay

    the 75,000 documents WikiLeaks put online provide information about possible informants, like their villages and in some cases their fathers’ names.

    “Ha! These documents have told us who the collaborator is! Quick, round up and shoot everyone in town whose dad was called ‘Rashid’.”

    • dsquared

      yeah, but this is the Taliban we’re talking about, and when Rashid gets shot, it is unlikely to be much comfort to him that they got the wrong guy.

  • ajay

    On a more serious level, this is quite a difficult discussion to have. If people say “some of these documents betray sources” the natural reply is “oh really, which ones?” and then you get told “well, we can’t tell you that, it would endanger them even more”. And if “villages or fathers’ names” are as bad as it gets, I’m not sure how bad that is. The only named source that the NYT cites is an Afghan government official. It may well be that the Taliban already suspects members of the Afghan government of collaborating with the Afghan government.

  • Hanspeter

    I wonder if an outcome of this fiasco might be the establishment of offices within mainstream news outlets specifically designed to review the ethics of complicity in publishing stories like this, staffed by individuals with human rights and ethics training whose job is to liase in a responsible manner with new media information sources upon which mainstream news reporting has increasingly come to rely.

    That takes money. The reason they’re relying on new media information sources is because they don’t have money to pay reporters to do the firsthand reporting.

  • Krow10

    If the document contained names of humint sources, then they should have been more highly classified than secret, no?

  • mds

    perhaps headlined “Wikileaks Founder Poised to Endanger Civilian Lives in Afghanistan.”

    Given that the next post mocks Time for failing to consider cost/benefit analysis, perhaps we could bring that into play here. For instance, imagine an alternate-world headline, “Wikileaks Founder Fuels Further Debate Over Afghan Mission.” Then we could try to work out whether these leaks endanger as many civilian lives as, e.g., US forces bombing a wedding party. Or at what point the fallout from any additional pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan is surpassed by the number of civilian deaths caused by the ongoing occupation.

    • I think this line of thought is spot on. However is there really a trade-off between not leaking the documents and publicizing civilian casualties from errant bombs?… those events have always been in the public record anyway.

      The appropriate cost-benefit analysis is what value in lives saved might possibly have been generated by this set of leaks (given that they really don’t provide any information that’s not already been in the press and it’s not at all clear to what extent they will tip foreign policy in any one direction or another), weighed against the very clear harms to Afghanis of full disclosure of some of these details.

      • DocAmazing

        those events have always been in the public record anyway

        thaks to other leakers, not the DoD.

      • Simple Mind

        Charli I feel that what is going on here has nothing to do with ethics. two-faced Pakistanis or blown agents. The leak was timed to coincide with the Congressional vote on more billions for another year of war and to influence the lawmakers and their constituents. I have been reading European comment, and most observers agree that the info was not particularly surprising or revealing. Personally, I am sympathetic to the leaker for trying to raise awareness, for the longer these foreign wars last, the greater the prestige of the military and the more militarized our society becomes.

  • rea

    at what point the fallout from any additional pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan is surpassed by the number of civilian deaths caused by the ongoing occupation.

    If you can show how releasing these docuemnts helped pressure the US in the direction of withdrawal, you might have a point. The fact is, though, these aren’t the Pentagon papers–there isn’t anything we’ve seen in the documents so far that we did not know already, apart from unimportant details like the identities of confidential informants.

    • mds

      The fact is, though, these aren’t the Pentagon papers–there isn’t anything we’ve seen in the documents so far that we did not know already, apart from unimportant details like the identities of confidential informants.

      Who’s this “we”? I suspect that much of this info hasn’t been seriously noticed by the general public. Sometimes it takes repetition, repetition that the MSM have been rather unwilling to provide, preferring to focus their repetition skills on the latest iteration of “Clap harder.”

      Of course, it’s true that this incident probably won’t help either, since the big story is “Wikileaks Founder Murders Innocent Afghan Civilians” and “Irresponsible Bloggers Have Lost Us the War on Terror, Says Anonymous Government Official” rather then “Leaks Confirm US Afghan Policy Pointless, Morally Bankrupt.” Oh, well. Time to bring back firing squads for those who blow the cover of informants not working for Valerie Plame.

