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Leaks vs. Leaks

In Politics on July 26, 2010 by AEG Tagged: ,

The recent release of thousands of pages of classified material on the Afghan War by WikiLeaks has prompted the inevitable comparison with the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times in 1971. While both incidents encompassed the unauthorized release of secret papers to a journalistic source, the comparisons should end there.

Even a cursory examination of the WikiLeaks material shows that it is basically unprocessed data documenting the day-to-day activities of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. These reports are only of value once placed in context by analysts who understand both the intentions of the forces involved and that of the commanders running the show. Civilian readers will likely be somewhat confused by much of the material, and probably bored as well. For example, the narrative of Ref. ID AFG20040101n2 reads:

USSF FINDS CACHE IN VILLAGE OF WALU TANGAY: USSF CONDUCTED A MEET AND GREET IN THE VILLAGE OF WALU TANGAY. USSF MEMBERS WERE APPROACHED BY A LOCAL BOY WHO SPOKE OF A CACHE IN A CAVE ON A NEARBY HILL. USSF MEMBERS INVESTIGATED AND FOUND A CACHE CONSISTING OF THIRTEEN 82MM MORTAR ROUNDS, SIXTY RPG ROUNDS, FIFTEEN BOXES 12.7X108MM AMMO (85 ROUNDS PER BOX), FIVE BOXES NON-DISINTEGRATING 12.7X108MM LINK, AND ONE DSHK BARREL LOCATED IN A CAVE AT 350107.26N 0705513.00E. USSF CONFISCATED THE AMMO. THE REST WAS BLOWN IN PLACE.

Ref. ID AFG20040309n11 is similarly scintillating:

TF 1-501 PIR REPORTS 2X LNS DETAINED DISTRIBUTING ANTI-AMERICAN LITERATURE IVO KHOWST. S- 2X LN DETAINED,A- DISTRIBUTING PROPAGANDA VIA NIGHT LETTERS, L- 42S WB 854895, T- 090539ZMAR04. LOCAL NATIONALS DETAINED BY B/1-501, ALONG WITH KHOWST POLICE, FOR DISTRIBUTING ANTI-AMERICAN PROPAGANDA IN THE FORM OF NIGHT LETTERS STATING ANYONE WORKING WITH THE AMERICANS WILL BE KILLED. LOCAL NATIONALS ARE CURRENTLY BEING QUESTIONED AT FOB SALERNO BY THT. NFI

There are some 91,000 such reports. This is not to say that there is no relevant information to be gleaned from these, but simply to note that they provide only the raw data of an ongoing conflict. Readers who wish to actually understand them need to have enough background in military operations to grasp what is relevant and what is not, and more importantly to be able to identify trends and correlate data with the bigger picture of strategy and operations.

By contrast, the Pentagon Papers was the popular name given to a single report entitled “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” This 4,100 page document presented the polar opposite of the WikiLeaks Afghan reports: a cohesive study of a twenty-two year period incorporating analysis with reports from both the military and civilian leadership, providing as comprehensive a picture of the situation between the two countries as had ever existed to that time. Consider a brief excerpt from Volume 4, Chapter 2: Section C of Part I. PHASE II, JULY 1965-MAY 1966:

C. DEVELOPMENT OF A CONCEPT

1. Concept for Vietnam

By late August 1965, the JCS had developed and coordinated a Concept for Vietnam which was set out in JCSM 652-65 dated 27 August. The heart of the concept is summarized as follows:

a. The objective in Vietnam, as stated by NSAM 288, dated 17 March 1964, is a stable and independent noncommunist government.

b. The major problems to be dealt with in the conduct of the war are:

(1) The continued direction and support of Viet Cong operations by the DRV, infiltration from the north, and the apparent attendant Viet Cong capability to provide materiel support and to replace heavy personnel losses.
(2) The continued existence of a major Viet Cong infrastructure, both political and military, in the RVN.
(3) The greater growth rate of Viet Cong strength as compared to that of the South Vietnamese ground forces.
(4) The continued loss of LOCs, food-producing areas, and population to Viet Cong control.
(5) The lack of a viable politico/economic structure in the RVN.
(6) The threat of CHICOM intervention or aggression in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Western Pacific.

c. The basic military tasks, of equal priority, are:

