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Clarification to This Article
An earlier version of this column included Daniel Ellsberg among commentators who have equated the WikiLeaks documents with the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg has noted "strong parallels" between the two. The text below has been updated.

Could Wikileaks offer a way out of war?

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By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The war in Afghanistan just got a little foggier -- or a little more transparent -- depending on how you choose to see the weekend's 92,000-item document dump courtesy of Wikileaks. As London's Guardian editorialized, "These war logs -- written in the heat of engagement -- show a conflict that is brutally messy, confused and immediate. It is in some contrast with the tidied-up and sanitised 'public' war, as glimpsed through official communiqu├ęs as well as the necessarily limited snapshots of embedded reporting."

The futility and frustration illustrated in these documents should provide a fairly wide opening for a much-needed "what are we doing there, anyway?" debate. And I hope the ensuing discussion will lead President Obama to understand that the human and financial costs of continuing on this path far outstrip any conceivable security benefits. In fact, it is clear from the granular details in the war logs, and especially in the sections about collusion between Pakistan intelligence services and the Taliban, that any homeland security provided by the war is significantly undermined by the anger and resentment -- and armed resistance -- of our Central and South Asian hosts. And the evidence that U.S. troops have sanitized accounts of bloody scenes they've left in their wake underscores that our presence in Afghanistan is counterproductive.

What to make of the leak itself? Of course, more than a few commentators have called it a 21st-century Pentagon Papers. That "21st century" modifier may prove to be the most salient facet of this story.

In noting the distinct "times have changed" element to the leak, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote, "In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does WikiLeaks."

It's also significant that Wikileaks used three traditional news outlets (the Guardian, the New York Times and Germany's Der Spiegel) to deliver its treasure to the masses, a reminder that information is useless unless you (or someone you know) know how to interpret it. At the Atlantic, James Fallows loosely proposes that this Wikileaks plus traditional media synergy could prove to be quite valuable for a news industry that's been trying to reinvent itself: "At first glance this is a very sophisticated illustration of how newly evolving media continually change the way we get information, but don't totally replace existing systems. The collaboration of three of the world's leading 'traditional' news brands makes a difference in the way this news is received." After all, can Joe the Plumber be expected to pore over 200,000 pages of documents and determine for himself whether our endeavors in Afghanistan are worth his tax dollars? Should he be expected to do so?

The Times explained in a Note to Readers that it felt a civic obligation to publish and analyze a portion of the Wikileaks documents: "[T]here are times when the information is of significant public interest, and this is one of those times. The documents illuminate the extraordinary difficulty of what the United States and its allies have undertaken in a way that other accounts have not."

Perhaps a new take on an old war is just what we need to extract ourselves from another quagmire.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.


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