The White House and its international partners today sharply condemned a whistle-blower website's publication of more than 90,000 top-secret U.S. military records on Afghanistan and braced for the release of as many as 15,000 more, as the leak reverberated around the world.
"Our reaction to this type of material -- a breach of federal law -- is always the same," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today. "It has the potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military and those who are working to keep us safe."
Gibbs said President Obama had been aware of the impending release as recently as one week ago and found it "alarming," adding that the administration believes much of what is contained in the documents has already been publicly known or discussed.
"It's not the content as much as it is the names, operations, logistics, sources -- all of that information out in the public has the potential to do harm," Gibbs said.
"These are raw intelligence reports being filed by commanders on the ground, intelligence analysts, as events are breaking whether they be firefights, drone attacks, secret commando operations," said New York Times reporter Eric Schmidt, who previewed the documents weeks before their publication but delayed reporting on the release to consult with U.S. officials on security concerns and to confirm their authenticity.
The "war logs" also provide startling revelations about everything from civilian casualties to enemy missile strikes, and they expose previously unseen reports that Pakistan's military spy agency, ISI, is guiding the very insurgent network in Afghanistan that the Americans are trying to defeat.
WikiLeaks, which first posted the unprecedented cache of classified records Sunday, said it would release additional records it initially withheld because of a "harm minimization process demanded by our source."
"This is the equivalent to opening the Stasi archives," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said, comparing the revelations to the release of files on the repressive East German Ministry of State Security after the Cold War.
Assange has said that the Afghan records reveal possible U.S. war crimes and suggest internal military investigations of incidents involving civilian casualties are "like a cop investigating his own shooting.
"We would like to see new policies put in place as a result and possibly prosecutions," he said.
Michael Clarke, director of the U.K. Royal United Services Institute think-tank, described the leak as less damaging than the Abu Ghraib Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal but said it would pose political challenges.
"ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and the Obama administration do have a credible defence when they say these papers were from 2004 and 2009, a time when the situations in both Washington and Afghanistan were different to today," he said. "But they are also appearing at the worst possible time, particularly in the United States, because people are looking for an exit strategy. This is old bad news at a new bad time."
Support for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low and Obama's approval rating for handling it has declined sharply since spring, according to the most recent ABC News-Washington Post poll.