Air leaks from the WikiLeaks balloon

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange describes some of the findings from the just-released U.S. military records of six years of the war, including unreported incidents of Afghan civilian killings and covert operations against Taliban figures.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; 10:11 AM

Boy, that was quick.

One day, the WikiLeaks uproar was sparking a once-in-a-generation debate about the disclosure of classified information, the audacious role of a stateless organization beyond the reach of sovereign nations, and the old media's complicity in packaging the 91,000 pages of Afghanistan war documents.

The next day, the media establishment seemed to yawn: Old news. Recycled stuff. Kinda knew that. See ya. Hey, is Lindsay Lohan still in jail?

Now this happens to match the administration's line. (Obama: "These documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan.") Some of this may be the tendency of publications not named the New York Times, the Guardian or Der Spiegel to play down a rival's scoop. Some may be the considered judgment of journos on the military beat.

I still believe some of the revelations are significant, but more as a mosaic of a faltering war effort. Many critics initially dismissed the Pentagon Papers as old material, too -- it was a historical study of the Vietnam debacle -- but at least it had a narrative. The Wiki stew has lots of small ingredients, such as raw battlefield reports, that require journalistic chefs to distill into a meaningful dish. That's why WikiLeaks recruited its media partners, almost to put a stamp of approval on what otherwise would have been the posting of a bunch of disconnected documents.

But the conventional wisdom does find one explosive aspect to the story: the political impact.

There were "few bombshells in the reports," says the L.A. Times, but "the leaking of a trove of U.S. documents has put the Obama administration on the defensive about its Afghanistan policy and may deepen doubts in Congress about prospects for turning around the faltering war effort."

The WP says that "the disclosure of what are mostly battlefield updates does not appear to represent a major threat to national security or troops' safety, according to military officials" -- adding that the leaking "seems unlikely to undermine fragile congressional support or force the Obama administration to shift strategy."

The NYT also goes with a political lead: "The disclosure of a six-year archive of classified military documents increased pressure on President Obama to defend his military strategy as Congress prepares to deliberate financing of the Afghanistan war."

Ditto for Politico: "The White House is dismissing the 92,000 Afghan war reports posted by WikiLeaks as old news -- but the document dump poses a potent new threat to President Barack Obama's delicately balanced Afghanistan policy. . . . The reports are prompting a new wave of scrutiny of the war among Obama's allies on Capitol Hill."

So which is it? Poses a potent new threat or unlikely to undermine Hill support for the war? The conventional wisdom is . . . confused.

An interesting note in the Times story concerns WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange: "White House officials e-mailed reporters select transcripts of an interview Mr. Assange conducted with Der Spiegel, underlining the quotations the White House apparently found most offensive. Among them was Mr. Assange's assertion, 'I enjoy crushing bastards.' " Assange told reporters he wanted the material to lead to "new policies, if not prosecutions." His agenda is clear.

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