(1) To cause the DRV to cease its direction and support of the Viet Cong insurgency.
(2) To defeat the Viet Cong and to extend GVN control over all of the RVN.
(3) To deter Communist China from direct intervention and to defeat such intervention if it occurs.

d. The US basic strategy for accomplishing the above tasks should be:
to intensify military pressure on the DRV by air and naval power; to destroy significant DRV military targets, including the base of supplies; to interdict supporting LOCs in the DRV; to interdict the infiltration and supply routes into the RVN; to improve the combat effectiveness of the RVNAF; to build and protect bases; to reduce enemy reinforcements; to defeat the Viet Cong, in concert with RVN and third country forces; and to maintain adequate forces in the Western Pacific and elsewhere in readiness to deter and to deal with CHICOM aggression. By aggressive and sustained exploitation of superior military force, the United States/Government of Vietnam would seize and hold the initiative in both the DRV and RVN, keeping the DRV, the Viet Cong, and the PL/VM at a disadvantage, progressively destroying the DRV war-supporting power and defeating the Viet Cong. The physical capability of the DRV to move men and supplies through the Lao Corridor, down the coastline, across the DMZ, and through Cambodia must be reduced to the maximum practical extent by land, naval, and air actions in these areas and against infiltration-connected targets. Finally, included within the basic US military strategy must be a buildup in Thailand to ensure attainment of the proper US-Thai posture to deter CHICOM aggression and to facilitate placing US forces in an advantageous logistic position if such aggression occurs.

Or this from Volume 2, Chapter 1, Section I:

Summary and Analysis

When Kennedy took office, the prospect of an eventual crisis in Vietnam had been widely recognized in the government, although nothing much had yet been done about it. Our Ambassador in Saigon had been sending worried cables for a year, and twice in recent months [in September 1960 and again in December] had ended an appraisal of the situation by cautiously raising the question of whether the U.S. would not sooner or later have to move to replace Diem. Barely a week after taking office, Kennedy received and approved a Counter-Insurgency Plan (CIP) which, at what seems to have been a rather leisurely pace, had been going through drafting and staffing for the previous eight months.

The CIP was a most modest program by the standard we have become accustomed to in Vietnam. It offered Diem financial support for a 20,000 man increase in his army, which then stood at 150,000; plus support for about half of the counter-guerrilla auxiliary force known as the Civil Guard. In return, it asked Diem for a number of reforms which appeared to the American side as merely common sense–such as straightening out command arrangements for the army under which 42 different officials directly responsible to Diem (38 province chiefs, 3 regional commanders, and a Chief of Staff) shared operational command.

The CIP was superseded in May by an enlarged version of the same program, and the only longer term significance the original program held was that it presumably offered the Administration a lesson in dealing with Diem (and perhaps, although it was not foreseen then, a lesson in dealing with Vietnamese governments generally). The negotiations dragged on and on; the U.S. military and eventually most of the civilians both in Saigon and Washington grew impatient for getting on with the war; Diem promised action on some of the American points, and finally even issued some decrees, none of which were really followed up. For practical purposes, the list of “essential reforms” proposed as part of the CIP, including those Diem had given the impression he agreed to, could have been substituted unchanged for the list of reforms the U.S. requested at the end of the year, with equal effect, as the quid pro quo demanded for the much enlarged U.S. aid offer that followed the Taylor Mission.

These are merely small pieces of a thorough analytical examination of American policy in Vietnam, including extensive use of high-level reports written by those responsible for running the war. While it may not be considered a great page-turner by many readers, anyone willing to read it would certainly be able grasp the both overarching principles U.S. leaders employed in dealing with Vietnam and the results of their policies.

While neither represents a complete picture, it should be understood that not all leaks are created equal. The WikiLeaks material is most notable for the controversial method of its release, while the information contained therein is fairly mundane and offers little insight into the conflict. The Pentagon Papers, by contrast, were most noteworthy for the contents of the report itself, which suggested that what was being publicly reported in America was at odds with what the government knew to be true. In short, then, reports of the sort put forward by WikiLeaks would at best constitute nothing more than an appendix to an analysis of the type leaked by Ellsberg. Anyone who is inclined to read both will quickly discover that their understanding of the war in Vietnam is likely to have been expanded considerably more than that of the Afghan conflict.


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