The Department of Defense authorized several damage assessment reports after WikiLeaks released its massive cache of classified documents, and BuzzFeed News can reveal some of their contents for the first time.
The heavily redacted reports cover a roughly three-year time span. BuzzFeed News obtained more than 300 pages in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
One PowerPoint presentation showed the US government closely monitored media reports about WikiLeaks and even studied where WikiLeaks was googled the most in the US: Washington, DC.
Another report concluded that “lives of cooperating Afghans, Iraqis, and other foreign interlocutors have been placed at increased risk” as a result of the leaks.
Over a span of years, WikiLeaks released State Department cables, Iraq war logs, top secret files on Guantanamo detainees, and a video depicting the US military killing Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists from an Apache helicopter — all records leaked to the organization by former Army private Chelsea Manning.
On Thursday, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange associated with the leaks, accusing him of conspiring with Manning to hack government computers in an attempt to pry loose additional documents.
Manning, a whistleblower who was convicted of Espionage Act violations and served seven years in a military prison, has been incarcerated in a Washington, DC, jail for the past month for refusing to testify about WikiLeaks before a grand jury.
WikiLeaks’ disclosures, which were published by dozens of news outlets around the world, laid bare how US military and intelligence agencies carried out its war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and the treatment of detainees it captured.
According to the documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, the leaks were highly embarrassing to the US government and endangered the lives of foreign sources who provided the US with intelligence related to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Several damage assessment reports say that the records released by WikiLeaks contained details about previously undisclosed civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, which “could be used by the press or our adversaries to negatively impact support for current operations in the region.”
Regarding the hundreds of thousands of Iraq-related military documents and State Department cables, the report assessed “with high confidence that disclosure of the Iraq data set will have no direct personal impact on current and former U.S. leadership in Iraq.”
One heavily redacted damage assessment report determined that a different set of documents published the same year, relating to the US war in Afghanistan, would not result in “significant impact” to US operations.
It did, however, have the potential to cause “serious damage” to “intelligence sources, informants and the Afghan population,” and US and NATO intelligence collection efforts. The most significant impact of the leaks, the report concluded, would likely be on the lives of “cooperative Afghans, Iraqis, and other foreign interlocutors.”
“The lives of cooperating Afghans, Iraqis, and other foreign interlocutors have been placed at increased risk,” the executive summary of a June 2011 task force report said.
The reports were prepared by an "Information Review Task Force" set up by the Defense Intelligence Agency and was overseen by former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Michael Vickers, and, beginning in 2012, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, one of the Trump administration officials who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia.
To prepare the damage assessments, more than 20 federal government agencies, including the FBI, NSA, CIA, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security, conducted a line-by-line review of more than 740,000 pages of classified documents “known or believed compromised” by WikiLeaks to assess the damage.
A 2011 PowerPoint presentation reveals the US government had been closely monitoring media reports about WikiLeaks and even studied where WikiLeaks was googled the most in the US — that would be in Washington, DC — and warned lawmakers and officials at the Justice Department that WikiLeaks “was NOT a one-time phenomenon. It represents a 21st Century reality.”
“WikiLeaks’ stated goals of creating a much more open society by revealing government secrets and ‘wrong-doing’ are regarded positively by large sectors of the world’s population, even if members of the public do not condone the group’s methods,” read a bullet point in one slide titled “WikiLeaks Permanently Changes the Disclosure Game.”
A previously unreleased damage assessment conducted by a team from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization studied how 111,000 IED-related leaked WikiLeaks records “may lead to the compromise of Counter IED tactics, techniques and procedures used by Coalition Forces conducting exploitation of IED events.”
The team found the release of the records revealing the identities of local nationals will result in “an increase in intimidation and/or assassination” and lead insurgents to change their tactics, techniques, and procedures “to account for an improved awareness of [Coalition Forces] capabilities and vulnerabilities.”
A slide in another Defense Intelligence Agency PowerPoint presentation raises the question “Where are the Russia Cables?”
The slide points out that Assange sold US diplomatic cables to an independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, owned by former president Mikhail Gorbachev and billionaire Alexander Lebedev, seen as damaging to the Russian government.
But the paper only published two stories “amid much hype about what would be exposed,” and the sale may have actually been an effort to keep the cables “out of the public eye.”
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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