EDITORS’ NOTE: An updated version of this story is posted here. Comments on this version of the story have been turned off. Julian Assange’s response to the original article is here. Read follow-up posts on WikiLeaks’ media blitz, the MoJo-WikiLeaks feud, WikiLeaks’ relaunch, and WikiLeaks’ sketchy origins.
The clock struck 3 a.m. Julian Assange slept soundly inside a guarded private compound in Nairobi, Kenya. Suddenly, six men with guns emerged from the darkness. A day earlier, they had disabled the alarm system on the electric fence and buried weapons by the pool. Catching a guard by surprise, they commanded him to hit the ground. He obliged, momentarily, then jumped up and began shouting. As the rest of the compound’s security team rushed outside, the intruders fled into the night.
Assange, a thirty-something Australian with a shock of snow-white hair, is sure the armed men were after him. “There was not anyone else worth visiting in the compound,” he says, speaking on the phone from an undisclosed location in Africa.
The self-centeredness and shadowy details of Assange’s tale—and his insistence that he must be taken at his word—are typical. They’re part of his persona as the elusive yet single-minded public face of WikiLeaks, the website that dubs itself the “uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” Designed as a digital drop box, the site is a place where anyone can anonymously post sensitive or secret information to be disseminated and downloaded around the globe. Earlier this week, it posted its most explosive leak yet, a video shot by an American attack helicopter in July 2007 as it opened fire upon a group of a men on a Baghdad street, killing 12, including two unarmed Reuters employees. (Two children were also seriously wounded in a subsequent attack.) WikiLeaks said it had obtained the classified footage from whistleblowers inside the US military.
Since its launch in December, 2006, WikiLeaks has posted more than 1.2 million documents totaling more than 10 million pages. It has published the operating manuals from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, NATO’s secret plan for the Afghan war, and inventories of US military materiel in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September 2007, a few weeks before Assange’s alleged close call in Nairobi, it posted a document exposing corruption in the highest levels of the Kenyan government. Assange claims that the site receives as many as 10,000 new documents daily.
WikiLeaks’ commitment to what might be called extreme transparency also means that it won’t turn away documents that have questionable news value or are just plain dishy. It’s posted Sarah Palin’s hacked emails and Wesley Snipes’ tax returns, as well as fraternity initiation manuals and a trove of secret Scientology manuals. According to WikiLeaks’ credo, to refuse a leak is tantamount to helping the bad guys. “We never censor,” Assange declares.
Powerful forces have come after the site, but without much luck. In 2008, after WikiLeaks posted documents alleging money laundering at the Swiss bank Julius Baer, the firm unsuccessfully tried to shut down its California servers. When the site posted a secret list of websites blacklisted by the Australian government, including several child pornography sites, the 22-year-old who owned WikiLeaks’ German domain had his laptop seized by police searching for kiddie porn. Even the hyper-litigious Church of Scientology has failed to get its materials removed from the site.
Such unsurprising reactions to WikiLeaks’ brazenness only seem to further energize Assange’s conviction that it’s always wrong to try to stop a leak. WikiLeaks isn’t shy about antagonizing its enemies. Its reply to the German raid sounded like the opening shot of an Internet flame war: “Go after our source and we will go after you.” In response to the Church of Scientology’s “attempted suppression,” it has posted even more church documents.
WikiLeaks can get away with this because its primary server is in Sweden (Assange says it’s the same one used by the giant download site The Pirate Bay), where divulging an anonymous source, whether one’s own or someone else’s, is illegal. Several mirror sites across the globe provide backup in case one goes down. (Much of the WikiLeaks website is currently inaccessible due to a fundraising drive.)
Though the site appears secure for now, its foes have not given up on finding its weaknesses. In March, WikiLeaks published an internal report (PDF) written by an analyst at the Army Counterintelligence Center titled “WikiLeaks.org—An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups?” The analyst stated that sensitive information posted by WikiLeaks could endanger American soldiers and that the site could be used “to post fabricated information; to post misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda.” He concluded that identifying and prosecuting the insiders who pass information on to WikiLeaks “would damage and potentially destroy this center of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions.”
WikiLeaks said the report was proof that “U.S. Intelligence planned to destroy” the site. Soon afterwards, Assange asserted that he’d been tailed by two State Department employees on a flight out of Iceland, where he had been lobbying for a new press freedom law. He tweeted that “WikiLeaks is currently under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation.”
Amid this swirl of wanted and unwanted attention, Assange (pronounced A-sanj) lives like a man on the lam. He won’t reveal his age—”Why make it easy for the bastards?” He prefers talking on the phone instead of meeting in person, and seems to never use the same number twice. His voice is often hushed, and gaps fill the conversation, as if he’s constantly checking over his shoulder. Like him, the organization behind his next-generation whistleblowing machine can also be maddeningly opaque. It’s been accused of being conspiratorial, reckless, and even duplicitous in its pursuit of exposing the powerful. “It’s a good thing that there’s a channel for getting information out that’s reliable and can’t be compromised,” says Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. But, he adds, “There’s a difference between what you can legally do, what you can technically do, and what you ought to do.”
The idea for WikiLeaks came from one of the most notorious leaks of all. In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg, a disillusioned military analyst, made copies of the Department of Defense’s official history of the Vietnam War. After unsuccessfully trying to pass what became known as the Pentagon Papers to members of Congress, he eventually leaked them to the New York Times and Washington Post, where they sat while the Nixon White House tried to block their publication. The Pentagon Papers finally hit the presses more than two years after Ellsberg obtained them. “As a leak, it’s almost an example of what not to do,” says Assange. “By the time he got the info out, it was of little political consequence.” The basic model hasn’t changed much since then: Most whistleblowers still need a sympathetic politician or reporter to get the word out.
Assange had the experience—and the ego—to try to change this. As a teenager in Melbourne, he belonged to a hacker collective called the International Subversives. He eventually pled guilty to 24 counts of breaking into Australian government and commercial websites to test their security gaps, but was released on bond for good behavior. His official bio describes him as “Australia’s most famous ethical hacker.” In the years that followed, Assange helped write a book about his exploits in the online underground and says he went on to become an investigative journalist for Australian and British newspapers.
He saw an opportunity to use the Internet to radically streamline the leaking process. “Our belief was that we could do a Pentagon Papers a week,” he says. “Then we could speed up the amount of political reform being generated by people disclosing documents from the organization to rest of the world.”
WikiLeaks hatched in 2006 on a private mailing list used by Assange and other journalists and activists. To help navigate the technical, editorial, and organizational challenges, such as defining what Assange terms “ethical leaking,” the WikiLeaks team approached experts for advice. Not all were enthusiastic. Steven Aftergood, who writes the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog and has published thousands of leaked or classified documents, says he wasn’t impressed with WikiLeaks’ “conveyor-belt approach” to publishing anything it came across. “To me, transparency is a means to an end, and that end is an invigorated political life, accountable institutions, opportunities for public engagement. For them, transparency and exposure seem to be ends in themselves,” says Aftergood. He declined to get involved.
But WikiLeaks doesn’t readily take no for an answer. When I contacted the impressive figures listed on its advisory board, some didn’t know they were mentioned on the site or had little idea how they got there. Tashi Namgyal Khamsitsang, a former representative of the Dalai Lama, recalls getting a cryptic email from WikiLeaks a few years ago, but says he never agreed to be an advisor. Noam Chomsky is listed as a volunteer administrator of the WikiLeaks Facebook group. This is news to him. “I know nothing about it,” he says. (*See update below.)
Ben Laurie laughs when I ask why he’s named on the site. “WikiLeaks allegedly has an advisory board, and allegedly I’m a member of it,” he says. “I don’t know who runs it. One of the things I’ve tried to avoid is knowing what’s going on there, because that’s probably safest for all concerned.” Laurie says his only substantive interaction with the group was when Assange approached him to help design a system that would protect leakers’ anonymity. “They wanted a strong guarantee that [anything published] couldn’t possibly be tracked back to the original person who leaked the stuff,” says Laurie. Though his advice wasn’t heeded, Laurie, who lives in London, started receiving unannounced visits from Assange. “He’s a weird guy,” Laurie says. “He seems to be quite nomadic, and I don’t know how he lives like that, to be honest. He turns up with a rucksack, and I suspect that’s all he’s got.”
Assange’s passion—and paranoia—were palpable. “I don’t know what’s behind this obsession,” Laurie adds. “He’s always been kind of worried about the guy who has some secret and has to either keep those secrets secret or reveal them but without revealing himself.”
