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Are we moving toward a dataless war?

Are we moving toward a dataless war?

Military statistics are an imperfect way of tracking a war’s progress, but that doesn’t mean the data is useless. In fact, stats remain a key way to hold the military accountable for events in faraway places like Afghanistan. So what happens when the military decides to stop releasing certain statistics about its wars? Well, we’re about to find out.

In the last two weeks alone, the military has scaled back its disclosure of war data in the following ways:

Drone Strike Data

Following increased scrutiny of drone warfare in Congress and a savvy investigation by the Air Force Times, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) conceded on Saturday that it was no longer providing specific data about drone strikes in Afghanistan in its monthly reports. It also removed drone strike data from previous monthly reports on its website. The reason? According to U.S. Central Command, those reports were "disproportionately focused" on drone strike data. ISAF emphasized that drones are predominantly used for surveillance and that "only about 3% of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan invol[ve] kinetic events," which is another way of saying: We don’t like the way you’re interpreting our information, so we’re going to give you less information.

Insurgent Attacks

The number of insurgent attacks was one of the most widely cited statistics in the decade-long Afghan war, but it’s no longer provided to the public as of last week. The change in policy came about after the Associated Press forced ISAF to concede that it incorrectly cited a 7 percent drop in insurgent attacks in 2012. (In reality, the number of Taliban attacks had remained the same.) After that embarrassment, ISAF acknowledged that its reporting methods were flawed. Instead of fixing the problem, however, it decided to stop publishing the data altogether.

"We have come to realize that a simple tally of (attacks) is not the most complete measure of the campaign’s progress," said ISAF spokesman Jamie Graybeal. "At a time when more than 80 percent of the (attacks) are happening in areas where less than 20 percent of Afghans live, this single facet of the campaign is not particularly accurate in describing the complete effect of the insurgency’s violence on the people of Afghanistan."

At the time, Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman put the policy change in vivid context. "This means ISAF is denying you a major metric for assessing the durability and the lethality of the insurgency, as well as, by inference, its freedom of movement," he said. "When U.S. officials in the future claim that they’re making progress, you will not be able to access the data underlying their claims."

Freedom of Information Act Requests

Another method journalists rely on for obtaining military records about the war is by filing Freedom of Information Act requests. But getting the government to acquiesce to these requests has been increasingly difficult when they pertain to national security issues, an Associated Press investigation today indicates:

The U.S. government, led by the Pentagon and CIA, censored files that the public requested last year under the Freedom of Information Act more often than at any time since President Barack Obama took office, according to a new analysis by The Associated Press. The government frequently cited national security as the reason.

Although the administration answered more overall requests last year than ever before, it more often withheld information, citing national security provisions:

In a year of intense public interest over deadly U.S. drones, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terror threats and more, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times – a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama’s first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.

Other federal agencies that invoked the national security exception included the Pentagon, Director of National Intelligence, NASA, Office of Management and Budget, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Communications Commission and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs.

All things considered, if the White House aims to make this the "most transparent administration in history," March has been a lackluster month for its national security apparatus.