I didn't think it was possible, but Julian Assange has now done it: By releasing 92,000 documents full of Afghanistan intelligence onto the laptops of an unsuspecting public, the founder of Wikileaks has finally made an ironclad case for the mainstream media. If you were under the impression that we don't need news organizations, editors, or reporters with more than 10 minutes' experience anymore, then think again. The notion that the Internet can replace traditional news-gathering has just been revealed to be a myth.
To see what I mean, try reading this: "At 1850Z, TF 2-2 using PREDATOR (UAV) PID insurgents emplacing IEDs at 41R PR 9243 0202, 2.7km NW of FOB Hutal, Kandahar. TF 2-2 using PREDATOR engaged with 1x Hellfire missile resulting in 1x INS KIA and 1x INS WIA. ISAF tracking #12-374."
Did you get that? I didn't and would be the first to admit it. I do understand it somewhat better now, however, because the New York Times helpfully explains on its Web site that this excerpt, from one of the WikiLeaks documents, describes a Predator drone firing a missile at men suspected of planting roadside bombs.
How about this: "At 1635z TF 2Fury reported a Green on Green event at the Giro DC, VB 3591 6240. An element at the Giro DC reported that that two of the OPs IVO of the Giro DC were under SAF and DF attack."That one is even tougher, but, fortunately, the Guardian informs us that it's an excerpt describing a shootout between different units of the Afghan police.
As you read through the documents, you do begin to pick up the code (FOB is a forward operating base, BDA is a battle damage assessment), but after a while, even the summaries don't make that much sense. Was that Predator operation crucial? Was that Afghan police battle ordinary friendly fire, or did it reflect a larger conflict? Here the New York Times and the Guardian can help a little bit: They have had time to review the documents, run them quickly by experts, and do a bit of comparing and contrasting. Assange, despite his insistence on the value of raw data, knew perfectly well that the public wouldn't be able to make much of this stuff and gave the documents to the papers in advance.
Still, even these newspapers are operating under a major handicap. Because WikiLeaks gave them a deadline, they had no chance to do any real newspaper reporting. Had there been journalists on the ground when those Afghan police were shooting at one another, or even a year later, they might have discovered something interesting—that this was really a story about clan warfare, perhaps, or about poor training—or nothing at all. When a report like that one is placed onto a long list, together with other equally enigmatic, equally out-of-context documents, it's difficult to know.
But there weren't any reporters, and there wasn't time to do real journalism, so the deeper context for these documents will have to be acquired in some other fashion. Eventually, a historian or a good investigative reporter will make sense of them using interviews, memoirs, other documentation from other sources, expertise. That will take time, money, and possibly the support of the mainstream media—a magazine, a newspaper—or even an "elite" institution like a university.
Until then, the leaks offer nothing more than raw data. They provide "color." They provide details. They help reinforce existing biases: I note for the record that the Guardian's interactive map of the "significant incidents" revealed by these documents shows only military failures—civilian casualties, accidents—and does not have a key color for any sort of success.
They give newspapers a chance to pretend they've got scoops. By my extremely rough count, the New York Times has mentioned the relationship between the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, and the Taliban several dozen times over the past decade. (Last September, a Times reporter described the ISI as "the Taliban's off-again-on-again benefactor for more than a decade.") Yet the Times got away with running the headline "Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan" over the weekend as if that were news.
But without more journalism, more investigation, more work, these documents just don't matter that much. To argue, as James Fallows has done, that they are significant because they will inform an ignorant public is ludicrous: If you don't know by now that the ISI helped create the Taliban, or that civilian casualties are generally a problem for NATO, or that Special Forces units are hunting for al-Qaida fighters, all that means is that you don't read the mainstream media. Which means you don't really want to know.