By Colum Lynch and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:30 PM
The disclosure of a huge cache of diplomatic cables has alarmed human rights groups, which fear that WikiLeaks or news outlets could publish the names of local activists who have spoken with U.S. diplomats in countries with repressive governments.
While there are so far no known cases in which activists have been publicly identified in the cables, two leading groups, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, have written to the founder of WikiLeaks to urge him to scrub any references from the documents that might allow other countries to identify the activists.
The State Department has identified what one senior official described as a significant number of activists and journalists whom it believes will be endangered if named. The official said a number of "very sensitive sources" could be arrested or targeted with violence if their names are published.
"These are red-flag lists," the official said.
U.S officials declined to provide specifics on people who were at risk or to characterize those individuals' contacts with American officials. The State Department also refused a WikiLeaks request, made over the weekend, to provide information on the names of individuals whose lives may be "at significant risk of harm."
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that he urged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in writing over the holiday weekend to "redact from the documents the names of any U.S.-supported human rights defenders who might be placed in jeopardy."
At the same time, however, he voiced concern that the State Department was trying to use the "fear of disclosure about human rights defenders as an excuse to pursue WikiLeaks or restrict access to this kind of information."
Roth said that he had discussed "the theoretical possibility" that rights groups could be targeted by repressive governments in a conversation with Assange's lawyer, Jennifer Robinson. He said Robinson "assured me that they were aware of this problem and would deal with it. We have no evidence yet that any human rights defender has been disclosed and can't say for sure it won't happen."
Elisa Massimino, the president and chief executive of Human Rights First, expressed even greater alarm in a Saturday letter to Assange, saying the disclosure of activists' names "is extremely reckless," as it would "increase their risk of persecution, imprisonment and violence."
U.S.-based rights groups say activists in the field have expressed growing anxiety about the prospects that their contacts with U.S. officials may surface as WikiLeaks rolls out tens of thousands of additional diplomatic cables.
"People are scared. We're getting lots of e-mails from people who might be mentioned even tangentially in these documents," said a U.S.-based human rights advocate who declined to be identified. "Our biggest concern is for foreign nationals who do research for us. Do you think someone who found out damaging details about a foreign government's human rights abuses is going to be invited over for tea? Not a chance. They are going to get their head busted in."
The senior U.S. official said the United States has taken a number of steps in the last two weeks to protect those most at risk, and those efforts continue. The official declined to identify the countries where those believed to be at risk reside, except to say they are in "places with terrible governments."
The official said there was a great deal of debate within the government about whether redactions should be negotiated with WikiLeaks. "It's a very sensitive issue," the official said. "The problem is if you point out the most sensitive things to them, then you are implicitly saying that other things which are comparably sensitive are not being pointed out. And they can legitimize a large group of disclosures."
WikiLeaks has said it will do its own redactions, but the official said, "We don't trust their judgment."
The official said the group had already released the material to various media outlets before it offered to discuss redactions.
Staff writer John Pomfret contributed to this report.