By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Making sense of the WikiLeaks documents

Like just about everyone else in the media world, I’m trying to make sense today of the WikiLeaks documents, the Pentagon Papers of our time.

The documents — reported by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel — show that the war in Afghanistan has been undermined by untrustworthy “friends” in the Pakistani intelligence service, chaos and duplicity in Afghanistan, and mistakes by American and allied forces leading to civilian casualties.

In a sense, it’s nothing we didn’t know, and the White House argues that the situation has been improving since President Obama charted his own course. (The most recent documents in the cache are from December 2009.) Still, like the Pentagon Papers, the documents offer official confirmation that things are (or at least were) as bad as we feared, if not worse.

I think WikiLeaks’ strategy of giving the three Western news organizations a month to go over the documents before making them public was brilliant. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, got a lot of attention over a video it had obtained of an American helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters freelancers. Ultimately, though, it proved to be the wrong kind of attention — the heavy-handed editing made it appear more like an anti-American propaganda film than documentary evidence. (WikiLeaks also released a longer, unedited version.)

By contrast, in providing the latest documents to news organizations, Assange was able to get out of the way and let credible journalists tell the story. Jay Rosen, in a characteristically thoughtful post about WikiLeaks (“the world’s first stateless news organization”), thinks Assange did it because he knew the story wouldn’t get the attention it deserved unless the traditional media could break it.

I don’t disagree, but I think a more important reason is that the public will take it more seriously.

Also: At the Nation, Greg Mitchell has been rounding up links about the WikiLeaks story here and here.

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  1. Christian Avard

    Great piece Dan (I mean it ; ) )

    Here’s one observation I had.

    *** By contrast, in providing the latest documents to news organizations, Assange was able to get out of the way and let credible journalists tell the story.***

    How are Julian Assange or Wikileaks staff not credible journalists? I’m just asking. I’m not here to flame throw or anything. It would just be great if you could elaborate on that.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: The editing that WikiLeaks did on the video of the helicopter firing on Iraqi civilians was grotesque and dishonest. I showed the edited version to my students this spring, and even though every single one of them opposes the war in Iraq, they were all appalled. I highly recommend Stephen Colbert’s interview with Assange — one of the very rare occasions that I’ve ever seen Colbert step out of character and have at his guest. And as the Times notes today:

      The abridged version drew criticism for failing to make clear that the attacks happened during clashes in a Baghdad neighborhood and that one of the men fired on by the helicopter was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.

      I think Assange may have realized that it’s easier to be Daniel Ellsberg than Ben Bradlee.

  2. Christian Avard

    Great. That answers my question.

  3. Donna Morris

    @Christian and Dan: Thank you. I had the same question.

  4. Christian Avard


    Legitimate concerns arise over Julian Assange.

  5. BP Myers

    @Dan said: one of the very rare occasions that I’ve ever seen Colbert step out of character and have at his guest.

    He’s hardly in character any time he talks copyright as well. Not hard to figure out on whose side he comes down: the artists or the thieves.

  6. Michael Pahre

    On Pentagon Papers: There are two ways in which the present document release differs strongly from the Pentagon Papers: (1) the federal government shows no inclination today to pursue a court injunction against their release; and (2) the documents themselves do not appear to be a set that was deliberately compiled internally, yet then kept from the public.

    #1 shows a better analogy with the NY Times stories on FISA court and warrantless wiretapping.

    Today’s documents appear to be a hodge-podge (#2), and hence might offer an incomplete, edited, or even biased (e.g., selectively released) account of how the war is progressing. The Pentagon Papers, on the other hand, represented the Defense Department’s internal official take on the Vietnam War, since a team of analysts spent something like a year-and-a-half compiling the 47-volume report. (Has Robert Gates ordered an internal report like it on the Afghanistan conflict? How about the fall 2009 strategy study?)

    To Wikileak? I think that the publication through traditional media is brilliant not because “the story [otherwise] wouldn’t get the attention it deserved” from the public, but that it wouldn’t get the investigatory attention from the MSM itself. The NY Times is likely to spend far fewer investigatory resources combing through documents that everyone can see publicly than they would in looking at documents for which they have a one month scoop.

    (c) @Christian and @Donna: the issue of who is a “credible journalist” among the new media types is not a flame-throwing question, but is a reasonable one and a running theme here on Dan’s blog…

  7. I think the Pentagon Papers are slanted, they show the US as having control of this war while the leaked documents paint a far different picture. We must regain control and stop funding the enemy via Pakistan!

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