July 2010, Week 4


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Mon, 26 Jul 2010 22:43:20 -0400
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Same Docs, Different Stories

The three outlets gifted by WikiLeaks take three
different approaches

By Joel Meares

Columbia Journalism Review

July 26, 2010 


On Sunday, three news outlets published the results of
their investigations into 91,731 classified U.S.
military documents that they had received from
secret-sharing Web site WikiLeaks. The New York Times,
The Guardian , and Der Spiegel each led today with
their findings on their front pages and online with
multi-dimensional, interactive reports on "one of the
biggest leaks in US military history." The documents,
spanning 2004 to 2009 and pertaining to the war in
Afghanistan, were concurrently published on the
WikiLeaks site.

Mostly, the papers highlight the same discoveries: high
incidents of weapons failure among U.S. drones; the
actions of task force 373, the secret commando unit
tasked with capturing or killing top insurgent leaders;
the Taliban's possession and use of heat-seeking
missiles; the hitherto suspected and assumed, but
difficult to demonstrate, involvement of Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in, and instigation
of, Taliban operations against the coalition; and
revelations of a higher numbers of civilian casualties
than previously acknowledged.

But in shaping their syntheses of these various
findings, each paper manages to characterize the
discoveries in different ways, mostly to emphasize
their relevance to local concerns about the war. The
two European papers, both historically against the war,
find in the reports cause for great pessimism. The
Guardian is particularly brutal in its editorial on the

"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 communiques as well as the necessarily limited
snapshots of embedded reporting.

... However you cut it, this is not an Afghanistan that
either the US or Britain is about to hand over
gift-wrapped with pink ribbons to a sovereign national
government in Kabul. Quite the contrary. After nine
years of warfare, the chaos threatens to overwhelm. A
war fought ostensibly for the hearts and minds of
Afghans cannot be won like this."

Der Spiegel finds the coalition vulnerable and its
efforts in the region on course for failure. After a
summary of the paper's treatment of the documents,
reporters Matthias Gebauer, John Goetz, Hans Hoyng,
Susanne Koelbl, Marcel Rosenbach, and Gregor Peter
Schmitz write under the subhead, "A Gloomy Picture":

But such shows of optimism seem cynical in light of the
descriptions of the situation in Afghanistan provided
in the classified documents. Nearly nine years after
the start of the war, they paint a gloomy picture. They
portray Afghan security forces as the hapless victims
of Taliban attacks. They also offer a conflicting
impression of the deployment of drones, noting that
America's miracle weapons are also entirely vulnerable.

And they show that the war in northern Afghanistan,
where German troops are stationed, is becoming
increasingly perilous. The number of warnings about
possible Taliban attacks in the region -- fuelled by
support from Pakistan -- has increased dramatically in
the past year.

Intriguingly, The Times chooses a similar lede in its
main report, "View is Bleaker Than Official Portrayal
of War in Afghanistan":

A six-year archive of classified military documents
made public on Sunday offers an unvarnished,
ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is
in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.

The secret documents, released on the Internet by an
organization called WikiLeaks, are a daily diary of an
American-led force often starved for resources and
attention as it struggled against an insurgency that
grew larger, better coordinated and more deadly each

However, its reading of the reports differs from its
European counterparts, focusing less on military
failures and more on inconsistencies between official
accounts of the war from the White House and the
revelations of the WikiLeaks reports. The front page
story from which that excerpt was lifted documents many
of these discrepancies, including incident reports,
claiming the Taliban used heat-seeking missiles, that
contradict official statements from the White House.

The Times's reporting is perhaps the most distinguished
of the three in that it is the least critical of the
U.S.'s prosecution of the war, emphasizing instead
revelations over which Americans are likely to feel
betrayed. The big WikiLeaks piece the paper runs
alongside its summary homes in on revelations that
Pakistani's intelligence agency ISI has been working
closely and secretly with the Taliban. Mark Mazzetti,
Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt, and Andrew W. Lehren's
article, "Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan,
Reports Assert," opens:

Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long
harbored strong suspicions that Pakistan's military spy
service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden
hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a
year from Washington for its help combating the
militants, according to a trove of secret military
field reports made public Sunday.

The documents, made available by an organization called
WikiLeaks, suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of
the United States, allows representatives of its spy
service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret
strategy sessions to organize networks of militant
groups that fight against American soldiers in
Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan

The reporters focus heavily on the involvement of
former ISI leader Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul in insurgency
efforts, including suicide bombings, and highlight the
U.S. government's frustration with its supposed
regional ally.

American officials have rarely uncovered definitive
evidence of direct ISI involvement in a major attack.
But in July 2008, the C.I.A.'s deputy director, Stephen
R. Kappes, confronted Pakistani officials with evidence
that the ISI helped plan the deadly suicide bombing of
India's Embassy in Kabul.

