By Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; 9:59 AM
Wikileaks' decision to transfer tens of thousands of raw classified field reports on the Afghan war to the New York Times and two European news organizations reflects the growing strength and sophistication of the small nonprofit Web site, founded three years ago to fight what it considers excessive secrecy.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange called the release of nearly 92,000 individual reports portraying a sputtering Afghan war effort "the nearest analogue to the Pentagon Papers." He was referring to the secret military documents that helped shift public opinion about the Vietnam War after they became public in 1971.
"It provides a whole map, if you like, through time, of what has happened during this war," said Assange, a native of Australia, in a television interview broadcast Sunday on Britain's public-service Channel 4.
He acknowledged that some will judge harshly the Web site's airing of classified documents, but he insisted that Wikileaks was not breaking the law or putting troops at risk. For the first time, Wikileaks decided unilaterally to delay the release of some documents because of the possibility that putting them out immediately could cause harm, he said.
"We believe that the way to justice is transparency, and we are clear that the end goal is to expose injustices in the world and try to rectify them," Assange said.
In a separate interview on Monday, Assange said information in the documents about killings of Afghan civilians and covert operations appeared to offer evidence that would support criminal charges against members of the U.S.-led coalition.
"It is up to a court to decide really if something in the end is a crime," Assange told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "That said . . . there does appear to be evidence of war crimes."
The publication of the documentsis expected to feed an appetite for greater disclosure about the war, now in its ninth year.
"People want more details," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation for American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "They want greater clarity and greater candor than they have gotten up to this point. Wikileaks, in this case, has filled a void left by the Pentagon."
The White House responded critically to the documents' release. "The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security," national security adviser James Jones said in a statement.
Jones called the leaks "irresponsible" and said the White House only learned from news organizations that the documents would be posted online. A senior administration official said officials are reviewing the documents to decide whether to take legal action against the site.
Assange asserted that Wikileaks does not "have a view about whether the war should continue or stop." But he added: "We do have a view that it should be prosecuted as humanely as possible."
Wikileaks, an amorphous network run by volunteers in more than a dozen countries, gained global prominence this year when it posted a video of a secret U.S. military helicopter attack in Iraq that killed civilians. An edited, 17-minute version of the gunship-footage video appeared on the Wikileaks site on April 5 under the heading "collateral murder," a label that drew harsh criticism from military officials and many media commentators.
In this case, rather than conduct its own assessment of the documents, Wikileaks selectively provided the files to the Times, the London-based Guardian newspaper and the German magazine Der Spiegel. The three outlets agreed to publish simultaneously, though each organization did its own reporting and produced its own stories.
The move to let established journalistic organizations do the reporting and analysis "may reflect a maturing of the organization and model that they have adopted," Aftergood said.
The news organizations said they agreed they would not disclose anything likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or antiterrorist operations. The Guardian Web site noted that most of the material, though classified "secret" at the time, "is no longer militarily sensitive." At the request of the White House, the Times also urged Wikileaks to withhold harmful material from its Web site.
In a statement on its Web site, Wikileaks said it delayed the release of about 15,000 reports from the total archive "as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source." After further review, Wikileaks said, "these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually, in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits."
Wikileaks has declined to identify the person behind the latest leak. Assange said the names of leakers are generally unknown, even to the organization.
Lt. Cmdr. Bill H. Speaks, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, declined to say whether military officials are investigating if Pfc. Bradley Manning, recently charged with leaking classified military documents, provided this latest material to Wikileaks.
Wikileaks' methods have often overshadowed the significance of the documents it sought to publish. Governments and corporations around the world have sought to shut down the organization through the courts or, in some cases, through cyber attacks on the Web site. Both the Pentagon and CIA in internal documents have declared Wikileaks a national security threat.
Assange said he expects that Americans will respond as they did nearly 40 years ago to the Pentagon Papers.
"They will see the extensive range of abuses, and if they are intelligent they will say, 'This will not happen again; we will put in procedures to stop these abuses, to stop this,'" he said.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.