The late July publication of thousands of secret U.S. documents relating to the war in Afghanistan by the mysterious website WikiLeaks has launched countless questions about WikiLeaks, who's behind it, where the documents came from, what their significance is, and if the release of these raw documents can be considered journalism.
In this first part of a two-part series on WikiLeaks, StinkyJournalism writes about what people believe WikiLeaks is and isn't as an organization. In part two, we look at the serious case of the secret Afghan War document dump.
The site, which dubs itself a place "to protect whistleblowers, journalists, and activists," has yet to publish 15,000 related documents. Those documents are still being reviewed to ensure that they don't identify any informants, according to reports in Salon and The New York Times.
The Pentagon demanded on Aug. 5 that WikiLeaks remove all 70,000+ documents it has posted from its site and not to post the 15,000 remaining documents.
WikiLeaks receives about 30 submissions a day, according to The New Yorker. WikiLeaks clarifies on its website that it has no relation to Wikipedia outside of the similar design.
Julian Assange is the frontman for WikiLeaks. Assange, a 39-year-old Australia native, calls himself the editor-in-chief of the site.
A lengthy June 7 profile in The New Yorker, reveals that Assange lives “in airports these days,” moving from country to country. "It is fair to say that WikiLeaks exists wherever he does,” The New Yorker wrote.
Assange said in a July video interview with nonprofit Ted.com that he himself rarely knows the sources of WikiLeaks information. He does think “there are legitimate secrets,” listing doctors records as an example. He said that he was a “very young journalist activist at an early age and as a teenager was prosecuted for that magazine." But, according to Vanity Fair, as a teenager, Assange was part of a group of computer hackers called the International Subversives and he was charged with - but not imprisoned for - hacking into a Canadian telecommunications company.
When asked in that Ted.com interview what his core values are, Assange said that he finds policing criminals a way to “nurture victims” and that he believes “capable generous men do not create victims, they nurture victims.”
His speakers' profile on Ted.com says that he was a student of physics and mathematics at the University of Melbourne.
In 2007, he launched WikiLeaks. In 2009, Amnesty International gave him an international media award for its publication of "extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya."
WHAT WIKILEAKS IS
WikiLeaks launched publicly in 2007. The site, led by Assange and run by 1,200 international volunteers (as of Jan. 2010, The Guardian writes) and a handful of full-time workers, “is all about opening up secrets,” NPR wrote. Correspondence among the site's workers is exchanged via encrypted chats and people are identified by initials, not names, The New Yorker wrote.
Huffington Post reported Aug 2 that one worker, volunteer WikiLeaks researcher Jacob Appelbaum, was taken for "random" security search when he landed at Newark international airport last Thursday. Appelbaum was asked for the whereabouts of Assange and his attitudes to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to an anonymously sourced account from CNET.
Media critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen called it “the world’s first stateless news organization” July 26 on his Press Think blog.
NPR reported July 31 that New York Times' executive editor, Bill Keller, said about WikiLeaks that he's "shied away from the term 'whistle-blower' because that has a kind of, you know, halo around the term. But they are an advocacy organization. They have a point of view, and an ideology and they have a modus operandi, which consists of getting information wherever they can, and making it public."
Whistleblowers are employees who reveal inside information. In some cases, WikiLeaks may or may not have insiders providing internal documents. Though WikiLeaks itself is not a whistleblower, it can serve as a conduit for whistleblowers.
WikiLeaks' leaks in the past few years vary in importance. They include the Standard Operating Procedures at Guantánamo Bay’s Camp Delta; a batch of “Climategate” e-mails from the University of East Anglia, in England; and e-mails from Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo account, The New Yorker wrote, calling the site “a media insurgency,” instead of an organization.
The site claims to run leaked documents through a forensic analysis. However, it mentions limitations on their vetting practices due to prohibitive cost of forgery detection forensics when attempting to determine if a document is legitimate or not.
According to its website, WikiLeaks believes that it hasn't published any fake documents so far. However, the site's description creates wiggle room for any liability if they have, by suggesting that it is possible for it to have published a bad document. But it excuses that by publishing it, "the broader community" of people in the world can judge for themselves if any document is authentic. In other words, let others do the verification and pay for it. WikiLeaks' states:
"Given that many of the most prestigious newspapers, including the New York Times [Judith Miller, 2003], have published reports based on fabricated documents, WikiLeaks believes that best way to truly determine if a story is authentic, is not just our expertise, but to provide the full source document to the broader community - and particularly the community of interest around the document," WikiLeaks writes on its site.
