WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned that the leak of tens of thousands of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan could have potentially dangerous consequences for U.S. forces and their allies in the war.
"The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies, and Afghan partners," Gates told reporters at a Pentagon press conference, "and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world."
Gates said the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, which published the reports, had effectively handed enemies of the United States information about U.S. military tactics and techniques.
Gates also said the United States is moving swiftly to prevent another breach by tightening procedures surrounding classified information on the battlefield. The incident has complicated the need to give front-line troops critical information they need but also to limit the number of people with access to classified secrets, he said.
The defense secretary also said the United States has a "moral responsibility" to protect anyone who may now be at risk because of information revealed in the reports.
"We have a moral responsibility to do everything possible to mitigate the consequences for our troops and our partners downrange, especially those who have worked with and put their trust in us in the past who now may be targeted for retribution," Gates said.
"The New York Times" -- which is one of three media organizations that received and published the classified material -- reported that a random search of the documents it received from WikiLeaks turned up "the names or other identifying features of dozens of Afghan informants, potential defectors and others who were cooperating with American and NATO troops."
Like the other two publications that received documents from WikiLeaks -- Britain's "The Guardian" and Germany's "Der Spiegel" -- "The New York Times" did not publish names or identifying information of people who might be compromised by the reports.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called the disclosure of names of Afghans who helped NATO and U.S. forces "extremely irresponsible and shocking."
On July 28, the Pentagon launched what it called an "aggressive" hunt for the person, or people, who gave the classified information to WikiLeaks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been called in to assist with the criminal investigation.
Speaking alongside Gates at the Pentagon news conference, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen called the release of the leaked reports "reckless."
"I am appalled by this behavior and, frankly, outraged that anyone in their right mind would think it valuable to make it public even one sensitive report, let alone tens of thousands of them, about a war that is being waged," Mullen said.
Julian Assange, the man behind the WikiLeaks website, has said his organization didn't release thousands of documents so that the names of informants could be removed before publication. He has said the organization takes "very seriously" the possibility that Afghans could be killed as a result of the leak.
Mullen suggested that expression of concern rings hollow.
"Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier, or that of an Afghan family," Mullen said.
written by Heather Maher; with additional agency reports