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Nelson On Wikieaks and ‘War Logs’

Posted by The Agonist on July 27th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

I’m not saying I agree with any, or all of it. Still, it’s useful to have the point of view from the Centrists.

From tonight’s Nelson Report on the ‘War Logs’:

The big leak over the weekend of some 9,000 classified US documents on the Afghanistan/Pakistan war situation has many folks thinking “another Pentagon Papers”…the iconic, policy-changing trauma inflicted on the Nixon Administration by Daniel Ellsburg during the Vietnam War.

A quick appraisal of the “Wikileak” leads us to say it’s not another Pentagon Papers for several reasons, most critically that (unlike Johnson/Nixon) the documents don’t show a pattern of deliberate, systematic lies and policy failures being swept under the rug by either the intelligence community or the Administration.

Yet they may have the same effect, as its hard to see how the current leak can do anything but further undermine US public support. In the aggregate, the documents confirm the military’s own concerns about why COIN isn’t working in an often impassable country still practicing Iron Age politics.

(We were here, back in 1970, and in the middle of the Congressional battle to protect Ellsburg, the Times and the Post, as a staffer for a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee.)

Discussion, below..and a long selection from today’s White House briefing which details Obama’s reaction to the substantive questions.

WIKILEAK…back in 1970, we were press secretary to Rep. Ogden Reid (R-NY) a ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, former US Amb. to Israel, and son of the owner of the then-still important New York Herald Tribune.

As a critic of the Vietnam War and a former newspaper man, “Brownie” was deeply involved in trying to protect the “leaker”, Daniel Ellsburg, and the two papers brave enough to take the lead in defying Nixon’s Justice Department and publish the story, the New York Times and The Washington Post.

So we had a front-row box seat to not just the Congressional deliberations, but also how the Pentagon Papers influenced the public debate.

Why do we say “brave enough” in what clearly was a very grave disclosure of the most sensitive national secrets? Because whatever you may think of Ellsburg’s motives, or the effect of the publication on the outcome of Vietnam, the papers gave the American people and the world a detailed look at the real situation in Vietnam…for the first time.

It showed us all that nearly every claim made by the Johnson and Nixon Administrations about the situation and the projected outcome was not simply not true…in too many cases it was a lie, and known to be such.

Facile comparisons to withholding “bad news” during WW2 while ultimate victory remained a feasible goal didn’t hold water then, and certainly don’t now.

The real picture was both heartbreaking and infuriating…enraging…as it detailed through DOD, CIA and other internal analyses that the war was being lost, and it showed the conclusion long before reached by Johnson Secretary of Defense MacNamara that the war could not be won by any definition acceptable to the US and the international community.

Yet the war at that point continued under Nixon/Kissinger at a frantic pace, with horrific Vietnamese, Laotion and Cambodian casualties in the hundreds of thousands, and a US death toll then still on the order of 100 a week…can you imagine that today?

It’s important to stress that the “Wikileak Papers” do not paint a picture of lies and wilful deception within the US military or civilian establishment under either Bush or Obama…that seems the immediate “verdict” of observers who did quick surveys in the past couple of days.

We’ve all known of the difficulties in Afghanistan/Pakistan, starting with last year’s “leak” of the Eikenberry memo, or from the implications of the infamous “McChrystal memo”, leaked to try and force Obama to increase US troops and recources, and most recently from the Rolling Stone article which brought down McChrystal, but which was really about the failure on the ground of COIN.

And the Times and other outlets long ago documented how Pakistani military and intel figures have played footsie with the Taliban, and worse.

But it does seem likely that if the summer doldrums don’t distract Congress and the American people, the Wikileak documents will fuel an increasingly pointed public and Congressional debate over Afghanistan and Pakistan….especially about goals and resources being poured into the war vs the outcomes being attained.

Congress utterly failed in those responsibilities during W. Bush’s Iraq War, and came late to Vietnam…so whether “Wikileak” accelerates a useful and objective Capitol Hill reckoning for Afghanistan is the thing to watch this Fall.

