Wikileaks: 'files may contain evidence of war crimes'
The founder of WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website which leaked tens of thousands of classified American documents on the war in Afghanistan to the media, has said the files may contain evidence of war crimes.
Julian Assange said that the military files showed that the "course of the war needed to change" and stated that "thousands" of war crimes may have been committed in Afghanistan.
Speaking at a press conference at the Frontline Club in central London, Mr Assange said: "It is up to a court to decide clearly whether something is in the end a crime.
"That said, on the face of it, there does appear to be evidence of war crimes in this material."
"We would like to see the revelations that this material gives to be taken seriously, investigated by governments and new policies put in place as a result, if not prosecutions of those people who have committed abuses."
Mr Assange has held back 15,000 documents and promised to release thousands more in the coming weeks.
He said that decisions had to be made over whether the releases would have security implications.
Mr Assange rebuffed the US administration's condemnation of the leak and denied claims that it would put soldiers' lives at risk.
He said: "We are familiar with groups whose abuse we expose attempting to criticise the messenger to distract from the power of the message," he said.
"We don't see any difference in the White House's response to this case to the other groups that we have exposed.
"We have tried hard to make sure that this material does not put innocents at harm.
"All the material is over seven months old so is of no current operational consequence, even though it may be of very significant investigative consequence."
The documents - detailing military operations between 2004 and 2009 - disclose how Nato forces have killed scores of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan.
More than 90,000 documents were leaked to the Wikileaks website and shown to several newspapers around the world.
The release of the huge file of classified papers is described as one of the biggest leaks in US military history.
Mr Assange added that the files gave a greater understanding of what the war in Afghanistan was like and suggested that it needed to change. He also brushed aside criticisms that the files could not be trusted.
He said: "The manner in which it needs to change is not yet clear."
He added that the files were not about one single horrific event but the bigger picture of the conflict, now into its ninth year.
"The real story of this material is that it is war, it's one damn thing after another," he said.
"It's the continuous small events, the continuous deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces, the millions of people."
Mr Assange said WikiLeaks had "no reason" to doubt the reliability of the files, but cautioned that they presented only a partial picture.
He said: "You will find that the US military units when self-reporting of course often speak in self-exculpatory language, redefine civilian casualties as insurgent casualties, downplay the number of casualties.
"And we know this by comparing these reports to the public record for where there has been comprehensive investigation."
The White House condemned the publication of the data which it said threatened the safety of coalition forces.
A spokesman said: "We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security."
The documents also include references to incidents involving British troops.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We have been unable to corroborate these claims in the short time available and it would be inappropriate to speculate on specific cases without further verification of the alleged actions.
"Reducing the risk to local civilians has always formed an essential part of planning for all military operations carried out by UK forces and we always do our utmost to ensure that we shield the civilian population from violence during the course of any military activity.
The leaked documents reveal how:
> Hundreds of civilians have been killed by Nato troops
> There has a been a steep rise in Taliban attacks on coalition troops
> A secret "black" unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for "kill or capture" without trial
>The US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired heat-seaking surface-to-air missiles.
> The coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.
> The Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.
> There have been more than 50 incidents where local troops have opened fire on their comrades
Although many of the claims have been aired previously, the leak is highly embarrassing.
The documents claim that 195 civilians have been improperly killed and 174 wounded. Many are innocent motorcylists or drivers shot after being suspected of being suicide bombers.
The growing evidence that Iran and Pakistan in supporting and fuelling the insurgency is also detailed in the documents.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States insisted his country was fully committed to fighting Islamic insurgents.
Ambassador Husain Haqqani called the release of the file "irresponsible", saying it consisted of "unprocessed" reports from the field.
The founder of Wikileaks said the angry reaction showed that the whistleblower website is succeeding in its mission.
Julian Assange, 39, an Australian former hacker and computer programmer, told the Guardian: "If journalism is good it is controversial by its nature.
"It is the role of good journalism to take on powerful abuses, and when powerful abuses are taken on, there is always a back reaction."
Until the Afghan dossier, Wikileaks' most prominent scoop was a video posted in April this year showing a US Apache helicopter strike in Baghdad in 2007.
The not-for-profit website organisation has also been responsible for publishing a Guantanamo Bay training manual, BNP membership lists and details of Sarah Palin's private emails.
The source of the leak to the website is so far unknown.
The last person suspected of providing classified material to the outlet is American soldier Bradley Manning who has been charged with two counts of misconduct for allegedly providing video footage of a US Apache helicopter strike in Iraq in 2007 in which around a dozen people were gunned down in broad daylight.