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WikiLeaks Faces Growing Pressure Over War Files

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces a torrent of criticism for posting thousands of U.S. military documents online last month.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces a torrent of criticism for posting thousands of U.S. military documents online last month.

WikiLeaks, having prompted a torrent of criticism for its release of 76,000 secret U.S. military documents last month, now faces growing pressure to withhold or redact the remaining 15,000 classified documents in its possession.

U.S. officials say a criminal investigation into the leak of the documents is proceeding, and they warn that an additional release of classified material could expose the leakers to criminal prosecution. At the same time, prominent human rights groups are pressing WikiLeaks to proceed more carefully with further releases in order to safeguard individuals whose lives may be in danger if their identities are revealed.

The Obama administration has charged that by revealing military plans and intelligence sources and methods, WikiLeaks has already endangered U.S. troops and Afghan civilians. The Pentagon is now telling allied governments that their Afghanistan-based forces could also be vulnerable as a result of the massive leak.


"I imagine that our allies are thankful that we are bringing this to their attention, so they're aware of whatever exposure they may have in these documents," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says. "I can also imagine that they are displeased with us right now. This is information that should have been better safeguarded, and now their troops are potentially at risk as well."

White House and Pentagon officials will not confirm published reports that the Obama administration is pressing other Western governments to launch investigations of their own, focusing on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but neither do they deny those reports.

"If I were the U.S. government, I would be trying to make it as difficult as possible for the WikiLeaks founder to continue to do business," says Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel. "To the extent we can persuade our allies to consider prosecution, I think that's all to the good."

If I were the U.S. government, I would be trying to make it as difficult as possible for the WikiLeaks founder to continue to do business.

An international law enforcement effort could get complicated, however. Assange is unlikely to spend much time in any country where he could face prosecution, and an accusation of espionage does not normally warrant extradition. Smith also warns that the U.S. government could not go after Assange with the sole intent of putting him out of business.

"Under U.S. law, the government needs to be careful about using criminal prosecutions for purposes other than prosecuting someone for violating the law," Smith says. "You can't do it simply to harass somebody."


Smith nonetheless argues that Assange has "surely" violated U.S. laws as a result of his orchestrated leak of classified material. "In this case," he says, "I think it is entirely appropriate for us to be very aggressive."

Assange's problems were compounded this week when five human rights groups asked him and his organization to go through his unpublished documents more carefully to make sure no more names are revealed. The letter cited "the sometimes deadly ramifications for Afghans identified as working for or sympathizing with international forces."

So far, there's no known case of an Afghan being targeted for killing as a direct result of the WikiLeaks disclosures. The groups' concerns, however, were reinforced this week by a new United Nations report on targeted killings in Afghanistan.

In the first half of 2010, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the execution and assassination of civilians by the Taliban and other insurgent groups increased by more than 95 percent compared with the same period last year.

"There is an order that has come down from the top to target anyone who works with the Afghan government or with international groups, or even with those humanitarian aid groups that have a totally nonpolitical, nonmilitary nature," says Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International.

Amnesty International is one of the groups that signed the letter to WikiLeaks this week, along with the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Institute, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Assange is not backing down, however. When Amnesty staff offered to discuss ways they could assist with the redaction of the secret documents, Assange was dismissive. "I'm very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses," he is said to have replied.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is still planning to publish the 15,000 additional documents. Pentagon officials say they are now reasonably sure which documents Assange and his group have acquired, and they have begun identifying individuals whose identities may be exposed.

WikiLeaks has also posted on its website an encrypted file of documents titled "Insurance." There may be efforts under way to break that file open through sophisticated decryption techniques. According to a senior intelligence official, the U.S. government has "a very substantial crypto-analytic capability."

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