There can be few more incongruous settings in which to unveil documents itemising the squalid deaths of innocent Iraqi people than against the deep-pile carpets of the Park Plaza Riverbank Hotel in London. But here it was that the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, held a press conference yesterday morning.
At about 10.15am, 15 minutes later than planned, he finally entered a room packed with some 200 journalists from around the world. There was silence, the only sound the whirring and clicking of cameras as the 39-year-old was surrounded by a crowd of more than 30 photographers and television crews in what amounted to a paparazzi-style scrum usually afforded to a Hollywood celebrity.
The continued success of WikiLeaks in bringing secret documents into the public domain has seen Mr Assange's stock rise. He has gone from a little-known computer hacker turned campaigner to a minor celebrity and pin-up boy of conspiracy theorists. Citing the phrase "the first casualty of war is truth", he pledged: "We hope to correct some of the attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war and which has continued on since the war officially concluded."
But the WikiLeaks founder, who is said to have been "in hiding" in London and has failed to attend a police interview in Sweden, where he is being investigated over an alleged rape, looked tired. Pale and thin, he struggled to raise a smile and looked more like an anorexic Michael Gove than a fearless freedom campaigner. But it is to him (and his supplier inside the US military machine) that we owe the release yesterday of nearly 400,000 documents making plain the appalling cost of the war launched by George W Bush and his sidekick Tony Blair.
Mr Assange was closely guarded by a team of media minders who accompanied him everywhere. And the website that he founded appeared unable to keep up with demand yesterday, as it repeatedly crashed – thwarting the efforts of people wanting to dig through the thousands of documents now online. But the vagaries of web servers are the least of his problems. He is under attack from the US government over his decision to release the Iraq files into the public domain.
Speaking in Washington, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said she condemned the disclosure of any classified information that threatened national security, or put at risk the lives of coalition forces or civilians.
The disclosure of the documents has been described as "shameful" and something that could "undermine our nation's security", according to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. He added that several hundred Iraqis mentioned in the documents are "particularly vulnerable to reprisal attacks".
Stung by the criticisms, Mr Assange fought back yesterday, accusing the Pentagon of trying to issue "deceptive statements to fool the press into reporting something that is just not true". And despite fears that the release of tens of thousands of Afghan war files earlier this year, complete with names of informants, would result in revenge attacks, there has yet to be a single death as a result of the revelations, WikiLeaks pointed out.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Mr Assange was ultimately responsible for how the Afghan files were released. And a great deal more care was taken this time around, with what the WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said was a "reverse approach to redaction ... at the outset everything was deemed harmful and redacted until deemed otherwise".
But yesterday the British Ministry of Defence again accused WikiLeaks of putting the lives of British soldiers at risk. A spokesman said: "We condemn any unauthorised release of classified material. This can put the lives of UK service personnel and those of our allies at risk and make the job of armed forces in all theatres of operation more difficult and more dangerous." Mr Assange dismissed the concerns, insisting yesterday that he had "strong confidence in the [reverse] redaction process".
And there is more to come. WikiLeaks announced yesterday that it intends publishing 15,000 additional secret Afghan war documents in the near future. There is no sign of Mr Assange stopping in his quest to reveal secret files. "We make a promise to our sources, who go through incredible risks sometimes to get us material, that we'll do justice to their efforts and get them the maximum political impact possible," he said.
Where are they now...
George W Bush
Ordered invasion two years after 9/11. Now retired to Dallas, Texas, he makes a living as a public speaker. About to publish his memoirs.
Former vice-president criticised for making a host of false statements before the war. Fortune, estimated at $30m-$100m, largely from former post at Halliburton.
Former defence secretary, managed Iraq invasion but resigned in 2006. Recently joined the conservative think-tank Hoover Institute. Former Kellogg Company director.
Former secretary of state now regrets his claim to the UN that "Saddam Hussein has biological weapons". Sits on corporate boards, including Revolution Health Group.
Bush's national security adviser and leading proponent of 2003 invasion. Has signed deal with William Morris Agency for book and lecture appearances.
L Paul Bremer
Essentially was governor of Iraq, in charge of overseeing rebuilding efforts. Now on board of security companies Global Secure Corp and BlastGard International.
Led the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He is now on the boards of Chuck E Cheese's, OSI Restaurant Partners and the National Park Foundation.
Tenet was responsible for gathering pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Released memoir in 2007. Teaches at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service now.
Former deputy secretary of defence said US would be greeted as liberators. Head of the World Bank 2005-2007. Visiting scholar at American Enterprise Institute.
Commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Then given overall control in that country, and, subsequently, in Afghanistan. Famous for troop surges.
Supervised Pentagon Office of Special Plans which drew up documents on supposed ties between Saddam and al-Qa'ida. Released his memoirs in 2008.
Cheney's chief of staff pressured CIA to report Iraq had WMD and links to al-Qa'ida. Jail sentence over the case involving Valerie Plame was later commuted by Bush.
His team found no WMD, which irked the Bush administration. Published book in 2004. Now head of advisory board on nuclear power to the United Arab Emirates.
UK foreign secretary at time of invasion. Straw told Iraq Inquiry it was "the most difficult decision" of his life. Now a backbencher, working on his memoirs.
Defence secretary at time of invasion. Later he was suspended from PLP over "cash for influence" scandal. Founded the consultancy firm TaylorHoon Strategy.
Ray-Ban-wearing, cigar-chomping officer known for eve-of-battle speech in 2003. Since critical of Iraq war. Now CEO and founder of specialist security company.
Former British PM strongly backed Bush's "war on terror". Earns up to £160,000 for a 90-minute speech. Is said to earn more than £7m annually.
Clashed with Rumsfeld over troop numbers, saying several hundred thousand would be needed. Was appointed secretary of veterans' affairs in 2009.
The special assistant to State Department advocated air strikes against Iraq in 2001. In 2007, set up own consultancy, and is connected to pro-Israeli think-tanks.
Claimed rebuilding of Iraq would cost $1.7bn. Now distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
"We condemn any unauthorised release of classified material. We will investigate any allegation made against our troops."
Ministry of Defence statement
Spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki: "There are some political interests who are trying to use the documents against national leaders."
Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary: "We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and cavalierly share that with the world."
Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers: "It's wrong to assume that as these are US logs they have nothing to do with the UK."
Maysoon al-Damlouji, spokeswoman for Sunni-backed al-Iraqiya alliance: "Putting all the security powers in the hands of one person who is the general commander of the armed forces has led to these abuses."
UN's chief investigator on torture, Manfred Nowak: "There is an obligation to investigate whenever there are credible allegations that torture has happened – and these allegations are more than credible."
John Sloboda, Iraq Body Count: "The new deaths are concentrated in small incidents, occurring almost every day for the whole period."
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State: "We should condemn the disclosure of any classified information which puts the lives of United States and partner service members and civilians at risk."Reuse content