  • Holden Pattern

    I’m sort of confused by the notion that the Taliban won’t know who their enemies are in a village without reading US military after-action reports. I mean, do people seriously think that those kinds of secrets can be kept from a local guerilla force in an area with criss-crossing clan / tribal / ethnicity / ideological loyalties?

    Or even if the Taliban don’t know, does anyone think that they really care who the specific enemies are in a village that will be the target of retribution because they lost an engagement there?

    • Anonymous

      I mean, do people seriously think that those kinds of secrets can be kept from a local guerilla force in an area with criss-crossing clan / tribal / ethnicity / ideological loyalties?

      Maybe, maybe not. Probably at least occasionally. Face it, you have no idea, and your idle speculation that it doesn’t much matter is precisely that.

  • BillCinSD

    If there really are Afghans endangered by these leaks, shouldn’t NATO be getting them out of Afghanistan? or is the plan to let some die to show how bad a person Assange is?

    • This is also a good question. So here’s another query for Charli: Do you believe that Afghanis who have assisted the US war effort should be granted permanent residency in the US?

  • Ginger Yellow

    “Ha! These documents have told us who the collaborator is! Quick, round up and shoot everyone in town whose dad was called ‘Rashid’.”

    This doesn’t sound that unlikely a scenario, to be honest.

    I do think the Assange did something terribly irresponsible in its indiscriminateness – as stated elsewhere, these aren’t the Pentagon Papers and they have no realistic prospect of changing US policy in Afghanistan, other than perhaps keeping a tighter lid on intelligence and abuses. But at the same time newspapers are in a bind – they can’t ignore the story completely without looking ridiculous, but the minute they mention it at all, they’re in some sense complicit. After all, it’s surely not beyond the wit of even the dimmest Taliban fighter, let alone commanders, to Google WikiLeaks and find the documents whether or not the news organisations excerpt them.

  • Brad Potts

    There is a balance necessary here. As Wikileaks has grown, I have begun to worry that it was more of a leaks for publicity purposes rather than for information purposes.

    I fear a mutual escalation on behalf of leakers looking to leak for its own sake and government seeking to crack down.

    Wikileaks and all leakers and media outlets, while continuing to provide valuable information, must make every attempt to not provide reasonable justification for a backlash.

    • DocAmazing

      …which backlash will come regarless, because intelligence agencies and other swell guys don’t want their linen aired publicly.

      • Brad Potts

        That is why I said “reasonable justification”.

        I fully understand that there will be a backlash, and it seems that Barack Obama (who I believe was honest in his assessment of whistleblowers) is ready to lead it.

        But I would much rather have this backlash based on a vague “national security” reasoning that really only makes sense to conservative warmongers and those in charge of national security. Once they can point to people on the ground who have assisted us being targeted, their complaints will be taken more seriously.

        • JJ

          Can you elaborate on your last paragraph? A backlash that only makes sense to warmongers is preferable to you?

          • Brad Potts

            Yes, I would rather a typical conservative backlash, because that neocon “national security” arguments aren’t taken that seriously by anyone outside conservative circles anymore. That card got overplayed.

            If Joe Blow the moderate voter hears, “We can’t allow these whistleblowers to show the dysfunction of our government because our government won’t be able to wage war appropriately”, I don’t think he will be too interested.

            Alternatively, if Joe hears “Whistleblowers are leaking information that puts our soldiers and their Afghan friends at personal risk”, they would be more likely to respond positively to the complaint.

  • You know there is always going to be a good reason not to reveal information that the government or military wants to keep secret. Really, in the end there is no reasons to giver the citizens of a democracy any information at all now that I think of it.

  • wengler

    You know there are also ethical considerations in covering up the killing of non-combatants in warfare. When it comes down to it war is just collective murder sanctioned by a state authority. I know as a political scientist it behooves you to refer to the voluminous amounts of agreements toward a particular conduct of war, but in the end once you make the decision to invade, kill, and destroy the law remains silent.

