THE FOUNDER of WikiLeaks was forced last night to defend his decision to publish tens of thousands of uncensored intelligence documents.
The Times revealed that the names, villages, relatives’ names and even precise GPS locations of Afghans co-operating with Nato forces could be accessed easily from files released by WikiLeaks.
Human rights groups criticised the internet site and one US politician said that the security breaches amounted to a ready-made Taliban hitlist.
Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing website, told The Times that he would “deeply regret” any harm caused by the disclosures.
But in an extensive interview he defended his actions: he claimed that many informers in Afghanistan were “acting in a criminal way” by sharing false information with Nato authorities; he said the White House knew that informants’ names could be exposed before the release but did nothing to help WikiLeaks to vet the data; he insisted that any risk to informants’ lives was outweighed by the overall importance of publishing the information.
Mr Assange said: “No one has been harmed, but should anyone come to harm of course that would be a matter of deep regret – our goal is justice to innocents, not to harm them. That said, if we were forced into a position of publishing all of the archives or none of the archives we would publish all of the archives because it’s extremely important to the history of this war.”
Jane Harman, the congresswoman who chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, said: “While I strongly support a free press and I am a co-sponsor of the press shield law, these leaks are deadly serious. Someone inadvertently, or on purpose, gave the Taliban its new ‘enemies list’.”
Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “Real people die when sources and methods are revealed. Clearly people who are co-operating with us are now at risk. That is precisely one of the reasons we’ve been so concerned about this leak.
“The whole campaign is about convincing Afghans that it’s worth taking the risk to come and work with us to take a stand against the repression and brutality of the Taliban.”
A spokesman for President Karzai of Afghanistan predicted that the leak would cause “a big disaster in the future”. Siamak Heraway said: “We worry about this. We will see informants being assassinated by the Taliban; we will see a massacre.”
Mr Assange told The Times that many Afghan informants, including those whose details were potentially disclosed, were “telling soldiers false stories … creating victims themselves”. When asked if that justified releasing their identities, the former computer hacker replied: “It doesn’t mean it’s OK for their identities not to be revealed.”
Mr Assange, who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, said that any document that “clearly jeopardised innocent people” could be added to the bank of 15,000 documents already held back from publication. “If we made a mistake we will review our procedures and react,” he said.
But he admitted that any remedial action could well have no effect, as the information was already in the public domain.
Mr Assange said that he had asked the White House last week to help to “minimise the chances of innocent informers being named”. He said that the White House did not respond.
He added: “We understand the importance of protecting our confidential sources. The United States appears to have given every UN soldier and contractor access to the names of many of its confidential sources without proper protection.”
There is no evidence so far that the Taliban have used the information to identify and kill people whom they regard as enemies. But there is a growing fear that the leaking of such sensitive intelligence, including private conversations between US troops and Afghan elders in villages across the country, has left a lot of people exposed.
Ahmad Nader Nadery, a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said that revealing the names and villages of people who interacted with US troops was very irresponsible. “I am sure that the Taliban have already downloaded the WikiLeaks reports and are looking for names,” he said.
Michael Hayden, the Director of the CIA between 2006 and 2009, said: “We have a tremendous moral responsibility to our sources. Because of the nature of our work, your sources are literally putting their life in your hands.”
Adam Holloway MP, a member of the Commons Select Defence Committee, said: “I hope the blood of someone’s life is not on that hacker’s hands. This is going to put people in danger, even just those who have had conversations with American soldiers. The whole point has been the need to separate the population from the insurgency. If people think their names will be leaked across the planet for engaging with Western forces it makes it that much more difficult.”
A spokesman for Reporters Without Borders said: “Our first impression is that it seems a little surprising to see Afghan names here. Clearly, when we work on reports on sensitive stories there is always attention that local innocent names are not mentioned.”