Transcript: State Dept. probes Wikileaks source

Play by play of Monday's briefing with State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, who says there is an "ongoing investigation" into who has provided sensitive material to Wikileaks.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
10 min read
Philip Crowley, State Department assistant secretary and spokesman. U.S. Department of State

The U.S. State Department on Monday said investigators were trying to uncover the source who provided Wikileaks with tens of thousands of classified military dispatches from Afghanistan.

Philip Crowley, assistant secretary for public affairs, said there is an ongoing criminal investigation, but provided few additional details

"We have not identified a particular--a single source or a particular source for this leak. There is an ongoing investigation, as you are aware, and so we're trying to determine if this is related to that ongoing investigation or a new--a new leak," Crowley told reporters during Monday's briefing.

For its part, Wikileaks editor Julian Assange said during an appearance in London on Monday that "there is no allegation as far as we can determine that this material is connected to Private Manning." Army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning, the serviceman who allegedly provided some sensitive information to Wikileaks, has been charged with unlawfully divulging classified information and could face a significant prison sentence.

The following is an edited transcript of Crowley's briefing with reporters on Monday, with portions not relating to Wikileaks removed.

For those interested in getting up early tomorrow, we will have a reporter's call with Assistant Secretary Carson at 9:00 a.m. via teleconference. We'll put out the details later on.

And finally, a story that you've been watching for the last, say, 24 hours, you know, the State Department joins the White House and DOD in condemning the disclosure of classified information by Wikileaks. The fact that these are in many cases documents that are several years old does not change our concern that this action risks our national security.

We continue to work in partnership with Afghanistan and Pakistan to deny al-Qaeda any safe haven and to defeat terrorists and insurgents who threaten each of our countries, the region, and beyond.

We will not comment on any particular classified document, but the coverage today raised a number of questions. Most of the questions involve military activities directly, and I will defer to our colleagues at DOD to address questions which are well known and already incorporated into the revised strategy that the president approved in December.

And, of course, as a result of the intensive three-month review, we have committed additional resources to both the military and civilian components of our strategy. Here on the civilian side, we have committed to helping increase the capacity of both the Afghan and Pakistan governments to confront violent extremism and gain the trust and confidence of their respective populations.


With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Yes, you said it undermines national security, the massive leak of these field reports. Does it undermine also the international alliance, in particular the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan? The reports did mention ISI involvement in killing of Afghan leaders.

Crowley: Well, I don't--I don't think so. You know, obviously, during this past week, you saw an historic trade transit agreement with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. You know, I mean, there is a history between these countries...but we think both countries have made a fundamental decision to change their relations with the United States and also their relations with each other.

But clearly there is more work to be done, as we continue to find ways on both sides of the border to help each country, you know, defeat the insurgency that threatens them both.

Q: What kind of diplomatic conversations have gone on since the leaks between, say, the U.S. and Afghanistan and Pakistan and other partners?

Crowley: Well, over the weekend, as we have been contacted by media representatives and anticipated this story coming out at high levels, we gave an alert to President Karzai, to President Zardari, and to the other ministries on both sides so they would understand that...and anticipate the release of these documents.

Obviously, from our standpoint, we continue to investigate the source of this leak and also to assess the impact that it's had on our security.

Q: You said investigate the source of the leak. Is there any indication it could be, say, not the United States that leaked it, but somebody else?

Crowley: Well, you know, we will learn something from the documents that we've seen in on the Wikileaks Web site. We have not identified a single source or a particular source for this leak. There is an ongoing investigation, as you are aware, and so we're trying to determine if this is related to that ongoing investigation or a new leak.

Go ahead.

Q: P.J., can you talk about the effect this is having on other members of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan? One of the documents reveals a Polish massacre of villagers. Have you had any reaction from our allies saying they are upset with this and want to know where it all came from, what it's about?

Crowley: Well, obviously, we'll be watching closely to see how, you know, various countries and populations respond to the information that's here. As the media reports themselves indicate, at one level, there may be...more granularity to events on the ground. But by the same token, the media acknowledged that there's no grand new revelations that weren't well understood.

Most of these documents are several years old and may well reflect situations and conditions and circumstances that have either been corrected already or are in the process of being corrected.

Some of the documents talked about a conflict that was under-resourced, and that was a fundamental element of the strategy review, the review overseen by the president. And, in fact, as you've seen, not only the United States, but others have increased resources and commitments in to Afghanistan based on this strategic review.

Go ahead.

Q: Yes, to follow that up, the State Department has a responsibility for public diplomacy and getting public opinion behind U.S. government policy, particularly abroad. How do you think this has affected that? Have you had any indications? Are there any new diplomatic, public diplomacy offensives you're going to undertake to deal with the damage of this?

Crowley: Well, I mean, public support is fundamental to this campaign. We've worked hard to sustain public support, you know, because the mission in Afghanistan and next door in Pakistan is significant, not only to our security, but to the region and others, including in Europe.

Obviously, the revelations are now, what, 16, 18 hours (old)? So it's hard at this point to say what impact it's going to have. This is something that we'll be watching carefully and working with NATO and other troop-contributing countries. We'll try to do our best to explain what these documents mean.

But, again, I think that while they individually might create a snapshot of what might have been the case in 2005 and 2006 and 2007, we think that we have put in place over the past several months a strong foundation of working with Pakistan, working with Afghanistan, and the situation that we confront today is different than the one we confronted two, three, four years ago.

Go ahead.

