The Pentagon has contacted a lawyer purporting to represent WikiLeaks but said it would not negotiate a “sanitised” release of a huge cache of classified documents held by the whistleblower’s website, a letter released on Wednesday shows.
The Pentagon released the letter from its general counsel after WikiLeaks said the US military was willing to discuss the removal of sensitive data from the 15,000 unreleased Afghan war documents in the website’s possession.
WikiLeaks has already released nearly 77,000 leaked US military documents about the war and is preparing to publish the remaining ones despite criticism that doing so could endanger lives of informants or others named in the documents.
Jeh Charles Johnson, the Defense Department general counsel, sent the letter dated August 16 to a post office box in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the name of Timothy J Matusheski.
In the letter, Johnson says he understood WikiLeaks wanted a conversation with someone at the Pentagon about “harm minimisation” in reference to the documents, but that he had been unable to reach Matusheski at an agreed upon time to convey the Pentagon’s position.
“Thus, the Department of Defense will not negotiate some ‘minimised’ or ‘sanitised’ version of a release by WikiLeaks of additional US government classified documents. The Department demands that nothing further be released by WikiLeaks,” the letter said.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon had no direct contact with either Matusheski or WikiLeaks, and had released Johnson’s letter in response to “misrepresentations” by the website.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic spokesman for WikiLeaks, earlier said the US military had a change of heart this week and told the website it was prepared to talk about helping to remove sensitive details from the files.
“I am aware that (the US military) has expressed the willingness to open a dialogue on that,” Hrafnsson said.
“It is obviously not the intention of WikiLeaks to put anybody in direct harm so these documents are being reviewed and this process is ongoing.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said the second batch of documents was set aside because they were “more likely to contain personal identifying information,” and therefore required line by line review.
The website says it has repeatedly asked the Pentagon for help analysing the remaining documents, and Assange said at the weekend he wanted to avoid publishing the “names of innocent parties that are under reasonable threat,” but needed help.
Earlier this month, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates pronounced WikiLeaks “guilty” on moral grounds for releasing the documents and accused the website of recklessness.
General David Petraeus, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, on Sunday blasted the release as “reprehensible” and said they placed people working with the international forces at risk.
“As we have looked through it more and more, there are source names and in some cases there are actual names of individuals with whom we have partnered in difficult missions in difficult places,” he said in an interview on Sunday.
The documents were raw data and not top secret, but their release was “beyond unfortunate” and a “betrayal of trust,” added Petraeus, who said he had no knowledge of what might be in the next batch.
Assange, an Australian former computer hacker, had pledged on Saturday to go ahead with the release of the 15,000 new documents, insisting WikiLeaks “will not be threatened by the Pentagon or any other group”.
The first installment included allegations that Pakistani spies met with the Taliban and that deaths of innocent civilians at the hands of international forces were covered up.
But the documents also included names of some Afghan informants, prompting claims that the leaks have endangered lives.
WikiLeaks has never identified the source of the Afghan files but suspicion has fallen on Bradley Manning, a US Army intelligence analyst under arrest for allegedly leaking video of a 2007 US helicopter strike in Baghdad in which civilians died.