Who would have thought that a character that could have been conjured up by Stieg Larsson, the author of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, would be involved in a high-stakes battle with the real-life purveyors of government misadventure?
Go no further than Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to find a post-modern anarchist and his coterie of secretive, transnational super-geeks who are vaguely sworn to fight for “truth, justice and the….”, um-well never mind… and who manage to influence, even redirect U.S. policy and the world image of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
On the one hand, U.S. officials and talking heads are saying that little if anything is new or surprising in the Afghan War Diary, 90,000 pages of purloined documents posted by WikiLeaks, after the New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian were given an early look.
The similarity between these pages and the Pentagon Papers is not particularly relevant. The Pentagon Papers, among other things, had to do with a secret policy. Little is secret in this case. What the WikiLeaks material does, among other things, is to counteract the cheerleader mentality of top, can-do, military commanders, and diplomatic-minded civilians. The policy has no clothes; this is a winless war.
What are the surprises?
That the Taliban have staying power and can make use of every possible weapon, subterfuge and corruption?
That the Afghan government is often incompetent and corrupt?
That the Pakistani military and intelligence communities are often, to say the least, a drag on the whole system?
That Americans have sometimes run secret operations or sometimes take out the wrong target, resulting in civilians deaths?
But that doesn’t deter the likes of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who decries Assange’s role, saying “the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world.”
Putting people knowingly at risk by revealing their secret intelligence ties is indefensible. While Assange said in a fascinating profile in The New Yorker that he follows a “harm-minimization policy,” it is possible that the naming of names in his releases can be deadly.
Yet the damage to “our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world” predates WikiLeaks by at least a decade.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be too quick to reject Assange’s claim that he is practicing a form of journalism. Journalism, at least in the United States, is in tumult. Who knows whether the online forms overtaking old structures shouldn’t include the likes of a stateless, homeless group of hackers who are out to identify frauds and fakery.
The story is eerily similar to Larsson’s Millennium-trilogy, complete with Nordic protagonists, tattoos, sleepless outsiders, untraceable Internet piercings and all.
WikiLeaks exists in a Brave, complicated, and angry New World—and it may well be part of an expanded journalism of the future, but a future that is suddenly with us.