Circling the Lion's Den

Leaks: American and Russian approaches

Andrei Soldatov

The documents published on WikiLeaks may, of course, inflict some damage on American interests in Afghanistan (relations with a couple of generals from Pakistani intelligence are definitely going to be spoiled). At the same time, the leak cannot be said to substantially change our notion of how the war is being waged in Afghanistan. The task forces tactic is well known from Iraq, the wide use of drones to take out Taliban leaders is no secret at all, and both British and American journalists have written volumes about the ambiguous position, to put it mildly, of Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

The publication of these documents is a special instance for completely different reasons. Thousands and thousands of field reports and reports from commanders of small army subdivisions have for the first time fallen into the public sphere, and this has given the public and the expert community access to that information, access to which only a limited circle of people once had. In this case, the significance of the leak is not just in the content of the reports and dispatches. This is a new stage in detailing the picture we are dealing with. It is as if we have gone from 800:600 resolution to modern monitors.

Of course, the country's political situation can also be analyzed based on the arrangement of deerskin caps on the Mausoleum, but the analysis will be somewhat more precise if there are documents in the public space: first laws, then generals' orders, and now lieutenants' dispatches as well. With each new level of detail it becomes increasingly difficult for the military and special services to distort the picture of what is happening. It is no longer enough to say that our subdivisions were not in the location where civilians died for some reason; it will have to be explained where specifically each platoon was operating on that day; moreover, journalists will know the number and name of the commander of each of them.

It is curious that while the Russian media were writing about the American scandal, predicting the coalition's imminent demise, quite unremarked was another episode bearing a direct relation to Russia -- another leak.

That leak involved the FSB (Federal Security Service) documents, orders and reports stamped top secret, that were published at this June. Not only was this the first case of a leak of FSB documents to the Internet over the last ten years (there was one episode when the Georgian special services published the "tally sheet" of a local politician, but the scan of this document looked dubious enough that it attracted almost no attention). Moreover, if in the WikiLeaks case the authors of the dispatches were the junior command, then included on were reports prepared by the special services' leadership, including the top man.

If the documents on WikiLeaks clarify certain issues on the war in Afghanistan, the key problem for the United States, then the FSB documents are primarily reports from the FSB's department of Operations Information (DOI), and simply FSB intelligence, about operations in Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and several other former Soviet republics dating to the mid-2000s. The documents not only clarify what exactly FSB has been doing in these countries but even reveals the lack of coordination among the Russian special services. For example, one of the reports talks about a Ukrainian document forged by the FSB that was obtained by the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and reported to the Kremlin as genuine.

It is no accident that I am not quoting details from these documents. The point is that there is one big difference between these documents and the WikiLeaks collection. Unlike the American reports, the FSB correspondence, although it was put out on the Internet, never did land in the public sphere. The documents were not republished by Russian newspapers, and the site itself was shut down a couple of weeks after the release. The leak interested only Armenian journalists, who on their basis rushed to accuse one of the directors of the local special services of working for Moscow.

A paradoxical situation arose as a result. Not having fallen into the public sphere, the FSB documents did not become the subject of discussion, which means there was no attempt to verify their authenticity (and it is for this reason that I do not think it proper to quote them in more detail). There were no official inquiries made to the FSB and presidential administration, there were no press conferences with justifications or refutations, and journalists did not verify them based on their own sources. Consequently, these documents cannot be quoted, and it is as if they do not exist.

The US Senate just passed a law protecting journalists and authors publishing in the States from lawsuits for slander in other countries (primarily in London), and human rights activists have welcomed this law, partly because it guarantees the legal immunity of website owners who host in the United States from lawsuits from countries with repressive regimes. Certainly this is a positive step but it is hardly going to significantly improve the situation with free speech and access to information.

At the least, this did not happen in the case of the FSB document leaks. The website was hosted in the United States, and the domain was registered in Egypt; however, it was the inattention of the traditional print press in Russia that kept these documents from being introduced into the public sphere.

Published in Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal 2.08.2010