WikiLeaks, Afghanistan, and a Leaky Government

Wikileaks shows that the voices of dissent on places like Afghanistan are not being heard because of flaws in the intelligence community and mainstream media.

The Ship that Needs to Leak

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is VERY good at making headlines.  The last two leaks, however, have resulted in the publishing of classified information from inside the U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (read an Iraq War vet’s analysis of leaked video showing the killing of two reporters in Iraq)

In the newest wave of leaks, more than 90,000 classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan. The findings are sprawling: Pakistani intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI) is supporting the Taliban, Afghanistan has become a new front for the battle between India and Pakistan, Iran is supporting militants on its border, the Karzai government is corrupt, the U.S. military has killed too many civilians, and the militants now have access to some heat-seeking missiles… in short, the war is a mess.

As my colleague Josh Shahryar points out, not much of this is new information (in fact, we’ve known, for instance, that the ISI supported the Taliban in the leadup to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. We’ve also known that the Indian-Pakastani conflict in the region was complicating the effort in Afghanistan. The problem is that large portions of traditional media sources have largely ignored these developments, and thus the American public is surprised by them.  As a result, no one has been holding the U.S. government accountable for actually fixing any of these problems.

For various reasons, now that this information is coming from leaked United States intelligence, this story is finally being paid attention to. Josh suggests it’s the sexy factor, and he’s probably right.

And this is why we need people like Julian Assange.

Not that Wikileaks doesn’t have its detractors. Many people, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have condemned him for endangering national security, as well as the life and well being of people on the ground in places like Afghanistan. Assange, a zealot for the freedom of information and the American first amendment, has himself admitted that Wikileaks may wind up with “blood on our hands,” but he is convinced that the campaign for transparency will be worth the price. I’m not arguing that this point of view isn’t extreme, Assange is as radical as they come, and I’m certainly not arguing that the ones who are leaking this material haven’t broken the law (at least) and possibly their oaths of office and allegiance.

But with a situation as complicated and covered up as the developments in a place like Afghanistan, how are the common citizens of the world supposed to know what’s going on if the mainstream media doesn’t spend the resources to cover these stories, and the only ones with access to this information are under a sworn oath to keep the information secret?

Much has been made about a Washington Post report that over 800,000 people have “top secret” clearance in the U.S. intelligence circle.  Part of the problem is that there is this massive-yet-insulated community of people making our policy. If so many of our linguists (a limited and precious commodity that our educational system is failing to produce), analysts, and experts are included in this group, then a massive part of the expertise of this country is inside of the veil of secrecy. In other words, the few people who do have expertise on this part of the world have their voices shut off to anyone not inside the administration.

Unfortunately, these experts also are losing their voices inside the inefficiencies of our current intelligence system, according to the Washington Post:

“When hired, a typical analyst knows very little about the priority countries – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming, say current and former intelligence officials who try to cull them every day.”

As a result, the intelligence community, and the executive branch, is awash in ill-informed information. Resources are often assigned to redundant tasks, and established lines of thinking get the most air time with the people in charge.

Also, the mainstream media is struggling to report from these dangerous and far-flung alien landscapes. Few journalists have an educated understanding of southeast Asia, Islam, or the languages and cultures of the middle east. Even if they did, faced with the dangers and expenses of foreign journalism, compounded by a shrinking newsroom staff and the weak interest of the American public, these issues don’t seem to hold any public attention or mainstream media face time.

Because of this, few voices critical of American foreign policy make it to the ears of the American public, and the old ways of thinking about things persist from administration to administration.

It’s time for the American government to drastically reevaluate how it is pursuing its foreign policy in Afghanistan by thinking more about the regional politics. It’s time to realize that Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and Iraq, and India, are all parts of a bigger picture, and failed policy in one place will have dramatic implications on another.

It’s also time for the media to begin to recognize that experts like Josh Shahryar have exactly the information that they need. It’s time for the mainstream media to find a way to work with (and employ) the New Media resources that are there all along.

Resources like Wikileaks, and and all the folk that I work with in the effort to cover Iran.

Then maybe we wouldn’t have to rely on leaks. But until then, it seems that the leaks are the only thing keeping the policy wonks on their toes. Until things change in politics, or in the media, I hope that this is one leak that we don’t plug.

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