WikiLeaks has become a symbol of resistance to total government and corporate control over information and by extension, our lives.
Yet it often seems lately that the drama surrounding the organization is given more coverage than its actual revelations. Aside from founder Julian Assange’s ongoing battle to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape and sexual assault charges, there’s growing conflict with the leaks organization’s former media partners over unredacted documents, arguments in the press about the proper way to handle sensitive information, and of course the ongoing concern of many for the treatment in prison of alleged leaker Bradley Manning.
After the recent exposure of all 251,287 diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks possessed in their original forms, with names of sources and sensitive information intact, the swirl of controversy has all but overshadowed the value of the information itself. Still, WikiLeaks continues to shape the public debate over war, diplomacy, US power, secrecy, information technology, and the role of journalism.
We’ve got eight things you need to know to be up-to-date on the latest with WikiLeaks.
1. Unredacted documents released
While working with the Guardian newspaper to release selected leaked documents, WikiLeaks briefly placed an encrypted file containing its entire cache of documents on a shared server and gave the password to reporters collaborating on the release. When Guardian editor David Leigh’s book about WikiLeaks came out, he published the password to the encrypted file, apparently unaware that the file had been copied and was circulating on the Web–and that the password still worked. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks decided that since the information was already available, they’d release the full cache of diplomatic cables given to the site.
WikiLeaks, after querying its Twitter followers, published a searchable database containing all 251,287 cables. While it’s been described as “an astonishingly comprehensive, publicly available, fully searchable and free archive of US diplomacy covering every corner of the globe,” the archive contains the full, unredacted versions of the cables—including names and descriptions of sources, including whistleblowers and human rights activists.
“This incident is unfortunate in the extreme for multiple reasons: it’s possible that diplomatic sources identified in the cables (including whistleblowers and human rights activists) will be harmed; this will be used by enemies of transparency and WikiLeaks to disparage both and even fuel efforts to prosecute the group; it implicates a newspaper, the Guardian, that generally produces very good and responsible journalism; it likely increases political pressure to impose more severe punishment on Bradley Manning if he’s found guilty of having leaked these cables; and it will completely obscure the already-ignored, important revelations of serious wrongdoing from these documents. It’s a disaster from every angle.”
WikiLeaks head Assange claimed that it was necessary to release the information because “We had a case where every intelligence agency has the material and the people who are mentioned do not have the material … So you have a race between the bad guys and the good guys and it was necessary for us to stand on the side of the good guys.”
Obviously Assange considers himself one of the good guys, but the exposure of activists and confidential sources around the world could have serious consequences for those named, as Greenwald pointed out, and also make other whistleblowers less inclined to go to WikiLeaks with their secrets.
2. New revelations
Though many of the WikiLeaks cable trove had been previously released with names redacted, and the controversy over their release threatened to overshadow the information within them, there were a few new revelations worth noting.
There’s also a cable confirming that troops, in 2006, carried out a house raid on the home of an Iraqi farmer, handcuffing all the residents of the house before shooting them all in the head. They included children aged 5, 3, and 5 months, the farmer’s 74-year-old mother, and visiting relatives. The cable, from Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, to Condoleeza Rice, also reveals that a US airstrike was then called in on the house, presumably to destroy evidence, but “autopsies carried out at the Tikrit Hospital’s morgue revealed that all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed.”
Salon’s Justin Elliott reports on another cable, one expressing concern over Microsoft’s relationship with deposed Tunisian dictator Ben Ali:
“In a September 2006 cable flagged by ZDNet, an official at the embassy in Tunis expressed reservations about a deal that provided ‘for Microsoft investment in training, research, and development, but also commits the GOT [Government of Tunisia] to using licensed Microsoft software.’ The basic concern was that the software giant would be helping Ben Ali’s regime oppress Tunisians more effectively.”
On WikiLeaks’ own site, it catalogues 30 new revelations, including that China’s nuclear safety is at risk due to outdated technology, and that Wal-Mart has unions in China but not in the US. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has children, including former child soldiers, working for $1 or $2 a day in the mines and the government is looking the other way, and “Guyana is well on its way to narco-statehood.”
One cable describes “institutionalised discrimination and the denial of public services” to Israel’s Bedouin citizens, even though they “continue to serve voluntarily in the IDF and otherwise support the state, media commentators and Israeli politicians often refer to the threat of a second ’intifada’ coming from the Negev Bedouin.”
And the New York Times reported in detail on the complications coming from the Chinese cables, none of which are super-secret, but which, the Times writes, “could lead to serious consequences for Chinese academics, students and others who talked frankly to American officials, and who are identified, either by name or by precise description, in cables dealing with analyses of Chinese positions.”
3. War with the press?
The release of the unredacted cables drew an angry response from WikiLeaks’ former media partners, the Guardian, Le Monde, the New York Times, El Pais, and Der Spiegel. While WikiLeaks would post the cables on its own site, reporters at the media partners carefully pored through the cables and wrote articles explaining the most important (to them) facts within.
The partners released a statement that said in part “we deplore the decision of WikiLeaks to publish the un-redacted state department cables, which may put sources at risk,” and they argued “the decision to publish by Julian Assange was his, and his alone.”
This last bit because Assange posted a commentary on the WikiLeaks site announcing that he had “commenced pre-litigation action” against the Guardian. Yet WikiLeaks, the Guardian noted, has threatened them with lawsuits before and none of them have come to pass.
Assange blames David Leigh and the Guardian for forcing his hand by releasing the password to the file cache; Leigh denies this, pointing out that he was told the password would be temporary and that the files should not have been so easily available.
