By Susan Page
WASHINGTON � The debate over America's longest war was fueled Monday by history's most massive leak of classified documents.
The Pentagon launched a damage assessment of the repercussions from the unauthorized publication on a website called WikiLeaks of nearly 77,000 reports tracking six years of the war in Afghanistan, a posting the White House said could imperil U.S. intelligence-gathering. Pakistani officials denied allegations in the files of complicity between their military spy service and Taliban insurgents.
And critics of the conflict cited the huge data dump � with its portrait of U.S. forces straining to battle a resilient enemy while trying to bolster unreliable Afghan and Pakistani allies � as evidence of why the United States should extricate itself from a war they call unwinnable.
"It doesn't change the bottom line, but it adds detail about the difficulty on the ground, and even more the machinations of the Pakistanis," says Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. "It reinforces my sense of concern about how difficult this is going to be."
The reports from January 2004 through December 2009, whose authenticity the administration neither confirmed nor disputed, chronicle the tedium of patrol and the terror of attack.
Included are accounts of top officials from Pakistan's military spy service attending insurgent strategy sessions where suicide attacks are planned, of Afghan police soliciting bribes from their fellow citizens at checkpoints, of deadly improvised bombs exploding as U.S. troops patrolled.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs played down the disclosures as well-known problems that President Obama moved to address in December, when he announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, nearly tripling the force he had inherited.
While the contents of the documents may not have been surprising, the quantity of the disclosure was unprecedented � a huge and instantaneous release made possible in the age of the Internet.
Unlike the explosive Pentagon Papers published in The New York Times during the Vietnam War in 1971, the files don't show top U.S. officials misleading the public about the war's course.
The question this time is whether the harsh spotlight and the weight of detail will crystallize growing public unease about the war. Early signs could come today as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on Afghanistan. In another forum for debate on the war, the House this week plans to take up a $58.8 billion funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Liberal Democrats including Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich vow to fight the measure on the floor.
The documents were posted Sunday on WikiLeaks.org and detailed in reports in The New York Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel, which were given embargoed access to the files several weeks ago.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called on the Defense Department to investigate the leak and bring those responsible "to account."
While acknowledging the risks of disclosure � for instance, that confidential informants inadvertently might be named � Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said the documents "deal with a subject of obvious public interest" and would stimulate debate on an important issue.
"I think leaks serve as a safety valve when classification gets out of control," said Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy.
There may be more disclosures ahead: Julian Assange, an Australian who founded WikiLeaks, said during a news conference in London that the website is working through a backlog of another 15,000 documents. Some of the current revelations, including efforts to track down and kill senior Taliban officials, could amount to war crimes, he said, comparing the release to that of East German secret police files after the Berlin Wall fell.
"What is the most single damning revelation?" Assange asked. "That is not the real story of this material. The real story of this material is that it's war. It's one damn thing after another. It is the continuous small events � the continuous deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces. …
"Most of the deaths in this war are as a result of the everyday squalor of war, not the big instances."
The most volatile allegations may be the accounts of envoys from Pakistani's military spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, attending war councils of the insurgents. Reports that the ISI was helping the Taliban even as it accepted millions in U.S. aid have long been a point of contention between the two countries.
Officials in both capitals said those problems were in the past.
At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley emphasized the new "positive trajectory" in U.S. relations with Pakistan on the war. "This is a true partnership going forward," he said, saying Pakistan is "investing its own treasure and spilling its own blood in defense of its country."
Overseas, Pakistan Ambassador Husain Haqqani said the documents "do not reflect the current on-ground realities." Islamabad's ministry of foreign affairs issued a similar statement. "The people of Pakistan and its security forces, including the ISI, have rendered enormous sacrifices against militancy and terrorism," the ministry said.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Pakistan has "changed a lot of its behavior, largely because it has been threatened by these extremists."
On other fronts, the documents report:
•Civilian casualties are higher than officially reported, and include deaths and injuries involving hundreds of civilians that previously had been unknown. At least 195 civilian deaths and 174 injuries were cited, not including disputed incidents.
•Taliban weapons are more sophisticated, and U.S. weapons sometimes less so, than previously acknowledged. The Taliban has used portable heat-seeking missiles, which helped Afghanistan beat back the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, against U.S. aircraft. At the same time, U.S. drones have often crashed or collided.
