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WikiLeaks' Iraq files: 400,000 insights into war

By Richard Engel, NBC News
While many will condemn WikiLeaks' release of some 400,000 U.S. military files on Iraq, these documents reveal a great deal about the war. This release of raw data shows what the military was seeing and reporting to itself.

What has been leaked?
Every time an American patrol goes out in Iraq or Afghanistan it takes notes. It gathers information. There are computers in American Humvees that can send what are the equivalent of emails back to base. These messages, usually short, are sent in addition to radio communications, which are also more or less constant. When a convoy of Humvees arrives on a scene where there has been a shooting by insurgents or a car bombing, or where an American contractor has killed Iraqi civilians, the patrol leader will get out of his vehicle and try to find out what happened. I have seen it countless times. The patrol leader will talk to people on the scene (usually to Iraqi authorities, police or military) and then send a short note to his commanders describing what he has learned. A typical note might say, "Arrived at location X, in sector Y at time Z. Iraqi Police confirm vehicles from Blackwater opened fire on civilian convoy. Three Iraqi civilians killed." The report will describe whatever the patrol discovered.

Such reports may or may not be 100 percent verified. They are snapshots. They are typically called "After Action Reports." As a matter of course, nearly all after action reports are automatically classified because they are considered "operational." Anything that relates to on-going operations is considered sensitive. These are not top-secret nuclear launch codes. This is very similar to the way NBC News works with its internal messaging system. What happened was someone (a 22-year-old private first class has been detained by the U.S. military) copied the military's internal database and released it to WikiLeaks. It would be as if a disgruntled desk assistant suddenly copied all of NBC News' notes and background material and posted them on the Web. I can imagine we would not be pleased. The private first class faces up to 52 years in prison if convicted.

What does all this show?
These scattered pieces of information reveal that the U.S. military knew exactly how bad the situation was in Iraq before things started to improve. It knew that Iraqi security forces were killing and torturing detainees. It knew Iran was deeply involved in the insurgency. It knew that American security contractors (including many still employed by the U.S. government) were killing civilians. It was gathering all this information, even as U.S. military officials were telling the world that everything was going well in Iraq. Remember, NBC News was severely criticized for calling Iraq at its worst a civil war. These leaks prove that the U.S. military knew what was happening, that it was receiving the same witness accounts we were.

Does the leak put U.S. troops at risk?
It could. The U.S. military classifies almost everything. These notes were operational and immediate. They were data points. But again, how would NBC News react? Would releasing our notes to the world impede what we do? Probably. Would it put us out of business? No. It certainly would distract us as a news organization. But most critically, would it give our competitors an advantage? Most likely. Our competitors would know what to look for. The same is true of the military. This information could be used by an intelligent computer-savvy enemy to piece together some of what the military knew, when and, in some very dangerous cases, how.

The takeaway
This is not only embarrassing for the U.S. military (how could a private first class do this?) but also raises questions. The documents paint Iraqi security forces and international security contractors in a horrible light, yet the U.S. continues to back them. Does that show hypocrisy? The leaks also make the U.S. military appear to have been hiding the truth of what was going on in Iraq from the American people, when it knew full well how bad the situation was on the ground.

Read more about WikiLeaks' release of Iraq war documents.