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White House and WikiLeaks founder discuss release of records

Julian Assange, the mysterious and elusive founder of WikiLeaks, addressed reporters today at a press conference in London, where he defended his organization’s release of more than 91,000 confidential military documents that reveal new and decidedly grim details of the war in Afghanistan.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned the disclosure as unlawful and said it could jeopardize U.S. security missions in Afghanistan, as well as the safety of American military personnel and their coalition partners. Gibbs also dismissed the reports as containing no new information aside from logistical details, which he said could undermine U.S. military operations. “In terms of broad revelations, there aren’t any that we see in these documents,” Gibbs said.

But Assange defended his decision to release the reports, many of which contain details of civilian casualties or previously secret military programs. “I’d like to see this material taken seriously and investigated, and new policies, if not prosecutions result from it,” Assange said in the press conference, suggesting that the records may contain evidence of possible war crimes.

The release of the Afghanistan documents has cast a new spotlight on WikiLeaks, already controversial for its previous disclosures of highly sensitive corporate and governmental information. Many say the organization has jeopardized the safety of U.S. and coalition military personnel and unfairly portrayed American soldiers in a harsh light. They point to the recent release of a classified military video showing Iraqi civilians and journalists killed by fire from a U.S. Apache helicopter, and soldiers apparently laughing during the incident.

In a surprise appearance earlier this month at a TED conference in Oxford, England, Assange explained his decision-making process with regard to the disclosure of sensitive personal and military information. “There are legitimate secrets,” Assange said. “But we deal with whistle-blowers that are coming forward that are really sort of well-motivated.”

Assange also discussed his guidelines for deciding whether a secret is worth exposing, and said the goal of WikiLeaks is to disclose whatever information powerful organizations or governments want hidden from public view.

“Information that organizations are spending economic effort into concealing, that’s a really good signal that when the information gets out, there’s a hope of it doing some good, because the organizations that know it best, know it inside-out, are spending work to conceal it,” Assange said. “And that’s what we’ve found in practice, and that’s what the history of journalism is.”