When asked about his supposed advisors’ denials, Assange downplays the board as “pretty informal.” But can WikiLeaks be trusted with sensitive, and possibly life-threatening, documents when it is less than transparent itself?
John Young, founder of the pioneering whistleblower site, Cryptome.org, is skeptical. Assange reverently describes Cryptome as WikiLeaks’ “spiritual godfather.” But Young claims he was conned into registering the WikiLeaks domain when Assange’s team first launched (the site is no longer under his name). He fought back by leaking his correspondence with WikiLeaks. “WikiLeaks is a fraud,” he wrote to Assange’s list, hinting that the new site was a CIA data mining operation. “Fuck your cute hustle and disinformation campaign against legitimate dissent. Same old shit, working for the enemy.”
*Update: In late April, WikiLeaks set up a new, official Facebook page. However, the WikiLeaks Facebook page mentioned above, which used to be linked to on the main WikiLeaks site, is still on Facebook and still lists Noam Chomsky as an administrator. It also lists Gudmundur Ragnar Gudmundsson as an admin. A Gudmundur Ragnar Gudmundsson is also listed in the credits of WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video.
WikiLeaks’ stance that all leaks are good leaks and its disregard for the established protocols for verifying them also alarms some journalists. The site suffers from “a distorted sense of transparency,” according to Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “They’re giving you everything they’ve got, but when journalists go through process of granting someone confidentiality, when they do it well, they determine that source has good information and that the source is somehow deserving of confidentiality.” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, thinks WikiLeaks’ approach gives fresh ammunition to those who seek to pressure journalists to cough up the names of their unnamed sources. She forbids her staff from using the site as a source.
But even if mainstream journalists and whistleblower advocates snub WikiLeaks, they can’t keep its scoops from going viral. “Outfits like WikiLeaks—and blogs like ours that mediate some of these documents—don’t feel the same sense of responsibility,” says Nick Denton, publisher of the gossip site Gawker, which published the hacked Palin emails after they appeared on WikiLeaks. The site’s recent scoops have brought it more visibility and legitimacy. Following the release of the Iraq helicopter attack video, bloggers Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias praised Wikileaks for posting footage traditional outlets would have never sought out. Former Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell called the video a “much-needed antidote to scrubbed media coverage.” The video has already become too big for outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post to ignore.
Assange says WikiLeaks balances its obligation to publish as much as possible with a sense of responsibility. While anyone can submit a document to WikiLeaks, leakers cannot publish or comment on their submissions. Before being posted, submissions are vetted by Assange and four other reviewers whose identities he will not reveal. Each has an area of expertise, such as programming or language skills. If the submission’s source is known, the group investigates the leaker as best they can. Who gets the final call in a dispute? “Me, actually,” Assange says. “I’m the final decision if the document is legit.”
Assange’s efforts have undeniably had an impact, but whether that impact has been entirely positive is debatable. Not long after Assange claims he was targeted in Kenya, WikiLeaks published a report from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights linking the national police to the torture and death of 500 young men suspected of opposition activity. The Kenyan government had buried the report, but after WikiLeaks published it, the Sunday Times of London picked up the story, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Execution called for Kenya’s attorney general and police commissioner to be fired.
WikiLeaks paid a price for its coup. Two Kenyan human rights activists were assassinated in broad daylight—the result, Assange says, of their links to the leaking of the report. The problem, he says, was not that WikiLeaks failed to protect their identities but that they “weren’t acting in an anonymous way.” Assange might be accused of a similar disregard for security—after all, he’d traveled to Nairobi after WikiLeaks’ first big Kenyan leak. Nevertheless, Assange says there’s been a concerted campaign to silence him and his collaborators, vaguely citing an “ambush” of a colleague last year. (He’s since described it as an encounter with a “‘James Bond’ character in a Luxembourg car park, an event that ended with a mere ‘we think it would be in your interest to…'”)
All of which has fed into Assange’s mysterious ways—and his hunger to bring ever more information out of the darkness. Last June, Assange made a rare public appearance in London to accept the Amnesty International Media Award. During his acceptance speech, the lanky hacker looked into the audience and declared that WikiLeaks’ fight was just getting started. “Seeing ongoing political reforms that have a real impact on people all over the world is extremely satisfying,” he said. “But we want every person who’s having a dispute with their kindergarten to feel confident about sending us material.”