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WikiLeaks Files’ ‘Potential Threat’ Continues to Rattle Washington

July 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The big release of Afghan war documents continued to rocket through official Washington today.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage of the WikiLeaks story.

KWAME HOLMAN: As U.S. troops prosecuted the war in Afghanistan today, officials past and present worried about the effects of WikiLeaks making all that material public.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned, “There’s a real potential threat to put American lives at risk.”

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden says the Taliban will be able to “figure out who was in the room when operations were discussed.”

Marine Corps General James Mattis echoed those concerns at a Senate confirmation hearing. He’s been nominated to lead the U.S. CENTCOM overseeing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Central Command Chief Nominee: I just thought it was a — just an appallingly irresponsible act to release this information. It didn’t tell us anything that I have seen so far that we weren’t already aware of. I have seen no big revelations.

One of the newspaper headlines was that it’s a — the war is a tense and dangerous thing. Well, I — if that is news, I don’t know who it’s news to that’s on this planet.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the White House, President Obama also lamented the leak, while playing down any effect on his war policy.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: While I’m concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations, the fact is these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan. Indeed, they point to the same challenges that led me to conduct an extensive review of our policy last fall.

KWAME HOLMAN: The data released by WikiLeaks on Sunday night spanned a period from January of 2004 to December 2009, right before President Obama stepped up the U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan. They raised new questions about Pakistan’s reliability, about Afghan corruption and about civilian deaths.

But Mr. Obama said today all those things already have been taken into account.

BARACK OBAMA: That’s why we’ve substantially increased our commitment there, insisted upon greater accountability from our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan, developed a new strategy that can work, and put in place a team, including one of our finest generals, to execute that plan. Now we have to see that strategy through.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president won support on that point from Republican Senator John McCain at the Mattis confirmation hearing.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R-Ariz.): The WikiLeaks disclosure is simply an extended footnote to a well-known reading of recent history. That’s why a concerted effort has been made since 2009, both in the administration and the Congress, to make wide-ranging changes to our strategy in Afghanistan, to increase our commitment of troops and resources, and to bring new and better leadership to the mission.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Democrat John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned against overreacting to WikiLeaks.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.), Foreign Relations Committee Chairman: I think it’s important not to overhype or get excessively excited about the meaning of those documents. These documents appear to be primarily raw intelligence reports from the field.

And, as such, anybody who’s dealt with those kinds of reports knows some of them are completely dismissible, some of them are completely unreliable, some of them are very reliable. But raw intelligence needs to be processed properly.

KWAME HOLMAN: That was a step back from Kerry’s initial statement Sunday night that the documents raised serious questions about America’s policy.

The furor over the leaked documents came as Congress confronts rising U.S. casualties in the war and growing unease among Democrats about the U.S. role in Afghanistan. And, coincidentally, the House faced a vote today on a new war funding bill.

That $60 billion bill needed a two-thirds majority under House rules, and the WikiLeaks controversy colored the debate. Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said it’s clear now is the time for a strategy change.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH,(D-Ohio): Our troops are being placed in mortal peril before of poor logistics, countless innocent civilians killed by mistake, an Afghanistan government which is hopelessly corrupt, Pakistan intelligence collaborating with the Taliban against the U.S., the Pentagon understating the firepower of the insurgents, a top Pakistani general visiting a suicide bombing school monthly.

Will we go deeper into this war in Afghanistan despite an abundance of information that it’s time to get out?

KWAME HOLMAN: To offset defections in their ranks, Democratic leaders had to rely on strong Republican support, including Buck McKeon of California.

REP. HOWARD “BUCK” MCKEON,(R-Calif.): Failure to pass this supplemental before the August work period would result in severe consequences to our military departments. Last Thursday, undersecretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force testified at our committee that, without this supplemental, their services are dangerously close to the point of having to furlough Department of Defense employees.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the discussions continued on the leak and its effects on war policy, the U.S. military focused on finding the source. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said a very robust investigation is under way.