Given this, NPR's David Folkenflik rightly cautions July 31 that the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project director, Steven Aftergood, said that WikiLeaks doesn't always "ask fundamental journalistic questions about the material it posts: Is it relevant to public policy, or to public accountability? Does it injure anyone?" He cites the publication of private sorority rites and Mormon rites as examples.
"It seems they have adopted a stance that secrecy is always wrong and that disclosure — even if it's compulsory, unwilling disclosure of private individuals' records — is always justified," NPR reported Aftergood said. "And to my mind, that's not just wrong, it's idiotic and dangerous."
Interestingly, in 2008, Wired reported that Aftergood previously suggested that WikiLeaks could be helpful to journalists:
"Working reporters can use all the help and sources they can get, and WikiLeaks does have a track record of getting their hands on documents that other people haven't. It also has the potential to introduce another layer of editorial judgment and I believe in editorial judgment on matters of confidentiality."
The Guardian reported Assange recently told an audience at the Frontline Club, a London journalism club, that WikiLeaks didn't want to be part of the story, but by trying "to make the news, not be the news," WikiLeaks itself became part of the story. "That produced extraordinary curiosity as to who we were ... this attempt not to be the news, made us the news," Assange said.
A major criticism of WikiLeaks is its lack of accountability, The Guardian wrote. "What this week has made clear is that it is no longer governments who can choose what to keep secret, it is WikiLeaks.”
Assange considers WikiLeaks to be journalism, it seems, as editorsweblog reported that Assange has said, while referring to WikiLeaks: "If journalism is good it is controversial by its nature."
The site has been blocked by the Chinese government since 2007, it says. But the site has created numerous sites people can use to dodge the censors and get in touch with WikiLeaks.
Wired reported March 17, 2009 that Australia also censored WikiLeaks.
U.S. troops are barred from reading the WikiLeaks documents, Wired reported in early August 2010.
WHAT IT ISN'T
Mark Thiessen (former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute) wrote in The Washington Post Aug 3 that "Let's be clear: WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise. Its reason for existence is to obtain classified national security information and disseminate it as widely as possible -- including to the United States' enemies.”
Thiessen suggested that WikiLeaks' publication probably violates the Espionage Act - going against the government - and called for the site to be shut down. “The Web site must be shut down and prevented from releasing more documents -- and its leadership brought to justice.”
In response, Michael Sherer wrote on a Time magazine blog Aug. 2 that he disagreed and that “I guess those who care about international press freedom can take comfort in the fact that Marc Thiessen no longer works for the government.”
Sherer wrote that to agree with Thiessen would make one “effectively have to reject the Supreme Court's opinion in New York Times Co. v. United States, the so-called Pentagon Papers case from 1971.”
The Pentagon Papers refers to the New York Times' 1971 publication of documents about the Vietnam War leaked to the Times by Daniel Ellsberg.
CNET reported that while some say that Assange is violating the Espionage Act, the act's “sweeping prohibition would apply to many newspapers and magazine reporters as well who published leaked information, and the U.S. Justice Department may not want to risk a First Amendment challenge to its scope.”
William Beutler wrote on his blog The Wikipedian that one thing WikiLeaks isn’t is a Wiki because wikis let “anyone create and edit its pages."
New York Magazine reported Aug 2 that Assange recently linked up with a Swedish company named Flattr. Flattr is a European micropayments service that allows members to give money to things they like posted online. Flattr members can donate to blogs, blog entries, comments, video, or pretty much anything posted on its site The war diary was posted on Flattr Aug 1, and as of Aug 12, has received 1173 Flattrs. Flattr members put in at least 2 Euros a month to their accounts on the site, and their Flattr money account is divided among anything they flattr.
Beyond Flattr income, WikiLeaks features a page for donations on its site. The Guardian reported Aug. 1 that after WikiLeaks' April publication of the Apache helicopter video, WikiLeaks pulled in “more than $200,000 in donations.”
There was a rumor that billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundation was funding WikiLeaks, but Cryptome.org published tax records, which debunk any WikiLeaks funding.
WikiLeaks published on April 5 a video named “Collateral Murder” - also known as the Apache helicopter video. The video, taken from a U.S. Apache helicopter during a 2007 mission in Iraq, is one of the more famous WikiLeaks publication. One can hear the pilots talking and see 18 people being killed, including two Reuters journalists.
Assange said that the video shows that U.S. rules of engagement weren't followed, Network World reported July 12.
Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old U.S. Army soldier, has been charged by the military with a dozen counts for his involvement in the video's publication. Computer hacker Adrian Lamo says that Manning confessed to leaking the video to WikiLeaks via online chats, and both Wired and The Washington Post have published excerpts of those chat logs.
Regarding the Apache helicopter video, The New Yorker wrote that that Assange has arranged WikiLeaks to be up on multiple servers making it difficult for any government to shut down content by closing down the web site. Assange told the New Yorker that the site "maintains its content on more than twenty servers around the world and on hundreds of domain names."
The New Yorker wrote that "a government or company that wanted to remove content from WikiLeaks would have to practically dismantle the Internet itself." Also, while more than 100 legal threats against the website have been issued, WikiLeaks boasts having "all legal attacks defeated."
WikiLeaks and Assange supported Iceland becoming a "sanctuary for free speech" protections. As journalist Mark Briggs wrote on the blog Journalism 2.0, Iceland's economy was destroyed last year. The free speech protections could encourage business moves to Iceland too, editorsweblog reported.
The Atlantic Wire reported June 17 that Iceland had passed a legislative package “designed to make the country an international haven for reporters.”
Assange helped work on the laws and “was instrumental in pushing the legislation and is serving as an advisor to IMMI,” The New American reported.
The laws, called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, collected some media laws from around the world, like Sweden’s source protection law, Belgium’s source-journalist conversation protection rules, unfair libel law shields from New York and more, The New American reported.
MEDIA ETHICS CONCERNS
Part of the recent criticism of WikiLeaks' Afghan diary release related to the identification of some Afghan informants whose lives are now at risk. The Taliban is reported to be already hunting the informants down.
"We knew about the spies and people who collaborate with US forces," Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told Channel 4 News. "We will investigate through our own secret service whether the people mentioned are really spies working for the US. If they are US spies, then we know how to punish them."
Why didn't WikiLeaks block out all identification before uploading the documents? Was it a matter of money?
Five human rights organizations requested that WikiLeaks remove all of the names of informants, and Assange responded asking if the organizations would help. Amnesty International responded that it had limited resources but "wouldn't rule out the idea of helping," according to anonymous sources in the Wall Street Journal.
WikiLeaks tweeted Aug 8 that "Amnesty won't" help review documents.
StinkyJournalism thinks this should have been done BEFORE publication in order to potentially preserve lives.
Citizen blogger Mikey Hemlok wondered on Firedoglake (which bills itself as a progressive news site) if WikiLeaks had redacted names from the documents it did post, then would that have hurt their credibility?
"For an organization like WikiLeaks, your credibility is your stock in trade, and you need to think twice before you start changing, editing, redacting or selectively withholding leaked documents," Hemlok argued.
Editorsweblog's Stefanie Chernow wrote that sites like WikiLeaks can be “a cost effect [sic] means to inform the public.” Suggesting WikiLeaks and traditional media outlets could work together, Chernow wrote “WikiLeaks gathers information, but the newspapers put their name and reputation behind the sources to create validity and analysis of ground breaking news.”
Chernow isn't alone thinking WikiLeaks is part of new journalism. The Guardian’s media writer Roy Greenslade wrote July 26 that “WikiLeaks, in both ethical and practical terms, is a result of the new media landscape, which allows for greater transparency and accountability than ever before.”
But StinkyJournalism finds the site offers what appears to be mostly unverified documents that may or may not be useful or harmful. WikiLeaks claims the original source documents are uploaded and available for the public to judge on its own. How can the public judge 70,000 documents? They are mostly unequipped to do any vetting. This is mostly the exclusive domain of the big media outlets, and surly, none are going to spend the time and money to properly vet all, or even, most of these sensitive documents.
A blogger identified as "dL" wrote Aug 8 on the libertarian blog "Libérale et libertaire" that WikiLeaks definitely is "an example of a New 'New Journalism," as blogs are called "new journalism." DL called the Afghan war diary a signal of "the arrival of 'document-sourced' journalism."
Columbia Journalism Review summarized the reports about the Afghan documents by the three media outlets, which had an advance look at the Afghan documents - .Der Spiegel, The Guardian and The New York Times.
Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, opined to The Daily Beast's Samuel P. Jacobs in a June 14 that Assange “is doing very good work for our democracy.” Ellsberg also believes that there are some “things that should be kept secret for some period of time.”
But, Richard Tofel wrote in ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom, that he believes the Afghan War Diary probably won't be as historically significant as the Pentagon Papers.
Tomorrow's Part II of our report on WikiLeaks focuses on the Afghan War Diary and whether WikiLeaks is journalism given the recent mixing of new and old media.