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.

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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

Yet with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.