Does my leak look big in this? 26 July 2010

So, wikileaks have done it again! I wrote a month or so ago about the website wikileaks, and reflected on whether this site was a public good, or just a nuisance to governments. The revelation this morning of a raft of classified military documents on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan is another example of this investigative (or rogue?) website doing its bit for ‘openess and transparency’. It is perhaps no wonder that some have speculated on the sorts of responses governments might resort to if these leaks persist. 

The Whitehouse has understandably gone spare about these further breaches of security – they already have a serving military officer on charge for the leak of the Apache footage earlier this year. The official position is that: “We [the Whitehouse] strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security. Wikileaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents, which may contain information that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who co-operate with us.” They also point out that the documents refer mainly to the era of George W Bush, and not the Obama-era, if one can call it that.

The problem with intelligence leaks is the law of unintended consequences. Just as in my previous post and the discussion that followed, clearance is granted on a need to know basis, and usually carefully monitored to avoid security breaches, and in intelligence terms to avoid undermining the value of the intelligence. If you read Richard Aldrich’s cracking new book on GCHQ you’ll see a myriad of examples in his chapters on 1941 to the end of the 1950s on this kind of (often unsuccessful) information control. But, in this case, wikileaks and those who have syndicated the material have no idea (despite their statement that they have tried to protect human source.. but how would they know how to do this, they’re not security professionals?) which of the pages they have presented might give a shard of a clue about operational art, intelligence tactics or informants etc that they can act upon. It’s the sort of own-goal that prompted the old wartime mantra of ‘keep-mum’…. And it is clear from the Whitehouse’s statement that wikileaks hadn’t sought to confirm or check-out that this dump-leak wouldn’t do this kind of damage. It is clearly the moment when the coalition should start encoding its own transmissions for internal viewing (in addition to its standard sigint encryption for over-the-air transmission), so that any leaks happen in code, rather than in plain English.

So, what do we learn from the documents. Well, we learn that that Taliban have acquired better kit than we might have expected (heat-seeking missiles), but given the regional powers who might enjoy or benefit from coalition suffering, we might have already expected this. We learn that special forces hunt down (and kill?) Taliban leaders. I’m not sure why this is news; were we meant to expect them to deliver a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates? The use of UAVs is increasing; well, the technology is developing and efforts have obviously been on reducing coalition casualties. The documents also list (but bare in mind they exist in a as-it-happened-form and so are likely to be inaccurate) the so-called ‘blue-on-white’ incidents where civilians were killed. I am certainly not in the camp that easily dismisses such things; each case is deeply tragic, but not unexpected.

So, do these documents tell us something intrinsically new? No.

But they do provide a mine of rich empirical detail, which will allow campaigners and even enterprising scholars interested in this area to wave narratives about war-fighting and the civilian experience of war. Where the documents show the coalition to have been ‘naive’ (the word the BBC kept using), it might prove to be an opportunity or a point of departure for learning lessons. One would hope that it doesn’t take the repeated actions of this campaigning website to prompt it; and one also has to hope that they haven’t done more harm than good.

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