WIKILEAKS may already have Afghan blood on its hands, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates says, as the FBI joins the investigation into the leaking of thousands of classified documents.
Dr Gates refused to rule out prosecuting the site’s Australian spokesman Julian Assange over the leak, which he said revealed tactics to the enemy and could endanger individuals who gave intelligence to the US and its allies.
“The battlefield consequences are potentially severe and dangerous,” Dr Gates said in his first public comments since WikiLeaks posted about 76,000 documents on its website on Monday.
Two days later The Times reported that the names, villages, relatives’ names and even precise GPS locations of Afghans co-operating with NATO forces could be easily found, provoking a storm of outrage against the website.
Human rights groups criticised the website and one US politician said that the security breaches amounted to a ready-made Taliban hit list.
Mr Assange, 39, has said the group withheld 15,000 documents to avoid identifying Afghan sources.
Dr Gates said the US was taking steps to identify and protect those at risk. “It seems to me we have an obligation to take some responsibility for their safety,” he said.
The former CIA director said the leak had breached the “sacrosanct” relationship between the military and its sources.
“That is one of the worst aspects of this,” he said.
“Will people whose lives are on the line trust us to keep their identities secret?”
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, blamed Mr Assange and WikiLeaks as much as the source of the documents for the potential damage.
“Mr Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” Admiral Mullen said.
His and Dr Gates’ remarks suggested the Pentagon was planning an aggressive investigation that could go beyond prosecuting the initial leaker.
Mr Assange has said his goal in releasing the documents was to focus attention on civilian casualties.
The Pentagon says the disclosures themselves could cause further casualties.
“This is a huge amount of raw data,” Dr Gates said.
“There is no accountability. There is no sense of responsibility. It is thrown out there.”
He said that he had called FBI director Robert Mueller the previous day to enlist his agency in the investigation, which is being led by the Army Criminal Investigation Command.
“We will aggressively investigate and wherever possible prosecute (those responsible),” he said.