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Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hold a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hold a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The leak of thousands of secret intelligence reports from the war in Afghanistan may have done "severe" damage, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday, noting that his department would "aggressively investigate" how it happened.
Gates had not spoken about the leak before, but at the Pentagon podium Thursday he did not mince words in describing the effect of the group WikiLeaks publishing tens of thousands of secret reports online.
"The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners," he said, "and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world."
The immediate concern has been those Afghans whose lives could be in danger if it becomes known they have worked with U.S. and NATO forces.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said that he and his colleagues took care not to reveal those identities, but many were exposed, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai pointed out Thursday at a press conference in Kabul.
"Names of such Afghans who have cooperated with the coalition and NATO have been also revealed in these documents," he said. "This is indeed extremely irresponsible and shocking."
In a TV interview this week, Assange acknowledged that some identities in fact may accidentally have been revealed, but he said that the people killed in Afghanistan by U.S. and NATO forces is "a bigger problem." Assange has said his intent in publishing the secret documents was to affect the "political will" to change the course of the Afghan war.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was withering in his response.
"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."
Trust On The Line
Looking ahead, the U.S. concern is that the publication of classified information may make individuals — and governments — less likely to cooperate with U.S. and allied forces. Gates, a former CIA director, said a "sacrosanct" principle in the intelligence world is trust: Your confidential sources, he said, must be assured you will protect them and their identities.
"That is one of the worst aspects of this as far as I'm concerned. 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?"
The reports are thought to have come from a low-level Army intelligence analyst stationed in Baghdad, Pfc. Bradley Manning, already under arrest for a leak of classified material.
In discussing the consequences of the leak, Gates said it had revealed not only intelligence "sources," but also intelligence "methods."
Many of the documents released by WikiLeaks are so-called after-action reports or incident reports and describe in some detail operations that have taken place on the battlefield. Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Ennis, a former director of human intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, says his concern, as an intelligence professional, would be that the field reports may include details that the enemy could learn from.
"If it was revealed how a special operations team happened to come on a particular enemy post or position using a tradecraft method of getting to that place or getting certain information, that's what I'm talking about," he said. "Methods used for getting information or methods used for finding the bad guys."
American soldiers, of course, can also learn from the methods of fellow soldiers. Gates said one of the lessons of the Gulf War of 1990-1991 was that soldiers on the front lines benefit from having access to intelligence reports. He said the handling of secret field reports will be reconsidered now with the goal of finding a balance between the benefit of sharing intelligence information and keeping it secure.
"Should we change the way we approach that, or do we continue to take the risk?" he said.
Gates said he's asked the FBI to help the Pentagon aggressively investigate this leak wherever it leads, and that officials will prosecute any violations of security wherever possible.