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Pentagon Tells WikiLeaks Lawyer It Won't Help 'Sanitize' Documents

Defense Department Spokesman Bryan Whitman

Defense Department Spokesman Bryan Whitman

The Pentagon has told a lawyer who said he represents the founder of the website WikiLeaks it will not negotiate to arrange the release of secret documents with key information removed. Officials of the group told reporters Wednesday the Pentagon had agreed to open a dialogue on the issue.

A letter from Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson says the defense department will not discuss what he calls "some 'minimized' or 'sanitized' version of a release by WikiLeaks of additional U.S. Government classified documents." The letter also repeat's the department's demand that all the documents be returned, and that those which already have been published be removed from Wikileaks' databases and destroyed.

The group released 76,000 intelligence field reports from Afghanistan last month, and says it has 15,000 more. It has indicated it would be willing to remove some information, such as names, from the second batch, but does not have the resources to do so.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman released the letter Wednesday, accusing WikiLeaks of misrepresenting the department's position when its founder, Julian Assange, said the Pentagon was willing to discuss the issue. Whitman said there was an attempt to contact a WikiLeaks attorney, but not to discuss cooperation in releasing the documents.

"Late last week, in the course of the investigation, we came across an individual purporting to be an attorney representing WikiLeaks," said Whitman. "We arranged for a conversation to take place with the general counsel of the department. This individual agreed, but then was a no-show for the call."

Reached by phone, the lawyer, Timothy Matusheski, said that claim is "a lie," and said the first he heard about a call was after he had already missed it. He said he received a phone message from an official of the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command Sunday morning. Matusheski said he returned the call and expressed his willingness to speak to a Pentagon official, but never heard back. He said he represents Julian Assange and has done work for WikiLeaks, but he would not provide further details and would not allow his voice to be recorded for broadcast.

At the Pentagon, officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the impact of the documents already released and the prospect that more will be made public. Their main concern involves people, including Afghan citizens, who are identified in the documents.

"As the secretary has indicated, we have an ethical and moral obligation to take measures to protect the people that might be endangered by the release of this information," said Whitman. "But we are not going to negotiate minimizing or sanitizing classified documents. They are property of the United States government and they should be returned and removed from the website."

The Pentagon has more than 100 people reviewing and analyzing the WikiLeaks documents, which it says are raw intelligence reports that contain unconfirmed information. But officials decline to say how many people are named in the documents or what steps they are taking to protect those people. And they will not provide details about the extent of the damage they say is being caused to the U.S. and international effort in Afghanistan.

Human Rights groups have also expressed concern about the documents' release and the danger that could pose to people named in them. WikiLeaks founder Assange says he wants help removing such information from the documents, but no organization has agreed to do so. Assange says he plans to publish the second set of documents within the next month.