The Obama administration has told WikiLeaks that its plans to publish a quarter of a million US government documents could risk the lives of “countless individuals”, endanger current military operations and damage international co-operation on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to counter-terrorism.

In a letter to Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, Harold Koh, the US State Department’s senior legal adviser, made a last-ditch plea for the group not to release its latest “document dump”, which WikiLeaks calls the “Embassy cables”.

The documents, which were expected to be released on Sunday, were said to include classified low and mid level State Department assessments of other governments and their leaders. US officials fear the leak could damage international relations.

WikiLeaks posted a Twitter message on Sunday that its website was under a “mass distributed denial of service attack”, in which thousands of computers contact a website simultaneously and overwhelm it.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, has contacted leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, France and Afghanistan in an attempt to minimise the fallout from the leak.

Washington’s diplomatic efforts included an article in Bild, Germany’s most popular newspaper, on Sunday by Philip Murphy, Washington’s ambassador to Berlin.

Mr Murphy said the leaks “will at the least be uncomfortable – for my government, for those mentioned in our reports, and for me personally as American ambassador in Germany”.

Reports in Bild suggested that Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, was the object of criticism in US diplomatic dispatches. Mr Westerwelle, who is also deputy to Chancellor Angela Merkel, was described in reports as ineffectual and politically weakened. Mr Murphy added in his article: “I am sure the friendship between the US and Germany will survive this challenge.”

Reflecting the State Department’s tone, Mr Murphy said the leaks would “have a direct effect on the collaboration between governments and therefore make the world a more insecure place”

Mr Koh said the US administration understands that about 250,000 documents will be leaked. WikiLeaks itself said the release would be seven times the size of the leak of almost 400,000 Iraq-war related files in October.

Mr Koh wrote in his letter that the leak would “place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals – from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information”.

He added that it would also jeopardise “ongoing military operations, including operations to stop terrorists, traffickers in human beings and illicit arms and violent criminal enterprises”.

Reflecting what is perhaps the US’s biggest current concern, he also alleged the leak would endanger “ongoing co-operation between countries – partners, allies and common stakeholders – to confront common challenges from terrorism to pandemic diseases to nuclear proliferation”.

At present, the administration is engaged in a race against time to convince Republicans in the US Senate to ratify its showpiece New Start Treaty with Russia, which is at the heart of President Barack Obama’s non-proliferation agenda, before the end of the year. But its effort could be set back by the publication of confidential dispatches about the Russian government. Many other US bilateral and international relations could be similarly complicated by the leak.

In his letter, Mr Koh maintained that the documents were “provided in violation of US law and without regard for the grave consequences of this action”, adding “as long as WikiLeaks holds such material, the violation of the law is ongoing”.

In a personal attack on Mr Assange, he added: “You have … endangered the lives of countless individuals. You have undermined your stated objective by disseminating this material widely, without redaction, and without regard to the security and sanctity of the lives your actions endanger.”

Mr Koh concluded his letter by reasserting the US administration’s refusal to negotiate over any more leaks and its demand for WikiLeaks to cease publishing the documents, return them and destroy all record of them from its own database.

Additional reporting by James Wilson in Frankfurt and Joe Menn in San Francisco

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