A week before WikiLeaks told us what we already knew—that Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency helped create the Taliban and now sustains it; that the war in Afghanistan is difficult; that corruption is growing in Kabul; and that drone attacks are not always successful—there was another sensational report. It appeared in The Washington Post and it showed the uncoordinated growth of the military-intelligence complex of the US.
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Two persistent reporters—Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—worked for two years to reveal a discomforting reality: The top secret world had become so large and unwieldy that “no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs (sic) exist within it, or exactly how many agencies do the same work.” It documented how in the post-9/11 frenzy, the US legislature and executive had overseen the emergence of new agencies that had morphed into a Byzantine network, with tens of thousands of people ostensibly working to protect the nation’s security, operating autonomously, without controlling authority, sometimes performing redundant tasks, at other times creating complex layers of bureaucracy which would prevent them from responding quickly—in effect, magnifying the inefficient design in which clues were missed and a catastrophe like 9/11 could occur. (The full expose can be found at the website Topsecretamerica.com).
It costs a lot of money and time to do such meticulous reporting, and given the dismal climate of the newspaper industry, it would seem few newspapers would bother. Sometime this decade, we were told, the newspaper had died. We had instant access to the news we wanted, because blogs and websites such as Twitter gave us all the news and opinion even if they weren’t fit to print. Bloggers like to say bureaucracies are Kafkaesque; the Post showed what that really looks like.
And yet, how could a newspaper compete with the Internet? Its demise was deemed inevitable, with its model so last century, its cost structure so outmoded, its staff so bloated, and its revenue streams dwindling so fast. The traditional way of gathering news and reporting a story by finding out facts, interpreting them, asking others for corroboration, and organizing the story in a coherent way so that it would make sense and provide context to someone coming across the issue for the first time, were considered quaint, old-fashioned hobbies, akin to writing on a pad with a pencil, or using a black, rotary-dial telephone to make calls.
In the West, several newspapers had shrunk in size, literally, adopting the Berliner format, as The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal’s international editions did. Other broadsheets slimmed down to tabloid size, as did The Independent and The Times. Some, such as the Rocky Mountain News, closed. Others, like the London Evening Standard, were given away free. The Christian Science Monitor became a Web-only publication. With the collapse of advertising, the arduous, often dangerous task of reporting from difficult places was considered too costly. The Internet, we were told, had everything.
It was in that environment that WikiLeaks published the omnibus data dump of 92,000 pages of intelligence material about the war in Afghanistan, leaked from the US defence establishment. Finally the middleman was busted: Who needed reporters, those irrelevant intermediaries?
Er, WikiLeaks itself needed them. WikiLeaks realized that the mountain of data was meaningless unless someone sifted through the data dispassionately to find out if there was a grand narrative. Newspapers are the first rough draft of history, but someone has to write that draft. Raw data alone is often inscrutable, and in the hands of conspiracy nuts, it is worse than useless. Text without context is just words.
WikiLeaks is not The Pentagon Papers. That document was the military’s official history of the Vietnam war. It was kept from the public. What Daniel Ellsberg leaked to US newspapers was the detailed accounting of that war. The Nixon administration tried to prevent the publication, but the court ruled in favour of the newspapers. For WikiLeaks to be something similar, historians would have to wade through the data, cross-check and verify what’s said there, and craft a narrative. We are months, if not years, away from that.
That explains why WikiLeaks turned to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. Without them, the folks at WikiLeaks were like Hanuman in the battlefield: They had the mountain; they didn’t know where they could find sanjeevani, the herb that could revive the fallen Lakshman in the Hindu epic Ramayana. It took a wise sage to identify the herb and apply it on Lakshman’s wounds and revive him.
WikiLeaks’s decontextualized data dump has created the illusion of advancing our understanding of the war, when it has done no such thing. It has made the coalition’s informants vulnerable— responsible reporters would not have made such an elementary error.
WikiLeaks shows us that the war is messy. The Post’s project explains why that’s the case.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org