Wikileaks: Q&A with Jacob Appelbaum on "The Afghan War Diaries"

Earlier today, I spoke with Jacob Appelbaum, a volunteer with the WikiLeaks project whose work in other projects related to tech and human rights have been blogged here on Boing Boing over the years.

As reported on Boing Boing and widely elsewhere, Wikileaks have released a massive archive of secret US military documents related to the war in Afghanistan, unprecedented in scope. The archive spans a 6-year period from 2004 to 2010, encompassing more than 91,000 documents and 200,000 pages. The White House, Pentagon, and Department of State have condemned the leak, with various spokespersons describing it as a breach of federal law, a "criminal act," and describing Wikileaks as a threat to US national security. I spoke with Appelbaum, a longtime friend of mine, about why he and other Wikileaks volunteers disagree. —XJ

Boing Boing: We're told that there are more documents from this archive yet to be released by Wikileaks, some 15,000 of them as reported. Some have speculated that these could relate to Iraq. Can you comment more?

Jacob Appelbaum: The 15,000 documents are part of the set of Afghanistan documents. They are being redacted for harm-minimizing purposes as requested by our source, and will be made available as is applicable with respect to the relevant security concerns.

Boing Boing: What do you think of the White House reactions so far to the "Afghan War Diaries" leak?

Jacob Appelbaum: It's clear that the White House is attempting to shoot the messenger. These documents provide concrete evidence of events that have occurred during the last six years of the Afghan war.

Boing Boing: The Department of Defense has called Wikileaks a "national security threat."

Jacob Appelbaum: Wikileaks is not a national security threat; we are an international security promise.

Boing Boing: What do you mean by that?

Jacob Appelbaum: We promise our sources that we will get their information to the public. We have released information about what is actually happening in Afghanistan. We are telling you the facts as the US military saw fit to document them. We are telling you these facts because they document an important first-hand perception of everyday life in Afghanistan that our source felt important to show the world. It clearly meets with our submission criteria and based on the reaction, it's obvious that we've done our job as we've promised.

Boing Boing: What of the criticism from some commentators, and from the US defense spokesperson yesterday in the initial response, that these documents are "old news," because they only cover from 2004, when Bush was in office, through late 2009, before Obama announced a policy change for Afghanistan?

Jacob Appelbaum: The contents may be old news to the White House but it was very clearly not available to the American public and actually any public with an interest in the topic before our release.

To suggest that it only covers Bush is to misrepresent the very clear facts. The document archive goes all the way up to the end of 2009. The White House tried to spin this by saying it goes only until December when the Obama administration announced a policy change. However, there is an overlap - this is a document cache that spans both of their presidencies and it includes information after Obama enacted the policy change in early December 2009.

Boing Boing: What do you think will happen as a result of the leak? Will there be policy change?

Jacob Appelbaum: It's only been a single day and the entire world is talking about this information. The collaborative effort put into the initial analysis of these documents is unprecedented, and the foundation laid by New York Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel in respect to initial analysis of the material will certainly serve as a sound basis for further investigations by the media, historians and researchers, as well as general public scrutiny.

People in the United States of America have the ability to democratically change this situation if they are unhappy with the truth; they now have information that will assist them in having a clearer picture. Perhaps they will demand more transparency and more accountability. It is clear that they will find out how the war is actually going, and see what they're financing. This isn't unique to the United States: it impacts the people of every country with troops in Afghanistan. The world has wide-open eyes. Together, we can make better, more honest decisions.

Furthermore, the people of Afghanistan are not shocked by this information. Nobody needs to tell them what the conditions are like on the ground. They don't have reports with this level of specificity, rather they live with everyday terror and fear. In some cases, we can see more clearly now that the Taliban are doing terrible things, and they're far better equipped than the "camel jockeys" they're portrayed as in the American media. These are scary guys with scary capabilities. Why aren't we being told this truth regularly after nine years? Why would the US government hide this from the world? Why are the rest of the governments complicit in this silence?

Additionally, it sounds like our allies are the ones supplying them with some of those capabilities. Some wings of the US government were apparently aware of that. But I'd wager that most Americans were unaware. This strongly suggests a need for policy change. How can the people of the US fund another situation that is not unlike when America was using Afghanistan as proxy during the Cold War? Didn't we learn our lesson the first half dozen times we did something like this?

If not, let's learn it now.

(photo courtesy Jacob Appelbaum)