THE BLOG

Wikileaks As A World Asset

08/02/2010 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When trouble affecting the United States breaks out in a foreign place, the first question for the military and government is whether there are "assets" in the area. 

Assets can be conventional -- soldiers and ships -- or unconventional, such as spies, foreign government officials on the U.S. payroll, or even members of the foreign media.

Perhaps more progress has been made in the area of war euphemisms in the past 50 years than in all the wars in history. Offensives are surges. Civilian deaths are collateral damage.

Enter WikiLeaks, which after releasing tens of thousands of classified U.S. Army documents on the war in Afghanistan is not deemed an asset for the military and government. It is, however, an asset for the world.

The release of the uncensored, unfiltered documents have prompted a reaction similar to those of the Pentagon Papers, reported on by Daniel Ellsberg a generation ago. The documents released by WikiLeaks have been criticized by U.S. officials as endangering soldiers, but also for failing to reveal anything new.

Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the release of WikiLeaks' volume of papers, called the Kabul War Diary, was not challenged in court. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted an injunction barring further publication of the papers in 1971.

With the Wikileaks documents floating all over the Internet, it simply wouldn't be possible to block their circulation. And so far, also unlike the Pentagon Papers, no brave member of Congress has admitted them into the record.

Ellsberg told The Economist he was very impressed by WikiLeaks' documents. The most startling thing, though, was that WikiLeaks was the agency to obtain them. "We pay an awful lot to the NSA to spy on us -- since 9/11 -- and on other people, and I supposed they were up to the task of denying security communications to Wikileaks."

Whether WikiLeaks revealed important new information depends on whom you are asking. If the person has read Ahmed Rashid's book on the Taliban, the close relationship between Pakistan and the insurgents is no surprise. But for others it came as a mild shock.

For a country that hasn't paid much attention to a war fought by an all-volunteer military, the Kabul War Diary papers got sand in their shoes, as one analyst said.

Why do people need more information than the government gives them? Think: Watergate, Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin, Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, Agent Orange, My Lai, Bloody Sunday, and many other instances of apparent cover up by officials with political careers on the line.

Shouldn't the conventional Fourth Estate reveal what it can so that the people may decide what is important?

Something seems to have happened since 9/11. Many reporters, editors, and publishers were traumatized by the bombings. Certainly the military and government are allowed to make claims that go unchallenged. Back in the day, press briefings in Saigon were called "The Five O'Clock Follies."

Statements that large numbers of Viet Cong had been killed gradually lost all credence with the press because the statements weren't verified.

One common statement now is that things are going to get worse before they get better. For a war that has been ongoing for nine years, that is truly scary. Still, much of the media has had the military's view embedded in their brains.

During the buildup to the Iraq War, some in the media actually pushed the false claim that Saddam Hussein's country was overrun with weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps they were duped by trusted sources they had trusted too much.

In a world where the incongruous is often as widely accepted as the truth, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller won a Pulitzer and President Obama a Nobel Peace Prize.

Another example of the majority of the media ignoring a story staring them in the face were the issues of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries among troops. Some reporters who tried to tackle the issue got into turf battles with their Washington counterparts.

The story seemed to take life because of information coming from Army posts in the United States. Yes, the Army is a big organization and its people are not always on the same page. Plus it is full of honorable men and women who won't keep quiet.

"In war, truth is the first casualty" -- Aeschylus.

It also can be a powerful weapon. When a Roman Army was destroyed by Hannibal at Cannae in southeastern Italy, the truth got back to Rome. At first panic ensued. The Senate soon recovered from the trauma and refused negotiations with Hannibal.

Full mobilization was declared, including landless peasants and even slaves. The Army up to then had been made up only of property owners. The word "peace" was banned and mourning was limited to 30 days.

Ultimately Hannibal was crushed at the battle of Zama. The Carthagian Senate was forced to sue for peace.