07.31.10

The Scramble to Save Informants

The massive WikiLeaks document dump revealed the identities of intel assets in Afghanistan. Inside the Pentagon’s dash to save their lives.

The Defense Department is urgently trying to track down Afghan informants whose lives may be endangered by last week’s massive document leak by WikiLeaks, even as the Pentagon struggled Saturday to understand a new, mysterious encrypted file labeled “Insurance” that the whistle-blowing website posted online late this week.

A senior national-security official told The Daily Beast that American military commanders in Afghanistan were trying to determine this weekend how best to help local informants whose identities were revealed in the classified war logs released by WikiLeaks and who might now be targeted by the Taliban.

“It’s especially horrifying—what WikiLeaks has done—because a lot of these so-called informants are just peasant farmers who were just frightened or fed up of the Taliban,” the official said. “These are the people that WikiLeaks has put in danger.”

“If indeed somebody will be killed as a result of that leak, I find that to be regrettable, very regrettable,” said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a prominent WikiLeaks supporter.

He said the U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and their NATO colleagues would have to determine “on a case-by-case basis” how best to help the informants—whether to provide them additional security where they are or move them elsewhere.

At the same time, the Pentagon was confronted by what appeared to be a new threat from WikiLeaks—a massive encrypted data file labeled “Insurance” that appeared on the website in recent days.

The existence of the data file was first reported by the information-technology website Cryptome.org which said the “Insurance” file may include other raw classified military files that would be decrypted and released to the public in the event of a government-led attack on WikiLeaks.

Cryptome said that at 1.4 gigabytes, the “Insurance” file was 10 times the size of all the other Afghan war material released by the site—combined.

John Young, the New York-based founder of Cryptome and a self-described “information activist,” said in an interview that the “Insurance” file could be almost anything—“It could be a bargaining chip, it could be bogus.”

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Asked what the Defense department made of the “Insurance” file, a Pentagon spokesman, Commander Robert S. Mehal, told The Daily Beast Saturday that “any further action to release classified documents is reprehensible.” He would not comment on details on what might be in the encrypted file.

The department said last week that it believed the earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks had endangered American and NATO soldiers, as well as the lives of hundreds of Afghan insurgents identified in name and village in the reports.

In releasing the first batch of war logs last weekend, the elusive founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, said he had held back about 15,000 other classified government reports related to the Afghan war logs and would not release them until they had gone through a “harm minimization” process intended to protect the safety of innocent people identified in the material.

A WikiLeaks spokesman in Germany did not return repeated phone calls and emails on Saturday for comment.

Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the parliament of Iceland who is a prominent supporter of WikiLeaks and has served as a de facto spokeswoman in the past, said in a phone interview from Iceland Saturday that she was concerned that WikiLeaks may have inadvertently revealed the name of Afghan informants in revealing the contents of the Afghan war logs.

“If indeed somebody will be killed as a result of that leak, I find that to be regrettable, very regrettable,” she said. “That wasn’t the intention—to put people in more danger.”

But she said she was not convinced that the lives of the informants were in any greater danger as a result of the leaks.

“I have been talking with various people who have a better sense how the real situation is in Afghanistan,” she said. The identity of the informants would “already be known to everyone who cared to know in the villages.” The fact that their names were also revealed in American military reports released by WikiLeaks “wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever,” she said.

“And one has to ask: How on earth is the military establishment going to prove that someone died because of the leak?” she continued. “People are dying there every day—because this war is lost and it always has been lost.”

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.