From the current trove, one report shows that Polish
intelligence warned of a complex attack against the
Indian Embassy a week before that bombing, though the
attackers and their methods differed. The ISI was not
named in the report warning of the attack.

German news magazine Der Spiegel also gives heavy
weight to the ISI and the former general, using the
revelation less to reveal a betrayal than as part of
cumulative evidence of the inadequate nature of the
war's execution. Under the subheading "System Failures,
Computer Glitches and Human Error," in a section that
includes details on the failures and problems of
drones, its reporters write:

The documents clearly show that the Pakistani
intelligence agency is the most important accomplice
the Taliban has outside of Afghanistan. The war against
the Afghan security forces, the Americans and their
ISAF allies is still being conducted from Pakistan.

The country is an important safe haven for enemy forces
-- and serves as a base for issuing their deployment.
New recruits to the Taliban stream across the
Pakistan-Afghan border, including feared foreign
fighters -- among them Arabs, Chechnyans, Uzbekis,
Uighurs and even European Islamists.

According to the war logs, the ISI envoys are present
when insurgent commanders hold war councils -- and even
give specific orders to carry out murders. These
include orders to try to assassinate Afghan President
Hamid Karzai. For example, a threat report dated August
21, 2008 warned: "Colonel Mohammad Yusuf from the ISI
had directed Taliban official Maulawi Izzatullah to see
that Karzai was assassinated."

Highlighting the inadequacies of the coalition's war in
Afghanistan, the magazine takes a decidedly local
angle, writing that "Germany's armed forces, the
Bundeswehr... stumbled into the conflict with great
naivety." Der Spiegel's reporters lift from "threat
reports" in the WikiLeaks documents that show the
Bundeswehr were in greater danger in northern
Afghanistan than the German government had indicated,
or the soldiers had anticipated, in the region they had
once joked was like a spa town.

In a "threat report" dated May 31, 2007, German troops
based in Kunduz reported on the general situation
following another suicide attack. "Contrary to all
expectations of the Regional Command North, the attacks
of the insurgents in Kunduz are going on as foreseen by
the Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunduz and mentioned
before several times," the German document states,
adding that more attacks, particularly against ISAF
troops, "are strongly expected."

The soldiers appear to have been correct to have felt
they were under a state of siege. The documents that
have been obtained are comprised primarily of so-called
"threat reports," thousands of danger scenarios and
concrete warnings about planned attacks. These reports
provide a clearer picture of the deterioration of the
security situation in northern Afghanistan than the
information provided by the German government or the
federal parliament, the Bundestag, which must provide a
legal mandate for the Bundeswehr's deployments abroad.
Police checkpoints are constantly attacked or come
under fire, patrols are targeted in deadly ambushes and
roadside bombs explode.

The left-wing magazine concludes its story with an
ominous diagnosis for the future of the mountainous
northern combat zone in which the German army is

One thing, however, is certain. These thousands of
documents indicate that, after almost nine years of
war, a victory in Hindu Kush looks farther away than

Across the Channel, The Guardian offers the kind of
excellent interactive, video-packed online package
we've come to expect from the newspaper industry's Web
leader. Covering the basic revelations of the
documents, its reporting is steered by an outrage at
the number of unreported civilian casualties unveiled
by the WikiLeaks logs (you can see the number and
location of these casualties--along with casualties
among Afghan and coalition troops--in an interactive map
from The Guardian here.)

In the Web site's anchor story on the leaked documents,
"Afghanistan war logs: massive leak of secret files
exposes truth of occupation," writers Nick Davies and
David Leigh paint a picture of a botched war in which
coalition troops, either through confusion or
self-protection, have killed and maimed civilians. The
incendiary lede touches on the key revelations of the

A huge cache of secret US military files today provides
a devastating portrait of the failing war in
Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed
hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban
attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear
neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the

Then, the bulk of this central report is given to
detailing previously unknown incidents in which Afghan
civilians were killed. Again, the local focus means
highlighted sections of the report focus on British and
European troops.

At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed
and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an
underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted
from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the
ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by
military intelligence analysts.

Bloody errors at civilians' expense, as recorded in the
logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full
of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol
similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15
of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a
village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant
woman, in an apparent revenge attack.

Questionable shootings of civilians by UK troops also
figure. The US compilers detail an unusual cluster of
four British shootings in Kabul in the space of barely
a month, in October/November 2007, culminating in the
death of the son of an Afghan general. Of one shooting,
they wrote: "Investigation controlled by the British.
We are not able to get [sic] complete story."

The hot language--"bloody errors at civilians'
expense"--and assumptions that there is an
underestimate, are typical of The Guardian's approach
to the WikiLeaks documents, a trove of records it
describes as "an unvarnished and often compelling
account of the reality of modern war."


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