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Uncensored copies of WikiLeaks' massive tome of U.S. State Department cables were circulating freely across the Internet Thursday, a dramatic development which leaves a new batch of U.S. sources vulnerable to embarrassment and potential retribution.
WikiLeaks has blamed Britain's Guardian newspaper for the breach, saying that an investigative journalist had revealed the password needed to unlock the files in a book published earlier this year. Guardian journalists said that sloppy security at Julian Assange's anti-secrecy website helped expose the cables to the world.
In a 1,600-word-long editorial posted to the Internet, WikiLeaks accused the Guardian's investigative reporter David Leigh of betrayal, saying that his disclosure had jeopardized months of "careful work" WikiLeaks had undertaken to redact and publish the cables.
"Revolutions and reforms are in danger of being lost as the unpublished cables spread to intelligence contractors and governments before the public," WikiLeaks said in its statement.
Leigh and the Guardian both denied wrongdoing, and the exact sequence of events WikiLeaks was referring to remained clouded in confusion and recriminations.
It has long been known that WikiLeaks lost control of the raw cables even before they were published. One copy of the secret documents leaked to The New York Times in the fall of 2010, and other media organizations, including The Associated Press, have since received copies independently of WikiLeaks.
But never before has the entire catalog of unredacted cables made its way to the Web.
Until recently, WikiLeaks released relatively small batches of files to its partner organizations -- composed of dozens of international media and human rights groups -- so that they could remove information which could put innocent people in jeopardy. Only then were the files posted online.
But with the unredacted cables now being sloshed around in the public domain, all that work has effectively been thrown out the window.
In its statement, WikiLeaks laid the blame on the Guardian and an unnamed "German individual."
Leigh, however, told the AP that WikiLeaks' assertion was "time-wasting nonsense."
He acknowledged that Assange had supplied him with a password needed to access the U.S. embassy cables from a server back in July of 2010 -- but said that Assange told him the site would expire within a matter of hours.
"What we published much later in our book was obsolete and harmless," Leigh said in an email. "We did not disclose the URL (web address) where the file was located, and in any event, Assange had told us it would no longer exist."
Leigh added that "I don't see how a member of the public could access such a file anyway, unless a WikiLeaks or ex-WikiLeaks person tells them where it is located and what the file was called."
Another Guardian journalist -- who once worked for WikiLeaks -- said that Assange was to blame, alleging that the 40-year-old Australian had recycled an old password when he republished the encrypted data later.
"Personal banking sites tell you not to reuse passwords. WikiLeaks doing the same for a file of such sensitivity is gross negligence," James Ball said in a message posted to Twitter early Thursday.
Repeated attempts to reach WikiLeaks staffers for further clarification were unsuccessful, although on its Twitter feed the group contested statements by Leigh and others, warning of "continuous lies to come."
To add to the intrigue, WikiLeaks asked its 1 million or so followers to download a large coded file which it said it would decrypt at a later point. Then it threatened to directly publish the entire unredacted archive of State Department documents.
The latest in the WikiLeaks saga caps nine months or revelations which have infuriated and humiliated high-ranking officials across the world. Several people, including the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, have lost their jobs over the disclosures.
The revelations' impact has been debated. WikiLeaks says the cables' release played a key role in setting off the mass movement that has jolted dictatorial regimes across the Arab world and has exposed wrongdoing and double-dealing across the world.
But American officials have warned that the disclosures could also have had serious consequences for informants, activists and others named in the cables -- as well as American diplomacy more widely.
In the United States, a Pentagon official said that the renewed concern over the release unredacted documents highlighted "what we have said all along about the danger of these types of things."
"Once WikiLeaks has these documents in its possession, it loses control and information gets out whether they intend (it) to or not," Defense Department spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told Pentagon reporters Wednesday.
Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Jonathan Stray in New York contributed to this report.
Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael