Last Sunday, Wik­iLeaks, an inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tion that pub­lishes con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments, released a six-​​year archive of some 92,000 clas­si­fied mil­i­tary reports on the war in Afghanistan. The secret doc­u­ments have rekin­dled debate over financing the war among admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, mem­bers of Con­gress and the gen­eral public, prompting the White House to defend its mil­i­tary strategy. Dan Kennedy, assis­tant pro­fessor of jour­nalism at North­eastern, has written exten­sively about the Wik­iLeaks doc­u­ments in his Media Nation blog, and in the British national daily news­paper The Guardian. We asked him to assess the impact of the doc­u­ments and Wik­iLeaks’ own impact as an infor­ma­tion source.

How does the release of the Afghanistan war logs com­pare to the release of the Pen­tagon Papers?
The Pen­tagon Papers were of enor­mous sig­nif­i­cance, as they showed our own gov­ern­ment had been skep­tical that we could suc­ceed in Vietnam right from the ear­liest days of the war. The Afghanistan doc­u­ments are raw field reports, and so far they mainly con­firm what we already know.
Still, we shouldn’t under­es­ti­mate their impor­tance. The war in Afghanistan is losing public sup­port, and the doc­u­ments con­tribute to a sense that the sit­u­a­tion is dete­ri­o­rating. Even though the most recent doc­u­ments date back to December 2009, I don’t think many people believe things have improved since then.

How does their largely neg­a­tive por­trayal of the war affect the Obama administration’s mil­i­tary strategy in Afghanistan?
The doc­u­ments con­tribute to a sense that what we are fighting for isn’t worth the price in Amer­ican lives. Our sup­posed allies in Pak­istan are double-​​dealing with the Tal­iban, our allies in Afghanistan are cor­rupt and inef­fec­tive, and we are killing inno­cent civil­ians because of chaos and con­fu­sion on the ground.
Cou­pled with the recent res­ig­na­tion of Gen­eral Stanley McChrystal over his dis­re­spect for the pres­i­dent and the vice pres­i­dent, the doc­u­ments are fur­ther evi­dence that the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy is in utter disarray.

Why would someone leak these par­tic­ular doc­u­ments?
Without knowing who leaked the doc­u­ments, we can’t really dis­cern their moti­va­tion. But it could well be that the leaker is a person very much like Daniel Ells­berg, who pro­vided the Pen­tagon Papers to The New York Times and The Wash­ington Post — that is, a gov­ern­mental insider who is appalled by the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan and Pak­istan, and who wants to expose it in order to force change, or pos­sibly even with­drawal.
I hope we learn who the leaker is so that we can get some answers as to what moti­vated him or her to act.

Wik­iLeaks founder Julian Assange has asserted that mem­bers of his team might get “blood on our hands” for releasing con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments. How should Wik­iLeaks bal­ance the public’s right to know with the safety of the Amer­ican people?
Although Wik­iLeaks is not a tra­di­tional news orga­ni­za­tion, it is engaged in jour­nalism of a sort, even if it’s just a matter of gath­ering infor­ma­tion. And every respon­sible news orga­ni­za­tion must bal­ance the right to know with legit­i­mate national-​​security con­sid­er­a­tions.
Assange said Wik­iLeaks has with­held 15,000 doc­u­ments until the names of indi­vid­uals who would be at risk are redacted. I think that shows good faith on his part. And let’s not forget that the Times and the Post them­selves have been accused of endan­gering national secu­rity over the years, from the Pen­tagon Papers right through their more recent reporting on the Bush administration’s anti-​​terrorism efforts.
Invari­ably we have seen that national-​​security con­cerns are overblown. We are better off knowing than not knowing.

Wik­iLeaks doesn’t con­sider itself part of the press. What is its role in pol­i­tics and jour­nalism?
In a recent pro­file in The New Yorker, Assange made it clear that he is more inter­ested in having a polit­ical impact than he is in prac­ticing jour­nalism. Essen­tially he is a polit­ical activist who uses a tool of jour­nalism — infor­ma­tion — in order to advance his antiwar views.
A project like Wik­iLeaks couldn’t have existed before the Internet. I think in many ways Assange him­self is still trying to figure out what Wik­iLeaks’ role should be.

What’s the rela­tion­ship like between the main­stream press and Wik­iLeaks?
As recently as this past spring, the rela­tion­ship between the tra­di­tional media and Wik­iLeaks was more adver­sarial than not. Assange was heavily crit­i­cized for releasing a highly edited ver­sion of a video that showed a U.S. Apache heli­copter firing on Iraqi civil­ians.
I think Assange learned from that expe­ri­ence. By making the Afghanistan war logs avail­able to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel a month ahead of time, he gave pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ists a chance to vet, sort and craft a nar­ra­tive out of con­fusing, some­times con­tra­dic­tory field reports. The result is that Wik­iLeaks is now seen as a more cred­ible source of infor­ma­tion than had pre­vi­ously been the case.