WASHINGTON – Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military documents about the Iraq war were made public by the WikiLeaks website Friday in one of the largest leaks of classified material in American history.
The most explosive documents are reports suggesting that U.S. forces knew about but failed to stop numerous cases of prisoner abuse by Iraqi police and soldiers, according to accounts by several news organizations that were given early access to the files by WikiLeaks.
The documents, known in the U.S. military as “significant activities” reports, describe in minute detail what U.S. troops in Iraq encountered on a daily basis from 2003 to this year, from daily casualty notifications and routine descriptions of attacks to sensitive intelligence tips and accounts of meetings.
The files also outline U.S. concerns that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were providing training and giving weapons to Shiite militias in a proxy war aimed at killing U.S. troops and Iraq’s Sunnis.
WikiLeaks, a secretive activist organization that claims to campaign against officials’ secrecy, called the disclosure of the 391,831 documents on the Iraq conflict “the first real glimpse into the secret history of the war that the United States government has been privy to throughout.”
The WikiLeaks statement said that its analysis of casualties mentioned in reports determined that 109,032 people died in Iraq over the seven-year period: 66,081 civilians, 23,984 insurgents, 15,196 Iraqi army and police and 3,771 U.S. and allies personnel.
Those numbers could not be verified, but that accounting of civilian casualties is substantially higher than a tally of the death toll released earlier this month by the Pentagon, which said that 76,939 Iraqi civilian and security force members had died in the conflict.
Amnesty International, a human rights group, said it appeared the U.S. forces may have broken international law by turning prisoners over to Iraqi security forces when they knew the prisoners were likely to be tortured.
“We have not yet had an opportunity to study the leaked files in detail but they add to our concern that the U.S. authorities committed a serious breach of international law when they summarily handed over thousands of detainees to Iraqi security forces who, they knew, were continuing to torture and abuse detainees on a truly shocking scale,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
WikiLeaks did not reveal who provided it the classified material, but a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who was stationed in Iraq until earlier this year has been charged with improperly downloading vast amounts of classified material, including files that were previously made public by WikiLeaks.
U.S. officials, who have been bracing for the release of the documents for weeks, denounced WikiLeaks for ignoring appeals in recent days to not make the material public. But they also downplayed the significance of the disclosures, describing the material as raw and unanalyzed information that would contribute little to the public’s understanding of the war.
“We strongly condemn the unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement. He described the reports as “snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane” that do “not bring new understanding to Iraq’s past.”
A team of more than 100 U.S. government analysts has been working for weeks to go through files they expected WikiLeaks to post, looking for names of Iraqis who assisted the U.S. and other sensitive details in the reports. That information has been forwarded to U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq, in hopes of minimizing the damage.
Even so, Morrell said, the leak does “expose secret information that could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future. Just as with the leaked Afghan documents, we know our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources, and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.”
Last July, WikiLeaks made public tens of thousands of similar classified U.S. reports about the war in Afghanistan, which the organization vowed would transform the debate about that war. Senior Pentagon officials said the leaks compromised U.S. intelligence methods and might result in the deaths of Afghans identified in the documents who had assisted the U.S. and its allies.
Neither prediction appears to have come true. While public support for the Afghan war has continued to fall, the WikiLeaks documents have faded from public view.
Pentagon officials have admitted they are unaware of any Afghans who have been killed as a result of their names appearing in the documents. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a letter to the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the leak had not revealed any “sensitive intelligence sources or methods.”
As it did with the Afghan reports, WikiLeaks gave the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the German news weekly Der Spiegel, and al-Jazeera television advance access to the Iraq documents, all of which released stories about their findings Friday night.