Among the difficult, fascinating and potentially destructive issues is how will the apparently “hawkish” Republicans want to play this, if they start to smell blood…Obama’s blood…in an Afghanistan failure?

Democrats have never been enthusiastic about the war, and the Dem’s rank and file voters thought they were voting against it in electing Obama…how we don’t know, given his Campaign.

But now, in the immortal words of RNC chairman Michael Steele, it’s “Obama’s War” and the Wikileak is a look into the details which should help us all assess the strategy and its outcomes.


“PERSPECTIVE”…the White House seems to agree with the thrust of our assessment of the content of the “Wikileak”, and also that the upcoming Congressional debate will prove critical…we pick up today’s Q&A’s in midstream:

Q Does the White House believe that the documents raise doubts about whether Pakistan is a reliable partner in fighting terrorism?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let’s understand a few things about the documents. Based on what we’ve seen, I don’t think that what is being reported hasn’t in many ways been publicly discussed either by you all or by representatives of the U.S. government for quite some time. We have certainly known about safe havens in Pakistan; we have been concerned about civilian casualties for quite some time — and on both of those aspects we’ve taken steps to make improvements.

I think just the last time General Petreaus testified in front of the Senate there was a fairly robust discussion about the historical relationships that have been had between the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Q So no doubts about Pakistan’s trustworthiness or reliability?

MR. GIBBS: No, no, look, I think the President was clear back in March of 2009 that there was no blank check for Pakistan, that Pakistan had to change the way it dealt with us, it had to make progress on safe havens. Look, it’s in the interest of the Pakistanis because we certainly saw last year those extremists that enjoy the safe haven there turning their eye on innocent Pakistanis. That’s why you’ve seen Pakistan make progress in moving against extremists in Swat and in South Waziristan.

But at the same time, even as they make progress, we understand that the status quo is not acceptable and that we have to continue moving this relationship in the right direction.

Q One more quickly on this. What do you think this says about the ability of the government to protect confidential information if a breach like this can occur?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think there is no doubt that this is a concerning development in operational security. And as we said earlier, it is — it poses a very real and potential threat to those that are working hard every day to keep us safe.


Q — how can that — but do these documents then suggest that this war is too far gone –


Q — to turn around with one policy change?

MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t in any way suggest the documents suggest that and I haven’t seen anybody to suggest that — except to say this, Ed, we agree that the direction — this administration spent a large part of 2007 and 2008 campaigning to be this administration and saying that the way that the war had been prosecuted, the resources that hadn’t been devoted to it threatened our national security.

Remember, we had a fairly grand debate about whether or not the central front in this war was Iraq or Afghanistan. We weighed in pretty heavily on Afghanistan because for years and years and years, more troops were needed — more troops actually had been requested by the commanding general, but no troops were forthcoming. That’s why the President increased our number of troops, heading into an important election period, and why we took steps through a, again, painstaking and comprehensive review, to come up with a new strategy.

Q But even after that painstaking review, these documents are suggesting that the Pakistani government has representatives of its spy agency essentially meeting representatives of the Taliban, plotting to attack American soldiers and Afghan officials.

MR. GIBBS: Let me just make sure –

Q How can that suggest the war is going well?

MR. GIBBS: No, no — you’re conflating about seven issues into one question. But let’s be clear, Ed. I don’t think — let me finish, let me finish –

Q If Pakistani officials are working with the Taliban, how can the war be going well? That’s one question.

MR. GIBBS: Again, Ed, I’m saying that the war — the direction of our relationship with Pakistan, based on steps that we’ve asked them to take, has improved that relationship — right?

Q Okay, because last week Secretary Clinton said that the U.S. and Pakistan are “partners joined in common cause.”


Q Despite these documents, the U.S. and Pakistan are joined in common cause?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, in fighting, as I just mentioned a few moments ago, in fighting extremists that are within that border. Again, go back to last year, Ed. Remember last year?

