Image: Jim Miklasszewski
By Jim Miklaszewski Chief Pentagon correspondent
NBC News correspondent
updated 7/27/2010 1:50:30 PM ET 2010-07-27T17:50:30

How is it possible that secret U.S. military documents could be downloaded and leaked to an organization called WikiLeaks? Apparently, easier than one might think.

American officials condemned the release of more than 90,000 secret files that paint an unflattering light on the U.S.-led war and include references of Afghan civilian deaths and evidence of U.S.-Pakistani distrust.

The Pentagon says it was 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, Pentagon officials told NBC News.

The Pentagon has various levels of classified Internet sites collectively called "the high-side" or officially SIPRNET, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network.

Pentagon officials said there are thousands of individuals — Pentagon civilians, military, even private contractors — who share the same level of secret clearance that Manning had that have access to the SIPRNET.

Computers with "the high-side" access are located in computer saferooms at Department of Defense and military facilities worldwide. But, thousands of computers with SIPRNET are setup in individuals' homes or offsite offices and businesses.

A person with a secret clearance and access to SIPRNET should be able to tap into secret level military sites in places like Iraq or Afghanistan from anywhere in the world.

One Pentagon official told NBC News that he would log onto the sites in Baghdad and Afghanistan, and said that he could easily download the same kind of secrets that were passed onto WikiLeaks.

Military officials said with that kind of widespread, worldwide access, any "cleared" individual with a personal agenda or grudge could easily become "WikiLeaks next source."

'Potential threat'
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.

Manning had bragged online that he downloaded 260,000 classified U.S. cables and transmitted them to WikiLeaks.

The White House called the disclosures "alarming" and scrambled to assess the damage.

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."

In latest developments, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Baghdad Tuesday that he was "appalled" by the leak.

He said "there is a real potential threat there to put American lives at risk."

Msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Video: After the data dump, damage control

  1. Transcript of: After the data dump, damage control

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: a mountain of secrets, some big, some small, dumped into the public domain by a Web site , leaked by somebody on the inside, distributed by the news media -- all of it having to do with a long war still in progress; and now half of Washington is still pouring over 90-plus-thousand separate documents, and more may be on the way. We are among those still going through all of it. We begin tonight with our chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell in Washington . Andrea , what is it we have here, really? How damaging is it? What does it change? And what's this Web site all about?

    There's never been anything quite like it: Well, those are all big questions. Twenty-four hours later, Brian , everyone -- soldiers in the field to top national security officials -- are still trying to figure out whether this is a game changer. The release of so much raw intelligence on a Web site , with a war in progress, even as tonight the House voted to fund the president's troop surge in Afghanistan . Today I talked to the central player in this drama. Julian Assange is a lightning rod who has the whole world buzzing over the leaked secret documents about he war in Afghanistan posted on WikiLeaks , his Web site . The criticism started with the commander in chief. In his first comments about the national security controversy, today President Obama said he's concerned that leaked battlefield information could jeopardize troops or operations, but he says the disclosures won't change his war strategy.

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: The fact is, these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan .

    President BARACK OBAMA: And strong reaction from Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen in Baghdad today.

    MITCHELL: I really am appalled by the leak, condemn the leak, and I believe that there is potential there to put American lives at risk.

    Admiral MIKE MULLEN: I asked Assange about that. Does that concern you at all?

    MITCHELL: Well, you know, whenever we release material exposing embarrassing actions or abuses, or crimes by an organization, there's always an attempt to underplay it or distract from the message. No, we believe, in fact, that the strength of this material is that it's from people on the ground.

    Mr. JULIAN ASSANGE: Assange is clearly an advocate and opponent of the war. WikiLeaks ' mission publishing secrets, from Sarah Palin 's personal e-mails to a Church of Scientology manual, to its release last May of the 2007 Apache helicopter gun camera video from Iraq showing the death of a dozen civilians, including two Reuters journalists. Assange , who once said `I enjoy crushing bastards,' is a 39-year-old Australian who studied physics, made a name for himself as a hacker, and was arrested for computer crimes before starting his whistle-blower Web site . This week he released 91,000 raw military documents online, but this time also to three traditional news organizations, including The New York Times , which vetted the material, it said, eliminating information that could put lives at risk.

    MITCHELL: I think WikiLeaks ' role in this was the role of a source. You don't get to choose your sources, and sources often come with their own agendas, their own ideology, their own motivations. The question is, how do you handle the material once you've got it?

    Mr. BILL KELLER (New York Times Executive Director): But it's a brave new world when journalists use sources like WikiLeaks .

    MITCHELL: It is a complicated, complex equation in this case. It really challenges the public to try and make sense of these -- not only the documents, but the process at play.

    Professor BOB STEELE (Depauw University Prindle Institute for Ethics): Tonight officials are still plowing through all of these documents, making their own damage assessment, knowing that tens of thousands of Pentagon , military and even private contractors have access to the same

    MITCHELL: And, Andrea , meantime, what's the immediate impact on the US fighting force in the field?

    secrets. Brian: Well, it certainly gives them new information, those who haven't had access to it, but no one thinks that they're going to change the way they provide this intelligence because it is a hallmark of the new war fighting that everyone have access to as much information as possible.

    WILLIAMS: All right.

    MITCHELL: Brian :

    WILLIAMS: As we continue to sort through it, Andrea Mitchell in our Washington newsroom to start us off. Andrea , thanks.

    MITCHELL:

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