WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration scrambled on Monday to manage the explosive leak of secret military records that paint a grim picture of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and raise new doubts about key ally Pakistan.
The release of some 91,000 classified documents is likely to fuel uncertainty in the Congress about the unpopular war as President Barack Obama sends 30,000 more soldiers into the battle to break the Taliban insurgency.
The documents, made public by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, detail allegations that U.S. forces sought to cover up civilian deaths as well as U.S. concern that Pakistan secretly aided Taliban militants even as it took billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
The White House condemned the leak, saying it could threaten national security and endanger American lives. The Pentagon called the release a “criminal act” and said it was reviewing the documents to determine the potential damage to U.S. and coalition troops.
“It poses a very real and potential threat to those who are working every day to keep us safe,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
The leaked documents, a collection of field intelligence and threat reports from before Obama ordered the troop surge in December, illustrate the Pentagon’s own bleak assessment of the war amid deteriorating security and a strengthening Taliban.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, told a news conference in London on Monday his group has held back 15,000 of the documents as it decides whether their publication has security implications.
The documents show evidence of potential war crimes, Assange said. But U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said he saw nothing in the material to back up such charges.
The leak came as the Taliban said they were holding one of two U.S. servicemen who strayed into insurgent territory and that the other had been killed. The reported capture could further erode public support for the war in the United States ahead of congressional elections in November.
U.S. officials said the leaked information was uncorroborated and outdated and they stressed that U.S. ties with Pakistan and Afghanistan were on a “positive trajectory.”
“Most of these documents are several years old and may well reflect situations and conditions and circumstances that have either been corrected already or are in the process of being corrected,” Crowley said.
But some analysts said the revelations could be damaging as the White House seeks to maintain public support for the war while setting the stage to start withdrawing U.S. troops by Obama’s target date of July 2011.
“No democratic government can function effectively on a stage in which every private conversation and classified document is second-guessed by a peanut gallery of unqualified loudmouths,” said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.
Pakistan, which came in for particular scrutiny in the archive, said leaking unprocessed reports from the battlefield was irresponsible, while a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the documents underscored concerns about Pakistan’s involvement in his country and the civilian death toll.
The documents suggest representatives from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy service met directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize militant networks fighting U.S. soldiers.
Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said suggestions that even rogue elements of the ISI were seeking to confound the U.S. war effort were troubling.
“That would be very disturbing if they were participating in strategies to fight U.S. soldiers. It would be unacceptable,” Sessions told reporters.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit dismissed the reports as “far-fetched and skewed.”
Along with doubts about Pakistan, the documents said coalition troops have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians in unreported incidents and often sought to cover up the mistakes that have shaken confidence in the war effort among many in Afghanistan.
At least 45 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed in a rocket attack by the NATO-led force last week during fighting with Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Helmand, Afghan government spokesman Waheed Omer said.
But Omer said there have been reductions in civilian deaths over the past year and a half and there was a common understanding about the negative impact such incidents have.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since the war began nearly nine years ago as thousands of extra U.S. troops crank up a campaign to oust insurgents from their heartland in the south.
Last month was the deadliest for foreign troops since 2001, with more than 100 killed, and civilian deaths have also risen as Afghans are increasingly caught in the cross-fire.
The rising violence comes as the House of Representatives prepares to take up legislation this week on funding the Afghan war, which could see more public doubts aired about a conflict driving deep rifts in Obama’s Democratic Party.
“At a time of pressing domestic needs, American citizens are understandably questioning the human and financial cost of this war,” said Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, who last month temporarily froze more than $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan due to persistent reports of corruption.
Under the heading “Afghan War Diary,” the 91,000 documents collected from across the U.S. military in Afghanistan cover the war from 2004 to 2010, WikiLeaks said in a summary.
The documents were provided first to The New York Times, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and the German weekly Der Spiegel.
In Washington, much of the concern focused on the breach of security represented by the leak.
“The damage to our national security caused by leaks like this won’t stop until we see more perpetrators in orange (prison) jumpsuits,” said Kit Bond, the Republican vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Adam Entous in Washington and Chris Allbritton in Islamabad; Writing by David Fox and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Patricia Wilson and John O'Callaghan