10.16.10

Pentagon on WikiLeaks Alert

As rumors swirl that a massive Iraq War document dump is imminent, the Defense Department WikiLeaks task force shifts into high gear. Philip Shenon reports.

The Pentagon's WikiLeaks war room is on high alert this weekend for what Defense Department officials fear could be an imminent release of as many as 400,000 secret intelligence reports from the war in Iraq. Pentagon officials say the department's 120-member WikiLeaks task force believes it has determined exactly what battlefield documents from Iraq have been leaked to the whistleblowing website, and that contingency plans are ready to go into effect as early as Sunday to protect Iraqi civilians and others identified in the material.

Officials say they cannot be sure exactly when WikiLeaks will post the documents and are responding to news reports and Internet chatter, attributed to WikiLeaks insiders, that the site planned to make the Iraq War logs public Monday.

"People will be at their desks at the task force all weekend—all day, all night," said a White House official who has been involved in the preparations for dealing with the massive leak. He said that Brig. General Robert Carr, an Army intelligence veteran who is leading the task force, "is ready for any eventuality."

At the same time, the Defense Department is stepping up its demand that WikiLeaks cancel the release of the war logs—and issued a plea to news organizations working with WikiLeaks to at least consult with the Pentagon before making sensitive national-security documents public.

“People will be at their desks at the task force all weekend—all day, all night,” said a White House official.

Colonel David Lapan, a senior Defense Department spokesman, tells The Daily Beast that as of Friday night, no major news organizations had approached the Pentagon for help in vetting the Iraq War logs to deal with national-security concerns they raise.

That raised the alarming prospect that WikiLeaks and the news organizations might release the documents without any advance warning to the Pentagon and to Iraqi civilians and others who might be endangered if their identities are revealed in the leaked material, Lapan said.

The Pentagon was given advance warning last July before WikiLeaks— working with The New York Times, The Guardian of Britain, and Der Spiegel of Germany—released 92,000 classified reports from the war in Afghanistan. "We've haven't gotten that this time," Lapan said. "What happened with the Afghanistan documents hasn't happened this time."

Full coverage of WikiLeaksBoth leaks have been tied to the same young Army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning of Potomac, Maryland, who is in custody and facing a military court-martial for having provided WikiLeaks with classified information this year. Defense lawyers have said that Manning will plead not guilty when eventually brought before a military court. Spokesmen for the Times and The Guardian did not return calls for comment.

Even as it girds for another massive dump of classified war logs, the Pentagon has reason to be heartened by reports of internal chaos at WikiLeaks, including an uprising among some WikiLeaks loyalists against the site's elusive founder, Julian Assange.

The WikiLeaks website has been shut down for weeks, with a notice that it is "undergoing scheduled maintenance," leaving whistleblowers with nowhere to turn if they want to leak classified material to the site.

Emails sent to Assange are now returned unread because of a "technical failure" by his email server. The site's former chief spokesman in Germany resigned from the site last month after what he said was Assange's attempt to discipline him for some of his comments to news organizations.

Assange has troubles of an entirely different sort in Sweden, where he has recently sought to base himself, as prosecutors there continue to weigh allegations of sexual assault brought by two Swedish women who had been seen as WikiLeaks supporters. Assange has denied the allegations and suggested that he was set up by Western governments opposed to WikiLeaks.

And now WikiLeaks may have serious money problems. Last week, Assange confirmed to The Guardian that a British Internet company that had been collecting donations for the site had shut down the WikiLeaks account, citing foreign government investigations of Assange and his operations. The company, Moneybookers, suggested that it was acting out of an abundance of caution. "We can assure you that we have never had any direct request, inquiry or correspondence from any governmental authority regarding this former company," it said. "We simply assess risk like any other financial institution."

Assange lashed out at Moneybookers, telling The Guardian that "this is likely to cause a huge backlash" against the British company. "Craven behavior in relation to the U.S. government is unlikely to be seen sympathetically," he said

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. A New York Times reporter from 1981 until 2008, he left the paper a few weeks after his first book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation , became a bestseller. He has reported from several war zones and was one of two Times reporters embedded with U.S. ground troops during the 1991 invasion of Iraq.