- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 18, 2010

STOCKHOLM (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Wednesday the Pentagon has expressed willingness to discuss the online whistleblower’s request for help in reviewing 15,000 classified documents from the Afghan war and removing information that could harm civilians.

In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman denied the Pentagon has had direct contact with WikiLeaks and said the military is not interested in helping the website with the documents.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Assange told the Associated Press by telephone, “This week we received contact through our lawyers that the general counsel of the U.S. Army says now that they want to discuss the issue.” 

Army spokesman Col. Thomas Collins denied Army lawyers are involved but said Mr. Assange might have meant to say a Pentagon lawyer instead. Each service has its own counsel office, which is separate from the entire Defense Department’s general counsel, and Col. Collins was speaking only for the Army.

When asked to clarify, Mr. Assange said he had misspoken and meant the general counsel of the Pentagon. He added that the contacts have been brokered by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.

WikiLeaks has asked the Pentagon for help in reviewing the documents to purge the names of Afghan informants from the files. Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he was not aware of any effort by department officials to contact WikiLeaks.

Mr. Assange said Wednesday that “contact has been established” but added it was not clear whether and how the U.S. military would assist WikiLeaks.

“It is always positive for parties to talk to each other,” Mr. Assange said. “We welcome their engagement.”

He reiterated that WikiLeaks plans to release its second batch of secret Afghan war documents within “two weeks to a month.”

The first 77,000 files in its “Afghan War Diary” laid bare classified military documents covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010. The release angered U.S. officials, energized critics of the NATO-led campaign and drew the attention of the Taliban, which has promised to use the material to track down people it considers traitors.

Nongovernmental organizations, including the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, have criticized WikiLeaks as being irresponsible.

WikiLeaks describes itself as a public service organization for whistleblowers, journalists and activists.

“We encourage other media and human rights groups who have a genuine concern about reviewing the material to assist us with the difficult and very expensive task of getting a large historical archive into the public’s record,” Mr. Assange said.

Mr. Assange, an Australian, was in Sweden in part to prepare an application for a publishing certificate that would allow WikiLeaks to take full advantage of the Scandinavian nation’s press freedom laws.

That also means WikiLeaks would have to appoint a publisher who could be held legally responsible for the material. Mr. Assange said that person would be “either me or one of our Swedish people.”

WikiLeaks routes its material through Sweden and Belgium because of the whistleblower protection offered by laws in those countries. But it also has backup servers in other countries to make sure the site is not shut down, Mr. Assange said.

Pauline Jelinek wrote from Washington.