News raced around the world late Sunday into Monday about the publication of tens of thousands of secret military documents pertaining to the NATO-led war in Afghanistan.
The archives, posted collectively as the The Afghan War Diary on the donor-funded WikiLeaks’ website, offered a unique perspective on the war that is reportedly grimmer than how the Pentagon has often portrayed it.
WikiLeaks most recently garnered international attention when it published a controversial video three months ago that reportedly showed a 2007 American helicopter attack in Baghdad. A dozen people, including two Reuters journalists, were killed.
This time, however, the site gave the New York Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel access to the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents spanning six years several weeks ago on the condition they do not report on the materials before Sunday, the Times indicated in a story.
However, perhaps more important than what the documents included was how the whistle-blowing site, WikiLeaks, partnered with professional media partners to legitimize and analyze the pages of information.
The Times reports that the documents indicate “the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001” despite the nearly $300 billion spent on the war.
“The archive is a vivid reminder that the Afghan conflict until recently was a second-class war, with money, troops and attention lavished on Iraq while soldiers and Marines lamented that the Afghans they were training were not being paid,” the Times reported.
Through the partnership, the publications were able to offer perspective that raw data is unable to. For example, the Times reported that while the “documents do not contradict official accounts of the war,” they showed that the American military made misleading public statements in some cases.
The Times also was able to offer perspective on what the documents were lacking, specifically: “The archive is clearly an incomplete record of the war. It is missing many references to seminal events and does not include more highly classified information. The documents also do not cover events in 2010, when the influx of more troops into Afghanistan began and a new counterinsurgency strategy took hold.”
Not surprisingly, many governments, including the United States, criticized the release.
However, the way WikiLeaks opted to break the story is important and ground-breaking – in many ways.
In addition to further legitimizing the data, the site demonstrated how beneficial such a partnership could be when professional journalists and members of the public come together to share information.
As newsroom staffs continue to shrink, assistance from outside of news organizations are growing more critical – to both the survival of the practice of journalism and the very democracy on which this nation has been built. This story demonstrates that the public can – and should – contribute more than just photos of wild weather, but also of potential government failings. It is up to the press across America to encourage that.