Whomever is most to blame for the release of the unredacted cables, it seems likely that media organizations will be less interested in working with Assange and WikiLeaks in the future.
4. Fallout with former members of WikiLeaks
In addition to threatening suit against the Guardian, Assange has also threatened a lawsuit against Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the former lieutenant to Assange at WikiLeaks before his departure (on bad terms) to found a competitor site, OpenLeaks (which Greenwald notes has so far yet to produce any leaks of its own). Assange claims that Domscheit-Berg was the one responsible for spreading the name and location of the file containing the unredacted cables around the Web.
Robert X. Cringely at InfoWorld, in analyzing responsibility for the revelations, wrote:
“If you want to tell the world what an irresponsible egomaniac Assange has been, that’s fine — but you don’t do it by being an equally irresponsible egomaniac. The marriage of the stupidly leaked password with the location of the file it applies to comes down to a spat between two ego-driven radicals. Gee, that’s one we all haven’t heard before.”
But that’s not the only casualty of the fight between Assange and Domscheit-Berg. According to the BBC, Domscheit-Berg had in his possession several documents leaked to WikiLeaks, including a copy of the complete US no-fly list—which he has supposedly “shredded” to avoid compromising sources.
5. Bank of America documents destroyed
One of the most anticipated revelations from WikiLeaks may never come out, now. Along with the no-fly list, Domscheit-Berg claims to have destroyed five gigabytes of data about Bank of America. I wrote recently:
“Bank of America might be breathing a sigh of relief this week, as a breakaway WikiLeaks member told Der Speigelthat he had destroyed five gigabytes of information from the troubled bank. Daniel Domscheit-Berg claimed that he destroyed the data in order to make sure the sources would not be exposed. Julian Assange claimed this winter to have damning information on the big bank, but held out on releasing it.
But just the threat alone was enough to send BoA to web security firm HBGary—or so we found out when hacker collective Anonymous broke into HBGary’s files and found a file containing a plan to take down WikiLeaks, including attacks aimed at reporters and bloggers like Glenn Greenwald.”
While Bank of America continues to struggle, it appears that at least it doesn’t have to worry about its dirty laundry being aired in public.
6. Bradley Manning update
This week, the Council of Europe, an international organization the BBC describes as Europe’s “human rights watchdog,” released a report expressing support for accused leaker Bradley Manning. The report called Manning a “whistleblower,” and thanked the Army soldier for helping to expose human rights violations, including the targeting of civilians.
Manning remains in Fort Leavenworth awaiting trial for leaking the cables and a shocking video of a helicopter attack in Iraq. In July,Wired magazine released the full chat logs purported to be between Manning and Adrian Lamo, the government informant who turned Manning in, that will no doubt be important at trial.
In addition, the logs reveal personal information: Manning appears to tell Lamo about being transgender. (Emily Manuel speculated on this topic for AlterNet earlier this summer.)
7. Julian Assange update
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains on house arrest—or rather, mansion arrest—in the UK as he continues to fight extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual assault and rape.
There’s also the possibility that he could be extradited to the US to face charges over the leaking of the documents; and over the release of the unredacted documents, he could also face charges in his home country of Australia. Among the unredacted names in the 251,287 cables is one belonging to a senior Australian Security Intelligence Organization officer—revealing that name is a crime.
A decision on his extradition appeal should come next month.
Meanwhile, Assange is the personal target of much of the anger at WikiLeaks from its former press partners, and others in the press don’t seem to think very highly of the self-styled radical. Robert X. Cringelywrote, “Assange may think himself as some kind of master spy, but he’s less James Bond and more Maxwell Smart.”
8. Is WikiLeaks done?
“Our promise to sources is [still] that we will protect them and we will publish, and we will publish with impact, and I think it is clear to everyone that we kept our promise,” Assange said in a speech to a Berlin technology trade show.
“[N]early a year after critical software was removed by Domscheit-Berg and another WikiLeaks defector, WikiLeaks’ confidential submission mechanism remains out of action. Assange says the facility will be up and running soon and that WikiLeaks has more startling information in its secure servers, but this remains to be seen.”
The paper also pointed out that public interest in the WikiLeaks cables seemed to wane. The initial shock over the first video and then the first cables has led to fatigue; now, there is more interest in how the unredacted cables came to be published than in their contents.
“The release of the documents to the New York Times, The Guardianand Der Spiegelwas thus a canny move, but one that factored in its own obsolescence. Last year, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said that ‘you’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.'”
And now that Assange seems to have burned bridges with his media partners and published all the information he has, if Domscheit-Berg has destroyed the Bank of America documents and other leaked files, what’s the next step for WikiLeaks?
“Will anyone want to play with WikiLeaks again?” asked Mathew J. Schwartz at InformationWeek. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s piece is titled “Nothing left to leak?”
“As independent media withers up and blows away, we are increasingly at the mercy of megacorps for our information. Independent, untouchable, unimpeachable sources for secrets those in power don’t want you to know could fill the gap left by the death of investigative journalism. That was the idea, anyway. The reality turns out to be slightly different.”
Truly independent media face an uphill battle as they try to expose the secrets of massive corporations and powerful governments. The odds are stacked against the public’s access to information. Even with WikiLeaks’ exposure of secrets, we can see that little has changed politically. Is it time for a more proactive type of hacktivism, such as those practiced by Anonymous and Lulzsec, or will WikiLeaks come back with even more provocative revelations?
Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch