A criminal investigation into the leak of tens of thousands of secret Afghanistan war logs could go beyond the military, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, and he did not rule out that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be a target.
“The investigation should go wherever it needs to go,” Mr Gates said.
He would not be more specific, waving off questions about whether Mr Assange or media outlets that used the WikiLeaks material could be subjects of the criminal probe.
But he noted that he asked the FBI to help in the investigation “to ensure that it can go wherever it needs to go”.
The Army is leading an inquiry inside the Defence Department into who downloaded some 91,000 secret documents and passed the material to WikiLeaks, an online archive that describes itself as a public service organisation for whistleblowers, journalists and activists.
The Pentagon inquiry is looking most closely at Private Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence specialist who was already charged with leaking other material to the website.
The FBI would presumably handle aspects of the investigation that involve civilians outside the Defence Department, and the Justice Department could bring charges in US federal court.
Mr Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the release of the documents that WikiLeaks calls its Afghan War Diary deeply damaging and potentially life-threatening for Afghan informants or others who took risks to help the US and Nato war effort.
Theirs was the most sober assessment of the ramifications of the leak of raw intelligence reports and other material dating to 2004.
“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 Admiral said.