Wikileaks.org has done it again, publishing thousands of classified documents about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The Web site provides a secure platform for whistle-blowers to deliver documents, videos and other electronic media while maintaining anonymity. Last March, it released a video shot from a U.S. military helicopter over Baghdad, exposing the Army’s indiscriminate killing of at least 12 people, two of whom worked for the Reuters news agency.
This week, WikiLeaks, along with three mainstream media partners—the New York Times, the Guardian of London and Der Spiegel in Germany—released 91,000 classified reports from the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The reports, mostly written by soldiers on the ground immediately after military actions, represent a true diary of the war from 2004 to 2009, detailing everything from the killing of civilians, including children, to the growing strength of the Taliban insurgency, to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.
After the documents were released, WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange told me: “Most civilian casualties occur in instances where one, two, 10 or 20 people are killed—they really numerically dominate the list of events… The way to really understand this war is by seeing that there is one killed after another, every day, going on and on.”
Assange described a massacre, what he called a “Polish My Lai.” On Aug. 16, 2007, Polish troops returned to a village where they had suffered an IED roadside bomb that morning. The Poles launched mortars into the village, striking a house where a wedding party was underway. Assange suspects that the Poles, retaliating for the IED, committed a war crime, concealed in the dry bureaucratic language in the report:
“Current Casualty list: 6x KIA (1x male, 4 female, one baby) 3x WIA (all female, one of which was 9 months pregnant)”
KIA means “Killed in Action,” and the tens of thousands of classified reports are dense with KIAs. Assange says that there are 2,000 civilian deaths detailed in the reports. Other entries describe “Task Force 373,” a U.S. Army assassination unit that allegedly captures or kills people believed to be members of the Taliban or al-Qaida.
The Obama administration is running for cover, and its response has been confused. National security adviser Gen. James Jones condemned the disclosure of classified information, saying it “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.” At the same time, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: “there’s no broad new revelations in this.”
The threat posed by this historic leak is not a threat to the lives of American soldiers at war, but rather to a policy that puts those lives at risk. With public support already waning, this leak can only strengthen the call for the war’s end.
“I’ve been waiting for it for a long time,” tweeted Daniel Ellsberg, the most famous whistle-blower in America. Ellsberg is the former military analyst who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, thousands of pages of a top-secret government study revealing the secret history of the Vietnam War. Many credit Ellsberg’s action with helping to end the Vietnam War. Ellsberg told me this week: “I’m very impressed by the [WikiLeaks] release. It is the first release in 39 years on the scale of the Pentagon Papers. How many times in these years should there have been the release of thousands of pages showing our being lied into war in Iraq, as in Vietnam, and the nature of the war in Afghanistan?”
Assange has been advised by his lawyers not to enter the United States.
Homeland security agents descended on a recent hacker conference in New York where he was scheduled to speak. He had canceled. He said the Obama administration also tried to get the Australian government to arrest him. Speaking to me from London, Assange said: “We are not pacifists. We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. That is our modus operandi behind our whole organization: to get out suppressed information into the public where the press and the public and our nations’ politics can work on it to produce better outcomes.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.