Recent publicity suggests that the Pentagon is in the midst of a P.R. campaign to shape media coverage in advance of an imminently expected release of secret Iraq War documents from the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
Founded in 2006, Wikileaks became a household name in April 2010 when it released classified video footage of U.S. troops firing unprovoked at Reuters journalists and even children from an Apache helicopter in Iraq. In July, WikiLeaks followed by publishing the Afghan War Diary, a cache of tens of thousands of reports on military incidents during the War in Afghanistan.
U.S. Military representatives criticized WikiLeaks over these releases, declaring them a security risk and even suggesting that WikiLeaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” WikiLeaks and its supporters have countered that the Pentagon certainly has blood on its hands, and that the documents may even help save lives by prompting public discussion about bringing an end to America’s ongoing wars.
Now WikiLeaks is preparing to release a new and even larger set of documents pertaining to the Iraq War. The leak is widely expected this week and may come as early as today. Interestingly, the Pentagon appears to have engaged in a preemptive public relations campaign over the weekend to try and shape press coverage in advance of the release. If so, it’s a fascinating example example of government media management.
U.S. actions have supplied the media with a string of WikiLeaks-related stories in the past week:
- On Thurday, WikiLeaks announced that the U.S. had placed the website on a global watchlist compelling its main payment processor, Moneybookers, to suspend its fundraising account. This led to significant media coverage in the UK, where moneybookers is based.
On Friday, the U.S. publicized an August 16 letter from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Michigan Senator Carl Levin discussing the results of a Pentagon assessment of WikiLeaks publication of the Afghan War Diary. Evidently the government had held its findings from publication since August, waiting to make them public until days before the next expected release of military documents at WikiLeaks.
The Defense Secretary’s letter drew widespread media attention over the weekend (NPR , CNN, New York Times). Gates wrote both that “most of the information contained in these documents relates to tactical military operations. … the review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure” and that this “in no way discounts the risk to national security” and that “we assess this risk as likely to cause significant harm or damage to the national security interests of the United States.” The letter serves to push a government view that the Afghan War leaks are routine tactical reports unworthy of widespread attention but simultaneously dangerously irresponsible to print.
- Also this weekend, the U.S. Military published a list of “Significant Action” reports from the Iraq War in its Freedom of Information Act Reading Room, a site available to journalists seeking direct data from the military. The release listed the reports that exist without actually providing their content. No explicit connection was stated, but the listed reports are exactly those that WikiLeaks is expected to be preparing for imminent release. Some sources are speculating that the Pentagon released its list of reports in an attempt to diminish the impact of the upcoming WikiLeaks release by making it seem more routine, less secret, and thereby less interesting to the press.
- Finally, Pentagon officials made press statements over the weekend about their preperations for the upcoming WikiLeaks release, including announcing that a 120-person taskforce had been assembled to evaluate and prepare for potential security risks stemming from the leaks. These statements soon led to major stories at international news outlets like the BBC.
The substance of the military’s press releases has not been particularly interesting. The close timing has been. It suggests that these stories are part of a coordinated public relations campaign. The U.S. Military is talking to the press in an effort to have the first word on the new set of leaks, allowing the government to set the tone. The military’s willingness to address the leaks before they have even occurred is bound to ensure that whatever WikiLeaks releases will become a big story. Evidently, then, the Pentagon believes a big story is inevitable. Since it can’t hold the story back, it is trying to change the story that the media will serve.
U.S. authorities do not want the media to focus on the content of the upcoming reports from WikiLeaks, so my read is that they are striving to shift attention towards the controversy of the leaks. They do this by highlighting the security risks of revealing secret reports and simultaneously painting the expected leaks as routine tactical data — the truth of these claims matter nothing so long as the media respond by portraying the story as a contest between its characters (the Pentagon and WikiLeaks) instead of as a story about the actual secret data that may come forward.
If the Pentagon’s barrage of press releases this past weekend succeeds in setting the tone, journalists will spend less time talking about what WikiLeaks new publication reveals and more time engaged in a he-said/she-said report on the controversy over the fact that secret data has been released. The cable talk show pundits will bicker over the fact of the leak rather than the substance of the war. The entire public debate will shift from a discussion of the war to a discussion of whistleblowing. The war, meanwhile, will continue just as the U.S. Military plans.
Further Developments: Evening of October 18.
The Public Relations battle between the Pentagon and WikiLeaks continues to expand.
On Monday, Reuters quoted Pentagon spokesman David Lapan urging news organizations “not to facilitate the leaking of classified documents with this disreputable organization known as WikiLeaks,” stating that “WikiLeaks as an organization should not be made more credible by having credible news organizations facilitate what they’re doing.” These statements fit my speculation that the Pentagon wants to change the story away from what any upcoming leaks may reveal and towards a he-said/she-said debate over the fact that leaks are occurring.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks director Julian Assange denied on Monday that his organization planned any kind of document release for October 18. He wrote that reports of an imminent leak were based on “unsubstantiated, and indeed, false claims made by a source that is not credible” and added that “WikiLeaks does not speak about upcoming releases dates.”
Assange’s statement challenges earlier reports from former WikiLeaks collaborators such as Herbert Snorrason and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who told the media that WikiLeaks planned to unveil its Iraq War documents this week. Snorrason and Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks earlier in the year after a row with Assange, so it isn’t surprising that Assange would alter plans after their departure in order to maintain secrecy. Indeed, for an organization committed to unveiling secret documents, WikiLeaks is notoriously tight-lipped about its own operations.
Secrecy helps WikiLeaks create suspense and intrigue around its documents: perfect drama for the news media. By leaving the press uncertain about when new documents might appear, WikiLeaks can make their release seem like an unexpected bombshell instead of a routine disclosure, ensuring splashy headlines. If Assange pushes this strategy too far, however, he could play straight into the Pentagon’s hands and make the media more interested in WikiLeaks itself than in whatever secrets the organization may at length reveal.
In any event, the continued interaction between the Pentagon, WikiLeaks, and the press is a fascinating instance of (attempted) information management. Each player is looking out for its own interest and playing off the others to try and rewrite this story and reshape public discussion. Pay close attention to how the media presents this story as the PR battle continues. Don’t be distracted from what’s most important: the revelations that WikiLeak’s still-secret documents may hold about the Iraq War.
Further Developments: October 22
The global press has now broken WikiLeaks Iraq War files: see the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. The big revelations include previously denied records of civilian causalities and an apparent U.S. policy not to investigate reports of torture.