Will 400,000 Secret Iraq War Documents Restore WikiLeaks’ Sheen?
After a brief quiescence, the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks is about to explode again onto the global stage with the impending release of almost 400,000 secret U.S. Army reports from the Iraq War, marking the largest military leak in U.S. history.
Measured by size, the database will dwarf the 92,000-entry Afghan war log WikiLeaks partially published last July. “It will be huge,” says a source familiar with WikiLeaks’ operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Former WikiLeaks staffers say the document dump was at one time scheduled for Monday, October 18, though the publication date may well have been moved since then. Some large media outlets were provided an embargoed copy of the database in August.
In Washington, the Pentagon is bracing for the impact. The Defense Department believes the leak is a compilation of the “Significant Activities,” or SIGACTS, reports from the Iraq War, and officials have assembled a 120-person taskforce that’s been scouring the database to prepare for the leak, according to spokesman Col. Dave Lapan.
“They’ve been doing that analysis for some time and have been providing information to Central Command and to our allies, so that they could prepare for a possible impact of the release [and] could take appropriate steps,” says Lapan. “There are … things that could be contained in the documents that could be harmful to operations, to sources and methods.”
The Iraq release comes at a crucial time for the 4-year-old WikiLeaks, which has been rankled by internal conflict, shaken by outside criticism and knocked off-message by a lingering sex-crime investigation of its founder, Julian Assange, in Sweden. At least half-a-dozen staffers have resigned from the organization in recent weeks, including key technical staff, according to four ex-staffers interviewed by Wired.com. A “scheduled maintenance” of the WikiLeaks website that began September 29 has stretched to more than two weeks.
The beleaguered Assange was cautious in a Sept. 30 public debate at City University in London, where he asked organizers to bar attending journalists and students from recording, photographing or videotaping his appearance.
The controversies dogging the site followed a string of triumphs: a series of high-profile leaks aimed at U.S. and NATO war efforts. In April, the site published a highly controversial classified video of a 2007 Army helicopter attack in Baghdad.
The attack killed two Reuters employees and an unarmed Iraqi man who stumbled onto the scene and tried to rescue one of the wounded. The man’s two children suffered serious injuries in the hail of gunfire. WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder,” and raised $150,000 from supporters in two days following its release.
Then in July, the site published the Afghan logs, generating headlines around the world. But WikiLeaks’ handling of that release garnered its first widespread criticism from ideological allies. Although the organization withheld 15,000 records from publication to redact the names of Afghan informants who might be at risk of Taliban reprisal, names of some collaborators were still found in the thousands of documents that were published.
Although there’s no evidence that anyone has suffered harm as a result of the names being exposed, WikiLeaks’ handling of the matter drew criticism from human rights organizations and the international free press group Reporters Without Borders, which accused the site of being reckless. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon was also displeased and issued formal demands that WikiLeaks “return” all classified documents in its possession.
Undaunted, Assange secretly inked deals with media outlets in several countries in August to provide them with embargoed access to the much larger database of Iraq War documents, according to ex-staffers. The agreements created strife inside WikiLeaks.
Former Icelandic WikiLeaks volunteer Herbert Snorrason told Wired.com last month that he was alarmed by the aggressive timetable for the release, which provided WikiLeaks’ volunteers too little time to redact the names of U.S. collaborators and informants in Iraq.
“The release date which was established was completely unrealistic,” said 25-year-old Snorrason. “We found out that the level of redactions performed on the Afghanistan documents was not sufficient. I announced that if the next batch did not receive full attention, I would not be willing to cooperate.”
Wired.com was not able to determine what, if any, portion of the Iraq database WikiLeaks plans to withhold from its website.
Another criticism behind the recent resignations from WikiLeaks is the charge that Assange has neglected hundreds or thousands of small, regionally important leaks submitted from around the world, in favor of headline-making leaks targeting the U.S. government. The Iraq War log, says former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, would continue that focus. Although publication of the documents will likely garner praise from WikiLeaks supporters, it won’t fix the problems that are endemic to the organization, he says.
“It might distract from the issues at hand for a bit if it happens,” says Domscheit-Berg. “But it doesn’t change a thing about the situation. WikiLeaks is supposed to be more than those releases. I think it might rejuvenate WikiLeaks if WikiLeaks started to pump out all those others docs that are waiting.”
In addition to the potential impact publication of the war log will have on the U.S., NATO allies and the nascent Iraqi government, it could also jolt the pending court martial case against Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.
Manning, a 23-year-old former Army intelligence analyst, was arrested last May after confessing to a former hacker that he’d supplied WikiLeaks with classified videos and documents, including the “Collateral Murder” video, and a database of 260,000 State Department diplomatic cables.
It was Manning’s online chats with former hacker Adrian Lamo — who turned him in to authorities — that provided the first indication that WikiLeaks possessed the Iraq log. Manning described leaking a database of half-a-million reports from the Iraq War dated from 2004 through 2009, which he said included date stamps of events, latitude and longitude, and casualty figures.
The Army formally charged Manning with the “Collateral Murder” leak in July, and the Pentagon describes him as a “person of interest” in the Afghan war log leak, though Manning did not mention leaking a database of events from the Afghan war.
His attorney did not return a phone call for this story.
Manning is being held in solitary confinement in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Virginia. Assange has never confirmed that Manning was a source of leaked data to WikiLeaks, but has pledged financial assistance for Manning’s criminal defense, which supporters estimate could cost $100,000.
The non-profit Wau Holland Foundation in Germany, which manages the bulk of WikiLeaks’ contributions, confirmed to Wired.com that Assange has authorized the release of money for Manning’s defense, but did not provide any other details. In all, WikiLeaks has about $1 million in contributions in its coffers.
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