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WikiLeaks 101

WikiLeaks is a nonprofit organization whose stated purpose is “exposing oppressive regimes” and “to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.” Its website, WikiLeaks.org, launched in 2007, has so far made public more than 700,000 sensitive or classified documents written by U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. Supporters see WikiLeaks as a whistleblower, shedding light on secrets that governments would prefer their citizens not to know. Critics have called the organization irresponsible, and accused it of endangering innocent lives and U.S. diplomatic interests.

Who’s behind this?

Julian Assange, an Australian born in 1971, calls himself the editor-in-chief, and is the only spokesman for the group. He studied physics, math and computer programming, and is an expert computer hacker. He travels constantly, but avoids the U.S. for fear of arrest. (You can see him interviewed here.)

In late 2010, Assange was accused of rape by two Swedish women, a charge he strongly denies; he calls the accusations “dirty tricks.” (For more on this, go here.) After Interpol, the international police agency, announced a Swedish arrest warrant on Assange, he was arrested in London. Though denied bail at first, he was later released on $315,000 bail. He is fighting extradition to Sweden.

Among the documents leaked so far:

• Operating procedures for the U.S. Army detention camp at Guantánamo—including the designation of some prisoners as off-limits to the International Red Cross (something the military had previously denied).

• “Collateral Murder,” video of a 2007 incident in which U.S. soldiers in a helicopter gunship killed Iraqis, including two Reuters correspondents. (See this Reuters story for details.)

• “Afghan War Diary,” 92,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan, including revelations about civilian casualties and links between the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence services.

• “Iraq War Logs,” nearly 392,000 U.S. Army field reports from the war in Iraq. This is the largest military leak in U.S. history. Among other topics, the reports cover the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and civilian death counts.

• November, 2010: 251,287 confidential diplomatic cables sent from U.S. embassies. (WikiLeaks provided all of the cables to a handful of major newspapers, but as of November, the website had published only 220 of the actual cables.) According to the White House, this leak could “deeply impact not only U.S. foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.”

• December, 2010: a diplomatic cable listing sites worldwide that the U.S. considers vital to its national security.

• April, 2011: classified military documents that detail goings-on at the Guantánamo detention camp. For a summary, see the Daily Beast.

(For a more complete list of documents released by WikiLeaks, see Wikipedia.)

Revelations in those diplomatic cables

• That Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered American diplomats to spy on high U.N. officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and representatives from China, Russia, France, and the U.K. She directed them to gather credit card numbers, DNA, fingerprints, and iris scans.

• That Iran has reportedly received 19 missiles from North Korea that are capable of attacking Russia and Western Europe.

• That King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the U.S. repeatedly to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities—to “cut off the head of the snake.” Leaders of Jordan, Bahrain and Israel also called for military action against Iran.

• That, in a desperate attempt to remove prisoners from Guantánamo, the State Department has tried to persuade various countries to take the prisoners, and has offered cash and other inducements in exchange.

• That Chinese cyber-terrorists were behind a 2009 attack on Google’s computer systems. Chinese hackers have also penetrated the U.S. government, businesses, and the Dalai Lama’s personal computer.

• That the U.S. has been secretly bombing terrorist targets in Yemen. Yemen’s president told General David Petraeus, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

• The cables also contain bluntly critical remarks on foreign leaders, including Italy’s prime minister and Germany’s chancellor.

• Cables made public on 12/6/10 identified sites around the world that the U.S. considers vital to its national security. Critics said the leak would provide terrorists with a target list; but, as the New York Times points out, the list “appears largely limited to sites that any would-be terrorist with Internet access and a bit of ingenuity might quickly have identified.” In fact, Al-Qaeda already attacked one of them, a crude oil processing plant in Saudi Arabia, in 2006. (For more on the story, see this New York Times article.)

How the leaks reached an audience of millions

WikiLeaks has provided its documents to major periodicals, including the Guardian (U.K.), Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, and the New York Times. Times editor Bill Keller, in defending the decision to publish the diplomatic cables, wrote that the paper has edited out any information that could identify confidential sources or compromise national security.

Extreme reactions

Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner and Fox News commentator Bob Beckel both called for the assassination of Assange. (For details, go here and here.) Senator Joe Lieberman said, “I think this is the most serious violation of the Espionage Act in our history,” and called for the Justice Department to look into the New York Times’s role in publishing the leaked documents. Sarah Palin called for Assange and his allies to be “pursued” like al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Where do they get these documents?

Julian Assange told Time magazine, “We’re a source-protection organization, so the last thing we would do is discuss possible sources.” The chief suspect in recent leaks is U.S. Army Pfc. (Private First Class) Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst in Iraq, who had access to sensitive and classified information. After boasting about the leaks to a former computer hacker (who tipped off the FBI and Army officials), Manning was arrested in May, 2010, and is now being held at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia, awaiting court martial. He reportedly said that the diplomatic cables show “how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective.”

Isn’t it illegal to leak secret documents?

According to the U.S. State Department, yes: in late November an advisor wrote to WikiLeaks, “If any of the materials you intend to publish were provided by any government officials, or any intermediary without proper authorization, they were provided in violation of U.S. law.”

The U.S. may choose to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917, which makes it a crime to convey information with the intent to interfere with U.S. military action, or possibly for other offenses, including trafficking in stolen property. (For background on the various legal options, see this New York Times story.). Leak cases are difficult to try, however: prosecutors have never succeeded in convicting anyone who received leaked information and then passed it on.

