By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks is defending itself against accusations that it may have put lives at risk by dumping uncensored U.S. diplomatic cables on the Internet.
In a series of cryptic Twitter messages, WikiLeaks suggested that sloppy handling by people who formerly worked with WikiLeaks and at least one mainstream media outlet resulted in the inadvertent disclosure of unredacted versions of all 251,000 State Department cables which the whistleblowing website is believed to possess.
Meanwhile, U.S. government officials have criticized WikiLeaks itself for including in its latest public release of tens of thousands of cables some documents which identify suspected militants and U.S. Embassy contacts by name.
The latest squabble among current and former WikiLeaks insiders has become increasingly heated and arcane. But the key issue is who, if anyone, released unedited documents that could put those named at risk or complicate anti-terrorism operations.
In a message on its Twitter feed, which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is believed to control, WikiLeaks accused an unnamed "mainstream news organization" of having "disclosed all 251k unredacted cables." In an earlier message on Tuesday, WikiLeaks said: "There has been no WikiLeaks error. There has been a grossly negligent mainstream media error, to put it generously."
Earlier this week, German publications and a blog published by Wired magazine claimed that a 1.73 gigabyte password-protected file containing all the uncensored cables was "reportedly circulating somewhere on the Internet." Wired quoted the editor of German publication Der Freitag saying that his paper had found the file and "easily obtained the password to unlock it."
Two people familiar with behind-the-scenes machinations involving Assange and his former associates said that privately, Assange was blaming the alleged website security slip-up on his former WikiLeaks collaborator, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Assange also was accusing London's Guardian newspaper of making public the key to the alleged password-protected file in a book on WikiLeaks published earlier this year by two of the paper's journalists.
Former Assange collaborators suggest that the allegation by WikiLeaks that a mainstream media outlet made public uncensored cables is an attempt to divert attention from WikiLeaks' own release, in its most recent public dump of State Department cables, of documents from which names should have been, but were not, deleted.
Several news organizations, including Reuters, have had complete sets of the cables for months. But WikiLeaks had only made a few thousand public until last week when it sharply speeded up the release. As of Wednesday, the website said it had released nearly 143,000 cables.
In a Twitter message on Wednesday, WikiLeaks claimed that it "has not released the names of any 'informants.'" The website suggested that all the material it was releasing was "unclassified and previously released by mainstream media."
A former WikiLeaks activist who reviewed the deluge of newly released material said the vast proportion of it was labeled "Unclassified." But two media sources who reviewed the material said it also contained some unredacted classified documents.
Reuters examined two such documents, posted on the WikiLeaks website, where a U.S. government source was identified; in one case the cable, classified "Secret," contained a clear notation: "protect source."
U.S. and Australian officials also condemned WikiLeaks for releasing a cable, classified "Secret," which identified by name 23 people in Australia whom U.S. and Australian authorities believed should be subjected to U.S. air travel curbs due to alleged contacts with Islamic militants in Yemen.
A U.S. counter-terrorism official said the disclosure would have "real consequences for counterterrorism activities around the globe. Giving our adversaries any advantage by releasing this information is simply insane."
Neither Assange nor his principal antagonist, Domscheit-Berg, could be immediately reached for comment.
But Stephen Aftergood, an anti-secrecy activist at the Federation of American Scientists, noted that WikiLeaks lately seemed to be surrounded by "a lot of melodrama." He added: "When criticized, the standard WL response is to deny error, shift responsibility to someone else, and attack the critic. It does not inspire much confidence."
(Additional reporting by Maurice Tamman and Eric Auchard; Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh)