Learning from Wikileaks

Over the weekend, Julian Assange, the reclusive renegade computer hacker who has made a career of unveiling government and corporate secrets on the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, confounded American policymakers for the second time in three months when he released nearly 400,000 classified field reports from the war in Iraq. In July, Wikileaks posted 90,000 classified documents describing a litany of strategic setbacks, human rights abuses and widespread corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The latest leak of Iraq materials is said to be the largest unauthorized disclosure of secret military documents in U.S. history.

The most recent revelations, which offer evidence of widespread killings and torture of detainees by Iraqi security forces enjoying tacit American approval, and an Iran increasingly emboldened to manipulate events behind the scenes, come at an awkward moment for the Obama administration. While American officials continue to insist that plans to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country by the end of next year remain on track, the documents' description of a country besieged by threats of sectarian violence and at the mercy of meddling neighbors raises the question of whether Iraq would immediately slip back into chaos if U.S. forces left.

Though the general outlines of the new material have been published previously, the Wikileaks cache provides a far more in-depth and specific account of some of the most brutal episodes of the war from the perspective of soldiers on the ground. Among other things, the reports suggest that flagrant human rights abuses by Iraqi government forces widened the sectarian and ethnic divides that continue to frustrate efforts to achieve stability there.

Mr. Assange justified releasing the secret war logs by saying he wanted to expose "the truth" about America's involvement in Iraq. But the U.S. government is investigating him for possible violation of espionage laws, and even some of his supporters reportedly have begun to suspect that he suffers from delusions of grandeur or worse.

Yet, however flawed the messenger may be, Americans ignore the message in these documents at their peril. U.S. military advisors who tolerated the torture and killing of innocent civilians in the name of quickly turning over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces did the country they were trying to help no favors. Indeed, they probably damaged the overall U.S. mission there by inadvertently creating a whole new constellation of grievances for al-Qaeda and its allies to exploit.

As U.S. commanders in Afghanistan contemplate a similar accelerated transfer of security responsibilities to indigenous forces in that country, they would do well to remember that turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by allies is unlikely to create the kind of long-term, countrywide stability that eventually would allow U.S. forces to withdraw. On the contrary, tolerating such abuses almost certainly will only prolong the conflict and increase its cost in blood and treasure.

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