Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has gone to ground amid the threat of possible U.S. prosecution over the unauthorized release of secret Afghan war documents and surprise chiding from natural allies in his self-appointed crusade against government secrecy.
Assange, an Australian national, hasn’t been seen in public since late last month when he appeared at a London news conference to tout the release of more than 70,000 purloined government documents.
His whereabouts are unknown. Assange has no fixed residence. He travels constantly, but is known to shelter with friends and supporters in Kenya, Iceland and two other countries.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Justice Department is said to be weighing criminal indictments against him and others connected with the mass leak of secret communications and is pressing America’s allies, especially those with troops in Afghanistan, to do the same.
“It’s not just our troops that are put in jeopardy by this leaking,” an unidentified U.S. diplomatic source was quoted by the Internet news site The Daily Beast. “It’s U.K. troops, it’s German troops, it’s Australian troops—all of the NATO troops and foreign forces working together in Afghanistan.”
Allied governments, he said should “review whether the actions of Wikileaks could constitute crimes under their own national security laws.”
The documents, mainly raw operational field reports from troops in Afghanistan and diplomatic cables, cover a period from about 2004 to last year. The reports from units in the field sometimes contained the names, locations and other identifying information on Afghan nationals cooperating with international and Afghan forces against the Taliban.
The Defense Department said careful perusal of them could give the Taliban information on operational tactics and procedures and local people.
“Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. “But the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.”
Mullen’s statement was not hyperbole. The Taliban announced it is viewing the documents made available on the Internet by Wikileaks and will punish those it deems traitors to the Taliban cause.
Intimidation is key to the Taliban maintaining control over the country’s people and coercing their cooperation. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), confirmed executions of Afghan civilians by the Taliban and other terrorist allies numbered 197 in the first seven months of this year, compared to 225 in all of 2009. Incidents of beatings, torture and humiliation were not documented.
Possession of the raw reports will make such intimidation much easier for the Taliban. Troops on patrol note in their reports their interaction with local people—who they spoke to, what was said. Identifying information can also be included. U.S. troops, when new in an area, make map grids of villages, assign dwellings a number, note who lives where and how many people occupy the home or compound.
Many of those same details are contained in subsequent operational reports.
Assange and Wikileaks claimed they scrubbed some of that detail from the documents released but admitted much remained.
They had received no reports of anyone losing their lives because of the information, Assange said, but he would “deeply regret” if anyone did.
Cold comfort for an Afghan family who’s loved one was gunned down or for the family of an American soldier or Marine killed because the Taliban learned of changes of minesweeping techniques.
That lack of redaction by Wikileaks has resulted in a rebuke from human rights groups.
“We have seen the negative, sometimes deadly ramifications for those Afghans identified as working for or sympathizing with international forces,” five organizations said in an email letter to Assange, obtained by the Wall Street Journal.
“We strongly urge your volunteers and staff to analyze all documents to ensure that those containing identifying information are taken down or redacted.”
The nudge may seem mild. But it was stinging to Assange. Among those calling for redaction were Amnesty International, which last year gave Assange and his volunteers a media award for exposing extrajudicial killings in Kenya.
Assange suggested the groups provide volunteers to help his to do the redaction. When Amnesty International suggested a conference call to discuss the issue, Assange went ballistic in a reply posted on Twitter.
“I’m very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses,” he wrote. “If Amnesty does nothing I shall issue a press release highlighting their refusal.”
In a disingenuous move, Wikileaks had earlier called on the Department of Defense, and then NATO countries, to cooperate with Wikileaks to scrub identifying information from the documents already in public domain and additional documents yet to be released.
Amid the ruckus of the document release, Wikileaks has temporarily closed the spigot on new document dumps although it promised more in the future. Ominously it put a 1.4 gigabyte encrypted data file on its site called “Insurance.” Its contents are anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, investigations by U.S. authorities are continuing as to the source of the documents leak and others involved. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old intelligence unit soldier is so far the prime “person of interest” in the affair and is confined in custody at a U.S. military facility.
Manning was arrested earlier in connection with the release by Wikileaks last spring of a video taken in Iraq in 2007 of an incident in which a helicopter crew fired on civilians they mistook for terrorists.
That video was given to Wikileaks, which edited it and then put it out on its website under the title “Collateral Murder.”
The Pentagon says it has at least 85 analysts sifting through the latest document dump to assess damage done to national security and potential danger to individuals identified. More personnel are to be added to the task, which also includes vetting other documents that may be in Wikileaks’ possession but not yet released by the amorphous organization which appears to be comprised of ad hoc activists.
Wikileaks’ servers are located outside Stockholm, Sweden. Sweden has a shield law to protect whistle-blowers and their sources. But Assange and Wikileaks may not be protected under that law if Sweden were to find Wikileaks violated one of its national security regulations.
The law apparently only applies to websites or publications that have a special publishing license from the government, which Wikileaks does not have, according to the newspaper Sydsvenskan.
The Internet company PRQ said Wikileaks purchased “tunnel service” with them, which means the actual data is located somewhere else but passes through its servers.
Mikael Virorg, the head of the company, said he has yet to be contacted by Swedish or American authorities about Wikileaks.