The big news yesterday was WikiLeaks’ release of a massive number of secret military documents on Afghanistan and Pakistan written between 2004 and 2009. Before releasing the documents, WikiLeaks allowed the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian (UK) to review the documents and attest to their legitimacy.
Amy Davison, writing writes the following in response to the New York Times’ assertion that the documents do not contradict the official accounts of the war:
What does it mean to tell the truth about a war? Is it a lie, technically speaking, for the Administration to say that it has faith in Hamid Karzai’s government and regards him as a legitimate leader–or is it just absurd? Is it a lie to say that we have a plan for Afghanistan that makes any sense at all? If you put it that way, each of the WikiLeaks documents–from an account of an armed showdown between the Afghan police and the Afghan Army, to a few lines about a local interdiction official taking seventy-five-dollar bribes, to a sad exchange about an aid scam involving orphans–is a pixel in a picture that does, indeed, contradict official accounts of the war, and rather drastically so.
The contradiction between what we learn from the leaked documents or from the best reporting I read from Afghanistan reminds me of the story about Dell and Intel that I linked to yesterday. Dell got in trouble because they were taking kickbacks from Intel in exchange for not putting AMD chips in their servers, and then hiding that revenue and attributing their profits to other things. Dell wound up paying a $100 million fine for accounting fraud. The Intel-Dell deal was obviously good for Dell’s bottom line and, given that Intel freely entered into the arrangement and continued to pay Dell year after year, worked for them as well. But public corporations are required to disclose where they get and spend their money, so the secret deal got them in trouble.
On the other hand, the government is free to classify embarrassing or inconvenient information that doesn’t serve their goals, and of course, government officials leak that information off the record whenever it’s convenient to do so. When someone without authorization to do so leaks that information, as in this case, we hear lectures about the national interest and federal law. Is it too much for us to demand the same level of transparency from the government as we do from public corporations?