My Word: Dirty open secrets

Of all the questions raised in the WikiLeaks affair, one of the most critical has to be who is behind the exposé and why.

War is hell. It didn’t take WikiLeaks to tell us that. Nonetheless, the on-line publication of some 91,000 classified US military records – including previously unreported incidents of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces, covert operations against Taliban terrorists and cooperation between Pakistan and the Taliban leadership – has put the spotlight on just how desperate warfare can be.
Dead children, slain guests at weddings, blown-up buses. Your heart has to go out to the Afghanis, who, as Robin Shepherd noted in an analysis in The Jerusalem Post last week, were “ordinary people going about their daily business who tragically found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
All is fair in love and war, goes the saying from long, long before Israelis became familiar with the name Richard Goldstone.
But, of course, not everything goes. No decent person wants to think of soldiers – even accidentally – killing innocent farmers and kids. Just how to avoid such deaths when the Taliban, like their close allies in Gaza and Lebanon, deliberately use the civilian population as a human shield is not clear, however.
As Shepherd pointed out, the recent exposure that the Taliban has been using the same tactics as Hamas, with the same results, might boomerang on the British and other coalition countries who cheered the Goldstone report through the UN. No wonder the UK’s new prime minister, David Cameron, seems to be serious about changing the universal jurisdiction law. He is as likely to find himself in the dock as, say, Israel’s opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
There is something ironic about a guerrilla war being waged simultaneously from hideouts in caves and in cyberspace. Israelis over the last few years have frequently sighed that wars are now fought as much in the virtual world as on the battlefield. The WikiLeaks exposure reinforces that idea.
While attention was focused primarily on the details of the reports, among the questions which should be asked are: Just who is waging the war via WikiLeaks and why? President Barack Obama said last week that the documents could endanger soldiers serving in Afghanistan. He’s right. But only up to a point. These documents weren’t published to describe the whereabouts of coalition forces or even their mode of operation (not much of a secret to the Taliban in any case). They are not even particularly up-to-date.
They were published to embarrass the coalition forces and their governments, Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama among them. The huge amount of material published is contemporary war materiel. This is psychological warfare. The publication was aimed at Western public opinion. The reports were not an attempt to reveal the evils of the Taliban regime or al- Qaida. The leaks were aimed at showing US and British mistakes, and, yes, under Goldstone’s criteria, war crimes. Just a week ago, NATO had to admit to accidentally killing 45 Afghani civilians, after all.
WikiLeaks wanted the American public to feel betrayed not by double-dealing Pakistani leaders but by its own leadership, which has been shown to be keeping some of the truth from it.
From a media viewpoint, it is fascinating to see the cooperation between the on-line exposé and the simultaneous print follow-ups published in Britain’s The Guardian (“Massive leak of secret files exposes true Afghan war”), The New York Times (“The Afghan Struggle: A Secret Archive”) and Germany’s Der Spiegel (“Task Force 373, Die Afghanistan Protokolle: Amerikas geheimer Krieg,” again “America’s secret war.”) Let’s face it, the proverbial man on the street, anywhere in the global village, is still more likely to read a newspaper report than plow through more than 90,000 documents on-line. The newspapers were apparently given a month’s access to the material to prepare their stories.
THE MAN behind the affair is WikiLeaks editor-inchief Julian Assange, a 39-year-old Australian with a background that begs a biography. Assange, a former hacker, is a “publish and be damned” character. He is both an award-winning writer and variously described as an “Internet activist” and an “Internet freedom fighter.” He claims he was acting out of a desire to reveal immoral behavior. One thing’s for sure: When he blew the whistle, he did it with such force that the whole world heard.
In some ways, the case is reminiscent of the Anat Kamm affair being investigated behind closed doors.
Kamm allegedly stole some 2,000 documents during her military service, giving those that she didn’t lose to a Haaretz reporter. “There were aspects of IDF operations which I thought should be brought to the attention of the public,” Kamm told Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) investigators. Why she didn’t think alleged crimes should first be brought to the attention of her commander or the Military Police is less obvious.
The revelation of classified material works on many levels. Taking the most positive view, it can indeed encourage officers and soldiers in the field – those truly fighting the battle – to act with extra care.
Although if you ask any soldier who has had to take the split-second decision whether to open fire or not you will appreciate the depths of the dilemma: So many of those who chose the “or not” option did not live to debate the issue, while describing those who did open fire as “trigger happy” does them an injustice.
I have yet to meet the soldier who would be “happy” to shoot live bullets at live people.
On another level, it demoralizes the troops who without public support can naturally ask what they are risking their lives for. This is particularly true of those coalition forces serving in places far, far from home. IDF soldiers serve so close to the families they are protecting that they regularly arrive for a weekend, bringing with them their dirty laundry (the type that needs washing, not a virtual airing on the Web).
The public has a right to know – and in Israel’s case, despite military censorship which appears to grow daily more anachronistic in the world of modern communications – it usually exercises that right. It is hard to keep a secret in a country where everybody knows a serving soldier. It was hard even before the age of camera-equipped cellphones, Wi-Fi computers, SMSs and YouTube. I remember as a reserve soldier many years ago that an operation was called off in Lebanon when a reluctant soldier deliberately leaked details via his mother.
The anonymous nature of WikiLeaks is itself a problem. I have seen claims that it is funded by leftist NGOs (the bogeymen of the Right) and the Mossad (the bad guys of the Left). So much for transparency.
Altogether faceless and even Facebook networking is not an infallible means of gaining credible material.
Hence the dilemma for the established media: In the words of an old joke, doctors bury their mistakes while journalists publish theirs. It is not much consolation to writers that you might not be shot for a major blunder, but you can be fired.
I have spent this week trying to check out a story which is either particularly gruesome evidence of human rights abuses in Iran or a well-produced fake aimed at garnering international support.
I’m loath to just cast something into the air à la Assange. As one of my IDF commanding officers liked to say: “If you throw mud, your hands get dirty.”
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.