WikiLeaks disclosed its entire archive of U.S. State Department cables Friday, much if not all of it uncensored _ a move that drew stinging condemnation from major newspapers which in the past collaborated with the anti-secrecy group's efforts to expose corruption and double-dealing.
Many media outlets, including The Associated Press, previously had access to all or part of the uncensored tome. But WikiLeaks' decision to post the 251,287 cables on its website makes potentially sensitive diplomatic sources available to anyone, anywhere at the stroke of a key. American officials have warned that the disclosures could jeopardize vulnerable people such as opposition figures or human rights campaigners.
A joint statement published on the Guardian's website said that the British publication and its international counterparts _ The New York Times, France's Le Monde, Germany's Der Spiegel and Spain's El Pais _ "deplore the decision of WikiLeaks to publish the unredacted State Department cables, which may put sources at risk."
Previously, international media outlets _ and WikiLeaks itself _ had redacted the names of potentially vulnerable sources, although the standard has varied and some experts warned that even people whose names had been kept out of the cables were still at risk.
But now many, and possibly even all, of the cables posted to the WikiLeaks website carried unredacted names.
There's a debate over what kind of an impact that will have.
In an interview with the AP earlier this week, former U.S. State Department official P.J. Crowley warned that the new release could be used to intimidate activists in authoritarian countries. Crowley said "any autocratic security service worth its salt" probably already would have the complete unredacted archive of cables, but that the fresh releases mean that any intelligence agency that did not "will have it in short order."
WikiLeaks staff members have not returned repeated requests for comment sent in the past two days. But in a series of messages on Twitter, the group suggested that it had no choice but to publish the archive because copies of the document were already circulating online following a security breach.
WikiLeaks has blamed the Guardian for the blunder, pointing out that a sensitive password used to decrypt the files was published in a book put out by David Leigh, one of the paper's investigative reporters and a collaborator-turned-critic of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
But the Guardian, Leigh and others have rejected the claim. Although the password was in fact published in Leigh's book about seven months ago, Guardian journalists have suggested that the real problem was that WikiLeaks posted the encrypted file to the Web by accident and that Assange never bothered to change the password needed to unlock it.
In their statement, the Guardian's international partners lined up to slam the 40-year-old former computer hacker.
"We cannot defend the needless publication of the complete data _ indeed, we are united in condemning it," the statement read. It added: "The decision to publish by Julian Assange was his, and his alone."
The media organizations' rejection is a further blow to WikiLeaks, whose site is under financial embargo and whose leader remains under virtual house arrest in an English country mansion pending extradition proceedings to Sweden on unrelated sexual assault allegations.
It's also a sign of the borderless online whistleblower's increasing estrangement from traditional media outlets. Assange and his supporters have long feuded with the Guardian and The New York Times, and in a recent statement the group noted that other Western media organizations had "slowed their rate of publishing" stories derived from the cables.
As a result, the anti-secrecy site said it would increasingly turn to "crowdsourcing" _ that is, relying on Internet users to sift through its leaked documents and flag important material.
It's a relatively new tactic for the group, which has in the past relied on mainstream partners to organize and promote its spectacular leaks of classified information _ including hundreds of thousands of U.S. intelligence documents detailing the course of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
WikiLeaks says the process is working, pointing to one document flagged by Twitter users who've already begun perusing the newly released files.
The cable, filed in 2006, carries an explosive allegation that U.S. forces entered a house during a 2006 raid in Iraq, handcuffed 10 members of the same family and executed them.
Although the U.N. letter in which the allegation was made was five years old, its publication put new pressure on the already strained negotiations over keeping U.S. forces in Iraq. Iraq's government said Friday that it is investigating, and some officials said the document is reason enough for the country to force the American military to leave instead of signing a deal allowing troops to stay beyond a year-end departure deadline.
"Crowdsourcing has proved to be a success," WikiLeaks said.
But amid the controversy over the unredacted cables, some supporters are keeping their distance. The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said Thursday that it had temporarily suspended its WikiLeaks "mirror site." Such sites act as carbon-copies of their originals, relieving pressure due to heavy traffic and preserving data in case of attack.
In a statement, Reporters said it had "neither the technical, human or financial resources to check each cable" for information that could harm innocent people and thus "has to play safe."
Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.
Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael