WikiLeaks Comes Under Fire from Rights Groups

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

"Courage is contagious," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told the July 26 press conference announcing the release of some 76,000 classified Pentagon files on the war in Afghanistan. So too, it seems, is criticism of Assange and WikiLeaks' handling of the episode.

After drawing ire from officials in Kabul and Washington who claimed the WikiLeaks files put the lives of NATO soldiers at risk, Assange received a letter from a coalition of leading human-rights groups last week that criticized his decision to publish the names of hundreds of Afghans identified in the war logs as helpers of the NATO war effort, saying that this could make them targets of the Taliban. WikiLeaks joint-published the Afghan documents with the New York Times, the Guardian and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. While those publications redacted names in the documents they published, WikiLeaks' version was largely unedited, although the group did withhold around 15,000 documents it felt contained particularly sensitive material.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the complaint letter was signed by Amnesty International; the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC); the Open Society Institute, the democracy-promotion organization funded by billionaire George Soros; the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission; and the Kabul office of the International Crisis Group, a respected mediation and monitoring organization headed by former diplomats. On Thursday as well, Reporters Without Borders, an international group that advocates for journalists, released a statement criticizing WikiLeaks of "incredible irresponsibility" in releasing the documents.

The Journal quoted the letter as saying, "We have seen the negative, sometimes deadly ramifications for those Afghans identified as working for or sympathizing with international forces. We strongly urge your volunteers and staff to analyze all documents to ensure that those containing identifying information are taken down or redacted."

When contacted by TIME, most of the groups refused to comment on the letter. But in a brief phone interview, Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of CIVIC, the Washington-based NGO that advocates for war victims, told TIME that the letter was sent last week and was meant to foster cooperation between aid agencies and WikiLeaks in an effort to protect Afghan sources.

"We are unsure who leaked [the letter], but it stalled the conversation," she says. "We are now back in conversation and discussing the best way to move forward. In the media it's been played up as a fight, but that wasn't our intent. The intent was to say, look, we've been working in these places for a long time, we have seen a drastic increase in Taliban assassinations of Afghans working with the Afghan government or ISAF forces and we are very concerned about [the publication of] the names of Afghans or other identifying characteristics. We simply want to caution — as we would our own people or journalists — about putting the names out there."

When asked whether she views the publication of the war log as the right decision and a generally positive step, Holewinski replies, "I don't know. We have gone through about a few thousand documents ourselves, looking at civilian casualties and escalation-of-force incidents — [the documents] are spot reports and so they don't have further investigation and they don't come with context. We haven't yet found that the information is particularly helpful — but that doesn't mean it won't be helpful to other organizations looking at other things, or for a society that is trying to figure out how it feels about the Afghanistan war moving forward."

According to the Journal report, Assange originally replied to the NGOs' letter by asking whether the groups would provide staff to help redact the names of Afghan civilians. An Amnesty official replied to say that the group wouldn't rule out the idea of helping and suggested a conference call with Assange.

Citing "people familiar with the exchange," the Journal reported that Assange replied, "I'm very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses. If Amnesty does nothing I shall issue a press release highlighting its refusal."

WikiLeaks could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But on its Twitter feed, it made several postings about the Journal article. On Aug. 9, a Twitter post read, "Pentagon wants to bankrupt us by refusing to assist review. Media won't take responsibility. Amnesty won't. What to do?" An Aug. 10 entry read, "Don't be fooled on the 'human rights groups'. No formal statement. US led. Anon. given to Wall St. Journal. Why?"

Later that day, it posted a "research note" about the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission: "AIHRC is primary funded by the occupying forces of Afghanistan."

A tall, wan, white-haired former computer hacker, Assange is, by his own accounts, a "naturally combative" person. His response to the group of NGOs, which largely share Assange's stated concerns about human-rights abuses in Afghanistan, displays just how feisty he can be. Currently, his whereabouts are unknown, although some press reports suggest he is still in London.

Earlier this week, the Daily Beast reported that the Obama Administration had asked Britain, Germany, Australia and other allies to consider criminal charges against Assange, although British authorities contacted by TIME denied they had been contacted by U.S. officials and said they had no intention of prosecuting Assange. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith also denied at a recent press conference that the U.S. Administration had asked him to consider pressing criminal charges. But while he remains free to continue his work, Assange is increasingly proving a divisive figure, even among those who would seem to be his natural allies.