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06.18.10

Pentagon Snubs Leaker's Lawyers

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hired lawyers to represent the Army intel analyst accused of leaking State Dept. secrets. But the Pentagon sent them away. Philip Shenon reports on WikiLeaks concerns about Bradley Manning's treatment in custody—and the video of a U.S. massacre in Afghanistan, coming as soon as next week.

The secretive whisteblowing website WikiLeaks said Friday night that its founder, Julian Assange, had hired private criminal defense lawyers to represent the 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist accused of providing WikiLeaks with highly classified combat videos from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Birgitta Jonsdottir, a parliamentarian in Iceland who acts as a spokeswoman for the website, said in a telephone interview from Reykjavik that the Pentagon had refused this week to allow the lawyers to meet the Army intel analyst, Bradley Manning.

“I haven’t seen it myself,” Jonsdottir said of the new video. But she said she understood it was “horrible” because “there are so many children being massacred.”

Jonsdottir said Assange had hired private lawyers several days ago because of growing alarm that the accused whistleblower is being mistreated by the Defense Department.

Manning, who has been assigned military counsel, is reported to be in custody in Kuwait and has not been heard from publicly since he was arrested three weeks ago.

Manning, of Potomac, Maryland, was turned into authorities by a former computer hacker in California, Adrian Lamo, who said he had been contacted by Manning for advice about his plans to become a government whistleblower. In Internet chat logs with Lamo, Manning is reported to have boasted of stealing two combat videos, as well as 260,000 classified State Department cables.

A Pentagon spokeswoman had no comment Friday night on Manning’s status.

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Ms. Jonsdottir, who said she is in daily contact with Assange in his hiding place somewhere outside the United States, said Assange was hard at work both in organizing legal assistance for Manning and in preparing for the public release of a second classified Pentagon video—this one depicting an American airstrike last year in Afghanistan that left as many as 140 civilians dead, most of them children and teenagers.

She said Assange had completed decrypting the video of the attack on the Afghan village of Garani—believed to be the most lethal American airstrike in Afghanistan in terms of civilian deaths since the United States invasion in 2001—and could release it publicly as early as next week.

“I haven’t seen it myself,” she said of the new video. But she said she understood it was “horrible” because “there are so many children being massacred.”

In April, WikiLeaks posted a classified Pentagon video of an American airstrike in Baghdad in 2007 in which 14 people were killed, including two employees of the news service Reuters. Pentagon officials were outraged by the security breach.

Ms. Jonsdottir, a writer and longtime political activist who joined WikiLeaks last winter, was closely involved in preparing that video for release. Assange, who has no permanent home, lived in Iceland in the weeks before the video’s release.

“I did everything from recruiting volunteers and helping write the script to cutting Julian’s hair,” she said.

Ms. Jonsdottir said she not aware of the name of the private lawyers retained in the United States on Manning’s behalf this month. But she said she understood that the lawyers had approached the Defense Department in Washington this week and asked to be put in contact with Manning. The Pentagon declined, she said.

While the website refuses to confirm that Manning is a source, “we’re trying to help Manning, at least to speak out for him,” she said, drawing a comparison between Manning’s “heroic acts” and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg. “There’s a parallel between Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.”

Ms. Jonsdottir would not give hints as to the whereabouts of Assange, except to say that he is not in the United States or Iceland and that he is “comfortable” wherever he is. She disputed news reports suggesting that Assange was living in fear of arrest or detainment by U.S.  authorities.

“He’s fine,” she said. “It’s annoying for him to be in hiding. It’s distracting. But he’s not fearing for his life.” As recently as two weeks ago, Assange was reported to be in his native Australia.

Ms. Jonsdottir may help resolve one of the central mysteries of recent days in the WikiLeaks saga—what happened to the classified State Department cables that Manning is also alleged to have leaked to WikiLeaks.

She said that Assange is telling the truth in his recent assertion that, to the best of his knowledge, WikiLeaks does not have the cables—because the site’s electronic in-baskets have been so overwhelmed with leaked material in recent months that the site has not been able to dig the cables out, if they exist.

“We don’t know if we have them,” she said of the library of cables. “You can imagine how much stuff is coming in.”

In Internet chat logs obtained by Wired magazine, Manning boasts to Lamo, the former computer hacker, of having downloaded the cables and transmitted them to Assange earlier this year.

“Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public,” Manning said of the cables, which are reported to involve the work of American diplomats throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.