WASHINGTON — A low-ranking Army soldier suspected of leaking thousands of classified documents had access to the documents because U.S. officials have pressed to make sure secret information is available to combat units.
That idea is now being reconsidered in the wake of the Internet publication of thousands of documents by WikiLeaks, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
Gates declined to say that Pfc. Bradley Manning is the primary suspect in the leaking of the documents to the website. But he said the incident has Pentagon officials reassessing a program begun after the 1991 Gulf War aimed at making sure combat units have access to the latest intelligence available.
"One of the lessons learned from the first Gulf War in 1991 was how little useful intelligence information was being received by battalion and company commanders in the field," Gates recalled, "and so there has been an effort over the last 15 or so years . . . to push as much information as far forward as possible, which means putting it in a secret channel that almost everybody has access to."
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accelerated that effort, Gates said, granting secret security clearances to hundreds of people who previously wouldn't have had them.
Now, as a result of the WikiLeaks publication, that policy will need to be reassessed. "Should we change the way we approach that, or do we continue to take the risk?" Gates said.
Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they'd asked the FBI to help investigate the leaks.
Mullen said the release of the documents — could endanger informants named in those documents, Mullen said.
Addressing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has defended his decision to publish the classified documents, Mullen said: "Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family."
"The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world," Gates said.
So far, WikiLeaks has made public about 75,000 documents. Another 15,000 or so have yet to be released.
Manning, 22, worked in the intelligence operations of the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade in Baghdad and is already charged with taking classified data in connection with the leak to WikiLeaks of a video taken from U.S. combat helicopters.
Before his arrest, Manning allegedly told a computer hacker he'd contacted online that he also took hundreds of thousands of reports, diplomatic cables and videos and gave them to WikiLeaks.
He reportedly said he downloaded the material while humming Lady GaGa's "Telephone" so colleagues would think he was listening to music.
Manning is currently being held in Kuwait.
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