Monday, July 26, 2010

Windows into War

On Sunday, the government transparency site Wikileaks released 75,000 U.S. military reports concerning the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The Kabul War Diary archive includes reports from 2004-2010 and can be found at as raw data files. Prior to release on the web, the reports were also shared with the New York Times, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and the UK’s Guardian. These news outlets are in the process of analyzing and organizing the reports in order to make them more accessible. For example, the Guardian has prepared a spreadsheet timeline of “key incidents”, and has asked its readers to share mash-ups of the raw data on its website.

Wikileaks has not revealed the source for these reports (although a U.S. army private currently stands accused of the security breach). But as the New York Times observed in its Note to Readers, the U.S. government does not dispute any of the reports’ authenticity. Most of the reports were classified as “secret”, which the Times calls “a relatively low level of classification.” It’s actually the middle of three levels, between “confidential” and “top secret,” as defined in section 1.2 of Executive Order 13526 -- the distinction is the level of damage that the information “could be reasonably expected to cause” to national security (damage, serious damage, and exceptionally grave damage).

The White House (through National Security Adviser General James Jones) has condemned the release of these reports, saying that the disclosure “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.” Wikileaks is currently withholding from publication another 15,000 reports which contain sensitive information about named individuals; redacted versions of these reports will be posted over the next few weeks.

The Wikileaks controversy comes almost four decades after the famous “Pentagon Papers” case, in which the New York Times (and later the Washington Post) published a previously top-secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration ordered injunctions to cease the report’s publication, which the U.S. Supreme Court later found to be unconstitutional prior restraint on the press. To read more about this pre-Internet example of a classified leak, search the Duke Libraries Catalog for the subject keywords Pentagon Papers. To read more about national security law in general, try a subject search for national security law and legislation.