Monday, October 25, 2010

An Iraq vet's thoughts on the Wikileaks Iraq reports

Since Friday's release, I had been thinking about writing about the Wikileaks' Iraq documents, but thought it might be a conflict of interest. Obviously, I'm writing about it now so I'll just put some caveats up front.
  1. I served in Iraq as an Army officer in 2003, 2005, and 2007-2008. That probably causes some bias.
  2. On top of serving there, I've written and/or initiated a number of the released reports because of some of the positions I held.
  3. I am not linking to any of the reports, but only because I don't want any cleared persons or persons who work for organizations that take that seriously to get in trouble with their security folks.
  4. I will have to make some vague references to some things because they are still classified. Sorry.
  5. In the interest of brevity, when I say "Soldiers" I mean all service members. When I say "U.S.", that should generally include our coalition partners.
All that being said, it should come as no surprise that I'm not keen on the release of these documents. Here are the reasons.

1. All the reports aren't there. This was also brought to light from Adam Weinstein over at Mother Jones (via Twitter). There are a couple of significant events from my time there that there are no reports for. Unfortunately, this is one of those "classified" moments, but I remember the dates specifically and did searches around them and they just weren't there. It begs the questions of: how many aren't there? Why not those? It seems that whoever provided Wikileaks with the documents just took them from the reporting systems in Iraq, so I find it odd that some were left out. Of course it's possible that they published what they were provided, but we just don't know. Given their inclination towards secrecy, I highly doubt Wikileaks will provide us an answer on that.

2. Situation and spot reports aren't the full picture. Wikileaks claims the leak reveals the truth about the Iraq war. It doesn't. It reveals part of the truth, not the whole. Spot reports can provide a flip book of static pictures, that together provide part of the narrative of the war. But it leaves some serious gaps. Not released were the innumerable operational orders (not including Burger King ordering instructions) and storyboards. Storyboards are slide presentations that take the initial reports and drill down into significant detail, often with maps and pictures, that elaborate on the incidents in question. They provide much more context not given in the initial reports. Leaving out the orders also removes the impetus and intent for the operations reported in the leaked documents - which in my mind is very important. (I will note that the now infamous FRAGO 242 is highly troubling to say the least.) I'm glad they didn't get their hands on these additional materials, but saying that the "truth" has been revealed is incorrect. One last point here is that for a good part of the war, good things weren't reported - just bad incidents. Also, if nothing happened on a patrol, nothing was reported. This ignores the fact that every day Soldiers and Marines were doing great things for the Iraqi people that just weren't being reported. (Please note that in the later years of the reports, some of the "good news" incidents were reported - but that was after a policy change and still does not reflect all of the good things the U.S. did). That also brings questions how much these documents paint the whole picture.

3. The documents condemn the actions of Soldiers when in reality it was the policy that was bad. Assange recently stated that the documents show that the war was "a bloodbath on every corner." Of course. It was (and still is) a war - which have a tendency to be particularly violent. Is that the fault of the Soldiers on the ground? Sometimes yes, but for the most part it's the nature of conflict. The problem with the Iraq war was that it wasn't just in the first place to substantiate the violence that ensued. But, except for the actions of very few service members, Soldiers and Marines were doing what they are supposed to do: execute the nation's wars. I feel these leaks put undo onus on the people on the ground for bad policy decisions. And those people on the ground are put in some pretty lousy situations and do their best. That does not make them criminals, even if they screw up. Crimes still require intent last I checked.

4. Wikileaks asks people to break the law and put themselves at risk to promote Wikileaks' interests, while Wikileaks enjoys relative impunity. Assange goes to such great lengths to protect himself and his organization from legal action, but asks his sources to eschew such safeguards for their own wellbeing. I think it takes a lot of gall to demand Bradley Manning's release when they are the people who put him in that position. That is appalling.

5. Focusing on U.S. actions ignores the other actors involved and what they did to propagate the war. Obviously only one side was keeping fairly good records, but the truth also involves al Qaeda in Iraq, the Iraqi Government, the Iranian Government, Sunni insurgent groups, Shia insurgent groups, and political and religious actors who spurred their followers on to violence. Sure, the U.S. started the war (and as I said, unjustly). But the U.S. wasn't the only side using violence to meet their strategic objectives. There are no records to publish from the other actors and that's the nature of modern conflict. However, Wikileaks is not being forthcoming on this topic when they say they have provided the true nature of the war.

