WikiLeaks emerges as superpower in antisecrecy fight
Website defends decision to release classified reports
WASHINGTON — WikiLeaks’s decision to transfer tens of thousands of raw classified field reports on the Afghan war to The New York Times and two European news organizations reflects the growing strength and sophistication of the small nonprofit website, founded three years ago to fight what it considers excessive secrecy.
WikiLeaks.org founder Julian Assange called the release of nearly 92,000 individual reports portraying a sputtering Afghan war effort “the nearest analogue to the Pentagon Papers.’’ He was referring to the secret military documents that helped shift public opinion about the Vietnam War after they became public in 1971.
“It provides a whole map, if you like, through time, of what has happened during this war,’’ said Assange, a native of Australia, in a television interview broadcast Sunday in Britain.
He acknowledged that some will judge harshly the website’s airing of classified documents, but he insisted that WikiLeaks was not breaking the law or putting troops at risk. For the first time, WikiLeaks decided unilaterally to delay the release of some documents because of the possibility that putting them out immediately could cause harm, he said.
“We believe that the way to justice is transparency, and we are clear that the end goal is to expose injustices in the world and try to rectify them,’’ Assange said.
In a separate interview yesterday, Assange said information in the documents about killings of Afghan civilians and covert operations appeared to offer evidence that would support criminal charges against members of the US-led coalition.
“It is up to a court to decide really if something in the end is a crime,’’ Assange told reporters, according to the Associated Press. “That said . . . there does appear to be evidence of war crimes.’’
In a statement on its website, WikiLeaks said it delayed the release of about 15,000 reports from the total archive “as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source.’’ After further review, WikiLeaks said, “these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually, in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.’’
WikiLeaks, an amorphous network run by volunteers in more than a dozen countries, gained global prominence this year when it posted a video of a secret US military helicopter attack in Iraq that killed civilians.
An edited, 17-minute version of the gunship-footage video appeared on WikiLeaks on April 5 under the heading “collateral murder,’’ a label that drew harsh criticism from military officials and many media commentators.
In this case, rather than conduct its assessment of the documents, WikiLeaks selectively provided the files to the Times, the London-based Guardian newspaper and the German magazine Der Spiegel. The outlets agreed to publish simultaneously, though each organization did its own reporting and produced its own stories.
The move to let established journalistic organizations do the reporting and analysis “may reflect a maturing of the organization and model that they have adopted,’’ said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation for American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.
The news organizations said they agreed they would not disclose anything likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or antiterrorist operations.
The Guardian website noted that most of the material, though classified “secret’’ at the time, “is no longer militarily sensitive.’’ At the request of the White House, the Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold harmful material from its website.
WikiLeaks has declined to identify the person behind the latest leak. Assange said the names of leakers are generally unknown, even to the organization.
Lieutenant Commander Bill Speaks, a spokesman for US Central Command, declined to say whether military officials are investigating whether Private First Class Bradley Manning, recently charged with leaking classified military documents, provided this latest material to WikiLeaks.
Assange asserted that WikiLeaks does not “have a view about whether the war should continue or stop.’’ But he added: “We do have a view that it should be prosecuted as humanely as possible.’’