In praise of leaks, WikiLeaks and the Guardian

Today’s “scoop” is a reminder of why we have failed in Afghanistan.

Hats off to Julian Assange, Alan Rusbridger and the rest of the folks at WikiLeaks, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. Their joint publication of what the Guardian describes as a "huge cache of secret US military files" does indeed provide, as the reporters Nick Davies and David Leigh argue, "a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency".

The White House has criticised the "irresponsible" leak of 90,000 documents. Surprise, surprise!

Richard Kemp, the retired colonel, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and pundit often invited on to the airwaves to defend our "mission" in Helmand, told Radio 4's Today programme that the unprecedented document dump was "damaging" to operational security. First, how does he know? Second, so were the Pentagon Papers. As the US blogger Glenn Greenwald tweeted earlier this morning: "Can't wait to hear from those who believe Dan Ellsberg is heroic but who viciously condemn WikiLeaks". On his blog, Greenwald goes on to point out:

Ellsberg's leak -- though primarily exposing the amoral duplicity of a Democratic administration -- occurred when there was a Republican in the White House. This latest leak, by contrast, indicts a war which a Democratic president has embraced as his own, and documents similar manipulation of public opinion and suppression of the truth well into 2009. It's not difficult to foresee, as Atrios predicted, that media "coverage of [the] latest [leak] will be about whether or not it should have been published", rather than about what these documents reveal about the war effort and the government and military leaders prosecuting it.

At least John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate and chair of the Senate's foreign relations committee, seems to be taking the matter seriously:

[H]owever illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.

(Hat-tip: George Eaton.)

Talking of Daniel Ellsberg, by the way, here's what the most famous leaker in living memory wrote in September 2004, in the New York Times:

Surely there are officials in the present administration who recognise that the United States has been misled into a war in Iraq, but who have so far kept their silence -- as I long did about the war in Vietnam. To them I have a personal message: don't repeat my mistakes. Don't wait until more troops are sent, and thousands more have died, before telling truths that could end a war and save lives. Do what I wish I had done in 1964: go to the press, to Congress, and document your claims.

Technology may make it easier to tell your story, but the decision to do so will be no less difficult. The personal risks of making disclosures embarrassing to your superiors are real. If you are identified as the source, your career will be over; friendships will be lost; you may even be prosecuted. But some 140,000 Americans are risking their lives every day in Iraq. Our nation is in urgent need of comparable moral courage from its public officials.

Ellsberg was writing back then about the war in Iraq, but perhaps someone in the US government currently involved in the Afghan war effort read his piece more recently and was inspired to get in touch with Assange and co. (I suspect we'll never know . . . )

Either way, as the well-connected US blogger and commentator on foreign affairs Steve Clemons writes:

This is the "Pentagon Papers moment" in this contemporary war, and it will force President Obama and his team to go back and review first principles about the objectives of this war.

LBJ escalated the Vietnam war that he felt politically unable to escape.

The question is whether President Obama has the backbone and temerity to reframe this engagement and stop the haemorrhaging of American lives and those of allies as well as the gross expenditure of funds for a war that shows a diminished America that is killing hundreds of innocent people and lying about it, of an enemy that is animated and funded in part by our supposed allies in Pakistan, and US tolerance for a staggering level of abuse, incompetence and corruption in our Afghan allies in the Karzai government.

Does Obama have the "backbone and temerity" to stop this madness? It's question I've been asking for a while.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle