Less Than Meets The Eye to Latest WikiLeaks Threat

There may be less than meets the eye in the latest threat from WikiLeaks to reveal a new cache of secret Pentagon documents. On Thursday, Julian Assange, the whistleblower Web site's founder and principal frontman, told a gathering in London he was preparing to release at least some of the 15,000 classified U.S. government reports related to the war in Afghanistan that were held back last month when he published roughly 76,000 similar documents. That document dump provoked worldwide headlines and made Assange an international celebrity.

Assange, who canceled a scheduled press conference in London earlier this week, made his latest public remarks via Skype hookup at an event staged by the Frontline Club, a London media hangout (of which the author of this story is a member). According to an account of the meeting published on the club's Web site, Assange confirmed that WikiLeaks intends make public more of the Afghan archive, but said that vetting the material beforehand is an "expensive, time-consuming process," and that to date the site's operatives have gotten only "half way" through the task. "So far there has been no help despite repeated requests, from the White House or the Pentagon, or in fact any of the three press organizations we partnered with for this material," Assange complained, speaking of efforts to weed out anything that could put lives in jeopardy. "They decided not to take responsibility for getting the raw data out to the public; that is in fact what appears to be our role, to get the raw data out as opposed to the cherries the organizations decided selectively to give out in relation to their stories." He added that the costs of WikiLeaks' prepublication review of the material could run to 750,000 British pounds.

Assange's threat—or promise—to release more Afghan War material provoked speculation about whether there will be anything like a repeat of the earlier arrangement under which WikiLeaks provided advance access to three mainstream media outlets. The Associated Press made a point of noting that Assange gave "no indication whether he would give the documents to media outlets The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel —as he has before—or simply dump them on the WikiLeaks website." A blogger at the Weekly Standard suggested that the Times might already be sitting on the story, wondering "whether, as in its previous dump last month of some 76,000 field reports, WikiLeaks will provide—or has already provided—the electronic archive in advance to news outlets like The New York Times, extracting a promise to embargo them to ensure their simultaneous publication."

In fact, according to people close to the controversy, the 15,000 Afghan War field reports in question were already made available to the three news organizations, which were free to make journalistic use of anything in the entire archive of 92,000 classified documents to which WikiLeaks had given them access. In an e-mail exchange with Declassified, the Times's executive editor, Bill Keller, said: "We don't generally announce our plans to publish or not publish in advance. But if the suggestion is that we've been holding back articles based on the Afghan war logs, that's silly. Why would we do that? As we explained at the time, we had a month to sift and sort the 92k documents, and we explored the material in considerable depth."

A second person familiar with WikiLeaks' media dealings confirms that all three news organizations were given the whole collection of 92,000 documents, including the 15,000 that Assange left out when WikiLeaks posted the other 76,000. According to this source, the Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel used their own judgment as to what they would publish, and the three organizations believe they're finished with the material now. All the same, the source adds, it's conceivable that the organizations might look again if and when WikiLeaks posts the remaining documents.

On Wednesday The Washington Post's Web site reported that Pentagon officials had set up a task force of more than 100 intelligence analysts to sift through what they believe is the entire cache of Afghan War material in WikiLeaks's possession. The Pentagon believes it has identified WikiLeaks's 15,000 withheld documents, according to the Post's story, which quoted Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell as saying they might contain information that is "potentially more explosive, more sensitive," than what WikiLeaks has already published.

U.S. officials have castigated WikiLeaks for releasing material that might threaten lives, possibly by enabling the Taliban to identify individuals who may have cooperated with U.S, or allied forces. A coalition of human rights groups has called on WikiLeaks to delete the names of Afghan civilians from any documents it makes public. So far, according to what Morrell told The Washington Post, U.S. authorities "have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the WikiLeaks documents." Nevertheless, he added, "There is in all likelihood a lag between exposure in these documents and jeopardy in the field."