WASHINGTON, (AFP) – The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks was reportedly hours away from releasing millions of confidential US diplomatic cables Sunday, with several governments fearing damaging revelations.
Top US officials have raced to contain the damage in recent days by warning foreign ministries in more than a dozen countries, including key allies Australia, Britain, Canada, Israel and Turkey.
But Washington late Saturday rejected talks with WikiLeaks, saying the website was holding them in violation of US law.
In a letter to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his attorney that was released to the media, the US State Department also said the planned leak would endanger the lives of “countless innocent individuals.”
“We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained US government classified materials,” State Department legal adviser Harold Koh wrote.
US officials said this was in response to a letter Assange had sent to the State Department on Friday, in which he had tried to address US concerns that the planned release of classified documents placed individual persons at risk.
In his letter, Assange said he wanted information regarding individuals who might be “at significant risk of harm” because of WikiLeaks’s actions, the officials said.
It was not immediately clear what other offers, if any, Assange’s letter contained.
An independent French website owni.fr reported that the leaks would be published simultaneously at 2130 GMT Sunday by several Western newspapers.
The website previously launched an interface allowing the public to search the Iraq war logs published by WikiLeaks in October.
It said the New York Times, Britain’s The Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, Spain’s El Pais and France’s Le Monde would release their first analysis of the documents late Sunday, with leaks expected to trickle out before then.
The website said Der Spiegel had published the number of documents online Saturday for a few minutes before removing them, saying the release would include 251,287 diplomatic cables, including 16,652 marked “secret.”
WikiLeaks has not specified the documents’ contents or when they would be put online, but a Pentagon spokesman said officials were expecting a release early this week.
The website has said there would be “seven times” as many secret documents as the 400,000 Iraq war logs released last month.
The top US military commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, urged WikiLeaks to stop its “extremely dangerous” release of documents, according to a transcript of a CNN interview set to air Sunday.
In London, the government has urged British newspaper editors to “bear in mind” the national security implications of publishing any of the files.
British officials said some information might be subject to voluntary agreements between the government and the media to withhold sensitive data governing military operations and the intelligence services.
Russia’s respected Kommersant newspaper has said the documents included US diplomats’ conversations with Russian politicians and “unflattering” assessments of some of them.
Turkish media said they included papers suggesting that Ankara helped Al-Qaeda militants in Iraq and that the United States helped Iraq-based Kurdish rebels fighting against Turkey — potentially explosive revelations for the two allies.
Australia on Saturday condemned the whistle-blower website, saying the “reckless” disclosure could endanger individuals named in the documents as well as the national security interests of the United States and its allies.
US officials have not confirmed the source of the leaked documents, but suspicion has fallen on Bradley Manning, a former army intelligence agent.
He was arrested after the earlier release of a video showing air strikes that killed civilian reporters in Baghdad.
Wired magazine said Manning confessed to the leaks during a webchat in May. He was quoted as saying he had acted out of idealism after watching Iraqi police detain men for distributing a “scholarly critique” against corruption.
WikiLeaks argues that the first two document dumps — US military incident reports from 2004 to 2009 — shed light on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They included allegations of torture by Iraqi forces and reports that suggested 15,000 additional civilian deaths in Iraq.
Sweden recently issued an international warrant for Assange’s arrest, saying he is wanted for questioning over allegations of rape and sexual molestation.