Wiki-leaked Docs a Threat, but Maybe Not How Pentagon Thinks

by Cameron Bean and Bennett Furlow

On Friday, October 22, Wikileaks released almost 400,000 documents on the Iraq War.  At first Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell seemed to downplay the release, claiming the documents were “essentially snapshots of events” and do not “tell the whole story.” But chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen condemned the release, tweeting: “Another irresponsible posting of stolen classified documents by Wikileaks puts lives at risk and gives adversaries valuable information.”  Appearing on the Diane Rheem Show, Morrell also took a more serious tone toward the release in line with Mullen:

Well, what I’m speaking of is our fear is that our enemies can look at these documents and see patterns of behavior, can connect the dots in terms of how we respond in — when we’re engaged with small arms fire, when — what are our — what is our standard operating procedure in the aftermath of an IED attack, how we cultivate sources on working with Iraqis or Afghans, the capabilities of our equipment, response times, things of this nature. These and — listen, we are dealing with — and have been for years — a knowing, thinking, adaptive enemy. of this nature. These and — listen, we are dealing with — and have been for years — a knowing, thinking, adaptive enemy. They are — they know that this is a treasure trove of information that they can mine and make them smarter and better fighters.

Others emphasize different outcomes or downplay the danger these releases pose to troops. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have called for a full investigation of the claims of abuse and torture found in the documents.  Daniel Ellsberg has been particularly outspoken in support of the release.  Appearing on the Larry King show, he responded to the issue of endangering troops by changing the subject:

KING: How do you respond to the White House assertion that this leak puts U.S. forces in danger?

ELLSBERG: You know, the people who put U.S. forces in harm’s way—100,000 men and women in Afghanistan—are the last two administrations, but particularly this one, with a decision to escalate the war. I think it takes a lot of –I don’t know what to say—chutzpah, effrontery, for people who made the reckless, foolish, and I would say irresponsible decisions to escalate a war that I’m sure they know internally is as hopeless as these new revelations reveal it to be.

So a crucial question seems to be: Are extremist groups really mining these leaked documents for information that could put our troops in danger, or is this threat being overemphasized, drawing attention away from issues of official misconduct?

To our knowledge nobody has taken a public look at this question, so we decided to address it by looking at web sites and message boards frequented by extremists, to see how the Wikileaks release is being discussed.  We discovered three “camps” that viewed the release in radically different ways.

Camp 1: That’s nice but…

Members of the first camp exist in virtually all of the forums we surveyed.  They believe the WikiLeaks documents are beneficial.  The documents provide evidence that support their claims against Nouri al-Maliki. These include claims that Maliki has had a role in Shi’a attacks on Sunnis, Americans turn a blind eye to his abuses, Iranian militias are fighting in Iraq, and the civilian death toll in Iraq is far higher than the U.S. will admit.  In their eyes, the documents do not contain new information, but provide only further confirmation of their existing views.

This group considers the documents “half truths.” The contents are “not surprising,” and they “do not want to touch” the documents because they “do not point to the main killers nor their aides and lackeys inside and outside Iraq.” They emphasize that these reports can help expose the “true nature” of Maliki and the American occupation, but relate only a fraction of the atrocities that have occurred.  For some, including the spokesman of Jaish al-Fatiheen, that is enough to have “no desire to touch the documents” any further.

Camp 2: It’s a trap

Those in the second camp advocate staying away from the documents entirely. They are suspicious of them and argue that the documents are part of a conspiracy. In their view, there must be a reason for the leak or some sinister motive behind it. These voices are loudest on the Shumookh al-Islam Forum, which the Quilliam Foundation recently rated as “the second most popular al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadist forum.” It is also endorsed by al-Qaeda’s online logistical network al-Fajr.

One interesting conspiracy theory, promoted on the Shumookh Forum, argues that the Wikileaks documents are part of an American-Iranian plot to fool Sunni Arabs into thinking America is an ally, while Iran and America are actually in a secret alliance. The documents are designed to delude al-Qaeda into thinking Maliki is not a strong ally of the U.S. and decrease their interest in attacking Iraqi ministries and forces. Other conspiracy theories also exist, including the idea that there are new mysterious documents in the list that were not originally there.

Camp 3: Translations wanted

Those in the third camp do not share the suspicions of Camp 2. In fact, they are very interested in acquiring information from the leaked documents. To do so, they call for translations of the documents into Arabic and encourage others to analyze them to find information that can benefit the “mujahideen.”

This indicates a couple of things.  First, they recognize that the documents could support the extremist narrative by helping prove that the U.S. has acted criminally and inhumanly.  But second, this camp realizes that a complete translation might backfire against them, so selective work is advised.  If the documents are treated as credible (and they must be credible or why bother translating them?) and they indicate that the “mujahideen” have committed crimes or atrocities, it has the potential to weaken support for the extremists.

The third camp is found on multiple forums, but seem strongest on al-Hanin Forum, where a separate section of the forum titled “WikiLeaks” was created for users to post translations and discuss the documents. There is a significant amount of activity in the “WikiLeaks” section with one user in particular, named “Sword of the Samurai.” This user has contributed over thirty translations since the section appeared on the form around October 26. Another ongoing forum thread contains translations posted by a user named “Abu Yousef al-Bashir,” now at a length of seven pages with over 2,500 views since October 24.

Analysis

What do these sites tell us about the threat of the Wikileaks documents to national security?  The first camp sees the documents as irrelevant. If the leaked documents do not contain anything new, then nothing has changed.  Most of the posts coming from the second camp, regarding conspiracies, are found on one site, Shumoukh Forum, and those posts ceased after three days of activity.  This suggests that the second camp is probably the smallest and least significant of the three.

It is the third camp, which seeks translation of the documents, which should command our attention. In the hands of this group the Wikileaks documents could, at minimum, provide a strategic communication ammunition for the extremists.  The documents could support their “justification for hostilities” against Maliki and the U.S. and affirm what the extremists have said about U.S. motivations and activities all along.

This brings us to another concern: The documents could serve as a recruiting tool. Non-participants, who may have been skeptical or uninterested in extremist claims against the U.S., could become roused or active in response to new information, largely due to the source. That said, it is important not to overemphasize the scale of the threat here.  There is no shortage of grievances, being deployed by extremists against the United States, whether based in reality or on bizarre conspiracy theories. Further confirmation or expansion of those grievances, especially based on documentation of the past, does not present a unique or novel threat.

Overall, in the immediate sense and judging by the sites analyzed, the Wikileaks documents do not appear to pose a threat to national security in the way conceptualized by Mullen and Morrell. We found only minimal effort to mine the documents to learn more about American battle tactics and strategy on these web sites.  However, the documents may well pose a more significant threat from a strategic communication point of view, providing evidence of bad behavior by the U.S. and its allies.  The release of any such internal material that supports a negative narrative about U.S. involvement in the Middle East is most certainly counter to U.S. interests.