One of the most shocking things about the publication of a huge database of secret field reports from the U.S. military in Afghanistan is how few surprises it contains.
President Obama told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that, while he is concerned about possible damage from the disclosure, “the fact is these documents do not reveal any issues that have not already informed our public debate on Afghanistan.
“Indeed, they point to the same challenges that led me to conduct an extensive review of our policy last fall,” he said.
“There is, as far as I can tell, nothing of any real interest in there,” said Peter Bergen, a fellow at the New America Foundation think tank and a leading U.S. scholar on the Afghan war.
Mr. Bergen attributed the furor about the publication to the fact that the documents were classified. “Everybody loves secrets. If this material was unclassified, no one would care,” he told The Washington Times.
Mr. Bergen added that the lack of any new information in the database “says a lot about the quality of U.S. intelligence” in the conflict.
“There is no doubt that the leaks are politically pretty damaging,” said Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute in London. “The papers give an impression of a lack of military discrimination in how operations were conducted.
“They are also appearing at the worst possible time, particularly in the United States, because people are looking for an exit strategy. This is old bad news at a new bad time.”
Despite the absence of surprises in the documents, officials continued Tuesday to press their case that the publication could be damaging.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Baghdad that he was “appalled” by the leak. “There is a real potential threat there to put American lives at risk,” he said.
Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. David Lapan told The Times that officials from the Defense Department and the Joint Staffs had launched a damage-assessment process “to assess potential risk to individuals, operational security [and] national security.”
He said the damage-assessment team, consisting of “about 10” specialists “in operations, in intelligence and in policy,” were combing through the database “around the clock.”
“Part of the issue here is the volume of material,” he said, noting that Wikileaks said it had posted more than 75,000 of the secret U.S. military reports, dating from January 2004 to December 2009, from a total of 91,000 received from an undisclosed source.
The damage assessment is “going to take days or weeks,” Col. Lapan said.
He added that there was a separate criminal probe into the leak, being led by the Army Criminal Investigation Division.
“It is a continuation of the current investigation into Pfc. [Bradley] Manning,” he said.
Pfc. Manning, 22, of Potomac, Md., is an Army intelligence analyst who was charged July 6 with leaking classified material to Wikileaks, after the website posted video of an attack by a U.S. helicopter in Iraq in which two employees of the Reuters news agency were killed.
Col. Lapan cautioned that this does not mean Pfc. Manning is the prime suspect as the source of the latest leak. “The connection [with the ongoing investigation] is the Wikileaks nexus,” he said.
The format and other details of the documents “are consistent with unit-reporting databases at the secret level,” like the Combined Information Data Network Exchange (CIDNE) data warehouse maintained by U.S. Central Command, Col. Lapan said. He cautioned that officials were still trying to work out where the leaked reports had come from.