An expert's point of view on a current event.

Popping the Military’s Classification Bubble

The vast majority of the WikiLeaks documents on Afghanistan shouldn't have been classified. I should know, I wrote some of them.


Blindsided by this summer’s stunning publication of thousands of classified reports related to the Afghan war, the Pentagon was much more proactive in bracing for the second round: the 391,832 "secret" Iraq documents that WikiLeaks, the shadowy organization behind the data dump, released on Oct. 22.

For many, the unauthorized release of the documents provoked outrage and fears of Taliban reprisals against Afghan and Iraq informants. For me, however, the releases mainly inspired déjà vu: It was almost as if I had written many of them myself. Indeed, I had. As I read through Afghan documents released earlier this summer, I recognized some of my own wording, and remembered many of the other incidents.

From June 2008 to January 2010, I worked at the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), which is a humanitarian project meant to track information with regards to safety and security and liaise with non-NGO actors such as international military, state actors, and private companies on behalf of the NGO community and advise its NGO beneficiaries accordingly.

The information that I collected and distributed was open-source — and available to anyone who put in the effort to find out — and yet was being classified by the U.S. military after it had become a matter of public record. This means that the classification was not only a waste of resources, but removed information from the context and conversation in which it was occurring.

So I’m not surprised that, even now, after journalists and analysts have had 12 weeks to pore through the tens of thousands of leaked documents, they have failed to produce any startling revelations about the war in Afghanistan. This seems also to be the case with regards to the Iraq documents, which appear in large part to be confirmation of information anecdotally known to journalists and aid workers for some time now.

This dearth of new information is the real story — not that secrets are finally being uncovered. Rather than offering any insight into the Afghan war, the documents have shown just how irrelevant the closed silos of U.S. intelligence have become. In both the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, the "revelation" that Iran is pursuing its interests in these countries should come as little shock and is of comparatively little value compared to the public discussions about the nature and extent of those goals.

At ANSO, the vast majority of sources that we utilized were publicly available: police and U.N. reports, information from NGO staff, stories overheard in the market, and reports and books containing any of the extensive anthropological, social, and economic research done in Afghanistan. Any restrictions we placed on how we reported this information and to whom we supplied it were solely in place to safeguard the future flow of information.

For example, we did not release our reports to private security companies (PSCs), because their interests give them a disincentive to share. A PSC makes money by, among other things, having more information than their competitors. Given the nature of their mission, they also tended to lack access to those areas that we were most curious about. We were allowed to talk with security contractors, but we were prohibited from putting them on our mailing list, which would allow them to receive our reports automatically. If a PSC employee wanted our information or analysis, they had to talk to ANSO in person — a procedure that discouraged them, or at least kept them from coming to a meeting empty-handed.

Numerous pieces of information in the WikiLeaks dump are information that was publicly released through ANSO as well as other open-source media. A Sept. 2 report, for example, details a police shooting and subsequent demonstration in the Farkhar District of Takhar Province — the report is cribbed from U.N. or ANSO reporting on the incident. Although the description of the incident is valid, it remains unclear whether the U.S. reports contain reporting on the causes of this incident or its aftermath, both of which are highly significant to security in that part of the province.

The WikiLeaks documents that did provide new information were often reports of meetings between U.S. forces and their contacts. If these documents had been available to me and others like me at the time, our input could have hugely benefited U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Third party actors like my colleagues and I are among those whom the U.S. needs to convince of its mission and tactics. The U.S. intelligence apparatus is ultimately biased in favor of those who exhibit loyalty to the United States, rather than those who necessarily have the most informed perspective. The system goes to great effort to maintain a classification system that by its very nature precludes the very opinions that it needs to encounter and incorporate. At a certain point, usually very early in the information flow, intelligence gets forced into the box of U.S. officialdom, which prevents those outside this closed network from commenting upon it.

To be sure, there are good reasons that U.S. intelligence evolved as a closed system. Individuals who have learned the language and cultures of sensitive regions of the world, such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia, often make new friends and build allegiances much stronger than nationalism. Many are understandably hesitant to allow the United States to exploit their information for U.S. national security interests at the expense of local parties or broader agendas. However, these individuals have the knowledge and perspective which state actors like the United States need to pursue those interests.

These are admittedly difficult interests for the United States to balance, but it must do a better job of evolving with the changing times. It makes sense to keep the name of contacts and operational security details classified, but obscuring any further information or analysis is only depriving it of valuable feedback, from friend and foe alike.

The secretive nature of the WikiLeaks documents belies their relative unimportance. The lack of revelations in these reports shows that open-source information is perfectly capable of shedding light on the course of the Afghan and Iraq wars. But by attempting to insulate its knowledge from outsiders, the international coalition is depriving itself of the knowledge needed to bring the war to its conclusion.

Nowhere in the released documents, for example, is there any information about the changing discourse of honor in Pashtun communities that David B. Edwards detailed in his anthropological research. Nowhere is there an understanding of Gilles Dorronsoro’s categorization of the differing ambitions and ideologies of Afghanistan’s numerous mujahidin groups. You also don’t hear about the small business owner who doesn’t care who wins the war, but just wants to expand his enterprise. Those developments are available to a journalist or aid worker and can be parsed by a political scientist’s theories or an economist’s equations. But sadly, they appear lost on the U.S. military.

Scott Bohlinger worked as a security advisor at the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) from June 2008 to January 2010.