25 Jul 2010

Afghan leak: what is Wikileaks?

It’s behind the biggest leak of secret information since the Vietnam “Pentagon Papers” were made public nearly 40 years ago. But what is Wikileaks? Channel 4 News examines the whistleblowers’ website.


Wikileaks brings information to the public which its founders believe the public has a right to know.

Often, this information is exactly the kind which the organisations and governments involved would really much rather the public did not know.

Set up in Sweden in 2006 by Julian Assange, Time Magazine said it could have as much of an impact on journalism as the Freedom of Information Act.

What is Wikileaks?

Wikileaks is a website set up by a group of human rights activists, technical people and journalists to bring sensitive materials to the attention of the public.

In an exclusive interview with Channel 4 News, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange described the service as: “an international public service that helps whistleblowers or journalists get suppressed information out to the public – and do it safely.”

The team obtains, publishes and defends such materials, usually from anonymous sources, and also fights in the legal and political spheres for the broader principles on which is is based: “the integrity of our common historical record and the rights of all peoples to create new history.”

Once a Wikileaks document is published, the team will fight not to censor or remove the information through its team of lawyers. It also fights to protect its sources.

On its website, the team describe Wikileaks as, in a sense, “the first intelligence agency of the people.” Despite the name, its only real connection to Wikipedia is the name and presentation style. The public cannot edit anything on Wikileaks, which is instead controlled by a small team of professionals.

It has a presence in a number of countries to benefit from different legal environments, but is believed to have originally been established in Sweden in 2006. It is banned by the Chinese government.

Why was it set up?

The founders say that they set up Wikileaks to protect people who want to bring secrets out into the public domain, across the globe. Their aim is to make government activities more transparent, leading to less corruption, better governance and stronger democracies.

Wikileaks says that obtaining this information has traditionally been costly, both in terms of human life and human rights. But technological advances mean that the risks of getting this kind of infromation out there are lower.

Who is behind Wikileaks?

It is run by a company called the Sunshine Press. Its main spokesman, and founder, is an Australian called Julian Assange, who spoke to Channel 4 News about the site in a rare interview.

He said the site is different to others because of the way it works.

“The key difference is that we have a stated commitment to a particular kind of process and objective, and that commitment is to get censored material out and never to take it down,” he said.

“That commitment has driven our technical and legal process and has resulted in sources understanding that we are the most trusted organisation to give material to and we always fight attempted censorship and have always won. That kind of moral clarity of our position has got us a lot of support – from sources wanting to give us material and from journalists and free press advocates who know that we should be supported because we’re the vanguard of an ideal which is that justice comes about as a result of the disclosure of abuse.”

The site began as an online dialogue between activists in different parts of the globe, who were concerned that people were suffering as a result of resources being diverted through corruption of governance.

Who is Julian Assange? 
The founder of Wikileaks does not court publicity.

Once asked by a reporter for a face-to-face meeting, he apparently retorted: "What’d you want to see — the way I move my eyebrows?"

He has never officially given his age, but is believed to be a 37-year old Australian who set up Wikileaks as part of a crusade to make governments accountable.

He's broken his silence for Channel 4 News, but it's no surprise he's keeping his head down: he's made quite a few enemies since setting up Wikileaks in 2006, including, he says, the Pentagon.

He says Wikileaks, which has more than a million documents online, has fought off more than 100 lawsuits - so he clearly does not shy away from a fight.

According to The Times newspaper, he was arrested as part of a group of computer hackers in 1989, when, just as the Atlantis space shuttle was about to be launched, Nasa's computer monitors showed one giant word - "Wank", the acronym for hacker group Worms Against Nuclear Killers. Assange was one of six Melbourne teens arrested by police. Although never implicated in the Nasa attack, he was charged with more than 30 counts of computer crime, placed on a "good behaviour bond" and fined about £1,275 in today's money.

Since 1989, it is believed he worked in computer security and raised a son. He also took a mathematics and physics course at Melbourne University.

He is believed to have lived in a number of countries around the world, and evaded capture from people who don't share his beliefs a number of times.

His inspiration for Wikileaks is said to have come from one of the most notorious leaks of all time: when in 1971 top secret papers about America's political and military involvement in Vietnam were brought to light in the New York Times, which became known as the "Pentagon Papers".

As an organisation, Wikileaks remains quite secretive as a result of the nature of the information it works with, and to avoid detection. It only employs a small number of staff, and is funded through a mixture of small donations and other funders with deeper pockets.

