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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.