U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says he has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, to assist in the probe into the leak and publication of classified military documents. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen spoke about the issue at a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, several days after the Internet website WikiLeaks posted tens of thousands of documents about the war in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Gates told reporters that problems highlighted in the leaked documents about the war in Afghanistan have been publicly known for some time.
But he did not downplay the possible damage caused by the release of what he called "a mountain of raw data and individual impressions" that is "devoid of context or analysis."
"The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world," said Robert Gates.
Gates said intelligence sources and methods as well as military tactics will become known as a result of the leak.
Gates underscored that he believes the United States has a moral obligation to help Afghans whose security might have been jeopardized by the breach.
"That is one of the worst aspects of this, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "Will people trust us? Will people whose lives are on the line trust us to keep their identities secret? Will other governments trust us to keep their documents and their intelligence secret?"
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said he is appalled and outraged that the documents were leaked and published on the WikiLeaks website. He lashed out at WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange and anyone who provided that website with the classified information.
"Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing," said Admiral Mullen. "But the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family."
In an interview with VOA earlier this year, months before this week's disclosure of military documents, Assange said his website takes great pains to protect its sources.
Gates said the Pentagon has not been in contact with Assange. The defense secretary declined to directly answer a reporter's question about whether WikiLeaks or the news media would be investigated for publishing the classified information.
"My basic position, though, is the investigation should go wherever it needs to go," said Gates. "And one of the reasons that I asked the director of the FBI to partner with us in this is to ensure that it can go wherever it needs to go."
Gates said the Pentagon is also taking action on the ground in war zones to prevent another such breach. He said this will include tightening procedures for accessing and transporting classified information. But, he said, striking a balance between security concerns and concerns for the security of U.S. forces will be difficult.
"As a general proposition, we endeavor to push access to sensitive battlefield information down to where it is most useful - on the front lines - where as a practical matter, there are fewer restrictions and controls than at rear headquarters," he said.
In a press conference in London on Monday, Assange said WikiLeaks has held back some 15,000 files from the approximate 96,000 documents it received in the leak. He said those documents are being reviewed, and that some will be redacted and released.
In April, WikiLeaks posted classified video of a 2007 helicopter strike in Iraq that killed two Iraqis who were on assignment for the Reuters news agency. Two months later, the U.S. military announced it had detained that Army Specialist Bradley Manning for allegedly releasing classified information in connection with the incident.
Manning, who had been deployed in Baghdad, had reportedly told a former hacker about providing classified combat video as well as some 260,000 classified diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.