The Leak That ‘Exposed the True Afghan War’

The Afghan Diaries set off a firestorm when it revealed the suppression of civilian casualty figures, the existence of an elite U.S.-led death squad, and the covert role of Pakistan in the conflict, as Elizabeth Vos reports. 

By Elizabeth Vos
Special to Consortium News

Three months after it published the “Collateral Murder” videoWikiLeaks on July 25, 2010 released a cache of secret U.S. documents on the war in Afghanistan. It revealed the suppression of civilian casualty figures, the existence of an elite U.S.-led death squad and the covert role of Pakistan in the conflict, among other revelations. The publication of the Afghan War Diaries helped set the U.S. government on a collision course with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that ultimately led to his arrest last month.

The war diaries were leaked by then-Army-intelligence-analyst Chelsea Manning, who had legal access to the logs via her Top Secret clearance. Manning only approached WikiLeaks, after studying the organization, following unsuccessful attempts to leak the files to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

A major controversy surrounding the Diaries’ release were allegations that operational details were made public to the Taliban’s battlefield advantage and that U.S. coalition informants’ lives were put at risk by publishing their names.

Chelsea Maning in 2017. (YouTube)

Chelsea Maning in 2017. (Vimeo)

Despite a widely-held belief that WikiLeaks carelessly publishes un-redacted documents, only 75,000 from a total of more than 92,201 internal U.S. military files related to the Afghan War (between 2004 and 2010) were ultimately published.

WikiLeaks explained that it held back so many documents because Manning had insisted on it: “We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source.”

Manning testified at her 2013 court-martial that the files were not “very sensitive” and did not report active military operations.

“As an analyst I viewed the SigActs [Significant Activities] as historical data. This event can be an improvised explosive device attack or IED, small arms fire engagement or SAF engagement with a hostile force, or any other event a specific unit documented and recorded in real time.

“In my perspective the information contained within a single SigAct or group of SigActs is not very sensitive. The events encapsulated within most SigActs involve either enemy engagements or causalities. Most of this information is publicly reported by the public affairs office … They capture what happens on a particular day in time. They are created immediately after the eventand are potentially updated over a period of hours until final version is published on the Combined Information Data Network Exchange [CIDNE].

Although SigAct reporting is sensitive at the time of their creation, their sensitivity normally dissipates within 48 to 72 hours as the information is either publicly released or the unit involved is no longer in the area and not in danger.

It is my understanding that the SigAct reports remain classified only because they are maintained within CIDNE … Everything on CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A to include SigAct reporting was treated as classified information.”

Manning testified that the data she leaked had been “sanitized” of sensitive information. She further explained in her court martial, her motive for leaking the documents. She said:

“I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as [missed word] as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment everyday.”

WikiLeaks explained its reasons for publishing Manning’s material:

“The reports do not generally cover top-secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations. However when a combined operation involving regular Army units occurs, details of Army partners are often revealed.

For example a number of bloody operations carried out by Task Force 373, a secret U.S. Special Forces assassination unit, are exposed in the Diary — including a raid that lead to the death of seven children. This archive shows the vast range of small tragedies that are almost never reported by the press but which account for the overwhelming majority of deaths and injuries.”

Significant Findings:

Covering Up Civilian Casualties

Burying Afghan civilians. (Ariana News)

The Diaries documented cover-ups and misreporting of civilian deaths. The Guardian reported that the files illustrated at least 21 separate occasions in which British troops were said to have shot or bombed Afghan civilians, including women and children. “Some casualties were accidentally caused by air strikes, but many also are said to involve British troops firing on unarmed drivers or motorcyclists who come ‘too close’ to convoys or patrols,” the newspaper reported.

“Bloody errors at civilians’ expense, as recorded in the logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack,” said The Guardian.

The Diaries revealed a cover-up of civilian casualties and possible evidence of war crimes. “These detailed reports show coalition forces’ attacks on civilians, friendly fire incidents and Afghan forces attacking each other – so-called green on green,” The Guardian said.  At least 20 friendly-fire cases were reported. Assange said in a written affidavit given in 2013 that the material documented “detailed records about the deaths of nearly 20,000 people.” 

Pakistan Backing Terror Groups

Taliban in Herat, Afghanistan, 2001. (Wikipedia)

Among the significant revelations of the Afghan War Diaries is the U.S. belief in the covert roles that Pakistan has played in the war.

“More than 180 intelligence files in the war logs, most of which cannot be confirmed, detail accusations that Pakistan’s premier spy agency has been supplying, arming and training the insurgency since at least 2004,” The Guardian reported.

“Pakistan’s military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants,” wrote The New York Times on the day the Diaries were published.

Radio Psyops

The Afghan War Diaries illustrated the implementation of U.S. and coalition-backed psyops via Afghani radio stations. 

“Several reports from Army psychological operations units and provincial reconstruction teams (also known as PRTs, civilian-military hybrids tasked with rebuilding Afghanistan) show that local Afghan radio stations were under contract to air content produced by the United States. Other reports show U.S. military personnel apparently referring to Afghan reporters as “our journalists” and directing them in how to do their jobs.”–Yahoo News, July 27, 2015.

One June 2007 document, classified “Secret,” also describes alleged self-censorship amongst Pakistan’s media:

“Pakistan”s cable television operators report they are under continuing pressure (read “requirement”) to block news broadcasts emanating from three television news networks. Most cable networks are complying with government directives that trickled down to cable owners on June 1. On that day, all cable companies in Pakistan ceased airing ARY news, while AAJ TV became unavailable in 70 percent of the country. (Reftel.) As of 1700 local June 5, ARY was available again throughout Pakistan. We are attempting to ascertain whether the network is self-censoring”

Task Force 373

U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, left, and Afghan National Army commando scan area for enemy activity after taking fire,  Khogyani district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, March 20, 2014. (U.S. Army photo Spc. Connor Mendez/Released)

The Afghan War Diaries described the activities of Task Force 373, a unit whose existence was unknown prior to WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication. At least 200 incidents involving Task Force 373 were reported to have been found amongst the Afghan War Diaries material.

“The Nato coalition in Afghanistan has been using an undisclosed ‘black’ unit of special forces, Task Force 373, to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial. Details of more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida are held on a ‘kill or capture’ list, known as Jpel, the joint prioritised effects list,” reported the The Guardian on the day of the Diaries’ release. 

The article added: “In many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path.”

The Huffington Post also wrote regarding Task Force 373 in the weeks following WikiLeaks’ publication of the files: “The Wikileaks data suggests that as many as 2,058 people on a secret hit list called the “Joint Prioritized Effects List” (JPEL) were considered “capture/kill” targets in Afghanistan. A total of 757 prisoners — most likely from this list — were being held at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF), a U.S.-run prison on Bagram Air Base as of the end of December 2009.”

Reaction From, and Collaboration With, the Press

New York Times front page story on the Diaries.

WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan War Diaries was groundbreaking in that it was the first instance of WikiLeaks coordinating with major news organizations such as the The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian prior t0 publication.

Mainstream media, which since the 2016 U.S. presidential election has taken a sharply critical view of WikiLeaks and Assange, were active participants in publishing the Afghan War Diaries. WikiLeaks gave the Diaries in advance to The GuardianThe New York Times and Der Spiegel in an arrangement in which they published articles on the same day WikiLeaks made the archive public.

The Guardian described the project as a “Unique collaboration between the Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel magazine in Germany to sift the huge trove of data for material of public interest and to distribute globally this secret record of the world’s most powerful nation at war.”

Der Spiegel described the process as one of vetting the material and comparing the data with independent reports, and wrote of the consensus between the three outlets working with WikiLeaks: “The publishers were unanimous in their belief that there is a justified public interest in the material because it provides a more thorough understanding of a war that continues today after almost nine years.”

Assange at briefing releasing the Diaries.

In a 2011 interview, Assange talked about his partnerships with corporate media.  “We’ve partnered with twenty or so newspapers across the world, to increase the total impact, including by encouraging each one of these news organizations to be braver,” he said.

“It made them braver, though it did not entirely work in the case of The New York Times. For example, one of the stories we found in the Afghan War Diaries was from “Task Force 373”, a U.S. Special Forces assassination squad.

“Task Force 373 is working its way down an assassination list of some 2,000 people for Afghanistan, and the Kabul government is rather unhappy about these extrajudicial assassinations—there is no impartial procedure for putting a name on the list or for taking a name off the list. You’re not notified if you’re on the list, which is called the Joint Priority Effects List, or JPEL. It’s supposedly a kill or capture list.

“But you can see from the material that we released that about 50 percent of cases were just kill—there’s no option to “capture” when a drone drops a bomb on someone. And in some cases Task Force 373 killed innocents, including one case where they attacked a school and killed seven children and no bonafide targets, and attempted to cover the whole thing up.

“This discovery became the cover story for Der Spiegel. It became an article in The Guardian. A story was written for The New York Times by national security correspondent Eric Schmitt, and that story was killed. It did not appear in The New York Times.”

On the day of the Diaries’ publication, Assange said in a video published by The Guardian: “It is the role of good journalism to take on powerful abusers, and when powerful abusers are taken on there is always a bad reaction. So we see that controversy and we think it is good to engage in, and in this case it will show the true nature of this war.” 

The press response to the publication of the war diaries was far from uniformly positive. 

Maximilian Forte described the issue via Counterpunch: “Wikileaks seems to be depending now on individuals to privately sift through thousands of records, and then to presumably publish their findings outside of newspapers, months from now, about events that happened perhaps years ago. This is great for historians, and not so great for anti-war activists who deal in the immediate, in the present.”

However, such a sentiment dismissed the coordinated release with papers of record from three countries. Anti-war activists and artists did make use of the material, especially using data-visualization techniques.

A televised CBS report aired in the days following the release called WikiLeaks a “shadowy website.”

Reaction from The Military

According Assange’s affidavit, just three days after the July 25 publication of the Afghan War Diaries, the U.S. Department of Defense and the FBI stepped up pre-existing efforts to prosecute Assange and disable WikiLeaks.

Assange said:

“With our publication of the Afghan War Diaries and the news that WikiLeaks intended to publish hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, U.S. government officials started an attempt to delegitimise the legal protections WikiLeaks enjoys as a publisher by casting WikiLeaks as an adversary opposed to U.S. national interests.

An article published by the Department of Defense on July 29, 2010 has since been deleted, but was retrieved via archiving services. The report states in part:

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced he has asked the FBI to help Pentagon authorities investigate the leak of the classified documents published by WikiLeaks. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, condemned the leak in the strongest possible manner during a Pentagon briefing here today.”

The article said, “Calling on the FBI to aid the investigation ensures that the department will have all the resources needed to investigate and assess this breach of national security, the secretary said, noting that use of the bureau ensures the investigation can go wherever it needs to go.”

In the days following the release, Michael Hayden, a former NSA director who also served as CIA chief under President George W. Bush from 2006 until 2009, called publication of the Diaries a ‘tragedy.’ 

Political Response

The Obama administration’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones called the release “a threat to national security that could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk.” 

Democratic Party Presidential candidate John Kerry called the publication of the Afghan War Diaries “unacceptable and illegal.”

In a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that WikiLeaks represented a “very real and potential threat.”

A White House memo sent to reporters shortly after the release of the Afghan war documents was said by Assange to have stated in part: “As you report on this issue, it’s worth noting that WikiLeaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan.”

The publication of the Afghan War Diaries would form a major part of the U.S. criminal investigation of Julian Assange that the Justice Department announced was underway in December 2010 and would ultimately lead to Assange’s arrest on April 11 of this year.

Elizabeth Vos is a freelance reporter and regular contributor to Consortium News. She co-hosts the #Unity4J online vigil.

This article was first published on May 9, 2019.


13 comments for “The Leak That ‘Exposed the True Afghan War’

  1. Nathan Mulcahy
    August 26, 2021 at 11:37

    Manning and Assange are heros of the very best kind.

  2. Carolyn L Zaremba
    August 25, 2021 at 11:32

    I am not surprised that Counterpunch downplayed the importance of the Afghan War Diaries. Counterpunch is a bourgeois liberal publication that supports the Democratic Party, a warmongering capitalist party. Ever since Alex Cockburn died, it has moved to the right. I can only bear to read articles from there on occasion.

  3. Dave
    August 24, 2021 at 17:52

    After hundreds of thousands of printed words and hundreds of hours of electronic attention, no one has explained how a lowly private first class, recently promoted to “specialist”, was given the level of security clearance that Manning received. Some commissioned officer, or a combination of superior officers, had to provide Manning with the authority to access the files he ultimately visited. To me, it is inconceivable that Manning was allowed to access the files he perused without higher US Army authority or laxness from such authorities. In other words, who signed off on Manning’s ability to visit the files he accessed in the first place? Secondly, it is holy writ in the “intelligence/security” bureaucracy that persons with sexual identity problems are absolutely not allowed to access any sort of security-related files….such persons can too easily be compromised or “blackmailed”, as the saying goes. Thirdly, Julian Assange was an electronic journalist, among many such journalists located globally. Why should he be singled out for doing what any journalist would have done with information the origins of which could be identified as being authentic? Whatever happened to the concept of an open society as being instrumental to a functioning republic?

    • August 25, 2021 at 11:44

      Um. I think many “lower level” personnel have access to sensitive data. If you think, this sort of thing can be controlled by those presently “calling the shots”, you are kidding yourself. Moreover, who are the “officers” supposedly giving access to this or that? How do they make their decisions? Is there a protocol, and if so, do they follow that protocol? I doubt it, and I also suspect there is no enforcement aspect to this – none whatsoever. Same effing story – “No Accountability for mistakes”. That is a serious vulnerability especially if your military is focused on defense as it ought be – DUH. Being that the US Military and associated entities are most obviously not focused on defense of the “homeland”, then it comes as no surprise that there will be leaks. In the heat of battle, things happen rapidly and command and control can lose site of what is important, especially when they are behaving offensively, and most importantly, when they are on an unethical mission from the get-go. One with no purpose that is in the interest of the citizens.
      Just my opinion. I’m sure there must be some easy explanation why Manning had access to the files. I’m glad it was so because this is the kind of news that demands publication, and so God Bless Wikileaks for all of their courage and God Bless Julian Assange. May God watch over him while he continues to suffer for the crime of telling the truth. Lady Libra is seriously shaking with animosity and something is going to give. No denying that lady – she is fearsome.

    • robert e williamson jr
      August 25, 2021 at 13:33

      You second observation is intriguing. You would apparently be shocked to learn just how many Chelsa Mannings Pvt. 1srt class are out there serving in the military. Seriously.

      When I got my security classification, 1968 I learned the FBI did the investigation or part of it. They lost track of it and I was a hold-over at my Army advanced instruction school, AIT, until it was completed. FYI I recieved it about the same time I was promoted to Spec. 4. These days I have no clue how things are done but I do know for a fact that J Edgar had plenty of sexual identity problems. Get that?

      Who signed off on Ms. Manning’s file access? It’s been my experience with bureaucracies that the guilty party seldom gets exposed, bureaucracies do not like errors or failures and the individual was likely promoted to a higher level of incompetence.

      This “holy writ” you speak of is troubling in that as soon as the “intelligence / security ” bureaucracy determines one has these issues many times it grooms these individuals so the bureaucracy has them over a barrel. Again now days I have no idea of how the U.S. military handles this.

      To your third point, as I remember it JFK strongly backed that ” . . concept of an open society being instrumental to a functioning republic . . “. See his quote referring to the idea that a country whose government fears debating it’s business in an open public forum, is a country that fears it’s people.

      That concept is one of many Kennedy died for.

      With respect to Mr. Assange. His case in a great example of the government saying the silent part out loud.

      They have insisted on making themselves appear to be complete sadistic fools, imitating the behavior of the 1970’s Russians.

      Thanks CN

      • August 27, 2021 at 09:14

        I think I get the gist of your response robert e.w. jr.
        What I am excited about presently is i’m still allowed to spew my ideas…..
        and so are others. I’ve found some awesome sites recently.
        So, call it a leak, or call it talking about the truth, there is no denying that the truth is what it is.
        It matters not where it comes from.
        It does matter if others try to
        hide the truth because
        we all ought know
        the truth cannot
        be denied!
        It is the truth for eff sake – it means it actually happened – it means it is the fair determination as to what transpired and the evidence is overwhelming. So please, all you truth deniers out there, wake up and stop being puppets please.

  4. William F Johnson
    August 24, 2021 at 16:04

    Assange, Manning and all the whistleblowers are to be commended, not indicted, but that’s the cost of living anywhere near this empire and they knew this to be true and were willing to pay the price. Now it’s our turn, don’t you think? Let’s remove the rot of the military industrial complex once and for all!

    • cjonsson1
      August 24, 2021 at 22:43

      Absolutely William. Dividing us is a constant meme to prevent us from fighting back.
      Don’t let it. Most of us have something we can agree on. Find that and join forces to gain control before we can’t.

  5. Jeff Harrison
    August 24, 2021 at 13:23

    The criminal always tries to hide his crime and, failing in that, he’ll try to hide his involvement in the crime.

    • cjonsson1
      August 24, 2021 at 22:44

      That’s the absolute truth Jeff.

  6. August 24, 2021 at 12:29

    There is a lot of ignominy in this article. I still need to read the rest of it, but I felt compelled to comment up front.
    The ignominy is not coming from the truth tellers nor the whistle blowers.
    If this is not so OBVIOUS now, and it is, to most, it will be soon.
    The facts are rolling in.
    Get ready.
    Peace is easy,

    • cjonsson1
      August 24, 2021 at 22:35

      Love your comment BK.

    • robert e williamson jr
      August 26, 2021 at 13:12

      Yep! Never underestimate the power of large groups of stupid people. The group would be the group of lemmings that jumped on board with Shrub after 911. The American flag in the lapel of their suit patriots.

      Got the flag in their lapel and their calculator in their hand keeping track of their retirement investments.

      On ignominy.

      Ken don’t expect these idiots to be contrite, they simple don’t have it in their make-up. Their mantra is ” I want it, I want it now and I want it all.”

      Maybe some small fraction can still be rehabilitated, I’m not holding my breath.

      A reality check rolled in this am at Bagram , not any surprise to me more people died.

      Some one wasn’t ready. Go figure. Things are very ugly now

      America wake the hell up! NOW! Things are very ugly now.

      Time to beat these idiots over their heads with the truth.

      Keep up your comments, we all need them them, and we need about 200 million more Americans just like you!

      Thanks Ken and CN

Comments are closed.