But the WikiLeaks case has become a high-profile embarrassment, and many critics have put pressure on the Obama Administration to take action—either by going after WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization or by prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act. (To do so, he would first have to be extradited to the U.S.) In the event of a prosecution, the Supreme Court will have to balance the Espionage Act against the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. A Congressional Research Service report concluded, “Whether the publication of national security information can be punished likely turns on the value of the information to the public weighed against the likelihood of identifiable harm to the national security.”

Recent developments

PayPal, Visa and MasterCard have stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks, and Amazon.com has stopped allowing the organization to use its computer servers. In retaliation for this and for Assange’s arrest, internet activists coordinated by a group calling itself “Anonymous” mounted a campaign to strike back: shutting down the companies’ websites by sending so much traffic to the sites that they couldn’t function. The sites were back in operation later the same day, however. (For details, see this New York Times article.)

• 2/8/11: More documents released. Confidential cables written by American diplomats in Saudi Arabia in 2007-2009 warned that the country’s reserves of crude oil might have been overstated by as much as 40 percent.

• 2/11/11: Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaks staff member, has published a book (Inside WikiLeaks) that discusses tensions between Assange and others in the group’s inner circle.

• 3/2/11: After a 7-month Army investigation, 22 new charges have been filed against Pfc. Bradley Manning. The new charges include aiding the enemy: a capital offense, though prosecutors said they would not recommend the death penalty. It seems that military officials want to punish Manning so severely that others in the armed forces will be discouraged from leaking sensitive documents.

• 4/27/11: By releasing secret files on the web, WikiLeaks has created a category of documents that are available to the public but still classified. This has led to some bizarre rules from government agencies. See the New York Times for more.

• 10/24/11: Bank of America, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and Western Union have “blockaded” WikiLeaks, eliminating 95% of its revenue. As a result, Julian Assange announced, WikiLeaks will stop publishing secrets so that he can raise funds to continue operating. For details, see the Guardian.

• 11/2/11: Julian Assange has lost his court fight in England, and will be extradited to Sweden to answer questions about rape accusations.

Two points of view on the leaks

Two letters published in the New York Times express the opposing points of view. Here are excerpts:

“[I]t is important to remember why an institution like WikiLeaks is necessary. State secrets serve to shield citizens from cynical, immoral and brutal actions of their governments. They help to dehumanize our institutions, and they impair our ability to make democratic change. There are many, many more lives lost from secrecy than from the telling of secrets.”

Michael Farzan,
Brookline, Mass.

“I am appalled by the WikiLeaks operation and the media’s role as accomplice. ¶The United States government is dealing with two wars. It seeks to contain the rogue regimes in Iran and North Korea. It must manage a problematic relationship with China, not to mention an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan. In this situation, America needs all the friends it can muster, and it needs those friends to have confidence in Washington. ¶Leaks of the diplomatic cables undermine that confidence, making the administration’s role all the more difficult.”

Laurence I. Barrett,
Chevy Chase, Md.


Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who in 1971leaked the Pentagon Papers (a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. decision-making about the Vietnam War): “Not one single soldier or informant has been in danger from any of the WikiLeaks releases. That risk has been largely overblown.”

Daniel Yates, a former British military intelligence officer: “Assange has seriously endangered the lives of Afghan civilians… It is inevitable that the Taliban will now seek violent retribution on those who have cooperated with NATO.” (In response, Assange said that the leaked documents are carefully reviewed, and that the names of “innocent people who are under reasonable threat” are removed.)

An opinion roundup in The Week

Paul W. Schroeder, “The Secret Lives of Nations,” New York Times, 12/3/10: “Secrecy is an essential part of any negotiation… [It] is nowhere more essential than in foreign relations… [L]eaks like this simply make those in power retreat further into the shadows to defend themselves and their positions… The leaks will probably not cause war or even a serious crisis, but they will badly damage America’s diplomatic machinery…”

Max Frankel, “Secrets shared with millions are not secret,” The Guardian, 12/1/10: “…sophisticated reportage of foreign affairs routinely requires officials and reporters to traffic in classified secrets… [T]these technical breaches of security are essential to public understanding of current events… So government has acquired the habit of classifying everything it does, thinks, plans or contemplates in the realm of foreign policy… ¶As Justice [Potter] Stewart shrewdly observed… Congress is easily browbeaten into patriotic silence when the war drums roll… That is why Stewart held that ‘the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry…’… While the journalist in me recognises a clear duty to publish and be damned, the citizen in me also recognises a mess too far… [N]o family, business or government can function without some genuine secrets. The trick is to focus on the genuine and to treat truly essential secrets accordingly.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais defends the decision to publish leaked diplomatic cables: “This has never happened before: The State Department papers throw light on the seamy side of American diplomacy”: editorial, 12/6/10

How dangerous was the release of that list of sites critical to U.S. national security? An article on the website Homeland Security Today

Fareed Zakaria, “WikiLeaks Shows the Skills of U.S. Diplomats,” Time, 12/2/10: finds the released diplomatic cables “actually quite reassuring about the way Washington — or at least the State Department — works. ¶First, there is little deception. These leaks have been compared to the Pentagon papers. Which they are not. The Pentagon papers revealed that the U.S. engaged in a systematic campaign to deceive the world and the American people and that its private actions were often the opposite of its stated public policy. The WikiLeaks documents, by contrast, show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly.”

To learn more

“WikiLeaks 101,” The Christian Science Monitor, 12/1/10

The New York Times


A profile of Julian Assange, in Time magazine

For more on the contents of the leaked diplomatic cables: The Week

How WikiLeaks is collaborating with major news organizations to edit the diplomatic cables before posting them: an AP story

Why Pfc. Bradley Manning had access to so much sensitive information: see CNN


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Last updated 12/22/11

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