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Leaked reports describe Afghan war, sometimes in mundane detail

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WikiLeaks: 'Just scratched the surface'
  • NEW: High body counts, no prisoners raise suspicions of war crimes, Assange says
  • NEW: Ex-CIA officer says the documents are "probably" authentic
  • NEW: Pentagon Papers leaker says the documents reveal "a pattern of failure, of stalemate"
  • White House condemns leak, but dismisses documents as old news

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(CNN) -- Journalists and other observers around the world spent Monday poring over a vast cache of documents a whistleblower website says are U.S. reports that exhaustively chronicle the twists, turns and horror of the 9-year-old war in Afghanistan.

The whistleblower website published more than 75,000 of the reports on Sunday. The documents date from between 2004 and January 2010, and are divided into more than 100 categories. Tens of thousands of pages of reports document attacks on U.S. troops and their responses, relations between Americans in the field and their Afghan allies, intramural squabbles among Afghan civilians and security forces, and concerns about neighboring Pakistan's ties to the Taliban.

The "direct fire" category accounts for the largest number -- at 16,293 reports -- while "graffiti," "mugging," "narcotics" and "threat" each account for one. And WikiLeaks has another 15,000 documents that it plans to publish after editing out names to protect people, according to the website's founder and editor in chief, Julian Assange.

He told CNN's "Larry King Live" that the first-hand accounts represent "the cut and thrust of the entire war over the past six years," from the military's own raw data -- numbers of casualties, threat reports and notes from meetings between Afghan leaders and U.S. commanders.

"We see the who, the where, the what, the when and the how of each one of these attacks," Assange said. That includes, he said, possible evidence of war crimes by both U.S. troops and the Taliban, the Islamic militia that has been battling U.S. troops since 2001.

Assange said some events listed in the reports are "very suspicious," such as reports of skirmishes in which "a lot of people are killed, but no people taken prisoner and no people left wounded."

"In the end, it will take a court to really look at the full range of evidence to decide if a crime has occurred," he said. But earlier, he noted, "This material does not leave anyone smelling like roses, especially the Taliban."

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CNN has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the documents. The White House condemned the release of the documents as "a breach of federal law," but simultaneously dismissed them as old news.

"I don't think that what is being reported hasn't in many ways been publicly discussed -- whether by you or by representatives of the U.S. government -- for quite some time," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. But he said an investigation into the source of the leak had begun by last week.

"There is no doubt that this is a concerning development in operational security," he said.

Reader calls leak "irresponsible"

The reports tend to be filled with jargon, like this one that describes a border incident from September 4, 2005:

"The Pakistan LNO [liaison officer] reports that ANA [Afghan National Army] troops are massing and threatening the PAKMIL [Pakistani military] 12km NE of FB Lwara [Firebase Lwara, a U.S. military base] ..."

And that's not even the entire first sentence.

Assange said WikiLeaks withheld some documents that dealt with activity by U.S. Special Forces and the CIA, "and most of the activity of other non-U.S. groups," Assange said. But he said the documents reveal the "squalor" of war, uncovering how a number of small incidents have added up to huge numbers of civilian deaths.

"What we haven't seen previously is all those individual deaths," he said. "We've seen just the number. And like Stalin said, 'One man's death is a tragedy, a million dead is a statistic.' So, we've seen the statistic."

The release of the documents is being called the biggest intelligence leak in history, drawing comparison to the disclosure of the Vietnam-era "Pentagon Papers."

"There hasn't been an unauthorized disclosure of this magnitude in 39 years," said Daniel Ellsberg, the onetime Pentagon official who leaked that multi-volume secret history of the conflict. He said he wished the WikiLeaks documents had come out earlier, but, "Better late than never."

Others disagreed with the comparison. Bruce Riedel, an analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at

the Brookings Institution, noted that the Pentagon Papers were part of a document prepared for U.S. leaders that analyzed how the United States got into Vietnam, "which assessed successes and failures in a comprehensive way."

"This is really the raw material of the war -- unassessed, raw, fragmentary data that I think in each case, you have to be very careful how much of a larger picture you can conclude from these fragments and snippets," Riedel said.

And CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen said the Pentagon Papers revealed "a huge disconnect between what the American government was saying officially and internally."

"Here, all sorts of American government officials are saying the war is not going very well. No one is disagreeing with that," Bergen said.

But Ellsberg said the documents, "low-level as they are," raise the question of whether the United States has a winning strategy in Afghanistan and whether it should continue to pursue the war.

"They do give us the sense of the pattern of failure, of stalemate, and why we're stalemated -- civilian casuatlies that recruit or the Taliban for us and raise the question of what we're doing there," he said.

