STOCKHOLM – STOCKHOLM (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Wednesday the Pentagon has expressed willingness to discuss the online whistleblower's request for help in reviewing classified documents from the Afghan war and removing information that could harm civilians.
"This week we received contact through our lawyers that the General Counsel" of the Pentagon "says now that they want to discuss the issue," Assange told The Associated Press by telephone.
The Pentagon denied it was willing to collaborate with the group, but acknowledged that it had arranged for a phone call last Sunday between its general counsel and a person claiming to be a lawyer for WikiLeaks.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the lawyer, Timothy Matusheski, was a "no show" for the call.
The Pentagon followed up with a letter to Matusheski on Monday demanding that WikiLeaks return the war files.
"The Defense Department will not negotiate some 'minimized' or 'sanitized' version of the release by WikiLeaks of additional U.S. government classified documents," wrote Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer.
Whitman had initially told reporters there had been no "direct" contact between the Defense Department and WikiLeaks. He said he still stands by that assessment, because the phone call between Johnson and Matusheski never took place.
In an interview Wednesday, Matusheski told The Associated Press that he never had a scheduled phone call with Pentagon officials on Sunday. Instead, he said he has had several recent phone conversations with an agent from the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command, which is investigating the document leak.
The agent, he said, also called him twice on Sunday morning, but never reached him.
Matusheski added that the agent has asked about setting up a meeting between Assange and Defense Department officials, but did not seek to set up a conversation between Matusheski and the Pentagon.
Matusheski said he provides free legal work for Assange as a way of supporting the whistleblower website.
Assange said Wednesday that "contact has been established" but added it was not clear whether and how the U.S. military would assist WikiLeaks.
"It is always positive for parties to talk to each other," Assange said. "We welcome their engagement."
He reiterated that WikiLeaks plans to release its second batch of secret Afghan war documents within "two weeks to a month."
The first files in its "Afghan War Diary" laid bare classified military documents covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010. The release angered U.S. officials, energized critics of the NATO-led campaign, and drew the attention of the Taliban, which has promised to use the material to track down people it considers traitors.
Non-governmental organizations, including the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, have criticized WikiLeaks as being irresponsible.
WikiLeaks describes itself as a public service organization for whistleblowers, journalists and activists.
"We encourage other media and human rights groups who have a genuine concern about reviewing the material to assist us with the difficult and very expensive task of getting a large historical archive into the public's record," Assange said.
The Australian was in Sweden in part to prepare an application for a publishing certificate that would allow WikiLeaks to take full advantage of the Scandinavian nation's press freedom laws.
That also means WikiLeaks would have to appoint a publisher that could be held legally responsible for the material. Assange said that person would be "either me or one of our Swedish people."
WikiLeaks routes its material through Sweden and Belgium because of the whistleblower protection offered by laws in those countries. But it also has backup servers in other countries to make sure the site is not shut down, Assange said.
Associated Press Writer Anne Flaherty, Lolita C. Baldor and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.