Updated 1:31 p.m. Eastern Time
In the wake of the release of 91,000 classified U.S. military records painting a dour portrait of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government and military are trying to put the spotlight squarely on WikiLeaks, the organization that leaked the documents.
Wikileaks, officials complained, is an antiwar group with an agenda. Founder Julian Assange, the White House pointed out to reporters, says things like "the most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war." They noted that his group did not contact the U.S. government to verify what is in the documents. (Though the New York Times and to a lesser extent the other news organizations given access to the documents one month ago did do so.) National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones said the U.S. "strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at his briefing Monday afternoon that the leak represents a "real and potential threat" and cast it as "a concerning development in operational security." He said it "has the potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military" as well as those working with them.
Wikileaks is certainly an important part of the story - and is without question an organization with an agenda. (Just consider the fact that the group named an explosive video it previously leaked showing the actions of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad "Collateral Murder.") But that fact does not change that the military records appear to be legitimate raw intelligence. While not everything in them is necessarily completely true - the sources include paid informants and Afghan intelligence officials with their own agenda - they do reflect what is being seen and heard by those actually fighting the war.
Gibbs was pressed at his briefing whether the government was trying to shift the focus from the content of the documents by criticizing WikiLeaks. In response, he called Assange "somebody that clearly has an agenda" and said of WikiLeaks: "Nobody in this government was afforded the opportunity to see what they do or don't have."
Assange said Monday morning that the U.S. government has decided to "criticize the messenger to detract from the power of the message." It has good reason to do so. It's a crucial moment for the war in Afghanistan, exactly one year before U.S. troops are supposed to start coming home. Yet instead of a positive portrait of the war effort, the American people are being shown in unprecedented detail just how hobbled coalition efforts been by questionable allies, conflicting allegiances, and a pervasive culture of corruption and violence.
The Afghan police are described beating and harassing civilians; according to one report, when his bodyguard refuses to shoot a civilian, a police chief shoots the bodyguard instead. An orphanage that opened with great fanfare is shown to be empty, the coalition's money embezzled; the police and Army are described feuding with each other, and insurgents are shown attacking U.S. troops using vehicles supplied by the coalition to fight them.
The documents describe the Taliban's efforts to turn U.S. allies into enemies with bribes and threats and the killing of civilians through mistakes and misunderstanding (a deaf person who flees a convoy out of nervousness can't hear warnings and gets shot; five children get killed in a rocket attack that was part of a botched raid against an enemy who isn't present). Also revealed is the wider-than-known use of drones inside Afghanistan and the Taliban's use of heat-seeking missiles against U.S. aircraft, the very type of weapon that the United Sates supplied to the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets in the 1980s. (CBS News' Lara Logan reported on the latter last year.)
And then there are the suggestions that Pakistani intelligence is helping coordinate attacks on U.S. troops, including suicide bombings - a particularly incendiary accusation in light of the billions of dollars in aid that flow to the country from U.S. coffers. (These reports, it's important to remember, reflect what members of the military are being told by parties with a variety of agendas, who may not be truthful; Pakistan has vehemently denied the allegations.)
The government has been quick to note that these documents only go through December 2009, before President Obama's new strategy was put in place. But the reality today could in fact be worse than it was then; casualties are the highest they've been in nearly nine years of war, the Taliban is stronger than ever, and coalition efforts to create self-sustaining governments are still understaffed and ineffective.
Officials have insisted that most of the information in the documents is old news for those who have been watching the war closely. But while that, to some extent, is true, it doesn't much matter: The documents shift discussion to the harsh realities of the war at a time that military and administration officials had once hoped Americans would be celebrating U.S. momentum against the Taliban.
Public and Congressional support for the nearly nine-year-old war was already wavering before the release, and for some the documents could be the last straw. The Obama administration will likely remain resolute, stick to its carefully-crafted strategy, and remind people that pulling out could mean a return to the environment that set the stage for the Sept. 11th attacks. But cracks are already beginning to show: Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the release that "however illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan."
The White House gave itself some flexibility when it announced that it would begin bringing troops home in July of next year - President Obama was notably vague about how many troops will be leaving and insisted that plans could change based on conditions on the ground. The WikiLeaks documents are a demoralizing reminder that those conditions are not good; the question now is how the administration and Congress will respond to what will likely be further erosion of support for the war effort at home and abroad.