WikiLeaks, Part 1 – Background & Legitimacy

WikiLeaks is publishing documents, opening governments, changing the world.

In early 2007, Australia native Julian Assange launched the polarizing website along with other activists, dissidents, mathematicians, and computer experts from six different continents.

WikiLeaks vows to accept “restricted or censored material of political, ethical, diplomatic or historical significance,” but reject “rumor, opinion, other kinds of first hand accounts, or material that is publicly available elsewhere.” Assange and his colleagues then review and edit submissions, attained via secure online uploading applications and a discreet postal network, to publish documents that generate “maximum political impact.”Assange has pithily summarized WikiLeaks’ philosophy: “The method is transparency; the goal is justice.”

Launch to 2009

Before the launch, Assange revealed WikiLeaks had received more than a million leaked documents. Since then, the site has published thousands of classified files chronicling corruption, secrecy, and censorship of varying significance.

In 2008 alone, the organization published a Somalian assassination order, the U.S. Army’s standard operating procedures at the Guantanamo Bay Prison, Sarah Palin’s email contents, and high-level documents detailing the Church of Scientology’s inner workings.

In 2009, WikiLeaks won Amnesty International’s UK Media Award for its 2008 publication of “Kenya: the Cry of Blood – Extra-Judicial Killings and Disappearances.”

2010 to Present

Despite its international composition, WikiLeaks’ recent revelations have focused almost exclusively on the United States—telling of both America’s geopolitical influence and an editorial urgency to expose the superpower’s secrets.

In April, Assange’s site broke into American discourse when it featured “Collateral Murder,” a full 39-minute video of U.S. soldiers gunning down unarmed Reuters journalists, reveling in the shooting, and targeting unarmed civilians attempting to rescue the wounded. An 18-minute, edited video accompanied the original footage.

In July, WikiLeaks began publishing the Afghan War Diary, a collection of 72,000 classified U.S. military logs from early 2004 to late 2009.

Sent to only three news outlets – the New York Times, The Guardian in England, and Der Speigel in Germany – AWD chronicles disturbing civilian casualties, friendly fire incidents, increasing Taliban attacks, and expanding Pakistani and Iranian insurgency roles.

Drawing comparisons to the 1971 Daniel Ellsberg-leaked Pentagon Papers, Assange pronounced the Diary the “most comprehensive history of a war ever to be published during the course of the war.”

Then in October, WikiLeaks released the Iraq War Logs, a massive database of nearly 400,000 U.S. Army field reports, documenting tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq, at least 15,000 of which were previously unreported.

In late November, the organization announced and began to publish a collection of a quarter million U.S. State Department’s diplomatic cables, which WikiLeaks’ calls ‘Cablegate’.

Perhaps WikiLeaks’ most controversial and divisive leak to date, the cables detail U.S. officials’ opinions of nearly every major leader around the world, from serious  Saudi Arabian requests for the U.S. to attack Iran to trivial rumors about a “voluptuous” nurse who never leaves Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi’s side. Currently, of 250,000 total cables, about 2,500 have been published.

WikiLeaks sent the cables to The Guardian,  Der Speigel, and El Pais (in Spain), and The Guardian forwarded it to the New York Times. Some suggest WikiLeaks declined to collaborate directly with the New York Times to condemn the newspaper’s handling of the Iraq War Logs.

These respected media outlets worked together and with WikiLeaks to remove names of innocent people who could be harmed if their anonymity was comprised. Vanity Fair recently shed more light on specific negotiations between WikiLeaks and The Guardian.

WikiLeaks’ Legitmacy

So what does that make WikiLeaks?

While supporters laud its members as heroic, groundbreaking journalists, critics decry them as hacktivists (hacker-activists) and even treasonous terrorists. New Jersey General Assemblyman, Reed Gusciora, the state’s first openly gay public official, considers them “muckrakers” rather than “journalists,” noting that they “bring transparency to the diplomatic process.” Gusciora didn’t “necessarily see any state secrets” in the ‘Cablegate’ documents, but thinks WikiLeaks did “provide a window into the inner workings of the State Department, and what Foreign Service officers do on a daily basis.”

“So,” Gusciora concludes, “it certainly was an eye-opener.”

In a telephone interview with The Perspective, Steve Rendall, spokesperson for the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), appears more certain about WikiLeaks’ journalistic status. “Of course it is” a journalistic entity he says, “because it receives information, it collects information, it publishes information, it edits it.”

WikiLeaks, whose submission requirements state, “It’s not news if it has been publicly available elsewhere first, and we are a news organisation,” would clearly agree with this assessment.

George Packer, international affairs writer for The New Yorker, sees it differently: “WikiLeaks is not a news organization, it is a cell of activists that is releasing information designed to embarrass people in power.” Packer appears to consider Julian Assange and WikiLeaks almost anarchic, continuing, “they simply believe that the State Department is an illegitimate organization that needs to be exposed, which is not really journalism.”

Julian Assange

Others take this view further, calling for Assange’s assassination and labelling him a terrorist, a foreign spy, and worse. Perhaps this view derives from the founder’s defiant background.

As a teenager, Assange began computer hacking and co-founded the International Subversives, a group that broke into the U.S. Department of Defense network and countless others. He co-wrote a hacker guidebook, with rules that foreshadowed his transparency-activist future: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.”

And while Assange isn’t embarrassed or ashamed of his computer-hacker past, he acknowledges its affect on his public persona. He is seen as rebellious and iconoclastic, with statements such as “I enjoy crushing bastards,” perpetuating WikiLeaks’ grandiose and self-aggrandizing appearance.

The New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian suggests an alternative approach: “Suppose Assange had decided to break apart the database of State Department cables and release them in tiny increments—without branding them together, under the name ‘Cablegate,’ and grandly announcing that they amounted to a single trove of 251,287 documents.”

Khatchadourian says that WikiLeaks should have kept the “total number obscured, with the most embarrassing bits culled and revealed in a multipart series over, say, a twenty-month period.” He continues, with a potential remedy for WikiLeaks’ public image, “Would that look like the work of an anarchist . . . or an act of espionage or terrorism, or would it simply look like news?”

That method would certainly reduce Assange’s rising global profile, which has recently been complicated by sexual assault charges levied against him in Sweden. Interpol, the international police organization typically reserved for terrorists and international criminals, issued a ‘red notice’ against Assange, who then turned himself in to police in Britain. He was held in Britiain for a week, and was just released on bail. He is currently under house arrest awaiting a Swedish extradition ruling.

Future of WikiLeaks

Regardless of Assange’s personal affairs, though, WikiLeaks has made it clear that the organization will continue accepting, reviewing, and publishing classified information.

Assange has announced plans to soon begin publishing from an executive’s hard drive at a “major American bank,” which many speculate is Bank of America. Assange says he has 5 GB of the executive’s information, some of which will expose an “ecosystem of corruption.” While Bank of America denies the claim, it has established a team to read over thousands of documents and investigate the bank’s computers to determine what could have been leaked.

Furthermore, a former Swiss bank executive recently announced he had transferred information regarding more than 2,000 individuals and companies who, he claims, engaged in tax evasion and other illegal practices. Assange says he could release this information in the coming weeks.

Emphasizing his role as journalist, not activist, Assange says, “It’s not about saving the whales. It’s about giving people the information they need to support whaling or not support whaling. Why? That is the raw ingredients that is needed to make a just and civil society. And without that you’re just sailing in the dark.”