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WikiLeaks Founder Defends Publication of War Documents Amid Obama Concern

Julian Assange, founder of the website that published more than 91,000 secret U.S. military reports from Afghanistan, says he’s revealing injustices. President Barack Obama says he’s concerned that disclosure of sensitive information may harm military operations.

Conceived as an electronic dead-drop for confidential documents, WikiLeaks.org receives material that governments and businesses seek to keep secret and publishes them so that they remain in the public domain forever.

“We want to produce positive reform,” Assange, a 39-year- old Australian, said in a telephone interview from London yesterday. “An efficient way to do that is to selectively go after material that organizations are trying to conceal.”

Obama said yesterday he’s “concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations.” Reports on the memos appeared July 25 in the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian newspaper and Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department was investigating the source of the leaks. “Whether there will be any criminal charges brought depends on how the investigation goes,” Holder said at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo today.

Such leaks could have a chilling effect, leading allies to stop sharing information with the U.S., fearing it may become public, John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in an interview.

‘Element of Tension’

Documents alleging Pakistan’s intelligence service is aiding the Taliban, for instance, “just may add an element of tension that is not a welcome addition at this time,” McLaughlin said.

Pakistan can’t “have any relationship with groups that are promoting terror,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said today in Bangalore, India.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit described the WikiLeaks documents as “unverifiable and outdated,” and said his country isn’t “looking the other way” as its own people aid the Taliban.

“We are committed not to allow our territory for terrorism or terrorist actions anywhere in the world,” Basit told BBC Radio 4.

Calls to Region

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said July 26 that diplomats moved to limit the backlash by briefing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari the night before the documents were published. Most of the memos date from before Obama took office in January 2009 and revamped his Afghanistan policy in December, he said.

The reports highlight incidents, such as the killing of civilians by U.S. forces, that don’t bolster the Obama administration’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, said Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst. Their disclosure may make it harder for the public to learn about the war from the Pakistani side because the government there is likely to trace how information came out and shut down those sources, Pillar said.

The most notable WikiLeaks release before the Afghan cables was a military video of a July 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters television cameraman and his driver. A U.S. soldier, Bradley Manning, was charged by military prosecutors July 5 with leaking the video, released under the title “collateral murder.”

Hacking Charge

Assange was charged with computer hacking in Australia in 1996, a decade before he founded WikiLeaks. He received a “good behavior” bond, his attorney at the time, Paul Galbally, said in an interview. The bond is a form of probation. Galbally refused to give further details, and Assange refused to talk about his past.

WikiLeaks claims a full-time staff of five, backed by volunteers. Assange funded the organization until this year and its money now comes in small donations from individuals, with nothing from foundations or governments, he said in the interview. WikiLeaks is registered as a non-profit in Germany and as a library in Australia, he said.

Whistleblowers are protected and given anonymity through computer screens and filters that strip identifying information from leaked documents and the documents are stored on servers in countries whose laws protect leaks, including Sweden and Belgium, Assange said.

Legal Issues

Not knowing where WikiLeaks’ information comes from may be the site’s best legal protection, said Kurt Wimmer, an attorney who specializes in press freedom at Covington & Burling in Washington.

Criminal proceedings would require that Assange be in a country willing to arrest him for violating another country’s information disclosure laws, said Wimmer.

“The process Julian would be likely to receive would be a subpoena seeking the identity of a leaker,” said Wimmer.

Earlier WikiLeaks publications include documents on Iceland’s economic crisis including internal U.S. diplomatic cables, Australian ambulance deployment levels and a U.S. government handbook for treating prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It also published personal e-mails of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008.

Assange calls WikiLeaks “a library of suppressed history” and claims to operate in the tradition of the 1971 release of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the government’s bid to bar publication.

‘Clear Distinction’

“In terms of determining responsibility, I see a pretty clear distinction between documents leaked to news organizations and documents posted in raw form,” said Wimmer.

The Times wrote that it decided not to reveal information that could endanger lives or ongoing operations, and agreed not to publish the full text of the Afghan war memos.

“That to me is a fundamentally different function than saying come to the site and post what you want,” said Wimmer.

WikiLeaks won’t publish anything that could put anyone or any operation in danger, vetting every item it posts through a “harm-minimalization process,” Assange said in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 television that aired July 25.

As for the Afghanistan information, “We can guess that it probably came from somewhere in the U.S. military or the U.S. government, from someone who is disaffected,” Assange said.

“Handling that type of information comes with certain responsibilities, and if you don’t meet those responsibilities you’re held liable,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter S. Green in Washington at psgreen@bloomberg.net.

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