Q Sure.

MR. GIBBS: When those extremists decided that they were going to march on the capital in Pakistan? That became a threat to Pakistan. For the first time ever, you saw Pakistan fighting back against violent extremists that had otherwise enjoyed safe havens. When General Jones refers to in his statement the actions that they took in Swat and South Waziristan, that’s exactly what we’re talking about.

The point I’d make on the premise of your question, understand that the documents go through December of 2009. I don’t know if you meant to conflate actions — let’s just say that the documents –

Q Well, have the actions stopped? Do we know for sure that the Pakistani intelligence is no longer working –

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, these documents –

Q — with the Taliban?

MR. GIBBS: I think they’re making progress, and again, I’d refer to you –

Q Making progress but it has not ended even after December 2009?

MR. GIBBS: No, again, I would you point you to the hearing that was conducted just a month ago, less than a month ago, with General Petraeus where this was talked about.

Ed, nobody is here to declare “mission accomplished.” You’ve not heard that phrase uttered or emitted by us as a way of saying that everything is going well. Understand this, that we got involved in this region of the world after September 11th, and then for years and years and years and years, this area was neglected, it was under-resourced, it was underfunded. That’s what led the President to say that what we needed to do was focus on what was going on in Afghanistan. That’s why we’re here.


Q What would you as spokesman for the White House advise the public who may be running through these things and taking them in, in some degree of interest –

MR. GIBBS: Well, look –

Q — what is your overall assessment of how much is true? What’s not true? Mostly true, mostly untrue? How should they weigh this?

MR. GIBBS: I think these are — I think I’m, Major, not going to play that broad a role except to say that I think obviously this is on-the-ground reporting. What is unclear, certainly, if you read through the stories, is whether some of the events that they think might happen happened.

But, again, I think the — I would sum this up the way I summed it up a little bit ago, and that is that what — the concerns that are in these documents — and they’re important concerns; they’re concerns that we’ve certainly dealt with since the time we’ve been here and certainly as it related to Afghanistan and Pakistan, what precipitated the administration from doing a comprehensive review about our policy in both areas. That is — our goal is to get this right. Our goal is to keep America safe and to ensure that — and ensure the safety of those that are conducting these operations.

Q Let me take it from a different point of view. There are some — and this was part of the subtext or one of the subtexts of the Washington Post’s lengthy series last week — that maybe too many things are kept secret. Some might look at these documents and say do these all need to be top secret? Is all this information really that vital, really that sensitive to American national security that these should all be top secret? Do you have any evaluation of that?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think that is — those are made on a document-by-document basis. I’m not an expert in the classification process. Look, obviously if you — I think the President would always lean on the American people knowing as much as they possibly can. Look, I think if you –

Q — not this time.

MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no. Hold on, let’s be clear. Go back to the 12 or so meetings held in the Situation Room. We announced every one. We had readouts from every one. Lord knows, you had readouts beyond the readouts from each and every one. There were photos from each. We didn’t exactly have a cloistered evaluation of our policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s not the way we’ve operated.

And, again, I think it’s — let’s be clear, and I want to make sure that I’m clear on this — based on the fact that there’s nothing — there’s no broad new revelations in this, our concern isn’t that people might know that we’re concerned about safe havens in Pakistan, or that we’re concerned, as we are, about civilian casualties. Lord, all you need is a laptop and a mouse to figure that out, or 50 cents or $1.50, depending on which newspaper you buy. I don’t think that is, in a sense, top secret. But what generally governs the classification of these documents are names, operations, personnel, people that are cooperating — all of which if it’s compromised has a compromising effect on our security.

Q And can you explain the precipitating factor for the al-Megrahi letter?

MR. GIBBS: I just have a copy of it. I don’t know — I assume — look, at this point — and this is some conjecture on my part — at this point, this is a fairly public process. I don’t know what exactly lead to this letter. I know the letter speaks quite clearly to our preference, strong preference, as communicated both in this letter and in conversations that we had directly with the government there, that Megrahi should not be released.