What has it done?

Wikileaks has published secret information obtained from sources across the world.

Two of its biggest leaks, which made headlines globally, were in Kenya and Iraq.

In Kenya, before the 2007 election, Wikileaks exposed $3,000,000,000 of Kenyan corruption, which they say swung the vote by 10% and led to enormous changes in the Kenyan constitution as well as the establishment of a more open government.

From Iraq, Wikileaks uncovered a video of a helicopter attack by the US military in which a number of people died, including two Reuters journalists.

The black-and-white video shows US Apache helicopters in a Baghdad suburb, opening fire on a group of men, including two men identified by WikiLeaks as Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh.

The helicopter then fires on a van as those on board try to flee. The video also shows ground troops carrying two injured children from the van.

The incident took place in 2007, and Reuters spent several years attempting to get the US authorities to investigate or release the video before it appeared on Wikileaks titled “Collateral Murder”.

Who are the whistleblowers?
It is a key question - and no doubt on the lips of the US authorities over the latest leak.

But Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange told Channel 4 News that often, their security is so tight, they themselves do not even know, and he said that was the case in this leak.

"So other journalists try to verify sources," he said. "We don't do that, we verify documents. We don't care where it came from, but we can guess that it probably came from somewhere in the US military or the US government, from someone who is disaffected. Clearly a heroic act by the whistleblower. The system we have deployed to make whistleblowers to us untraceable also prevents us knowing who they are."

However, occasionally whistleblowers do confess, or are exposed.

A US military analyst called Bradley Manning is currently in detention in Kuwait, charged with leaking the video of a US helicopter attack in Iraq which Wikileaks suggests 12 people died, including two Reuters journalists.

Wikileaks has never said whether he is the source, but is understood to have hired lawyers to work on his case.

Manning, 22, was arrested after boasting to a high-profile former hacker, Adrian Lamo, that he passed the material to WikiLeaks. He also said at the time that he passed thousands of pages of confidential American diplomatic cables to Wikileaks as well.

Lamo said he was concerned by Manning's claim that he had sent 260,000 pages of cables to WikiLeaks.

"Hillary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world, are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public," Manning is said to have written.

It has not been proven whether Manning sent the cables or whether they are in any way connected to the leaks on Afghanistan.

Assange declined to comment to Channel 4 News on the source for the information, saying it was technologically impossible to say who the source was. At other points, he has also said that Wikileaks did not have the cables Manning claimed to have sent.

Does it verify its documents, or its sources?

Not in the same way other media organisations would, but it does work hard to ensure its documents are real.

Rather than proving the source – indeed, Wikileaks sometimes does not know its source for reasons of security – it instead goes to the area the document covers to try and verify the document itself.

It also has a team checking whether the document is a forgery. The team says that, to date, it has not published any fake documents.

Often it receives encrypted information, and has to break the code. It gets information from all kinds of areas – from postal drops to face-to-face meetings.

Wikileaks staff write the document summaries, and they cannot be edited.

Has anyone tried to stop it?

Yes – and sometimes they have, albeit briefly, succeeded. For example, in 2008 Swiss bank Julius Baer got a court ruling to take the main site off the web after Wikileaks printed documents relating to its offshore activities. However, other versions remained online, and after international pressure from media and civil liberties groups, the bank dropped the case and the main site remained online as well.

Wikileaks also has a very sophisticated hosting platform, thanks in no small part to founder Julian Assange’s experience in computing. It also has robust defences which ensure the site cannot be hacked.

However, it has struggled with funding, and last year was temporarily shut down, before re-appearing in 2010.

How far will Wikileaks go?

Too far, according to some commentators, who fear that public safety could be sacrificed in the rush for information.

But, as Assange told Channel 4 News, the website operates a “harm minimisation process” which means that it would not publish information it believed would cause more harm than good.

He said: “Sources know when they submit material that we go through a harm minimisation process. That harm minimisation process is not about removing material, it’s about minimising harm. We have a number of ways to do that.

“The way we have done it in the past and it’s always been effective – notify and delay. Notify the people concerned and delay the publication as a result.”

When asked if this harm minimisation process meant he would publish highly sensitive information such as weapon locations, CIA reports and even nuclear launch codes, he responded: “After they’ve been changed – the launch codes – then we could publish it. That would reveal that the process of securing these things are a big problem and, as we all should know, nuclear war while quite distant, is still technically possible.”