WASHINGTON — The monumental leak of classified Afghan war documents threatened Monday to create new conflict with Pakistan, whose spy agency was a focus of much of the material, and raised questions about Washington's own ability to protect military secrets.
The White House called the disclosures "alarming" and scrambled to assess the damage.
The documents are described as battlefield reports compiled by various military units that provide an unvarnished look at combat from 2004 to 2009, including U.S. frustration over reports Pakistan secretly aided insurgents and civilian casualties at the hand of U.S. troops.
WikiLeaks.org, a self-described whistleblower organization, posted 76,000 of the reports to its website Sunday night. The group said it is vetting another 15,000 documents for future release.
The leaks come at a time when President Barack Obama's Afghanistan war strategy is under congressional scrutiny and with polls finding that a majority of Americans no longer think the war there is worth fighting. Still, the leaks are not expected to prevent passage of a $60 billion war funding bill. Despite strong opposition among liberals who see Afghanistan as an unwinnable quagmire, House Democrats must either approve the bill before leaving at the end of this week for a six-week vacation, or commit political suicide by leaving troops in the lurch in war zones overseas.
Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman, said the military would probably need "days, if not weeks" to review all the documents and determine "the potential damage to the lives of our service members and coalition partners."
The White House says it did not try to stop news organizations who had access to secret U.S. military documents from publishing reports about the leaks. However, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said it did ask WikiLeaks — through reporters who were given advanced copies of the documents — to redact information in the documents that could harm U.S. military personnel.
It was not clear whether Wikileaks' decision to withhold 15,000 of its files was related.
Gibbs said that while most of the information posted online by Wikileaks was not new, the release is "a potential national security concern."
The Pentagon declined to respond to specifics detailed in the documents, including reports of the Taliban's use of heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles.
"Just because they are posted on the Internet, doesn't make them unclassified," Lapan said.
The Pentagon says it is still investigating the source of the documents. The military has detained Bradley Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst in Baghdad, for allegedly transmitting classified information. But the latest documents could have come from anyone with a secret-level clearance, Lapan said.Vote, discuss: Accurate portrayal of Afghan war?
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange promised on Monday that the release of documents — one of the largest unauthorized disclosures in military history — was just the beginning.
Assange told reporters in London that he believed that "thousands" of U.S. attacks in Afghanistan could be investigated for evidence of war crimes, although he acknowledged that such claims would have to be tested in court.
Assange pointed in particular to a deadly missile strike ordered by Taskforce 373, a unit allegedly charged with hunting down and killing senior Taliban targets. He said there was also evidence of cover-ups when civilians were killed, including what he called a suspiciously high number of casualties that U.S. forces attributed to ricochet wounds.
The Defense Department declined to respond to specifics contained in the documents, citing security reasons.
But Lapan said that coalition forces have made great strides in reducing the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
White House national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones said the release of the documents "put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk," while Pakistan dismissed the documents as malicious and unsubstantiated.
The New York Times said the documents — including classified cables and assessments between military officers and diplomats — also describe U.S. fears that ally Pakistan's intelligence service was actually aiding the Afghan insurgency.
According to the Times, the documents suggest Pakistan "allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders."
Pakistan Ambassador Husain Haqqani said the documents "do not reflect the current on-ground realities." Islamabad's ministry of foreign affairs issued a similar statement, defending Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, against allegations it has supported insurgent networks.
"The people of Pakistan and its security forces, including the ISI, have rendered enormous sacrifices against militancy and terrorism," the ministry wrote.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said suggestions that even rogue elements of the Pakistan spy service were seeking to confound the U.S. war effort were troubling.
"That would be very disturbing if they were participating in strategies to fight U.S. soldiers. It would be unacceptable," Sessions told reporters.
Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the documents reflect his view that U.S. war strategy was adrift last year, before President Barack Obama's decision to retool the war plan and add tens of thousands of U.S. forces.
Skelton, a Democrat, warned Monday that the documents are outdated and "should not be used as a measure of success or a determining factor in our continued mission there."
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U.S. government agencies have been bracing for the deluge of classified documents since the leak of helicopter cockpit video of a 2007 fire fight in Baghdad. That was blamed on Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who was charged with releasing classified information earlier this month.
Manning had bragged online that he downloaded 260,000 classified U.S. cables and transmitted them to WikiLeaks.org.
Assange said his group had many more documents on other subjects, including files on countries from across the globe.
"We have built up an enormous backlog of whistleblower disclosures," he said.
Assange said he believed more whistle-blowing material will flood in after the publicity about the Afghan files.
"It is our experience that courage is contagious," he said.
Enduring Taliban ties?
Officials in the U.S. and Afghanistan have long complained some in Pakistan were playing both sides.
The London School of Economics recently published a report that alleged enduring ties between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as ISI, and the Afghan Taliban.
The report said the agency not only funds and trains Taliban fighters in Afghanistan but is officially represented on the movement's leadership council, giving it significant influence over operations.
Asked about the report last month, Gen. David Petraeus, who recently took over command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Pakistan has maintained "a variety of relationships," in some cases dating back decades, to groups which, with U.S. support, battled the Soviets when they occupied Afghanistan.
"Some of those ties continue in various forms, some of them, by the way, gathering intelligence," Petraeus told U.S. lawmakers. "You have to have contact with bad guys to get intelligence on bad guys."
Der Spiegel magazine in Germany, meanwhile, reported that the records show Afghan security officers as helpless victims of Taliban attacks.
The magazine said the documents show a growing threat in the north, where German troops are stationed.
The classified documents are largely what's called "raw intelligence" — reports from junior officers in the field that analysts use to advise policymakers, rather than any high-level government documents that state U.S. government policy.
'We are not winning'
Ayesha Khan, an expert based at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, told msnbc.com that the leaked documents lay bare that "we are not winning the battle for hearts and minds" in Afghanistan.
"This type of report is a game changer," said Khan, who has been analyzing and writing about the region for 10 years.
The leaked records also reveal important new information on the war's impact on Afghans, showing that accurate information on civilian casualties is often not being released, Human Rights Watch researcher Rachel Reid told msnbc.com.
But Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based defense and security think tank, said the disclosures were not likely to change public opinion, though they wouldn't help the situation.
"This is not another Abu Ghraib. It is important to remember that the papers date back to 2004 and the Bush administration," he said.
However, Clarke said they leaked documents emerged "at the worst possible time, particularly in the United States, because people are looking for an exit strategy.
"This is old bad news at a new bad time," he added.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, one of President Barack Obama's closest Democratic allies, said the leaked documents raised "serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan."
"Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent," Kerry said.
While the documents provide a glimpse of a world the public rarely sees, the overall picture they portray is already familiar to most Americans. U.S. officials have already publicly denounced Pakistani officials' cooperation with some insurgents.
The success of U.S. special operating forces teams at taking out Taliban targets has been publicly lauded by U.S. military and intelligence officials. And just-resigned Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was leading the Afghan war effort, made protecting Afghan civilians one of the hallmarks of his command, complaining that too many Afghans had been accidentally killed by Western firepower.
WikiLeaks said the leaked documents "do not generally cover top-secret operations." The site also reported that it had "delayed the release of some 15,000 reports" as part of what it called "a harm minimization process demanded by our source."
Jones, the White House adviser, took pains to point out that the documents describe a period from January 2004 to December 2009, mostly during the administration of President George W. Bush.
That was before "President Obama announced a new strategy with a substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan, and increased focus on al-Qaida and Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years," Jones said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.