    Protecting military sources isn’t the job of a journalistic enterprise. There has been no declaration of war against Afghanistan nor has then been an authorization in Congress against Afghanistan. There was simply a blank check to militarily attack suspected terrorists wherever they may be.

    • Ginger Yellow

      I’d agree that the AUMF has been far too loosely interpreted/exploited (and that it was too loosely worded), but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t authorise military action against the Taliban.

  • hv

    “I wonder if an outcome of this fiasco might be the establishment of offices within mainstream news outlets specifically designed to review the ethics of complicity in publishing stories like this”

    I fear this is wildly optimistic. I would love to make a small wager on this proposition, just to make it interesting.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    This is probably blindingly obvious to some of you–and obviously wrong to others–but I continue to feel that we should get the f**k out of Afghanistan ASAP. As it has been for years, withdrawing now remains the least bad option.

    • Personally, I agree. But I’m a communist, so that’s no surprise.

      It would be much more interesting to get Charli’s thoughts. If it were up to her, would the US immediately begin a full withdrawal from Afghanistan? And if not, what are the circumstances under which she would support withdrawal? Should the US remain until victory — however defined — is achieved, even if that means another 5 or 10 or 20 years of war?

      I’m genuinely curious about Charli’s answers to these questions.

  • Emma

    Um, isn’t it a bit fucking late for the US government to start worrying about the needless endangerment of Afghan civilians? If the goal is to keep Afghan civilians safe, you can’t get there from here.

  • JJ

    Charlie, who is the bigger enemy to the safety of civilian lives on the ground in Afpac and Iraq? As an expert on human security, where should we target our rage? Julian provides a unique service I personally do not want to see go away, even if at times his mistakes are deadly. We find unintended consequences in everything we do. By its very nature regulating a group dedicated to exposing corruption by leaking dirty laundry of powerful people means targeting that group for elimination.The major MSM could do a better job at filtering, but turning against organizations like wikileaks is not something I personaly am interested in doing.

  • Simple Mind

    Damn the ethics, this war has lasted too long.

  • Matt L

    I don’t really by this notion that the Taliban are going to go out and whack a bunch of informants because of the wikileaks documents. Yes, the information is there, but that does not mean that they can get to it quickly and efficiently.

    To get through 90,000 documents, they would have to have more than one of two people, fluent in English, to go through the files. They’d need hundreds. Given that this movement was started by a bunch of semi-literate Koran students, I’m not sure you are going to find more than a dozen Talibs to do sit infront of a computer translating afteraction reports from English into Pashtu so that they can ‘whack Rashid.’

    Second, maybe the ISI guys have more English speakers who can do the heavy lifting, but that assumes its worth their time to troll through a file that is six years old, hoping to find ‘actionable intelligence.’ The Taliban can get fresh info more quickly and easily through the tribal and clan networks.

    Maybe its worth it for the Taliban to have a couple of English speakers troll through the Wikileaks documents, but if they find anything, and if anyone gets killed because of it, its going to be more a matter of bad luck.

    And Finally, I am pretty sure that in the final accounting more civilians will have died as collateral damage in air-strikes and fire missions by US forces than will have died because of WikiLeaks.

    End the war.

  • Cleitus the Black

    Ignoring for the moment the (sigh) continued erroneous conflation of the Taliban and al Qaida (the latter of which number, in Afghanistan, no more than 50-100 if the National Security Advisor and head of the CIA can be believed) one rather supposes that the dream of these so-called executioners (and maybe the average Talib fighting man as well) is to awake to find their native country free of foreign occupiers propping up a corrupt puppet government in Kabul.

    Certainly, that would be my dream if I were in their sandals.

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  • Sean Peters

    And then I’d kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.

    Well, no, they’d be directly attributable to the Taliban. At best they’d be indirectly attributable to Wikileaks.

    While I agree that organizations like Wikileaks should be more careful in what they release, let’s be clear about who bears most of guilt here. It’s the organization that actually does the killing.

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