Wikileaks.org, an archive where whistleblowers can safely disclose secret information to the public, made its largest release to date last Friday: 391,832 classified military reports from the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
The release of what the site calls “The Iraq War Logs” contains detailed field reports filed by U.S. military personnel from Jan. 2004 to Dec. 2009.
The release has created a flurry of condemnation and praise.
A war intelligence declassification of this scale, which according to the BBC is the largest in military history, comes with both costs and benefits.
With the phase–out of full combat in Iraq and the advent of the opportunity for the public to more clearly ascertain the war’s realities without the filter of the media, the benefits will exceed the costs.
One significant cost is the damage done to the reputation of U.S. Department of Defense.
Particularly disturbing revelations have surfaced from the reports, such as the level of abuse and torture practiced by Iraqi and U.S. military forces on prison detainees.
According to The Guardian, a British newspaper, hundreds of instances of reported torture, mostly carried out by Iraqis, went uninvestigated by U.S. authorities, even after the Abu Ghraib scandal.
The detailed disclosure of these alleged war crimes has already led the United Nations to call on the Obama administration for a full investigation into the use of torture and other human rights abuses in Iraq, according to the BBC.
The Pentagon’s top officials quickly condemned the massive information leak, characterizing it as a handout to the enemy, making U.S. and Iraqi troops more vulnerable to attack.
Most criticism of the leak follows the Pentagon’s logic. However, according to the New York Times, names of individuals that could be endangered were removed from the reports, and Wikileaks has employed editorial teams to sift through the documents for information that could threaten troops.
These actions don’t guarantee prevention of an unintended consequence.
Consider, though, that no harm has resulted from the release of 77,000 military reports from the war in Afghanistan earlier this year. The same will probably be true for these reports.
It is difficult to imagine terrorists successfully discovering a useful tactical advantage from hundreds of thousands of incident reports written in military language.
Also, the U.S. combat mission is over, changing the strategy and role of troops and shifting responsibility largely to Iraqis. These reports do more to illuminate the gruesome nature of war than reveal U.S. military strategy.
Further, the flow of factual information in society has incredible value, especially given the nature of filtered television news reporting.
Most of what Americans understand about the war in Iraq is limited to the reporting of their favorite news station, which is often presented from a particular ideological point of view.
These reports work to reject bias and deliver objective information straight from the conflict. They reveal important facts about the conflict that mainstream media do not report on.
For instance, according to Wikileaks, 66,081 of the 109,032 deaths in the war were Iraqi civilians. This number is roughly 15,000 more than what was previously reported.
Also, the reports reveal that many of the soldiers fighting in and securing Iraq are not U.S. military personnel but employees of U.S. corporations fulfilling contracts given by the government.
The many revelations that have and will come out of these reports are important because they tell us much of what we should know but aren’t told.
Though they may be controversial, they can shape our perceptions of how war should and should not be conducted.
We should embrace the benefits the Wikileaks release can offer.