Q: As part of the investigation into the source of the leaks is concerned, P.J., what sort of access would the diplomatic community have to these documents? And do you think that there is any diplomatic fingerprints on any of these?

Crowley: I'm not sure what you mean by diplomatic fingerprints.

Q: Because they seem--they're characterized predominantly as military documents, but is there any scenario where the State Department and its staff might have access to these documents and, therefore, could be part of the investigation as to who the source is or sources?

Crowley: Well, that's hard to say. Going back to the revelations of a few weeks ago, it was suggested that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of documents, you know, might have been compromised, including a wide number of State Department cables.

We--when we generate a cable, we distribute it widely throughout the government, including within the military...and depending on the origins of a particular document, you know, those could make their way into broader diplomatic channels.

So this is all part of an investigation. You know, so we can't say at this point whether this is part and parcel of something that we're already aware of or if this is, you know, something that's new. That will be something that we're already looking into.


Q: So, essentially, P.J., you're saying this--all these leaks refer to Bush's war and it's got nothing to do with Obama? I mean, this is--you're saying it's old, everybody's changed their ways, we don't have to worry about...


Crowley: Well, I'm simply going by what Wikileaks itself has indicated, that the window for these documents, if I recall, is 2005 to 2009. You'll recall that we fundamentally changed our strategy with the president's decision in December of last year, and we are putting in place a different strategy, more resources, a more concerted effort on the civilian side to go with the military side.

This is not to say that there weren't adjustments being made beforehand. To the extent that some of these documents obviously highlight concerns that we have had for some time about the impact of civilian casualties on the Afghan population, that is something that the military and General McChrystal had recognized going back months and had made fundamental change in the instructions that the military gave to its troops.

So, we believe that, notwithstanding documents that point to understandings or facts or field reports from 2006 to 2007, we think that, based on the Kabul conference and London conference and other interactions that we've had over the past months with the Afghan government, the new strategic dialogue that we have with Pakistan, they both understand and see the value in their relationship with the United States, the importance of the international support that they are receiving on both sides of the border, and there is just a new dynamic. Now, this isn't to say that every issue that we've seen, every problem that we've seen, every challenge that we've seen are solved. Not at all. There's a lot of work that we have to do. But we think that the situation today is dramatically different than that portrayed in a variety of these documents that have been released so far.

Q: You just said that this is all until 2009. And in the--yesterday, there had been claims that there are--that means war crimes can be brought against these--from these cases. So do you expect war crime cases against the previous administration to come up?

Crowley: I'm not sure I understand the question.

Q: The war crimes cases--will they come up, based on these documents, against the previous administration?

Crowley: I don't think there's any basis based on the information in these documents. And, again, remember, in many cases, these are field reports. This is information that is uncorroborated. But I don't see war crimes being portrayed in any of these documents.

Q: When you're talking about discussions between President Karzai and Zardari and officials here, you say--can you tell us who informed them and, you know, what did they say about the allegations? And was there any discussion about the ISI specifically?

Crowley: Our ambassadors, Anne Patterson, Karl Eikenberry, were involved in the notifications, as was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, who I believe on Saturday night had a high-level meeting with Pakistani officials, as well.

Q: Sorry...

Crowley: And I'm sure there were others, you know, but we have had direct conversations with key leaders to help them--to warn them that these stories and these documents would be emerging.

Q: Why did you think it necessary to warn them that these stories would be emerging if these stories reflect a state of affairs before the Obama administration announced its new strategy? Why use the word "warning" and "alert"?

Crowley: Well, we wanted to make sure they understood the context under which these documents would be released, that this was the result of a leak of classified documents, not sanctioned, authorized by the--by the United States government, in fact, to help them understand that this represents a crime and that we are investigating it.

Q: P.J., do you think that those meetings mitigated any damage to the relationship that may have been done? Or does there need to be more follow-up? You know, there were reports of angry officials over there questioning whether we can maintain secrecy when needed.

Crowley: Well, we'll see. I mean, some cases, these documents hit in the region, once, the morning papers had already been published, I think there probably has been some reporting in broadcast media throughout the day, but the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan will do exactly what people in the United States and other countries are doing, digest these documents, and then put them in context.

But overall, these documents highlight issues which we've long known about and, in fact, that we've incorporated into our revised strategy. So are we concerned about the impact that military operations are having on the ground in Afghanistan? Absolutely. And we've adapted our approach to military operations as a result.

Are we worried about corruption on the Afghan side of the ledger? It was a significant issue that has been discussed in every high-level meeting between the United States and our Afghan partners going back, many, many months, likewise how we've been concerned in our discussions with Pakistan about lingering links between Pakistani elements and these insurgencies, absolutely.

We've had those kinds of frank, candid, but respectful conversations, again, going back, months and years. But we believe strongly that this is true partnership on both sides of the border, and we are there because we confront a challenge and a threat that is of concern to our all of our countries, as well as the region as a whole.

Q: Has there been some diplomatic outreach to India? Or are there any plans to?

Crowley: We also gave a heads-up to India.

Q: Is part of that about trying to protect sources? Are you talking to some of these countries about some of the people who might be exposed by this?

Crowley: Well, in the unauthorized release of classified information, you know, sources and methods is always a concern. In many cases, we obtained information from sources, a variety of sources, and the revelation of those sources puts those people and these operations at risk.

And, notwithstanding, at least declarations by the outlets that reported these stories today, that they had scrubbed these documents to try to protect sources, this is one of the reasons why--a fundamental reason why classified information needs to remain classified and protected.