The Pentagon is walking back initial denials that it tried to contact WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, in recent days to discuss still-unreleased secret files from the Afghanistan war. And new details divulged by defense officials suggest their middleman for contacting the website was an obscure lawyer based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Earlier today, Assange told reporters that he'd "received contact" from the military and he'd "welcome their engagement," adding: "It is always positive for parties to talk to each other." But according to Newsweek:
...spokesmen for both the US Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense denied that any such contacts had occurred. The office of the Army's general counsel, the military service's chief lawyer, has had "no contact with Julian Assange or any representative of WikiLeaks," said Col. Thomas Collins, an Army spokeman.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman went on to say that there was no "direct contact with WikiLeaks," and the DOD's only avenue of communicating with the site was "via the media."
That now appears to be untrue. In discussions with reporters later Wednesday at the Pentagon, Whitman clarified the military's position. According to Stars & Stripes DC bureau reporter Kevin Baron: "DOD just released a letter sent on Monday to an indivudual they 'came across' who was 'purporting' to be an atty for WikiLeaks." Whitman told the assembled reporters that the DOD had scheduled a phone conversation at 10 a.m. on Sunday, "but the atty did not show."
That attorney, who was to have spoken with the Pentagon's general counsel (as Assange had claimed earlier), was Timothy J. Matusheski of Hattiesburg, whose firm owns the website MississippiWhistleblower.com. Matusheski didn't return calls from Mother Jones requesting a comment on Wednesday, but a search of public records does show that he filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Justice Department as a representative of WikiLeaks (PDF) on March 10, 2009. The request description, which was incomplete on the public register, appears to have been for "Any comunications [sic] Ed Gillespie, White House Counsel to President George W. Bush from June 27, 2007 to Jan. 20, 2009 would have had with the Justice Department on the subject of restoring diplomatic..." The description was cut off at that point.
In further remarks, Whitman maintained that the Pentagon still had no "direct contact" with WikiLeaks, and the department "will not negotiate some 'minimized' or 'sanitized' version of a release by WikiLeaks." Still, according to Baron, the DOD refused to discuss "if investigators talked to this guy," meaning Matusheski, and "also would not explain how the Pentagon 'came across" this man."
Whether or not Matusheski or the Pentagon clarify their links to reporters, today's developments appear to vindicate Assange's most recent claims about hearing from the DOD general counsel. If the Pentagon-WikiLeaks rivalry is a battle for credibility, the upstart website appears to have won the day, at least.