That last sentence is probably my biggest problem with Wikileaks. They see themselves as the final defenders of the truth. But they are as biased as any other organization and that makes them hypocrites. They have a particular anti-U.S. bias and have no interest in telling more than one side of the story because it won't support their predetermined conclusions. That bias is their right and I won't begrudge them that. But they should acknowledge it. By not acknowledging their bias and misrepresenting these documents as the true story of the Iraq war, they lose a lot of credibility in my mind.

The Wikileaks Iraq files provide snapshots into the U.S.'s perspective the war. But they don't even come close to portraying the whole story and you shouldn't believe Wikileaks when they claim that the reports do. Understand Wikileaks for what they are, not what they say they are. Since the reports are out, they should be used as information to build part of the Iraq story, but they are just that: part of the story.


  1. I noticed that too--I was trying to find an event I was involved in, but it's not there.

  2. Eloquent as always, Jason.

    I would only add this from a NY Times story:

    A Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan using the pseudonym Zabiullah Mujahid said in a telephone interview that the Taliban had formed a nine-member “commission” after the Afghan documents were posted “to find about people who are spying.” He said the Taliban had a “wanted” list of 1,800 Afghans and was comparing that with names WikiLeaks provided.

    “After the process is completed, our Taliban court will decide about such people,” he said.

  3. Regarding the missing incident reports, could that be due to the specific CIDNE server's logs that were leaked? I seem to remember there being multiple servers, not all of which lined up exactly with the others. Wonder if that could be used to narrow down the origin of the leak, if it's not known already...

  4. @MK - it seems that Wikileaks managed to learn their lesson from the Afghan files. These reports were thoroughly scrubbed for sensitive information such as informants. I guess that's a good thing.

    @Anonymous - I have no idea. CIDNE didn't come on line until roughly January/February 2008, so most of the posts come from the old CPOF databases. Some of the reports I've written are there and some aren't and I would assume that I was putting data on the same server in any given week or so. It could be a database merger issue or Wikileaks could have withheld some. Again, I have no idea.

  5. Great post. I have problems too with Wikileaks' claim to be disclosing "the truth"--a website which edited so carefully the Apache episode and entitled it "Collateral murder" can not have any pretense to objectivity (if such a thing is possible). Everyone has biases, and acknowledging them is the first step towards honest reporting. As far as I know, Wikileaks still falls short of this standard.

  6. Good stuff, you nailed some salient points - number five in particular, which makes me wonder about what an AQI Powerpoint presentation looks like.

    Add me to the pile of guys who searched for monumental sigacts that must have been left on the cutting room floor.

  7. Jason, what can you reveal about which ISF you worked with, online or offline?

    As Gulliver knows, I have an interest in the ISF.

    "Sure, the U.S. started the war (and as I said, unjustly)."
    The great Iraqi civil war started in 1980. The US changed American involvement in an ongoing multi-sided complex civil war/regional war in 2003. I opposed the US involving itself so directly in 2002 and 2003 as you did. But the US did not start the war.

    "Focusing on U.S. actions ignores the other actors involved and what they did to propagate the war . . . the truth also involves al Qaeda in Iraq, the Iraqi Government, the Iranian Government, Sunni insurgent groups, Shia insurgent groups, and political and religious actors who spurred their followers on to violence."

    I think this is widely acknowledged by Iraqis, Iranians, Hezbollah, and non Iraqi Arabs. Even Assange probably understands this.

    The largest story in the Arab press so far related to the Iraqi wikileaks seems to be Iran's role in Iraq 2003-2008. Many Arabs have used the leak to bash the hated Persian Shiite enemey. The largest attack on America centers around the accusation that America was complicit with Iran, GoI and ISF in the Arabic press. At least so far.

    Jason, do not forget the degree to which Iraq was a regional war and the extent of hatred non Iraqi Arabs had towards PM Maliki, GoI and ISF. [and Jafari and Allawi before him.]

    For years Iraqi Shiites and Kurds have been regarded by non Iraqi Arabs as not "real Iraqis" and not "real Arabs." They have been regarded as a type of "Untermensch," even though they represented 80% of all Iraqis.

    There are many reason why so many billions of dollars were given by non Iraqi Arabs to the Iraqi resistance, as well as why tens of thousands of foreign fighters went to Iraq.

    Obviously Khamenei and Nasrallah responded in kind.

  8. Jason, it is probably true that the Baa3thists would have supported the MNF-I if the MNF-I had supported them against Shiites, Kurds, Yezidis, Turkmen, and traitorous Iraqi Sunni Arabs.

    Much of the hatred against American troops was related to which Iraqi factions the US was backing in Iraq. This was obviously true among Iraqis. But it is also somewhat true among non Iraqis.


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