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 Afghan War Logs

Whistleblowers, Censorship, and Secure channels of Communication: The Afghan War Logs

July 27, 2010

Over 90,000 American military documents relating to operations in Afghanistan have been leaked by the online whistleblower Wikileaks.

Read more about Wikileaks in our earlier post, and on their website.

These previously unreleased documents, leaked in advance to the media under an agreement that they would not publish until this week, offer detailed accounts of the fighting in Afghanistan. They reveal unreported incidents of civilian casualties, and allegations of links between Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban.

Wikileaks made these documents accessible to the New York TimesThe Guardian and a German newspaper, Der Spiegel, through a secret website. The newspapers agreed to simultaneously publish on Monday the 26th of July.

Wikileaks publishes classified documents and information often connected to governments, and other organizations, and the protection of their sources is of paramount importance. The organisation employs sophisticated encryption techniques, and tactics you might expect to see in a blockbuster spy film to preserve the anonymity of their sources, combining postal drops and electronic communication in their efforts to reduce risk, and encourage the submission of material. In addition, their servers are distributed across a number of jurisdictions, and configured to discard logs of activity – leaving little or no material of value available for seizure. Notable prior leaks include information about the secretive beliefs and activities of members of Scientology, a list of the members of the BNP, and the contents of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! mailbox.

Despite refusing to accept government or corporate funding, out of fear of compromising its integrity, Wikileaks has nonetheless managed to raise $1 million from the public to meet running costs. A figure that is sure to rise following the publicity generated by this recent disclosure.

The American defence department is trying to trace the source of leaked information, and believes that it may have started in November with the copying of secret information by someone working inside a US military base. Some commentators have criticised Wikileaks, suggesting that the disclosure of certain information will endanger lives. It is alleged that this leak in particular could compromise America’s national security. However, the founder of the organisation, Julian Assange, confidently rejects these accusations, stating: “We are familiar with groups whose abuse we expose attempting to criticise the messenger to distract from the power of the message”. He also defends the leak by explaining that the information published was seven months old, and that there will be “no current operational consequence”, although it may lead to further investigation.

Speculation is rife over the potential consequences of the disclosure, but what is clear is that the leaks have encouraged public discourse about the war in Afghanistan. The documents have been said to demonstrate a lack of military discrimination in the conducting of operations, and John Kerry, the US chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee has said that “However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan”. Kerry, among others, hopes that the documents will lead to a review of policy.

 So far 71,000 of the 90,000 documents have been released, and Assange hopes this will inspire others to reveal and expose further information about the war. The Wikileaks founder believes that the documents enable people to better understand, and scrutinise, the war in Afghanistan with a view to leading a change in policy for the better.

From a legal and technological standpoint the site’s activity raises complex questions about the inter-jurisdictional reach of affected parties, and illustrates how the Internet as a medium can be a far more effective means of neutralising censorship powers than any legislation, national or international.