WASHINGTON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks is at least morally guilty over the release of classified U.S. documents on the Afghan war, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday, as investigators broaden their probe of the leak.
The whistle-blowing website published tens of thousands of war records a week ago, a move the Pentagon has said could cost lives and damage the trust of allies by exposing U.S. intelligence gathering methods and names of Afghan contacts.
Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, appeared on television talk shows renewing those concerns amid fears WikiLeaks may publish more documents.
“My attitude on this is that there are two areas of culpability. One is legal culpability. And that’s up to the Justice Department and others — that’s not my arena,” Gates told the ABC News show “This Week with Christiane Amanpour.”
“But there’s also a moral culpability. And that’s where I think the verdict is ‘guilty’ on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.”
The release of the classified documents has fanned doubts about President Barack Obama’s strategy to turn the tide in the unpopular war. July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the conflict started in 2001.
Mullen, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” called the leak “unprecedented” in its scope and volume.
The U.S. investigation is focusing on Bradley Manning, who worked as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, U.S. officials say. Manning is already under arrest and charged with leaking a classified video showing a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.
Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to authorities this year after receiving what appeared to be incriminating messages from him, told Reuters he believed U.S. investigators were also looking at people close to Manning with ties to WikiLeaks.
Lamo said in a telephone interview he told investigators he believed Manning would have needed outside help.
“I didn’t believe he had the technological ... expertise to pull this off by himself,” Lamo said.
U.S. officials declined to comment on the investigation. Gates said last week he had brought in the FBI so the probe could go “wherever it needs to go.”
Manning, being held at a detention facility at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, has not been officially named as a suspect in the latest leak.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said his group held back 15,000 papers to protect innocent people from harm and was reviewing them at the rate of about 1,000 a day. In an interview with the BBC last week, he did not say if and when they would be published.
The group’s stated aim is to expose government and corporate corruption. Assange has accused Gates of attacking WikiLeaks to distract attention from civilian killings and other bloodshed in the Afghan conflict.
Gates voiced frustration at critics who say the United States lacks a plan to win the war, despite Obama’s lengthy review last year which ended with a December decision to deploy an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
“I think that the president’s strategy is really quite clear,” Gates said. “I hear all the stories that say what’s the strategy, what’s the goal here?”
The objective, Gates said, was to reverse the momentum of Taliban insurgents, deny them access to towns and cities and ramp up Afghan security forces so they can defend themselves and prevent al Qaeda from returning to the country.
Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the release of the documents had not caused any revelations that would affect the war strategy. U.S. officials have portrayed them as a collection of outdated, ground-level reports that lack analysis or perspective.
One of the documents released by WikiLeaks raised concerns the Taliban might have surface-to-air Stinger missiles to shoot down U.S. aircraft.
Asked whether the Taliban had any Stinger missiles, Gates said: “I don’t think so.”
The leaked documents also threw an uncomfortable spotlight on links between Pakistan’s spy agency and insurgents who oppose U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
Gates said links to insurgents was a concern but he and Mullen voiced support for recent moves by Islamabad and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency.
“What I see is a change in the strategic calculus in Pakistan,” Gates said.
Editing by John O'Callaghan