But is it?
Taken as a whole, the documents paint a picture of a war going poorly in a highly corrupt country and being heavily influenced by a neighbor (Pakistan) that works at sometimes deadly cross-purposes with US interests. But perhaps the most direct damage will come from how the documents affect already soured public and congressional opinion of the war, Afghanistan and military analysts say.
Still, those same analysts say, it is ironic to hear the White House argue that the information puts American lives at risk, when it was very likely someone in the US military – with personal experience of how the war is endangering Americans – who leaked the documents.
“I don’t know why they [in the White House] want to hide behind the troops, when it’s probably one of the troops who put this information out,” says Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington who was an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. “I just don’t buy the argument that this endangers our soldiers or in some way has some negative impact on operations” on the ground.
In a statement released Sunday night, National Security Adviser James Jones said the United States “strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information,” which he said “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.”
By Monday morning, however, US officials had shifted to damage-control mode, with two arguments: first, that the leaked documents contain the kind of information that President Obama used in his lengthy Afghanistan policy review last fall, which led to the new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy he announced Dec. 1; and second, that the documents, which span a period from 2004 through 2009, reflect problems (corruption, Pakistani collusion with the Taliban, civilian casualties) that were well known.
Still, even some military analysts who generally agree that leaking classified documents can harm national security say that in this case, the information more than anything draws attention to some very serious problems.
“Leaks do real damage to our national security, but this is a security issue for a different reason,” says Ralph Peters, a military-affairs analyst and former Army intelligence officer. “This reveals what I’ve been saying and what my friends still in uniform have been saying for years – that the Pakistanis are helping the Taliban kill our troops, and they are shielding Al Qaeda.”
Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, said in a statement Monday that leaking unprocessed intelligence reports from a war zone is irresponsible because it often perpetuates “rumors” that turn out to be incorrect or to be even planted falsehoods. “These reports reflect nothing more than single-source comments and rumors, which abound on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and are often proved wrong,” he said.
On the contrary, Mr. Peters says, the body of information reflects patterns.
“When you get one report of a supposed partner’s misbehavior, you consider first that it could be an outlier. On a second report, you start paying attention, and with a third report, you know you have a problem,” he says. “What we have here is a five-year pattern of Pakistani misbehavior and betrayal.”
In his statement, Mr. Jones acknowledges the Pakistani intelligence service’s history of collaboration with extremist groups, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But, he also says, Pakistan – the military and the secretive intelligence organization, the ISI – has begun taking steps to sever the long-known links.
Saying the “strategic shift” must continue, Jones added, “The balance must shift decisively against Al Qaeda and its extremist allies.”
To be fair, some analysts say, it should be noted that the released documents end in December 2009, before some of Pakistan’s most direct actions against extremist elements inside its borders.
“There’s no reason to believe that Pakistan’s problematic behavior came to a screeching halt simply because of the advent of the Obama strategy on Afghanistan,” says Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence and policy-planning official. “But it’s also true that it’s been in the last six months that the Pakistanis have stepped up their actions against these groups that they increasingly see as internal security threats.”
Mr. White says he can easily envision how the source of the documents may have been motivated by personal experience.
“It’s hard to believe that such behavior by a supposed partner has not put lives at risk, including those of Americans,” he says. “Knowing that can be a pretty strong motivator.”