USA TODAY did not independently verify the documents' authenticity. Gibbs said the administration was proceeding as though they were legitimate, though he didn't specifically say they were.
Opponents of the war seized on the documents to make their case. "92,000 reasons to get out of Afghanistan and Pakistan: Pick one," was the headline on a news release by Kucinich.
"This could do what the Pentagon Papers did in relation to Vietnam: It strengthened the impulse to end American involvement," said historian Robert Dallek, who has profiled the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. "These reports could strengthen the impulse to reduce and limit American involvement in Afghanistan."
Most Americans continue to support the war in Afghanistan, launched to oust havens for the al-Qaeda terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. However, the nearly universal support at the time the war began has eroded.
In a Gallup Poll two weeks ago, a record high 38% said the USA "made a mistake" in sending military forces to Afghanistan; 58% said it was not a mistake.
Six of 10 said the war was going badly for the United States. In a CBS News survey this month, Americans were divided, 43%-44%, when asked whether they approved or disapproved of the way Obama was handling Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say they have been expected a deluge of classified documents since the recent release of a 2007 video that showed unarmed men walking down a street in Iraq before being shot by Apache helicopters. The American gunners on the cockpit video can be heard laughing and referring to the men as "dead bastards."
A 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst, Spc. Bradley Manning, was charged in the case with multiple counts of mishandling and leaking classified data and putting national security at risk.
Former computer hacker Adrian Lamo of Sacramento told Wired.com and the Associated Press he had alerted the military after Manning confided in him online that he had leaked the video as well as 260,000 classified diplomatic cables.
Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that Manning has "neither been ruled in or ruled out" as a suspect in the new unauthorized disclosure of documents.
At first blush, the size of the disclosure of military secrets from Afghanistan is "alarming," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, but he said it was "just way off base" to characterize the documents as "the second coming of the Pentagon Papers."
Instead, he called them "a bunch of combat reports" that lack analysis and, in any event, were quickly outdated. They offer a "very narrow perspective" of the war, he said.
The impact, administration officials and military analysts say, may come less from the release of the reports than the details it provides of how the United States gathers intelligence and from whom.
"There is 100% likelihood that sources and methods are now being revealed," said retired general Barry McCaffrey. Insurgents will study the reports both to identify Afghans and others who have helped U.S. forces and to figure out how intelligence has been gathered, he said.
"Some sources may get murdered, and more likely all sorts of things will start drying up," McCaffrey predicted. "That could drastically affect our war-fighting ability."
Supporters of the war expressed outrage over the leak. The publication "is deeply troubling and a serious breach of national security," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The source of this harmful leak within the U.S. government should face the full penalties of the law."
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who arrived in Washington Sunday from his fifth trip to Iraq and third to Afghanistan, dismissed the contents of the documents as not being "particularly new," but said he had found "a very kinetic and complex situation" in Afghanistan, in some ways a more complicated one than in Iraq.
"The situation in Afghanistan is going to require strategic patience by the United States and our citizens," said Pawlenty, who is considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
Even Daniel Ellsberg said releasing the documents to anyone with a computer connection raised questions beyond those that faced him when he turned over most of the Pentagon Papers to congressional committees and then The New York Times in 1971.
"I had read all of those, of course, and I did make the judgment that there was nothing in there that was going to harm national security or individuals," Ellsberg, now 79, said in a telephone interview from Mexico. He was there to attend a screening of a documentary about himself called The Most Dangerous Man in America. "With a vast amount of information like this, it's hard to imagine that there was a very considered decision in releasing all of it."
Assange's judgment would be "tested," he said.
On balance, though, Ellsberg said he supported the decision to put the documents in the public realm.
"To think that all the risks are only on the side of releasing it would be mistaken," he said. "Continued secrecy does put a lot of American and Afghan lives at risk."
Contributing: Peter Eisler, Mimi Hall, Kathy Kiely, Jim Michaels, Richard Wolf, Tom Vanden Brook and the Associated Presshttp://www.wikileaks.org/wiki/Afghan_War_Diary,_2004-2010