2010-11-29 Debunked: "WikiLeaks Did Not Redact The Afghanistan War Logs"

The Falsehood:

During its Afghanistan War Log Releases, WikiLeaks carelessly/wantonly/maliciously failed to redact the names of soldiers/informants, or hold back more sensitive information that might endanger lives.

The Explanation:

The allegation has circulated that WikiLeaks would not consider any restraints in the release of its Afghanistan War Log releases, and its Iraq War Log releases. It is now considered common knowledge that WL released both sets of War Logs without any provisions for protecting sensitive identities within them. This is simply not true.

The Source:

This falsehood was developed opportunistically by the Pentagon, and by media organizations friendly to official Washington. The falsehood was afterwards propagated by careless repetition by other news sources, and was passed on by netizens in internet communities and on comment streams, with little regard for its veracity.

The Truth:

The claim is false. WikiLeaks has clearly conducted harm minimization on all of its War Log releases. These harm minimization measures included:

  1. Inviting the Pentagon to help WikiLeaks/Sunshine Press and partner news organizations to redact the documents in their possession prior to release. The Pentagon has refused unilaterally in all cases.
  2. Using metadata to identify documents in the Afghanistan launch as sensitive.
  3. Withholding 15,000 of the some 90,000 documents pertaining to Afghanistan for a full redaction and review.
  4. A comprehensive redaction process for the Iraq War Logs release, working back from full redaction to disclosure of information of interest to the historical record, leaving the names of sensitive sources concealed.
  5. A policy of gradual release of the State Department Cables release, inviting media organizations to help with the redaction of those documents relevant to their interests in return for (initially) embargoed access.
  • Afghan War Logs

Redaction Process
During the press conference for the Afghan War Log release, which was held in London's Frontline Club, on July 25th 2010, Julian Assange outlined clear and principled policy reasons for harm minimization:

Assange:We have a harm minimization process. Our goal is just for reform. Our method is transparency, but we do not put our method before the goal. If we have a serious endeavour, we do things in policy; we do not do things in an ad hoc way. And so far our harm minimization process has always worked. To our knowledge, no one has ever been physically harmed by the material we have released. Even though we have caused the change of governments and many other serious reforms.

Later, Assange commented on the specific harm minimization measures, as regards the Afghan War Log release:

Assange:[W]e have released to the public some 76,000 reports from this set of material. the set itself comprises over 91,000 reports. We have held back about 15,000 reports of a particular type to undergo a further harm minimization review. Some of those reports will be redacted and released as soon as we are able to get through them and others will be withheld until the security situation in Afghanistan means that it is safe to release them.

Later Assange further disclosed more details of the harm minimization process. Since the logs were of a vast quantity, harm minization had been conducted using the metadata of the logs in question. Logs in sensitive categories were held back for further review.

Assange:It is an enormous compendium of material that will affect many different people in many different ways. We as a journalistic group, the four media groups who worked on this, have really only scratched the surface. I think between us we have probably read about a thousand or two thousand of these reports properly. So it's going to take the rest of the world press and academics to look at the statistics that come out of this.

Journalist:Sorry can I just follow up? I just want to understand you correctly. so you say that you have only gone through and detailed 2000 of these...


Journalist:How do you square that, then, with your argument that this is a responsible publication, and that you've done all of the harm minimization that you said you had?

Assange:The documents are in many different categories. They are tagged with different categories. So we can see that some categories do not have the type of material that would, as an example, identify innocent informants.

Development of Falsehood Through Spin
The Pentagon capitalized on the fact that the documents had not been processed individually, and managed to spin the story so as to present WikiLeaks as having made little effort to minimize harm. During an August 3rd Press Conference, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell belittled the harm minimization measures. (Transcript Available Here)

They claimed initially to have reviewed these documents, then we find out afterwards they only looked at 2000 of them, so they don't really know what's in all of them.

Morrell also made a comment on the 15,000 documents withheld by WikiLeaks.

