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U.S. says WikiLeaks release would endanger lives

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The State Department has warned the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks that its expected release of classified U.S. documents would endanger countless lives, jeopardize American military operations and hurt international cooperation on global security issues.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange holds up a copy of a newspaper during a press conference at the Frontline Club in central London, July 26, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Winning/Files

The department’s top lawyer urged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a letter on Saturday to keep classified documents off the website, remove records of them from its database and return any material to the U.S. government.

Lawyer Harold Koh said the department has learned that WikiLeaks provided 250,000 documents to The New York Times, The Guardian of Britain and German magazine Der Spiegel.

Some media reported the news outlets may post stories on the documents as early as Sunday and said they have also been given to newspapers Le Monde in France and El Pais in Spain.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks tweeted on Sunday: “We are currently under a mass-distributed denial of service attack.” The posting implies one or more parties were trying to jam its website but details were not available.

The U.S. government, which was informed in advance of the contents, has contacted governments around the world, including in Russia, Europe and the Middle East, to try to limit any damage. Sources familiar with the documents say they include corruption allegations against foreign leaders and governments.

Koh wrote that publication of the documents would “place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals” as well as military initiatives and cooperation between countries to confront problems from terrorism to pandemic disease.

The lawyer also rejected what he said was Assange’s request for more information about individuals who might be at risk.

“We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained U.S. Government classified materials,” Koh wrote.

Past releases by WikiLeaks, founded by Assange, an Australian-born computer hacker, contained sensitive information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the United States had said compromised national security and put some people at risk.

DOCUMENT FALLOUT ANTICIPATED

Anticipating the fallout from the latest publication, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy wrote a letter to the German Sunday weekly Bild am Sonntag that the WikiLeaks revelations would be an embarrassment.

“Regrettably we will soon have something new to see: alleged confidential diplomatic messages from U.S. embassies around the world, including mine. It’s hard to say what effect it will have, but it will at the very least be uncomfortable -- for my government, for those mentioned in the reports, and for me personally as American Ambassador to Germany.”

The newspaper reported that some German politicians were severely judged in the reports.

Italy’s foreign minister urged Italian prosecutors to investigate the website. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he did not know the content of the files, but warned it would “blow up the relationship of trust between states,” according to Italian news agencies.

“It will be the September 11th of world diplomacy,” he said on Sunday.

On Friday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey told reporters he was worried about the documents coming out.

“WikiLeaks are an absolutely awful impediment to my business, which is to be able to have discussions in confidence with people,” he said.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeated Pentagon concerns over loss of life from the leaks on Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

In October, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 classified U.S. military files chronicling the Iraq war.

In a Twitter message last week, WikiLeaks said its forthcoming document release would be seven times larger than the Iraq war cache. A person familiar with the documents said that comparison was based on the total number of words.

Additional reporting by Brian Rohan in Berlin, Jim Loney in Baghdad, Silvia Aloisi in rome and Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Philip Barbara

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