When Wikileaks unencrypted and published exclusive US military footage of American soldiers in an Apache helicopter gunning down 12 people in Baghdad – including two Reuters journalists – the organisation gained new viewers and international attention.
Sree Sreenivasan, a digital media professor at Columbia Journalism School, told The Independent:
“This might be the story that makes Wikileaks blow up. It’s not some huge document with lots of fine print – you can just watch it and you get what it’s about immediately. It’s a whole new world of how stories get out.”
But it manages to break major stories the mainstream press was unable to report. Reuters had been working for two years to access the Baghdad video through the Freedom of Information Act.
In less than a week, the 18-minute version of the black-and-white footage – to which Wikileaks added narrative text and subtitles – was watched 4.6 million times on YouTube.
A 40-minute, unedited version was viewed half a million times.
Those counts don’t include copies and versions shown by broadcasters like CNN.
What is Wikileaks?
Wikileaks has been receiving and publishing leaked memos, reports, databases and briefings since 2006. It publishes explanatory press releases alongside the documents it receives from whistleblowers around the world.
Much of the information published by Wikileaks has resulted in front-page stories that lead to political or regulatory changes. These kinds of changes are the primary motivation of the site.
Wikileaks says it has published more than a million documents without revealing an anonymous source.
A few major Wikileaks scoops:
A report from the commodities company Trafigura about toxic waste dumping in Ivory Coast. Wikileaks published the information after Trafigura successfully filed a “super-injunction” against The Guardian. This was lifted after Wikileaks published the documents.
The site published a membership list of the secretive British National Party. Policeman and other professionals are not allowed to join the far-right political group; a few of the members Wikileaks exposed were fired from their jobs as teachers, policemen and clergymen.
Operating manuals for the US prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay. These described prisoner intimidation tactics involving dogs and described hiding prisoners from the International Red Cross.
A list of websites blacklisted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
A recording of a top state official in Peru talking with a lobbyist about payments to help Discover Petroleum of Norway firm win contracts. Peru’s energy and mines minister resigned as a result of the story.
Internal documents from Kaupthing Bank, an Icelandic bank taken over by that government in 2009. The documents exposed large loans the bank made to its shareholders in the weeks prior to the financial crisis in Iceland.
Kaupthing Bank’s lawyers fought to keep the story off of RUV, the national public broadcaster in Iceland. They filed a successful injunction against RUV, but the news anchors mentioned the story on air – as well as the injunction – and referred viewers to Wikileaks for more information.
National outrage over the injunction sparked a movement called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). It is an ongoing attempt to craft media laws that would attract media businesses – particularly those with an investigative bent – to set up shop in Iceland.
Wikileaks has been recognised with awards like the 2008 Economist New Media Award and a 2009 Amnesty International New Media Award.
The “wiki” prefix rather reflects the concept guiding Wikileaks: For anyone to be able to upload and post sensitive documents – like the encrypted US Army video – without editorial interference.
There is no relationship between Wikipedia and Wikileaks.
All reach the same conclusion: There are more questions than answers about Wikileaks.
Two things about the people involved in creating and propagating the site are certainly true:
- They’d rather journalists didn’t bother profiling them. Rather, Wikileaks organisers seem to prefer that journalists focus their attention on materials leaked through their website.
- They’d rather not give out any information about themselves. This ethos evokes images of spies and so-called “hacktivists.” And of course, they refuse to give any information about their sources.
An Australian man named Julian Assange is the public face of Wikileaks. Little is known about Assange’s background, place of residency or daily whereabouts. His behaviour during one-on-one interviews with journalists has been described as erratic and slightly paranoid.
He has left comments on articles about Wikileaks in which he says the articles contain inaccurate or unfair information about the Wikileaks. But he does not typically respond to the resulting offers to provide more detailed information about his Wikileaks colleagues.
Assange did research for the 1997 book, Underground: Tales of hacking, madness and obsession on the electronic frontier.
Verifiable information about other Wikileaks contributors is difficult to find.
Wikileaks is the kind of organisation about which it is easy to spin conspiracy theories:
- It regularly publishes sensitive information governments and big companies don’t want the public to see.
- Little is known about where its servers are – some reports say Sweden, others Iceland – although its main domain name is registered in California. It also has, though, mirror sites and country-specific domain names.
- While it is customary in Western journalism that whistleblowers remain anonymous, information is usually available about the journalists or media outlets who gather and publish scoops.
Some people have wondered if Wikileaks is a front for the CIA.
One of the sources cited by conspiracy theorists is John Young, an American who runs the website Cryptome. It has a mission identical to that of Wikileaks; it has posted around 54,000 documents
There is a connection between Young and Assange – the two corresponded at length in a series of e-mails Young posted on Cryptome – but the tone of their current relationship is not clear.
Young responded on his website to recent questions about his opinion regarding Wikileak’s potential CIA ties:
“Copying the behavior of spy agencies is exactly what they want in order to legitimate their criminal chicanery. Until Wikileaks becomes a fully open and accountable operation it is the same as the spy agencies and indeed helps legitimate their manipulation of public opinion on behalf of their self-promotion “in the public interest.”
In early 2009 Wikileaks suspended operations to focus on fundraising.
It took all its material offline – although distributed copies remain scattered around the Internet – and said it was focusing on meeting a fundraising goal of $600,000 with a minimum of $200,000.
Wikileaks quickly met its $200,000 goal.
The site says it accepts no government or corporate funding. It relies on private donations and pro-bono support from lawyers.
The staff who manage daily operations – which Assange has said is himself and four others – is not paid on a regular basis. As for keeping fed, Assange has said he “made money on the Internet.”
In 2008, Wikileaks experimented with auctioning exclusivity rights to thousands of e-mails between Hugo Chavez and his speechwriter (himself a former ambassador to Argentina).
The auction was logistically difficult to arrange and was the subject of more media coverage than the content of the e-mails. Wikileaks has not since attempted duplicate such a large-scale auction.