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Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen: WikiLeaks release endangers troops, Afghans

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Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.org, speaks with The Washington Post's Rocci Fisch and answers reader questions on just released secret Afghan war documents published by the web site.

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By Greg Jaffe and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 30, 2010

The U.S. military's top officer charged Thursday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in releasing tens of thousands of secret documents, had endangered the lives of American troops and Afghan informants who have assisted U.S. forces.

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"Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. "But the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family."

A Washington Post search of the 76,000 reports released by WikiLeaks turned up at least 100 instances dealing with Afghan informants. In some of the reports the informants' names and villages are listed along with the names of the insurgent commanders that they had discussed with U.S. and Afghan officials. The secret reports also include the name of at least one U.S. intelligence operative.

Founder's response

Assange has denied that the release of the classified reports endangered U.S. troops or Afghan civilians. "None of the information released by WikiLeaks has ever led to physical injury of any person as far as can be ascertained, and we try hard to ascertain that fact," Assange said in an online interview Wednesday in which he answered questions from readers of The Washington Post.

WikiLeaks is withholding 15,000 reports that it plans to release after they are reviewed by its staff.

Senior defense officials said the Pentagon only recently became aware of the size and scope of the classified trove that was given to WikiLeaks. "We don't know how many more there are out there," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. "It could be a substantial additional number of documents. And we have no idea what their content is, either."

He dismissed the idea of opening a dialogue with Assange to learn more about the information the group was planning to release. "I'm not sure why we would," he said. "Do you think he is going to tell us the truth?"

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai said the disclosure of informants' names by WikiLeaks was "extremely irresponsible and shocking."

Gates said he has asked the FBI to partner with the Pentagon to "ensure that the investigation goes wherever it needs to go." The partnership with the FBI would make it easier to extend the criminal probe beyond the military to determine whether any civilians played a role in the security breach.

The Pentagon inquiry is exploring the possible involvement of Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence soldier who has already been charged with leaking other material to the Web site. Manning was transferred from Kuwait to the Marine Corps base brig in Quantico on Thursday, a military spokesman said.

A team of U.S. military officers also has begun to comb through WikiLeaks documents in search of security breaches that could endanger U.S. troops or Afghans. "We have a moral obligation, not only to our troops but to those who have worked with us," Gates said. "As we go through these documents and identify people who have helped us, it seems to me we have an obligation to take some responsibility for their security."

But it's not clear what kind of protection the Pentagon can provide to the Afghans named in the documents. Most of the informants identified in the documents are village elders or relatively impoverished Afghans from remote areas where insurgent forces remain strong. "In the case of [Afghans] who are identified, bad actors may assume they're working with the United States even if they aren't," said a U.S. official in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-related matters. "That's one reason why the actions of WikiLeaks are so reprehensible."

U.S. troops don't have the manpower to offer round-the-clock protection to large numbers of Afghans scattered throughout the remote regions of the country. "I have not seen the documents," said one senior military official in Afghanistan. "I knew there could potentially be some damaging information here on folks that had worked with coalition forces. . . . I am digging into how we'll get at this now."

Troops' access to reports

In recent years the United States has pushed more classified information down to troops in the field so they can act on it more quickly. The massive WikiLeaks security breach probably would force the Pentagon to limit the distribution of some of this material, Gates said. He also said that the military was exploring technological solutions to prevent future breaches but warned that many of those fixes were not immediately available.

Karzai, meanwhile, focused on the disclosure in the WikiLeaks documents that Taliban insurgents were relying on sanctuaries in Pakistan and urged the United States to pressure Afghanistan's neighbor to do more to prevent Taliban incursions.

"The question is, why are they not doing it?" Karzai said.

Partlow reported from Kabul. Staff writer Ellen Nakashima and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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