Why won't the Pentagon help WikiLeaks redact documents?

The government's refusal to help minimize harm belies its claimed concern for innocent Afghans

Published August 20, 2010 4:21PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

When the controversy first arose over the lack of redactions in the war documents released by WikiLeaks, the website insisted that, using the New York Times as an intermediary, it had asked the Obama administration for help in removing names of Afghans before releasing the documents, a claim the Pentagon vehemently denied.  The New York Times, needless to say, sided with the Government -- that's what the NYT does -- but they did so by simultaneously confirming the truth of WikiLeaks' version of events.  From the Associated Press article, July 31, on that controversy:

Also on Saturday, a New York Times reporter who has been the newspaper's liaison with Assange, dismissed Assange's claim that WikiLeaks had offered to let U.S. government officials go through leaked documents to ensure that no innocent people were identified. Assange told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview that aired Thursday that the New York Times had acted as an intermediary and that the White House hadn't responded to the offer.

Times reporter Eric Schmitt told the AP that on the night of July 23, at White House spokesman's Robert Gibbs' request, he relayed to Assange a White House request that WikiLeaks not publish information that could lead to people being physically harmed.

The next evening, Schmitt said, Assange replied in an e-mail that WikiLeaks was withholding 15,000 documents for review. Schmitt said Assange wrote that WikiLeaks would consider recommendations made by the International Security Assistance Force "on the identification of innocents for this material if it is willing to provide reviewers."

Schmitt said he forwarded the e-mail to White House officials and Times editors.

"I certainly didn't consider this a serious and realistic offer to the White House to vet any of the documents before they were to be posted, and I think it's ridiculous that Assange is portraying it that way now," Schmitt wrote to the AP.

On Friday, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said it was "absolutely, unequivocally not true" that WikiLeaks had offered to let U.S. government officials go through the documents to make sure no innocent people were identified.

Do you see what happened there?  Schmitt, wanting to side with his Pentagon friends, publicly suggested that Assange was lying when he claimed that he offered to allow the Government to suggest redcations, even as Schmitt himself acknowledged that "Assange wrote that WikiLeaks would consider recommendations made by the International Security Assistance Force 'on the identification of innocents for this material if it is willing to provide reviewers'," an offer Schmitt says he conveyed to the White House.  In other words, Schmitt defended the Pentagon's denials that Assange made this offer even as he himself described the very events which proved Assange was telling the truth.  At the very least, WikiLeaks clearly indicated its willingness to have government officials review the documents and make recommendations about redactions -- something those officials refused to do.

Exactly the same thing is happening now concerning the 15,000 remaining documents which WikiLeaks originally withheld in order to engage in "harm minimization."  On Wednesday, Newsweek's Mark Hosenball wrote an article -- entitled "Pentagon Says WikiLeaks Is Fibbing" -- which quotes DoD officials essentially calling Assange a liar (again) because of Assange's "latest claims about alleged attempts he has made to establish some kind of working relationship, or at least cordial contact, with U.S. defense authorities."  Hosenball repeatedly quotes these officials insisting that, contrary to Assange's claims, WikiLeaks has made no efforts to communicate with the Pentagon about obtaining help in redacting the rest of the documents in order to protect innocent Afghans.

But yesterday, WikiLeaks the DoD itself released a letter -- dated August 16 (two days before the Newsweek article) -- which makes clear that WikiLeaks did exactly that which DoD officials denied they did:  namely, they asked DoD for help redacting these remaining documents.  That letter, written by DoD Legal Counsel Jeh Charles Johnson to WikiLeak's counsel, Timothy Matusheski, explicitly recounts -- contrary to the emphatic denials in Newsweek -- that WikiLeaks' lawyer had contacted the Pentagon and requested help in the "harm minimization" process.  The DoD, however, is explicitly refusing to offer any help whatsoever:

Why would the DoD refuse to offer this assistance?  WikiLeaks -- in response to Pentagon threats -- has already stated emphatically that these documents are going to be released no matter what.  No rational person would doubt that they mean this.  Wouldn't it be vastly preferable -- from the Government's perspective -- to have those documents released with the names of Afghan sources redacted, rather than force WikiLeaks to guess at what needs to be withheld?  The Pentagon routinely conveys to media outlets preparing to release classified documents its views about what specifically ought to be withheld, notwithstanding its objections to the release of all information.  Why would they not do the same here?

After the last release, the Pentagon very flamboyantly accused WikiLeaks of endangering the lives of innocent Afghans, even accusing them of having "blood on their hands" (despite the absence of a single claim that anyone was actually harmed from the release of those documents).  If Pentagon officials are truly concerned about the well-being of Afghan sources identified in these documents -- rather than exaggerating and exploiting that concern in order to harm WikiLeaks' credibility -- wouldn't they be eager to help WikiLeaks redact these documents?  That would be the behavior one would expect if these concerns were at all genuine. 

Instead, the Pentagon is doing the opposite:  first lying by denying that WikiLeaks ever sought this help, then refusing to provide it in response.  In the conflict between the U.S. Government and WikiLeaks, it is true that one of the parties seems steadfastly indifferent to the lives of Afghan civilians.  Despite the very valid criticisms that more care should have been exercised before that first set of documents was released, the party most guilty of that indifference is not WikiLeaks.


UPDATE:  Just to underscore how misleading the Pentagon has been in denying that WikiLeaks sought its assistance in redacting the documents, DoD Press Secretary Geoff Morrell gave a Press Conference on August 5 which alternatively threatened and pleaded with WikiLeaks.  Watch how much Morrell had to parse his statement in order to deny WikiLeak's claims that it sought the Pentagon's help prior to release of the documents:

Recent reports claim WikiLeaks asked the department for help in reviewing these documents before releasing them to the public as part of a "harm minimization exercise," Morrell said.  However, "WikiLeaks has made no such request directly to the Department of Defense," he added.

That awkward modifier -- "directly" -- is necessary precisely because WikiLeaks did indeed request redaction help from the Pentagon "indirectly":  i.e., through The New York Times as mediator, just as Assange insisted from the beginning and the Pentagon denied.  For whatever reasons -- because it wanted WikiLeaks to release the documents with the names of Afghan sources to damage its credibility, because it was indifferent to the potential harm -- the Pentagon simply failed to pursue that option, just as it is doing now with the next 15,000 documents.  Are those the actions of officials with any genuine concern for the harm to Afghan civilians, other than to the extent it be can exploited to harm its arch-enemy, WikiLeaks?


UPDATE II:  Sean-Paul Kelley, who very harshly criticized WikiLeaks for the lack of redactions in the released documents, today, to his immense credit, re-considers and retracts that criticism in light of the evidence presented here.


UPDATE III:  Newsweek's Mark Hosenball follows up on the issues raised here in a new article today, with more evidence proving that WikiLeaks has been attempting to secure the Pentagon's cooperation in redacting names -- exactly as Assange has been explaining -- while the Pentagon has been issuing multiple false denials of these facts.  Shouldn't anyone who criticized WikiLeaks for its lack of redactions also be criticizing the DoD for refusing WikiLeaks' requests for redaction assistance (and then falsely denying it happened)?

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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