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The attacks were carried out by the Islamic terrorist network al Qaeda, which operated from bases in Afghanistan with the approval of the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement that ruled most of the country at the time.

The invasion swiftly toppled the Taliban, but al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar escaped and remain at large. Meanwhile, the Taliban regrouped along the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is now battling its own Taliban insurgency as well.

Gary Berntsen, who led a CIA commando team in Afghanistan in the hunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, told CNN's "Rick's List" that the documents "probably are accurate." But Berntsen, now a Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in New York, said the reports are likely to be a propaganda coup for the Taliban and "sap morale in the United States."

"It does paint a bleak picture on this," he said. "But it doesn't mean this fight is less worth fighting and trying to make progress on."

And Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the information should be put "in context" and that journalists should avoid publishing anything that could harm U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Assange, he said, "is an anti-war activist who has repeatedly cast a very unfair light on the American military and on the American population in general."

"There are American troops in harm's way getting shot and killed," Rieckhoff said. "If WikiLeaks is endangering them, we need to push back, and the American public needs to push back."

Once the jargon of the report is pierced, the stories can be eye-opening.

In a February 5, 2008, incident, Task Force Helmand reported that an Afghan National Policeman [ANP] was in a public shower smoking hashish when two members of the Afghan National Army walked in.

"ANP felt threatened and a fire fight occurred," the report says. "The ANP fled the scene and was later shot. ANP and ANA commanders held meetings to contain the incident."

An October 15, 2007, incident describes an ANP highway police officer's shooting of another Afghan national police officer in the shoulder and leg, not seriously. "The shooting was not accidental the policeman had been arguing with each other for a few days," the report said.

In a March 19 2005 incident, "FOB [Forward Operating Base] Cobra received a local national boy who had received a gunshot wound to his stomach," another report said.

"He had been shot during a green-on-green [Afghans attacking Afghans] firefight in Jangalak Village. The boy and his older brother had heard shooting outside of their compound and went outside to check it out, at which point the boy was shot in the stomach. Another brother had also been shot and died at the compound. No adult males had accompanied the brothers, and only the older brother of the injured boy could provide information on the incident. The older brother explained that men in the village were having personal disputes with each other and had then began shooting at each ones' compounds."

The New York Times reported Sunday that military field documents on WikiLeaks suggest that Pakistan, an ally of the United States in the war against terror, has been running a "double game" by allowing its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency to meet with the Taliban. The talks included "secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders," reported the newspaper, which had prior access to the documents.

Though it is not news that Pakistan has a relationship with the Taliban, "the extent of it, the depth of it, the texture of that relationship is now laid out in copious detail," Riedel said. "We already had a very strained relationship in Pakistan over this issue, for several years. This is going to pressure that relationship even more."

But Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said the government now in power in Pakistan is committed to battling the Taliban.

"The misgivings of past cannot always easily be overcome," he said. "But what we can change is the future, and that's what we will do," he added.

"This government was voted in on a platform in which we said very clearly, 'We will fight terrorists, and we will defeat them. And as long as this government has the legitimacy and support of parliament, that's exactly what it will do," Haqqani told CNN's "The Situation Room." He blamed the leak on unnamed parties he said are "trying to give Pakistan a bad name," but said raw intelligence reports "cannot be the basis of undermining what is now emerging as a truly meaningful partnership in our region."

"You know that things are getting a lot better, and Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States are working together right now to essentially defeat the terrorists," he said.

But Afghanistan's government expressed amazement at the documents.

"The Afghan government is shocked with the report that has opened the reality of the Afghan war," said Siamak Herawi, a government spokesman. He said Washington needed to deal with the ISI, which he said had "a direct connection with the terrorists," including al Qaeda.

"These reports show that the U.S. was already aware of the ISI connection with the al Qaeda terrorist network," he said. "The United States is overdue on the ISI issue, and now the United States should answer."

Numerous reports name Gen. Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan's intelligence service. But Gul rejected the accusations Monday.

"These reports are absolutely and utterly false," Gul said . "I think they [the United States] are failing and they're looking for scapegoats."

Assange said the documents were "legitimate," but said it was important not to take their contents at face value.

"We publish CIA reports all the time that are legitimate CIA reports. That doesn't mean the CIA is telling the truth," he said.

He declined to tell CNN where he got the documents, and says the identities of his sources are less important than the authenticity of the documents they provide. And he denied that WikiLeaks has put troops in danger, and said the documents' publication will help people make informed decisions about whether to support the war.

Assange, an Australian, said the site is coming under "significant pressure" from authorities, including several recent "surveillance events." But he said that due to the response the latest release has received, "It is not politically feasible to interfere with us at a high level."

CNN's Richard Allen Greene, David DeSola, Adam Levine, Atia Abawi and CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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