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Witnesses discuss State Deptartment’s WikiLeaks response

FORT MEADE — The U.S. State Department took extraordinary steps to limit harm to foreign relations and individuals after an Army private allegedly sent more than 250,000 classified diplomatic cables to the secret-sharing website WikiLeaks, two agency officials testified at a court-martial hearing Thursday.

One group of up to 25 high-ranking officials worked around the clock to try to get ahead of the problem before WikiLeaks began publishing the leaked cables on Nov. 28, 2010, said Rena Bitter, director of the agency’s operations center.

She said another working group tried to identify people around the world who might be put at risk by the disclosures that authorities blame on Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is charged with causing the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history.

A third team focused on improving computer security, said Marguerite Coffey, former director of the agency’s management policy office. She testified that the agency’s Foreign Affairs Manual “didn’t contain a word such as ‘thumb drive’ — but now it does.”

Manning is charged with knowingly aiding al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula by causing WikiLeaks to publish the diplomatic cables, more than 500,000 classified war logs and some sensitive video clips. Authorities say the 24-year-old Crescent, Okla., native downloaded the files from a Defense Department network while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.

The State Department officials testified Thursday in a military courtroom at Fort Meade during a pretrial hearing for Manning, an intelligence analyst charged with 22 offenses, including aiding the enemy. The officials were called as defense witnesses to help Manning’s lawyers find documents that they hope will show the disclosures did little harm.

The witnesses didn’t reveal anything about the extent of damage caused by the WikiLeaks disclosures but their testimony provided a rare glimpse inside the State Department in crisis mode.

Bitter said the “24-7 working group” was established in late November 2010 and disbanded around Dec. 17, three weeks after WikiLeaks posted the cables. By then, the group was working 12 to 18 hours a day but still providing situation reports as often as twice a day, she said.

The “WikiLeaks Persons-at-Risk Working Group” involved officials from 12 to 15 State Department bureaus, Bitter testified. It was created, she said, because “it was difficult to find a mechanism that already existed to deal with the issues” raised by the massive leak.

On the day before the cables were published, the State Department released a letter it had sent to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, warning that publication would “place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals” and threaten military operations and international cooperation.

In January 2011, the State Department said it had identified several hundred people thought to be at risk, and that a few had been moved to safer locations

The court also heard arguments Thursday on defense motions for dismissal of 10 charges.

The defense contends the government used unconstitutionally vague language in eight counts charging Manning with unauthorized possession and disclosure of classified information.

The defense also maintains that prosecutors wrongly alleged that Manning exceeded his authorized computer access, the basis of two counts.

Manning supporters say the leaks exposed war crimes and triggered pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East.

The U.S. government claimed the disclosures endangered lives and security.