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08.03.10

WikiLeaks' Cry for Help

Julian Assange’s team wants the Pentagon’s aid in reviewing a new batch of U.S. military secrets it plans to publish soon—and the Pentagon is reviewing WikiLeaks’ request. Philip Shenon reports.

Julian Assange wants the Pentagon’s help.

His secretive WikiLeaks website tells The Daily Beast it is making an urgent request to the Defense Department for help reviewing 15,000 still-secret American military reports to remove the names of Afghan civilians and others who might be endangered when the website makes the reports public.

Schmitt said the site wanted to open a line of communication with the Defense Department to review an additional 15,000 classified reports in an effort to “make redactions so they can be safely published.”

The request follows statements of regret from Assange and others at WikiLeaks that the site may have unintentionally endangered Afghan civilians with its first massive document dump—72,000 leaked classified American military reports from Afghanistan that revealed the names and home villages of hundreds of local informants who cooperated with American forces there.

The Taliban has suggested it will now hunt down the informants named in the leaked documents.

“I would certainly say that the invitation to talk to the Obama administration is open,” said Daniel Schmitt, a WikiLeaks spokesman in Germany. “It has been open before.”

In a phone interview Tuesday with The Daily Beast, Schmitt said the site wanted to open a line of communication with the Defense Department in order to review an additional 15,000 classified reports in an effort to “make redactions so they can be safely published.” Schmitt said that these reports also relate to American military operations in Afghanistan.

Assange has said that he withheld the 15,000 reports because they needed additional security reviews to protect innocent people from harm.

The possibility that the Afghan informants might be killed or injured as a result of WikiLeaks has clearly alarmed many of Assange’s supporters. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family."

“It is very harsh to hear that,” Schmitt said, adding that the site has not heard of any harm coming to any of the informants named in the papers so far. “We’re not aware of any tragedies that have happened.”

WikiLeaks has claimed that it was rebuffed by the Obama administration—and by the Pentagon, in particular—earlier this summer after requesting Washington’s help in removing the names of people who might be endangered if their identities were revealed in the library of Afghan war logs.

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The Pentagon has described the website’s claim as fiction, saying the Defense Department was never approached by WikiLeaks about such a security vetting.

“That is absolutely false,” said Marine Colonel David Lapan, a senior DOD spokesman.

“The contact that the White House had in the days before the release came from the news organizations—The New York Times and the others—for comment and to ask questions for their stories. There was no discussion of showing us documents or having somebody review them to be certain that names were not being released.”

Asked if the Pentagon would now consider helping WikiLeaks vet the remaining 15,000 documents to protect innocent Afghan civilians and others, Lapan had no immediate comment but suggested the question was under review.

If nothing else, the disclosure that the Afghan war logs released by WikiLeaks may have put civilians in Afghanistan in danger has created a serious public relations problem for Assange and his crusading website, which insists that all classified material released by the site undergoes a “harm minimization” process intended to protect people identified in the material from harm.

Asked why WikiLeaks did not review all of the Afghan war logs before releasing them last month to make sure that no Afghan informants or other innocent people were identified, Schmitt said that the volume of the material made it impossible.

“I just can’t imagine that someone could go through 76,000 documents,” he said. “That is quite a large amount of documents.” He said the site had no information in advance of the release to suggest that informants were being named.

In recent days, Assange, while saying he regretted the possibility that the names of individual Afghan informants were revealed, suggested that some of them are warlords or criminals who deserved being unmasked publicly.

In an interview today on the television program Democracy Now, Assange said he was aware of the Taliban statement last week that it will seek retribution from informants cited in the documents posted by WikiLeaks. But Assange said the Taliban comments needed to be put in perspective.

“Remember, the Taliban is actually not a homogenous group and the statement, as far as such things go, was fairly reasonable, which is that they would not trust these documents, they would use their own intelligence organization’s investigations to understand whether those people were defectors or collaborators.”

“That image is disturbing,” said Assange, speaking from somewhere in Britain. “But that is what happens in war, that spies or traitors are investigated.”

On the program, Assange was also asked about a mysterious, encrypted datafile labeled “Insurance” that has appeared on the special website on which WikiLeaks posted the Afghan war logs.

Technology bloggers have suggested that the massive data file contains the full library of Afghan war logs, which would be released to the public if the U.S. government launched some form of cyberwarfare against WikiLeaks.

“It’s better that we don’t comment on that,” Assange replied cryptically. “But one could imagine in a similar situation that it might be worth ensuring that important parts of history do not disappear.”

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.