July 29, 2010
Just when one leak was plugged, another erupted. Just when the worst of the Gulf oil spill seemed at last to be over, that enormous spill of classified documents on the Afghan war hit the news. The Pentagon will use dispersants; the administration will do the "junk shot," throwing its own version of golf balls, old tires, and (of course) mud down the hole; the National Security Agency will lower an intelligence dome — but the gusher will go on. The bureaucrats will work frantically to develop technologies and strategies to prevent such incidents from happening again, but happen they will. It's not just possible, it's inevitable.
With 92,000 globules of documents spewed to the press by WikiLeaks, an off-shore cyber-rig drilling down a mile deep into database bedrock, it will take a long time to clean up. Its immediate consequences are as yet unknown: Will it end the American public's apathy towards the war? Will it change administration policy? Whatever the case, Afghanistan is on nobody's back burner now.
The amazing thing about this story is not so much the information itself — even Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai shrugged that there was nothing new there — but its acquisition. How vulnerable are secret files? If WikiLeaks can get at them, how about Al Qaeda, or Russia? Who needs to plant spies in New Jersey when a couple of crafty hackers in Moscow could do so much better?
The Big Leak came on the heels of "Top Secret America," a Washington Post investigative report by Dana Priest and William Arkin, describing the growth-like-topsy of the so-called "intelligence community" since the 9/11 attacks — 854,000 people now have U.S. top-secret security clearances. Any kid who's sworn friends to secrecy can tell you what happens: The more people that are in on a secret, the more chance someone will blab. There's little doubt that more and — can you imagine it? — even bigger leaks will bubble to the surface, not only about Afghanistan but about any and every issue any bureaucracy is trying to hide. Talk about transparency!
It will take a good while for the true usefulness of the present feat to be revealed. The three publications to which WikiLeaks unloaded its information — The New York Times, The Guardian in England, and Der Spiegel in Germany — used Google- like (Google-made?) search engines to cull through gaga-bytes of data and roughly categorize them into topics of interest — civilian casualties, drone-plane flights, and Pakistan-Taliban connections, among others — in order to build their stories. Beyond journalism, however, historians, military analysts, and political and social scientists will arrange the files for their own purposes. They'll lock the little pieces together and lay them out in clusters, like working a 92,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, until the picture is assembled. Such efforts will yield perspectives on this war — and war in general — that scholars of past conflicts could only dream about.
You'd like to hope that the WikiLeaks spill will lead to a major rethinking of American policy towards Afghanistan. It is true that there is little in the documents thus far presented by the press that most of us didn't already know or suspect: that Afghanistan is quicksand. But perhaps the assemblage of facts on this large a scale will shake the public up, as those primitively-procured Pentagon Papers did about the Vietnam war four decades ago.
Maybe this gusher will do the nation good.