Afghan Leaks Aren't Quite 'Pentagon Papers'

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been making the media rounds, touting his website's release of leaked classified Afghanistan war documents as tantamount to the 1971 publication of the blockbuster Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a copy of Monday's 'The Guardian' in London. i i

hide captionWikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a news conference Monday in London.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a copy of Monday's 'The Guardian' in London.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a news conference Monday in London.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

And, indeed, the disclosure of 92,000 secret battlefield intelligence logs from 2004 to 2009 has been consequential. They detail, NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, "the raw, unsanitized ... behind-the-scenes story of what U.S. commanders were hearing on the ground, day-to-day" and the problems they face.

But, says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, "these are not the Pentagon Papers."

So, what's the significance, beyond confirming what Americans already suspected — that the war hasn't been going well?

It was the way in which the documents, which have been characterized as a "data dump," made their way to the public: Leaked to an Internet website, provided — with an embargo — to three major international news organizations, and ultimately served up as a main course over the past two days.

The inspired public relations move guaranteed much wider attention not only for the documents, which have been characterized as largely confirming previous reports of the troubled nine-year war effort, but also to Assange's fledgling website.

"We’re dealing with a new world," Dalglish says.

Pentagon Papers Redux?

Longtime Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus is among those who dismiss Assange's claims as largely poppycock.

"The Pentagon Papers was a history of both the political and military background of American involvement in Vietnam, starting in 1945, and put together by historians," Pincus says. "It was a narrative based on top-secret White House documents."

July 1, 1971: 'The New York Times' publishes the Pentagon Papers. i i

hide caption'The New York Times' rolls off the presses, after the Supreme Court cleared the way for publication of the Pentagon Papers, on July 1, 1971.

Jim Wells/AP
July 1, 1971: 'The New York Times' publishes the Pentagon Papers.

'The New York Times' rolls off the presses, after the Supreme Court cleared the way for publication of the Pentagon Papers, on July 1, 1971.

Jim Wells/AP

Leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post by Daniel Ellsberg, then a disillusioned young Pentagon analyst, the voluminous Defense Department document revealed the military’s decades-long Southeast Asia strategy and secret effort to expand the Vietnam War.

"Its impact tested and challenged the credibility of presidents Nixon and Johnson," Pincus says, including proof that Johnson was secretly planning to widen the war effort while publicly saying the opposite during his run for president in 1964.

The disclosures and publication of the documents led to a fierce battle with the Nixon administration over whether national security had been compromised — a battle that ended in the courts, and provided a steady diet of front-page stories for weeks.

Administration Blowback

White House National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones has said that this week's release of the Afghanistan documents, which cover the war effort during five years of the Bush administration and the first year of the Obama administration, "put lives and our partners at risk."

But the administration is not expected to go after the organizations that published stories based on the leak — the Times, Der Spiegel magazine in Germany, and The Guardian in London. The Times reported that it had spoken with the White House about the story it was preparing, and that it and the other news organizations "agreed not to disclose anything that was likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or anti-terrorist operations," including redacting the names of informants and other sensitive material.

Pincus, who characterized the leaked material as "year-old, mostly tactical stuff," says that how the leak and subsequent stories affect the administration and its war policy going forward largely depend on how officials and the media characterize the material.

"The only lesson in this will be how the Obama administration reacts to it," Pincus says. "If they do what Nixon did, they'll get in trouble."

Assange has said he has thousands more documents to release, and "if the administration tries to stop him," Pincus says, "then, more than the substance of these things, it will be about the reaction to them."

There should be some indication by the end of this week how Americans are reacting to the leaked documents and subsequent news stories: Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, says that the polling firm will be in the field this week asking those surveyed about the war in Afghanistan — including how well they think it's going, and whether their view has been influenced by the WikiLeaks news.

"We'll see if it makes a difference," says Newport. He also notes that new polling may show whether the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who recently gave up his post as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan after Rolling Stone magazine reported critical things said by McChrystal and his aides about some of their civilian bosses in the Obama administration, has affected public opinion.

Up to now, Gallup's polling has consistently shown, he says, that a majority of Americans favor a timetable for pulling troops out of Afghanistan, though less than 40 percent have said the war effort there has been a mistake.

Silver Lining For 'Old Media'?

Dalglish says that Assange's decision to provide the leaked material does, in some way, underscore the value of traditional journalists who "take information, analyze it and help explain what it means."

"For the general public, they're going to learn a lot more about this because news organizations got involved and added perspective," she adds. "The second-day stories are showing that very little of this is something new — that it verified what we knew."

Sites like WikiLeaks do potentially serve as an outlet of information and raw data of importance to the public — Assange says his only agenda is transparency. But the information they provide can lack context and a caution with classified data that could potential put peoples' lives at risk.

"It's a whole new ballgame," Daglish says, "and everybody should be paying attention."

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