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Rights groups express concerns about WikiLeaks

By Adam Levine, CNN
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has asked for help vetting leaked documents about Afghanistan.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has asked for help vetting leaked documents about Afghanistan.
  • Human rights groups urge WikiLeaks to be more careful
  • Names in leaked documents could endanger civilians, it says
  • Exchange of e-mails was intended to be private

Washington (CNN) -- Several humanitarian organizations have reached out to WikiLeaks to warn that the leaked documents it posts on its site could endanger the lives of civilians whose names appear in them, according to an e-mail exchange that apparently was leaked.

The e-mail exchange with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was meant as a "private discussion," according to Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, one of the five groups who wrote to Assange.

The other groups were Amnesty International-Afghanistan, the Open Society Institute, the International Crisis Group and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Group. The Wall Street Journal revealed the discussions' existence Tuesday.

Holewinski said the groups were concerned about names that appeared in the already released leaked documents regarding Afghanistan, given the Taliban's increased targeting and killing of Afghans who cooperate with the international forces and other Western groups.

"It was a caution we were giving WikiLeaks," Holewinski said.

The groups asked WikiLeaks to redact names in the tens of thousands of secret documents already posted, as well as to be more careful to "protect civilians" in subsequent document reviews, according to an official from one of the other human rights groups. That official did not want to be identified because the e-mails were intended to be private.

In response, WikiLeaks' founder asked the groups to help vet the documents.

"We have seen the negative, sometimes deadly ramifications for those Afghans identified as working for or sympathizing with international forces," the human-rights groups wrote in their message, as reported by the Wall Street Journal and confirmed as accurate to CNN. "We strongly urge your volunteers and staff to analyze all documents to ensure that those containing identifying information are taken down or redacted."

CNN efforts to get comment from WikiLeaks were unsuccessful. On the group's Twitter page, WikiLeaks took a belligerent tone about the communications, denying that there was any "formal statement" to WikiLeaks and later posting that one of the groups, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, "is primary [sic] funded by the occupying forces of Afghanistan."

Holewinski said her group is slowly going through the documents and sent a few of them to WikiLeaks to demonstrate their concerns about exposing civilians.

"It is unfortunate that it has become human rights organizations against WikiLeaks. That wasn't our intent," Holewinski said. "Our intent was to say, 'We've been there. We know Afghanistan. We know Taliban is targeting people. Let's all be cautious about public names.' "

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said WikiLeaks accused Amnesty International of being funded mainly by "the occupying forces of Afghanistan."