Democrats split over massive Afghanistan leak

WikiLeaks exposé is attacked by White House but Kerry warns that the files raise “serious questions”

WikiLeaks has proved its worth once again with the huge leak of more than 90,000 pieces of classified material on the war in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009. The whistleblowing site made the files available in advance to three publications -- the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel -- a perfect example of the sort of collaboration that can take place between "old" and "new" media.

The Guardian reports that the documents show 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".

It is no secret that the Afghan war is unwinnable, nor that it has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, but what the documents prove is that the situation is even worse than previously thought.

Here are some of the grimmest reports of what is still called, appallingly and euphemistically, "collateral damage":

French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack.

The White House has chosen to come out fighting, condemning the leak and pointing out that the documents only go through December 2009, the month Barack Obama's "surge" began.

Here's the official statement: "We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security. WikiLeaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents, which may contain information that endangers the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who co-operate with us."

The claim that the material could endanger American lives is disingenuous. As the Guardian report points out, much of the material, though previously classified as "secret", is no longer militarily sensitive. WikiLeaks has consciously excluded any material that could endanger troops or give away official secrets.

It was left to John Kerry, head of the Senate foreign relations committee, to provide a more constructive response. He said:

[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.

But Kerry is wrong to assume that the policy can be improved through selective "calibrations". So long as US policymaking continues to be based on the false premise that the war is "winnable," no relief is possible. The latest leak, one of the biggest in US military history, only reinforces this conclusion.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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