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ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch was a geopolitical news publication run by ISN ETH Zurich.

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The Two Leaks

While Russian media were reporting about the scandalous Wikileaks and predicting the imminent collapse of the coalition in Afghanistan, the leak of classified FSB documents was entirely ignored.

The documents that were recently published on the website WikiLeaks, of course, might bring some harm to U.S. interests in Afghanistan (relations with a few generals in Pakistan's secret services have definitely been spoiled). But you cannot say the leak has fundamentally changed our impression of how the war in Afghanistan is being waged.

The tactics of task forces have been well-known since Iraq. The widespread use of unmanned drones to liquidate Taliban leaders is certainly no secret. And Western journalists have long written about the, shall we say, ambiguous position of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

The publication of these documents is an important event for completely different reasons. Thousands upon thousands of field reports, the reports of commanders of small military units, have for the first time entered the public sphere. And this has given the public and the expert community access to this information, which had previously been available only to a narrow circle of officials. The significance of the leak is not just in the content of the reports, but in the fact that it presents a new level of detail in our picture of the situation at hand. It is as if we got rid of our 800x600 monitors and bought ourselves the latest HD widescreens.

Of course, one can always analyze the political situation in a country by looking at the fur hats arranged on top of Lenin's mausoleum; but your assessment will probably be more accurate if there are some documents in the public sphere: You can start with laws, and then the orders of generals, and work down to the reports of lieutenants. With each new level of detail, it becomes harder and harder for the military and special services to distort the picture of what is going on. It becomes impossible to deny that units were in a given location on a given date when, for some reason, civilians were killed. Instead, they have to explain what happened and how each officer and soldier acted. Journalists even have the names and serial numbers of all the officers in the field.

Meanwhile, in Russia...

It is interesting that at the very moment when the Russian media were reporting about the U.S. scandal and predicting the imminent collapse of the coalition in Afghanistan, another episode that could have had a much more direct impact on Russia -- another leak! -- passed without mention.

I'm talking about the purported Federal Security Service (FSB) documents -- some very significant orders and reports marked "top secret" -- that were published in June on the lubyanskayapravda.com website. For one thing, this is apparently the first leak of FSB documents to the Internet in the last 10 years. (There was one case when the Georgian special services published the "account" of a local politician, but the scan of the document looked so dubious that the publication attracted almost no attention.) Second, while the authors of the WikiLeaks documents were young officers, the Lubyanskayapravda documents included reports prepared for the top leadership of the special services, including the head of state.

The FSB documents were mostly reports from the Operational Information Department (DOI) -- although perhaps it would be better just to call it the espionage section -- about operations conducted on the territory of Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and several other former Soviet republics. They dated from the mid-2000s. These documents not only explained exactly what the FSB was doing in those countries, but even revealed conflicts among the Russian special services. For instance, one report spoke of a Ukrainian document that was forged by the FSB and then was later reported to the Kremlin as genuine by the Foreign Counterintelligence Service (SVR).

Media neglect

I am intentionally avoiding mention of the details of these documents because there is one huge difference between them and the collection published on WikiLeaks. Unlike the American reports, the FSB documents, although they appeared on the Internet, did not enter the public sphere. No Russian newspapers republished them. The site itself went offline just a couple of weeks after the publication. The leak was only picked up by a few Armenian journalists who quickly seized on them to accuse one of the heads of their security agencies of working for Moscow.

So a strange situation developed. The FSB documents, not having entered the public sphere, did not become a subject of discussion (and, naturally, never underwent a systematic verification process, which is why I'm not comfortable citing them in greater detail). There were no official hearings for the FSB or the presidential administration. There were no press conferences with justifications or denials. And journalists were not able to examine those justifications or denials using their own sources. As a result, it is impossible to cite these documents. As if they never existed.

The U.S. Senate recently unanimously passed a law that protects journalists and publishers publishing in the United States from defamation suits in other countries (most of all, this was targeted at the United Kingdom, which has become the home of "libel tourism"). Human rights activists have applauded this initiative because, among other things, it protects the owners of websites that are hosted in the United States from suits filed by repressive regimes. This is unquestionably a positive development but it is unlikely dramatically to improve the situation around freedom of speech and access to information.

At least, it wouldn't have helped in the case of the leaked FSB documents. Lubyanskayapravda.com was hosted in the United States and the domain name was registered in Egypt. But it was the inattention of the traditional Russian print media that meant that these documents never made it into the public sphere.

By. Andrei Soldatov

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