Wikileaks files 'may reveal thousands of war crimes'
The Afghanistan files released by WikiLeaks could contain details of "thousands" of potential war crimes, the founder of the whistleblowers' website said today.
Julian Assange told reporters at a press conference at the Frontline Club in central London: "It is up to a court to decide clearly whether something is in the end a crime.
"That said, on the face of it, there does appear to be evidence of war crimes in this material."
According to Mr Assange, the documents provided the "raw ingredients" that lead to statistics about matters such as civilian deaths in war.
He said he hoped information in the files would be investigated and exposed as a deterrent to future "human rights abuses" and to create an "incentive" for policy change.
"We would like to see the revelations that this material gives to be taken seriously, investigated by governments and new policies put in place as a result, if not prosecutions of those people who have committed abuses," Mr Assange said.
"It's important to understand this material does not just reveal abuses.
"This material describes the past six years of the war."
He described the role of WikiLeaks as directly accountable to the "court of public opinion" with no commercial interests and revealed one million dollars had been donated by the public.
"We have a promise to whistleblowers that come to us, that's our role as an international public service, that provided they meet some very simple criteria, like a lawyer we will represent them fairly to the court, in our case the court of public opinion," Mr Assange said.
"This submission met that criteria and therefore we were tasked to keep our promise of getting maximum impact for it."
Mr Assange defended his decision to publish the secret US military files.
He said it was clear that the course of the conflict needed to change, and that the newly released records would help to shape understanding of the past six years of fighting.
He also claimed that the high level of civilian casualties reported in the files was in fact lower than the true figure because military personnel "downplayed" the number or reported them as insurgent deaths.
Mr Assange brushed off the US administration's criticism of the major leak.
"We are familiar with groups whose abuse we expose attempting to criticise the messenger to distract from the power of the message," he said.
"We don't see any difference in the White House's response to this case to the other groups that we have exposed.
"We have tried hard to make sure that this material does not put innocents at harm.
"All the material is over seven months old so is of no current operational consequence, even though it may be of very significant investigative consequence."
Mr Assange added: "It's clear that it will shape an understanding of what the past six years of war has been like, and that the course of the war needs to change.
"The manner in which it needs to change is not yet clear."
He said the files were not about one single horrific event but the bigger picture of the conflict, now into its ninth year.
"The real story of this material is that it is war, it's one damn thing after another," he said.
"It's the continuous small events, the continuous deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces, the millions of people."
Mr Assange said WikiLeaks had "no reason" to doubt the reliability of the files, but cautioned that they presented only a partial picture.
He said: "You will find that the US military units when self-reporting of course often speak in self-exculpatory language, redefine civilian casualties as insurgent casualties, downplay the number of casualties.
"And we know this by comparing these reports to the public record for where there has been comprehensive investigation."
Mr Assange revealed he had spent time in London collaborating with the Guardian as well as a German and US newspaper to examine the documents in the lead-up to publication.
In choosing to speak publicly in Britain, he said he did not believe the Government would take any action against him, adding: "On the one hand, as we all know, the UK is a surveillance state.
"On the other hand we do have extensive political journalistic and community support in this country."
He also told the media during the two-hour press conference that a "backlog" of whistleblowing material had built up during a "publishing hiatus" which has been in place at WikiLeaks since December to allow the team behind the site to carry out work to enable it to cope with the level of submissions it receives.
He said he hoped and expected more information would emerge as a result of the publicity.
"Courage is contagious," he said.
Mr Assange repeated that he had considered and ruled out the risk of harm to troops as a result of the information in the files and argued that the exposure of abuses, and any reaction by Afghans, should serve as a deterrent for the military.
He said: "The revelation of abuse by the US and coalition forces may cause Afghans to be upset, and rightly so.
"If governments don't like populations being upset, they should treat them better, not conceal abuses that have been undertaken."
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