Morrell:Obviously these 15,000 documents which they claim to be withholding as part of a harm minization exercise are not in our possession. We don't know for sure which 15,000 documents they are referring to. We have some ideas and are doing some proactive work, some prophylactic work in the event that the docs we suspect they could be, or indeed the docs that they are threatening to post... but that's where i'll leave it now.

Morrell made a comment implying that WikiLeaks had not offered to collaborate with the Pentagon in redaction of the material, by denying that WikiLeaks had contacted the Pentagon directly, rather than through the New York Times, which was the agreed intermediary of all of the media organizations collaborating in the Afghanistan War Logs release.

Morrell:On Tuesday it was reported that WikiLeaks has asked the Department of Defense for help in reviewing approximately 15,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks obtained in an unauthorized and inappropriate manner, before WikiLeaks releases those classified documents to the public. WikiLeaks has made no such request directly to the Department of Defense. These documents are the property of the U.S. government and contain classified and sensitive information. The Defense Department demands that WikiLeaks return immediately to the U.S. government all versions of documents obtained directly or indirectly from the Department of Defense databases or records.

Media organizations did not pick up on the "directly" qualification in Morrell's statement, despite the fact that Morrell specifically referred to the New York Times contact later in the press conference. The result was distributed coverage that reported that WikiLeaks had not contacted the Pentagon in an effort to redact the material. His further comments on the matter seemed to intimate that the Pentagon was willing to collaborate with WikiLeaks on the matter, while also, contradictorily, restating the position that the Pentagon was unwilling to cooperate in any meaningful way.

Morrell:They claim to have reached out to the U.S. government for assistance in harm minimization, and then we find out that, no, it was through their "partner" the New York times. I don't know whether the NY times would consider itself their partner. This is an opportunity for them to turn the page. To recognize the situation that they have created and to try to rectify it. If indeed these claims that they have made through these third parties... these spokesmen... communications to use through the news media, are serious. If they are serious about engaging with us they should reach out to us directly. And we will consider how to proceed once something like that happens. The easiest way, however, to solve this... I mean, we're not looking to have a conversation on harm minimization. We're looking to have a conversation about how to get these perilous documents off the website as soon as possible, return them to the rightful owners and explunge them from their records. That will help minimize harm that has already been created.

WikiLeaks' further efforts to offer the Pentagon a collaborative role in ensuring the disclosures would be comprehensively safe were met with categorical refusal. The emerging impression is of a transparency organization willing to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the material was safe for release, and a U.S. government that refused to cooperate.

Imperfect Redaction
It arose later that WikiLeaks' redaction process had not been perfect. The names of certain informants had made it unredacted into the final releases. Mainstream media were content merely to report this fact. More dedicated investigatory coverage fell to more independent internet publications and blogs, although Mark Hosenball, of Newsweek, covered the issue in detail. Glenn Greenwald gave the issue full treatment. Sean Paul Kelley, who writes The Agonist, indicated in a post some of the names that had come to light in the War Logs. However, Kelley's discovery of documentary proof that the Pentagon was consistently refusing to aid the redaction of the logs led him to retract his condemnation of the leaks.

I was wrong. WikiLeaks, based on the evidence that the DoD has presented, did its level best to work with the DoD to redact any names that might harm innocent Afghans. The Pentagon not only lied about it, but has even refused to cooperate going forward... The blood, if there is to be any, is on the Pentagon's hands. It's that simple.

To date, no informant has been harmed by the release of the documents. A review of this claim is contained in 2010-01-21 Debunked: "WikiLeaks Has Blood On Its Hands"


In summary, for the Afghanistan War Logs, WikiLeaks

  1. Identified sensitive information using document metadata
  2. Offered to collaborate with the U.S. Government in order to review the material prior to release
  3. Withheld 15,000 sensitive documents for a further review and redaction

It is therefore manifestly false that WikiLeaks performed no harm minimization efforts on this release. The disclosure of the names of informants in the releases must be understood in the context of the U.S. Government refusal to aid in redacting the documents. To date, there have been no reported casualties as a result of these disclosures. WikiLeaks responded to criticism of these disclosures by implementing an even more thorough harm minimization strategy for the Iraq War Logs release.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer