Americas and Oceania Collections blog

27 July 2010

War Logs Again

[J.J writes]

Last month, when our Chief Executive announced plans to digitize swathes of the British Library’s Newspaper collection in collaboration with Brightsolid she used the well known saying that 'newspapers are the first draft of history.' 

As news broke this week of the leak of 92,201 internal US military records relating to the war in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009, the journalists at the Guardian, the New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel who received these logs found themselves working on this 'first draft' on an epic scale; a modern-day echo of the 1971 leak of the Vietnam 'Pentagon Papers' to the New York Times.

As someone who regularly deals with government documentation, albeit generally somewhat older in origin, it appears that at the very least a portion of this documentation would have been made available in the fullness of time, particularly when one considers the recent overhaul to the US Government’s document classification system (see my blog post 17 February 2010). 

A quick look at the Digital National Security Archive database will uncover a range of US foreign policy decisions.  One document, dating from September 1952 entitled 'Guatemalan Communist Personnel to be disposed of during Military Operations of Calligeris', grabbed my attention. It lists 58 names, all of which have been redacted and are classified as 'Category I - persons to be disposed of through Executive action.' Executive action is of course a CIA euphuism for assassination.

Today, the editorial pages of our papers will offer us a first draft of history based on material that in usual circumstances be classified of at least seventy years.  The question is, can anything be learned from this first draft?  While they are novel in the extent to which they pull back the curtain of secrecy, their contents surely do not differ from what we sadly know to be true about war.

[M.S. adds]

The nature of the leak is also novel but increasingly familiar: WikiLeaks has become a feature of our age.  But it is also one that senses the need for partnership with 'old media'.  As David Michon comments on the Monocolumn ('Young upstart WikiLeaks turns to the old guard'), 'wanting to make a splash, and surely spread its workload, this new media platform turned to the powerhouses of print, with reputations built over decades of accurate reporting – plus a habit of digesting major reports for public consumption.'

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