Wikileaks Iraq documents not as damaging as Pentagon feared – yet

The main Pentagon concern – that the Wikileaks documents would endanger Iraqis who worked with US forces – proved unfounded. But officials caution that dangers remain.

Leon Neal/AFP/Newscom
Daniel Ellsberg (l.), Former US military analyst and the man behind a leak of US Pentagon documents to whistelbowing website Wikileaks, speaks on Oct. 23 during a press conference at the Park Plaza hotel in central London.

Just how damaging has the flood of documents that Wikileaks calls “the largest classified military leak in history” been to the US armed forces?

At first glance, it appears to be less disastrous than the Pentagon feared when it released a statement Friday warning that the leak could get soldiers and coalition partners killed.

Of greatest concern to Pentagon officials last week was the potential revelation of the names of 300-plus Iraqis that have worked with US forces and were identified by the Pentagon as being “potentially at risk if their identities were made public.”

IN PICTURES: Wikileaks and the war in Iraq

For that reason, the Pentagon had a 120-member team working in the weeks before the leaks came out to identify and track down the Iraqis in order to be able to notify them in the event that their names were made public.

But the team, known as the Information Review Task Force, found that the 300-plus names of those most at risk for retribution were redacted from the Wikileaks posting.

The Pentagon continued to stress the danger of the leaks, however. “I’d emphasize that just because the names have been removed, it doesn’t remove the danger,” says Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan. “The names still exist in the documents that are in possession of Wikileaks.”

He added that, “As long as [Wikileaks] remain in possession of un-redacted documents, they’re still a danger.”

Officials further defended the US military against charges that the Pentagon has been intentionally underestimating civilian casualties to the tune of some 15,000.

While the Pentagon tracks civilian casualties and reports them to Congress on a regular basis, “We also, in these reports to Congress, carefully note that these are not a complete picture, because we can only report from where our forces are,” says Lapan. “So we don’t profess to have knowledge of every civilian that’s killed across Iraq. We can only report those that we’re aware of.”

The Pentagon and Wikileaks used the same database to count the casualties, Lapan says, adding that it is possible that Wikileaks may have double-counted civilian casualties. “The matter of trying to estimate Iraqi civilian casualties during the war has been an ongoing issue with any number of organizations,” he says. “The numbers are all over the place.”

One of the most damaging charges to come out of the Wikileaks posting was that US forces may have observed instances where Iraqi security forces were abusing detainees without intervening.

"If there is the ability to reasonably intervene, our forces have the authority to do that,” Lapan says. “But they have the obligation to report any abuse they witness, or that they come across, to the Iraqi authorities.”

Lapan said that it is up to the Iraqi authorities to follow up on such claims. He disputed the notion that any Iraqi detainee abuse was taking place but not being investigated.

There is, however, some confusion about what it means for troops to “reasonably intervene” in instances of abuse. The directives and training likely differs between units and commands, Lapan says.

“Unit by unit they might instruct their forces,” Lapan adds. “Those could happen in different ways in different places.”

He attempted to explain what it might mean for US troops to “reasonably intervene” in the case of detainee of abuse. “ ‘Reasonable,’ meaning if you can do so without causing loss of life, or again, to intervene to save somebody whose life may be in danger,” Lapan says. “It really was circumstantial for individuals to make that judgment as to whether they physically intervened, or whether they just noted it and reported it up the chain of command.”

IN PICTURES: Wikileaks and the war in Iraq

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