Too Many Secrets

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I’m not sure much of what I’ve read thus far from the WikiLeaks document dump on Afghanistan has actually done a great deal to change my understanding of the war there. The Times is leading with the story that elements of Pakistani intelligence are supporting elements of the insurgency and the Guardian is emphasizing that coalition military operations have killed a lot of civilians, but I think most of us already knew both of those things. More broadly, the people most inclined to actually look at this material are going to be those of us who are already skeptical of the merits of long-term deep military engagement in Afghanistan. It is, however, a potent reminder that there’s far too much classification and secrecy in the United States government. This is actually underscored by the phrasing of National Security Advisor Jones’ condemnation of the leak:

The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security. Wikileaks made no effort to contact us about these documents – the United States government learned from news organizations that these documents would be posted.

That’s supposed to be the standard. Information should be classified when making it publicly available would put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk. And maybe there’s something in this giant trove of documents that meets that standard. But surely Jones isn’t going to seriously maintain that every document in here meets that standard. This report on an orphanage with no orphans, for example, is clearly benign. Reading its explanation of why the orphanage is empty, however, does give the reading public a somewhat deeper understanding of the country of Afghanistan:

SOCIAL: The PRT visited the Gardez Orphanage to conduct an assessment and drop HA and toys to the center. There are currently no orphans at the facility due to the Holiday (note: orphans are defined has having no father, but may still have mother and a family structure that will have them home for holidays.) Governor ———— states that the Red Crescent fund raiser (donation tickets) for winter relief has begun in the Province and will be collecting funds to aid the unfortunate during severe winter weather.

That’s not a military secret that puts people’s lives at risk. It’s not a scandalous secret that needs to be covered up, either. It’s just a small data point that gives us some greater understanding of Afghan society but that’s being kept secret out of an obsessive and ultimately counterproductive obsession with controlling the flow of information.