The US government has scrambled to protect relations with the Pakistan and Afghan governments after the unauthorised release of 91,000 documents sourced from the US Army by whistleblower website WikiLeaks. The leak is the largest of its kind in recorded history, easily beating the 4100 hand-photocopied Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War.

The Obama Administration’s first response was to call the release a “real and potential threat to those who are working hard every day to keep us safe”. As the story developed, paid White House advisers have come forward to cast doubt on the accuracy of the Army’s own reports or describe them as old news.

Despite the conflicting rebuttals, no official has yet directly denied the authenticity of the documents dated 2004-09, which include greater civilian deaths than previously reported and contents of Pakistan intelligence (ISI) activities.

The White House also moved to scuttle suggestions the revelations of ineffective drone attacks on the Taliban showed the current strategy wasn’t working, saying the reports cover a period before the latest “surge” strategy.

For its part, WikiLeaks stressed that it had acted with restraint. Australian-born founder Julian Assange said the release did not include top secret reports, CIA papers, or reports from special forces. “However, they do include the majority of regular USwiki Army activity,” he said.

The Australian relevances are minimal, containing routine US records of Australian troop logistics and wounded in joint operations. It also includes US diplomatic cables that reference Australia’s decision to send more troops. An Australian official in Washington who was not authorised to speak told Crikey the real fuss was the unprecedented size of the security breach, not its content. He did not expect the government to make any statement on the matter.

However, a further 15,000 documents believed to contain more controversial revelations were being reviewed and may be released at a later date, Assange said.

This comes just days after as the US government’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrook said that “links between the ISI and the Taliban are a problem”. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the region this month and called for India to improve relations with Pakistan, something the US itself will struggle with following yesterday’s document leaks.

These developments have also put at risk another volatile relationship the White House struggles to maintain: between it and the US media.

A traditionally docile White House press corps has been increasingly agitated at the lack of free flow of routine and public interest information from the administration that promised more freedom of information and OpenGov initiatives.

Assange chose to make his statements from an undisclosed location in London, defending the act as a new model of “scientific journalism” that utilises the power of crowd-sourcing. Wise to the power of the press through, he chose to leak the pages to the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel well in advance, allowing their credibility to add to the story.

In doing so he risks similar criminal charges as Bradley Manning, who faces court martial and up to 50 years in US federal prison for allegedly leaking the earlier Apache footage of journalists killed by US forces in Afghanistan, dubbed “collateral murder” by WikiLeaks. Manning has not been tied to this latest leak.

The White House after months of criticising Fox News for reporting false information is now criticising the New York Times for reporting ostensibly accurate information. Candidate Obama once took the US media to task for not challenging the presentation of war facts is now calling it irresponsible for doing so.

However, the administration is currently busy investigating leaks closer to home, with the press corps reporting divisions within the Administration over decision-making. One official told The Atlantic: “Sometimes you can try so hard to protect the President that you don’t end up serving his interests. Blind loyalty isn’t a good thing.”

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off