Q Robert, take your premise that there is nothing really new in these documents that broadly says something different than what we already knew. There are many examples in Washington where the same thing can be said and that a precipitating event like this causes political shockwaves that change the dynamic.

MR. GIBBS: I think you’re talking about the media culture, aren’t you?

Q Well, perhaps. But we know there’s some interaction there. So I guess the question is — and it sort of goes back to Jonathan’s, which I don’t think you answered, which is are you all doing anything –

MR. GIBBS: No, I answered Jonathan’s question.

Q You answered the first part, but not the second part, which was have you done anything since the documents — since the documents were released this morning to try to assess whether or not these documents provide any ammunition to your critics, any political –

MR. GIBBS: Critics like who?

Q Well, there are critics of the Afghanistan war, increasingly people who are uncomfortable with it even in the Republican Party.

MR. GIBBS: I don’t know if — I don’t know every call that’s been made out of here. What I was trying to do was decouple the fact that we notified Congress that 90,000 documents are about to be put on a website that were, up until the moment that they go live, were classified documents is part of what is generally assumed to be our notification process. Look, I don’t know of — I certainly have not heard of a broad effort relating to what you’re talking about.


Q WikiLeaks one more time. To follow on Michael’s question about the inflection points in public opinion in history, what do you make of the comparisons between these leaks and the Pentagon Papers?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, the Pentagon Papers are different in the sense that you’re talking about policy documents. These are sort of on-the-ground reporting of different events. I don’t see how in any way they’re really comparable, again, given the fact that — go back and look at — again, just in the past month I know we’ve talked about in here, we’ve talked about the concern about civilian casualties. It’s not something that has been — not something that we previously hadn’t touched on that all of a sudden burst out into the public arena. Certainly, as I said earlier, the historic relationships that have been had between the Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence services — the headline in The New York Times story says — basically attributes the headline of that connection to U.S. aid.

So, again, it’s not — I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of those concerns. They are serious. That’s why we’ve taken steps to try to improve that relationship, for the Pakistanis to take certain steps, so that we can build in Pakistan and in Afghanistan a situation that improves our security.

Q You probably could have said a lot of those things about the Pentagon Papers, too, a lot of those same concerns were raised before. I guess my question is about the public opinion climate –

MR. GIBBS: What I’m trying to — what I’m trying to –

Q — does it change it?

MR. GIBBS: I don’t think the material that’s in the Pentagon — again, the Pentagon Papers is a fairly exhaustive policy review by the Pentagon. I think as Major said earlier, these are a series of one-off documents about an operation here or an instance there, or a — they’re not a broad sort of — this isn’t a broad review of aspects of civilian — progress that we have or haven’t made on civilian casualties. It’s just on-the-ground reporting on that. I think that’s –

Q But don’t they kind of paint sort of a portrait, Robert? I mean it’s — the aggregation of these documents — don’t they sort of collectively paint a portrait?

MR. GIBBS: But again, Glenn, you don’t — because there’s only a certain time period and you don’t know what was and what wasn’t either leaked or posted, I think to say that you know everything is probably not the case.


Q Would you compare it to Abu Ghraib or at least the repercussions from the impact –

MR. GIBBS: I’m always — I will say this. I’m always loath to look back and compare one event to something else when I just don’t always — I think we have a tendency to always want to compare it to something else rather than simply reporting out what — but, again, Ann, I want to stress again that the notion that — again, if you wrote down all of what our concerns in our relationship with Pakistan, if you wrote down what they were about our relationship and the challenges that we face in Afghanistan, I do not know that you would list one thing differently today as a result of what we’ve read in these documents that you wouldn’t have already listed a week ago.

I just don’t — and I think that’s partly your answer to that, Mark, that you don’t have some revelation that there’s a systematic change of the course of events, that we have stepped up operations at a certain part in the war in Southeast Asia, that we’ve escalated — that’s just not — that’s not what these documents are.

Q Let me follow on WikiLeaks — let me just follow on WikiLeaks for a second. Even if there is nothing substantially new in these documents — you’re in the communications business — are you concerned that the public and, therefore, perhaps members of Congress will think that there’s something new here, and that perception will drive reality and it will have an impact on your policy?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think inherently the last phrase of your question that you didn’t necessarily enumerate was about the politics of all this. The President made a decision to put almost 50,000 more troops in Afghanistan not based on the politics but based on what was right; based on what he believed was — gave us the best chance at succeeding in Afghanistan, and in making the decisions that gave us the best opportunity to improve our relationship with Pakistan and create, as Ed pointed out, a partnership to go after those in Pakistan that sought to do Pakistanis harm or those in Pakistan and Afghanistan that sought to do Americans harm. That’s the filter by which the President went through the meetings. That’s the filter by which the President made that decision.

The politics of all of this stuff will settle out regardless. The question the President asked himself and the question that the team asked themselves in making this decision is, what’s the right policy for this country? What’s the right policy that keeps us safe, and what’s the right policy that prevents safe havens from being recreated in Afghanistan, where planning can happen again, unfettered, to attack this country, as happened on September 11th? That’s what we’re focused on.

Q May I follow on that, please? Is it unanimous among all the administration that this is the right policy, that it is keeping America safer? And what is the U.S. policy towards the Taliban right now? Are there U.S. troops protecting the Taliban’s crops?

MR. GIBBS: I would point you to DOD on that. I would say this, that there was a very, very large, very, very extensive, with multiple inputs, review of where we were and what we needed to do going forward. We’re in the process of implementing going — we’re in the process of implementing that new strategy, evaluating that new strategy and moving forward.

Q But is America really safer?

MR. GIBBS: I believe America is safer, because if we were not to be in this area, if we were to — if the Taliban were to come and overthrow a government and create a safe haven that allowed al Qaeda and its extremist allies to not have to plot in a cave but sit in the open and plot the next September 11th, our country would be much, much more dangerous, a much greater target. And I think that’s why the President has made the decisions that he’s made.


Q Well, the message that this — that most of this information predates the President’s new strategy doesn’t seem to have gotten through to people like Senator Kerry, who said today that this information raises serious questions. Are you all trying to tamp that down and make sure that there’s a real –

MR. GIBBS: No, no, let me first be clear about — I think it would be hard to identify anybody that has done as much as Senator Kerry has. He was obviously intimately involved in, met several times with President Karzai around the election and the aftermath on that. He has been — he’s traveled to both countries and I think has been an important leader in ensuring that our policy is the right one.

Q Well, then he should know more than anybody that these aren’t new concerns, but he’s still saying it raises serious questions.

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, it — again, I’m not minimizing that this information is out there. What I’m simply saying, Sam, is I think if you asked this of Senator Kerry, I think if you asked this of most on Capitol Hill — and this doesn’t have to do with whether this stuff predates it. I will say that, again, our concern about the direction of the war, the funding and the resources that were being given to it — and, look, that is your strategy. If you’re not going to fund your strategy or if you’re going — if your strategy is going to be predicated on 25,000 troops rather than 100,000 troops, that limits your ability to impact that strategy.

But, look, I think Senator Kerry has been a leading voice on this and I think our responsibility and his responsibility as the leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to do all that we can to get this right.

Sam, we have weekly — the President hears weekly from commanders on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have monthly meetings — as I said, that will happen just this Thursday in the Situation Room — to evaluate where we are and to make adjustments. Nobody is writing — nobody wrote anything in stone and is then just hoping that it all happens. We will continually evaluate where we are, what needs to happen, how do we build Afghan capacity, how do we train up the Afghan national police and the Afghan national army as part of a comprehensive national security force that gives us the ability, once areas are cleared, to be able to transfer, again, both from a governance and a military perspective. I think all of that is important, and all of that will be continually evaluated.


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