WikiLeaks Defends Its Release of Iraq War Documents

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (C) arrives to hold a press conference at Park Plaza Hotel on October 23, 2010 in London

Correction Appended: May 9, 2011

The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks today defended its release of 400,000 classified U.S. Army field reports from the Iraq war — the largest leak in U.S. history, surpassing the 77,000 Afghan war files the group leaked in July. Now dubbed the Iraq War Logs, the files reveal new details about civilian deaths, detainee abuse and actions by Iran during the war.

At a packed press conference held in hotel in Central London Saturday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declared, "This disclosure is about the truth. We hope to correct some of that attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war, and which has continued on since the war officially concluded." Added the tall, wan, Australian-accented Assange: "We have seen that there are approximately 15,000 never previously documented or known cases of civilians who have been killed by violence in Iraq." Reports show the total number of civilian casualties in Iraq were documented to be some 66,081 people.

The documents released Friday to four media organizations, including the New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel, indicate that more than 60% of the 109,000 people killed in Iraq violence were Iraqi civilians. Yet John Sloboda, from the Iraq Body Count (IBC), who spoke alongside Assange at the press conference, asserted that both the official death count and the percentage of civilian deaths were actually much higher. "These, together with new information on combatant deaths contained in the logs, will bring the recorded death toll since March 2003 to over 150,000, roughly 80% of whom were civilians," he said. The group says the newly revealed deaths include assassinations, executions and drive-by shootings. IBC also described cases where the U.S. allegedly knew of prisoner abuse by Iraqi police and soldiers, but failed to intervene. Sloboda defended the public release of these details as a "memorial to the dead and public recognition of the loss suffered by their families."

Earlier this week, the U.S. military condemned the release of the files, saying it could endanger the lives of American troops and 300 Iraqi collaborators. The Pentagon dismissed the files as "ground-level field reports from a well chronicled war with no real surprises." Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, also stated, "We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, namely our enemies." In response to the Pentagon's criticism, Assange insisted Saturday that the documents contained no names or information harmful to any group or individual.

In a surprise appearance at the news conference, Daniel Ellsberg, the former military intelligence contractor who 40 years ago leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the Vietnam War, congratulated WikiLeaks and its source. "Whoever leaked this has acted honorably in revealing a clear crime against the peace, a war of aggression," said Ellsberg, once called "the most dangerous man in America" by Henry Kissinger. "Democracies don't start wars unless there are lies, so maybe if we uncover the truth we may be able to prevent further wars."

WikiLeaks has not identified the source of the documents, but the U.S. military identified Army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, who is currently in military custody, as a possible suspect. He was arrested earlier this year for allegedly leaking a 2007 video of a helicopter strike in Iraq that killed two Iraqis on assignment for the Reuters news agency.

The spokesman for WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson, also confirmed Saturday that future leaks would be published by the site, including 15,000 more documents about the war in Afghanistan. He said that people's names were edited and that the documents "contain no information that could be harmful to individuals."

The original version of this story referenced 15,000 civilians that were killed by violence in Iraq. Although the 15,000 figure is correct, the article did not specify that this figure was only never previously documented or known cases of civilians who have been killed by violence in Iraq. Instead, the total number of documented civilian deaths is 66,081.