|Wikileaks founder Julian Assange released 400,000 military documents in October [AFP]|
Since its inception in 2006 as a kind of Wikipedia for secret government documents, WikiLeaks has gone from a relatively unknown Internet troublemaker to an influential web insurgency – a loosely affiliated group of thousands of volunteers led by an advisory board with the ability to command the attention of a dedicated, 120-member response team in the Pentagon.
The rise of WikiLeaks reflects both a new Internet paradigm of user-generated content and dispersed “cloud” computing and a fundamental shift away from the age of old-school, “gatekeeper” journalism. The identities of WikiLeaks’ employees, volunteers and sources remains almost entirely unknown, yet the authentic, often classified documents released through the site have provoked responses from the highest levels of the United States’ government.
In 2010, WikiLeaks’ influence has reached a crescendo following three major releases: a video of a US helicopter’s fatal attack on a Reuters journalist in Iraq, a trove of more than 70,000 US military reports from Afghanistan and, most recently, another batch of US military documents from Iraq totalling nearly 400,000 in all – the largest leak of US government material in history.
With that newfound fame – or infamy, depending on your perspective – has come controversy. Julian Assange, an Australian former hacker and computer programmer who has become WikiLeaks’ public face, now faces charges of rape and molestation in Sweden, where his application for permanent residency has been rejected. And a string of WikiLeaks staffers have recently resigned, according to a report on Wired.com, upset with the group’s apparent focus on major releases targeting the US government at the expense of many smaller, regional leaks from other countries.
Wikileaks comes on the scene
Upon its online launch in late 2006, WikiLeaks described itself as an “uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis” founded by “Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and startup company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa”.
A lengthy self-description on WikiLeaks’ website, explaining the philosophical origins of the group, made repeated references to Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the “Pentagon Papers,” a classified government history of the Vietnam War, in the 1970s.
“Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future,” the website wrote.
WikiLeaks attracted some attention immediately when, in December 2006, it posted its first leak: an order by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a leader of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, to assassinate other government officials.
The next year, the site made another splash when it posted the US military’s “Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures” – a manual for how US personnel should run the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. WikiLeaks’ covert methods succeeded where traditional work could not – the American Civil Liberties Union had sued for access to the manual four years earlier.
In 2008, WikiLeaks played a role in publicising the results of an Internet forum user’s hack into Republican US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo email account. Then, in 2009, the group published hundreds of thousands of pager messages sent by New Yorkers during the September 11 attacks as well as emails sent between climatologists at East Anglia University that cast doubt on global warming data.
It was around this time, as WikiLeaks sat on the verge of a breakthrough, that Julian Assange, who described himself on WikiLeak’s “About” page as “Australia’s most famous ethical computer hacker,” became the organisation’s “editor in chief” and public pointman.
Wikileaks finally hit the big time in April 2010, when it released a video it called “Collateral Murder,” featuring grainy, black-and-white footage shot from a US Apache helicopter as it engaged a group of men in Iraq, some of whom were armed, but two of whom were employees of the Reuters news agency carrying photographic equipment.
Again, WikiLeaks trumped an effort by another organisation to obtain the same information from the government by going through the front door: Reuters had tried to force the Pentagon to hand over the footage by filing an unsuccessful request under Freedom of Information Act.
The US defence department had already declared WikiLeaks a threat to national security – a designation revealed by WikiLeaks itself when it leaked the government’s assessment – but “Collateral Murder” put the group on international media radar screens. The next leak, a collection of tens of thousands of US military reports from Afghanistan,cemented WikiLeaks’ newfound prominence.
Pride before the fall?
Assange’s personal history does not read like natural preparation for the 37-year-old Australian’s current life of globe-trotting fame. Assange claims to have grown up in a “touring theatre family” and attended 37 schools and six universities. He has spent most of his life in front of computer screens, whether as a programmer, hacker, or software consultant. Prior to WikiLeaks’ recent rise, few photographs of Assange existed, and he reportedly spent much of his time in hideouts in Sweden, east Africa and Iceland.
Despite being the subject of extensive journalistic attention, including a long and detailed profile in the New Yorker magazine,it is still unclear how Assange became, in the words of write Raffi Khatchadourian, WikiLeaks’ “prime mover”. That may be, in part, due to the organisation’s self-imposed secrecy, maintained even internally and established as a means of protection.
“Hundreds of volunteers from around the world help maintain the website’s complicated infrastructure; many participate in small ways, and between three and five people dedicate themselves to it full time,” Khatchadourian wrote in June. “Key members are known only by initials – M, for instance – even deep within WikiLeaks, where communications are conducted by encrypted online chat services. The secretiveness stems from the belief that a populist intelligence operation with virtually no resources, designed to publicize information that powerful institutions do not want public, will have serious adversaries”.
Leak submissions to WikiLeaks are routed through PRQ, a Swedish Internet service provider that guarantees secrecy, then to a server in Belgium, then to another anonymous country where they are removed and stored elsewhere. The whole system is encrypted, and WikiLeaks computers are constantly feeding fake documents through it. WikiLeaks’ funding is almost as secretive and comes entirely from donations.
But all this cloak-and-daggery and Assange’s heavy handed influence could also be sources of weakness for WikiLeaks, which has endured a string of staff resignations in recent weeks, according to reporting by Wired magazine.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, WikiLeak’s German spokesman, was the highest profile employee to quit. Wired posted what it said was a transcript of an online chat session between Assange and Domscheit-Berg in which the ex-spokesman tries to tell Assange of growing disenchantment among his employees and Assange responds by accusing Domscheit-Berg of leaking information to the US magazine Newsweek. At the end of the conversation, Assange places his colleague on suspension, unilaterally and apparently after no consulation with anyone else.
The former WikiLeaks employees have apparently been concerned that Assange is ignoring a raft of smaller, regional leak submissions in favor of major releases, such as the Afghan and Iraq war files, that will likely cause a bigger splash and have, indeed, received much attention from the world’s largest news organisations.
In August, three months prior to the Iraq leak, WikiLeaks reportedly signed a deal with several news groups whereby the media organisations that signed on would gain access to the Iraq files under embargo. The “aggressive timetable” for releasing the Iraq files reportedly irked WikiLeaks employees, who were concerned that – similar to what occurred after the Afghan release – the organisation would come under criticism for failing to redact the names of US collaborators and others who might be endangered in their home countries by the documents.
The ever-opinionated Assange lashed out at the Wired stories, describing them as containing “completely false information”.Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, wrote in a August 16 letter to a senator that the Afghan war logs had not “revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods,” but he did say that disclosing the identities of Afghans who have cooperated could cause “significant harm or damage to the national security interests of the United States”.
Regardless of who’s correct in the various spats surrounding Assange and WikiLeaks, it’s clear that the organisation’s power and clout have risen exponentially, and that the ability to leak sensitive documents through a dispersed, secretive, multinational organisation has significantly changed the way governments are held to account.