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Afghanistan 'Review' Shows Need for Journalism on Classified Information

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Today, the Obama administration is announcing the results of its promised "review" of Afghanistan policy, a year after President Obama acceded to the demands of the Pentagon to send 30,000 more troops. The top line of the story the administration is presenting is "progress," and the main evidence for that "progress" is the say-so of General Petraeus and his subordinates.

But the collective assessment of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies gives a very different picture. In particular, the intelligence agencies say Pakistan remains unwilling to stop providing support and sanctuary for members of the Afghan Taliban.

Many experts inside and outside of the U.S. government believe that if it persists, the unwillingness of Pakistan to stop providing support and sanctuary for members of the Afghan Taliban will be fatal to current U.S. strategy. And many experts inside and outside of the U.S. government believe that there is no reason to expect that the unwillingness of Pakistan to stop providing support and sanctuary for members of the Afghan Taliban will not persist, because Pakistan's policy is based on deeply held beliefs about Pakistan's core national security interests, and how they see those core interests as threatened by what they perceive to be the pro-India U.S. policy in Afghanistan. There is no indication that what the Pakistanis perceive to be a pro-India U.S. policy in Afghanistan will change, so there is no reason to believe that the Pakistani policy to respond to U.S. policy will change.

For example, as the Guardian reported, in one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson wrote in September 2009 that "there is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance... as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups."

And, the Guardian also reported, citing another cable released by WikiLeaks:

The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, had been "utterly frank" about the consequences of a pro-India government coming to power in Kabul, noted a 2009 briefing in advance of his visit to Washington. "The Pakistani establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which they see as... an important counterweight."

So this conclusion of the intelligence agencies about Pakistan is a very damning indictment of present U.S. policy. Current U.S. policy in Afghanistan is premised on a belief that Pakistan's relationship to Afghanistan's insurgencies will change, when there is no reason to believe that it will change, absent a change in U.S. policy to accommodate Pakistan's interests.

And the reason that we know that the collective assessments of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies give a very different picture than the "progress" story that the administration is presenting to the public today is that news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have reported on the National Intelligence Estimates for Afghanistan and Pakistan, even though the NIEs are classified.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday [my emphasis throughout the following]:

Two new assessments by the U.S. intelligence community present a gloomy picture of the Afghanistan war, contradicting a more upbeat view expressed by military officials as the White House prepares to release a progress report on the 9-year-old conflict.

The classified intelligence reports contend that large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban, according to officials who were briefed on the National Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which represent the collective view of more than a dozen intelligence agencies.

The reports, the subject of a recent closed hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee, also say Pakistan's government remains unwilling to stop its covert support for members of the Afghan Taliban who mount attacks against U.S. troops from the tribal areas of the neighboring nation. The officials declined to be named because they were discussing classified data.

[...]

Pakistan, which is due to receive $7.5 billion in U.S. civilian aid over three years, denies secretly backing the Taliban. However, intelligence gathered by the U.S. continues to suggest that elements of Pakistan's security services arm, train and fund extremist militants, according to military and State Department documents disclosed this year by WikiLeaks.

Speaker-designate John Boehner announced yesterday that Rogers will indeed be chair.

The New York Times reported:

As President Obama prepares to release a review of American strategy in Afghanistan that will claim progress in the nine-year-old war there, two new classified intelligence reports offer a more negative assessment and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border.

[...]

The findings in the reports, called National Intelligence Estimates, represent the consensus view of the United States' 16 intelligence agencies, as opposed to the military, and were provided last week to some members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The findings were described by a number of American officials who read the reports' executive summaries.

[...]

The White House review comes as some members of Mr. Obama's party are losing patience with the war. "You're not going to get to the point where the Taliban are gone and the border is perfectly controlled," said Representative Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in an interview on Tuesday.

Note that the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times cite unnamed officials, and then quote members of the Intelligence Committee. It's a reasonable guess that Rep. Rogers and Rep. Smith are familiar with the contents of the NIEs, and that they are among the unnamed sources.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the White House/Pentagon review:

A White House review of President Obama's year-old Afghan war strategy concluded that it is "showing progress" against al-Qaeda and in Afghanistan and Pakistan but that "the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable," according to a summary document released early Thursday.

[...]

The overview of the long-awaited report contained no specifics or data to back up its conclusions. The actual assessment document is classified and will not be made public, according to an administration official who said that interested members of Congress would be briefed on it in January.

This example shows why we need journalism on classified information, including WikiLeaks. If the assessment of the 16 intelligence agencies is different from the White House/Pentagon review, the public needs to know that in order to have an informed opinion.

We know that the majority of Americans already believe the war in Afghanistan to be a pointless enterprise: "Sixty percent of Americans now say the war is not worth fighting, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a more than 20-point rise since Obama's election."

As Think Progress notes, "the same poll shows that while Americans want Obama's primary focus to be on the economy, their second priority is to bring the troops home from Afghanistan -- more than reducing the deficit."

We know that many Afghanistan experts believe the same thing. In an open letter to President Obama, experts with decades of experience in the country are saying that, "with Pakistan's active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution. The Taliban's leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them."

The experts ask President Obama to "sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan."

The Red Cross says Afghanistan security has deteriorated to its worst point since 2001 and is preventing aid groups from reaching victims of conflict. Access "in 30 years has never been as poor and as difficult as it is today," said the head of the Afghanistan Red Cross office.

But there is a fundamental difference between knowing that an outside expert thinks something and knowing that a U.S. government official thinks it, especially when it is the job of the U.S. government official to have definitive expertise on the subject. The fact that consensus assessment of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies is different from the White House review is a fact in its own class. When the 16 intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons research program, that helped prevent U.S. war with Iran, as former President George W. Bush acknowledged in his memoirs.

That's why we need journalism on classified information. That's why we need whistleblowers like former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who revealed not only that the Iraq-Niger uranium story was false, but that Bush Administration officials knew it to be dubious at the time that they used it as a key public argument for going to war with Iraq.

And that's why we need WikiLeaks. As former FBI agent Coleen Rowley has suggested, if WikiLeaks had been around in 2001, government whistleblowers would have had an outlet for their concerns about government inaction in the face of what they believed was an impending terrorist attack, and perhaps the events of 9/11 could have been prevented, a suggestion recently echoed by Representative Jim McDermott.

Rep. McDermott continued:

The American people have the right to know. The most important of our freedoms is free speech. The First Amendment is what makes a democracy work. If the public doen't know what's going on, then they can't vote intelligently and when the government wants to hide stuff, then the people are cut off from information.

Vietnam War whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg -- who is getting arrested at the White House today in protest of the current wars -- suggests that if we had a whistleblower like Bradley Manning before the Iraq War, the war could have been prevented: "I also say we invaded Iraq illegally because of a lack of a Bradley Manning at that time." Indeed, Senator Durbin -- who inexplicably asserted that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are nothing like Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers -- said in April 2007 that as an intelligence committee member he knew in 2002 from classified information that the American people were being misled by the Bush administration into a war with Iraq, but could not reveal this because he was sworn to secrecy.

This is a key reason that the attacks on WikiLeaks are so outrageous. As Human Rights Watch notes, if the U.S. prosecuted Julian Assange for releasing classified State Department cables "this would imperil media freedom everywhere." The attacks on WikiLeaks are attacks on the freedom of the public to access information that we need in order to make informed judgments about U.S. policy; in particular, information that we need to end current wars and prevent future ones.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has a letter in support of WikiLeaks here.

You can tell President Obama here that he should keep the promise of a significant drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2011.