The New York Times‘ Thorny Task in Reporting Wikileaks’ Intelligence Documents


In covering the massive volumes of data unleashed on the world by whistleblowing site Wikileaks, The New York Times has had to act extremely carefully — not only in deciding what information best serves the public interest, but also in how to establish the factual accuracy of the military reports it has obtained.
The Times said in its note to readers about its package of reporting related to Wikileaks’ big reveal that “Government officials did not dispute that the information was accurate.” Even with that statement to bolster the its reporting, the paper remains cautious:

It is sometimes unclear whether a particular incident report is based on firsthand observation, on the account of an intelligence source regarded as reliable, on less trustworthy sources or on speculation by the writer. It is also not known what may be missing from the material, either because it is in a more restrictive category of classification or for some other reason.

That’s a pretty hefty disclaimer, but given the bulk of information the Times has had to sift through in a matter of weeks, it’s perhaps not shocking that the paper is giving itself some factual wiggle room.

The delicate nature of the reporting also manifests itself in the opening sentence of the Times‘ top-slotted story in today’s paper, “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan, Reports Assert.”
The sentence reads:

Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long harbored strong suspicions that 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, according to a trove of secret military field reports made public Sunday.

So first off, this suggests that the Wikileaks documents are actual military field reports. Good to know! Still, the Times is careful to note that just because facts come from U.S. military field reports, that doesn’t mean they’re 100% accurate (emphasis added):

Much of the information — raw intelligence and threat assessments gathered from the field in Afghanistan — cannot be verified and likely comes from sources aligned with Afghan intelligence, which considers Pakistan an enemy, and paid informants.

[…]

But many of the reports rely on sources that the military rated as reliable.

According to the military, which gathered the information, the reports are for the most part legit. No surprise there. Nevertheless, the Times was only able to get officials vouch for the overall picture painted by the leaked documents:

While current and former American officials interviewed could not corroborate individual reports, they said that the portrait of the spy agency’s collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.

The Times has also done the basic work of allowing Pakistan to speak to the allegations that it is helping Afghan insurgents.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said, “The documents circulated by WikiLeaks do not reflect the current on-ground realities.”

Although that’s the sort of denial one would expect from Pakistan when it’s faced with such serious charges, there still remains a question around the timeliness of the Wikileaks information. David Leigh, editor of the Guardian, which was one of the other papers to first report on the Wikileaks documents, said in a Web chat:

Several people as well as you ask if this leak is going to put our troops in further danger in Afghanistan.

All this information is historical, ending at 31 December 2009. Nothing in it can endanger current military operations. So the answer is “No”.

Leigh’s comments are meant as an ethical defense of his paper’s decision to go forward with the Wikileaks information, but may simultaneously raise questions about the current relevance of the data. Seven and a half months is a long time.