Commentary Magazine


Weak Leaks

When the first batch of WikiLeaks’s prize field reports was posted in July, I was underwhelmed by the strategic import of the content. This unauthorized disclosure was nothing like the “Pentagon Papers,” which revealed a marked difference between the Johnson administration’s public protestations about our policy in Vietnam and the policy it was actually pursuing. The significance of the Pentagon Papers leak lay in what it revealed — directly and explicitly — about the American executive.

The WikiLeaks document dumps this year have done no such thing. The leaked field reports contain no direct information about policy in Washington. The first batch of reports tended mainly to confirm that the American understanding of what was going on in the field, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was pretty accurate. The second batch of reports, which was provided to selected news outlets last week, appears to be going beyond that to vindicate key claims of the Bush administration and debunk one of the principal talking points of its critics.

The New York Times, given advance access to the new batch of documents, reported on Friday that they are full of references to Iranian involvement in the Shia insurgency in Iraq. As the Times observes, the Bush administration was strongly criticized for charging Iran with this interference, but the field reports indicate that Bush’s allegations comported with what he was hearing from the field. (h/t: Legal Insurrection)

Wired’s Danger Room notes that the reports are also full of references to the discovery and identification in Iraq of chemical weapons, weapons-making laboratories, and chemical-weapons experts among Iraq’s insurgents and terrorists. (h/t: Ed Morrissey at Hot Air) Many of the facts surrounding these discoveries have been public for years, but as several bloggers have pointed out, this documentary validation isn’t propaganda: it comes from field reports that were never intended to reach or persuade the public. Ironically, for a leak made with its particular political motives, this one validates precisely the concern with which George W. Bush went into Iraq — i.e., that the WMD components acquired by terrorism sponsors could fall into the hands of terrorists.

But there’s more irony in those leaked documents. They contain civilian casualty summaries that give the lie to the wild estimates from the 2006 Lancet study of 655,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq because of the war. The casualty total reflected in the documents is 109,032 through 2009. From a humanitarian perspective, any civilian casualties are assuredly “too many.” But the disingenuousness of urging the public to indignation over a particular number is thrown into strong relief when the number is revealed to have been a ridiculous and irresponsible exaggeration. As the Melbourne Herald Sun blogger observes, the Iraqi total from the WikiLeaks documents makes the civilian fatality rate from combat there lower than the murder rate in South Africa.

Glenn Reynolds points out at Instapundit that the timing of this fresh document dump is beneficial mainly to the impending release of George W. Bush’s presidential memoir. That’s probably an unintended consequence, too.