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WikiLeaks emerges as powerful online whistle-blower

WikiLeaks website and founder Julian Assange operate in relative secrecy even as they seek to publish classified or private documents to spark public debate. Partnering with news media adds new heft.

July 27, 2010|By Noam N. Levey and Jennifer Martinez, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Though propelled to fame by its recent disclosures about the U.S. military, WikiLeaks has homed in on targets as wide-ranging as corruption in the family of a former Kenyan ruler, alleged illegal activities by a Swiss bank and Sarah Palin's private e-mail account.

And in just 3 1/2 years, the secretive organization founded by a convicted Australian hacker has helped pioneer a new model for using the Internet to unearth classified government documents and private corporate memos.

Operating from undisclosed locations around the world and using sophisticated Internet technology, WikiLeaks has managed to largely skirt legal challenges and technical intervention.

Its sources are mysterious. It appears to operate with few professional staff, supported mainly through donations of time and money from leftist activists and others from Iceland to China.

Yet its controversial scoops and releases of thousands of pages of documents have helped fuel major news stories and public debates about U.S. foreign policy and other global issues.

"You really see the potential for a more informed public," said Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense analyst who nearly 40 years ago leaked a classified history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has publicly eschewed the role of impartial journalist, embracing instead the role of an activist using modern technology to do what he says the mainstream media are not doing enough of.

In releasing a "War Diary" of 76,000 secret U.S. military reports from the war in Afghanistan, the website was unapologetic about its agenda. "We hope its release will lead to a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and provide the raw ingredients necessary to change its course," the authors said.

Assange and his website have become leading champions of media freedom, helping push landmark legislation in Iceland to make the country a haven for the safe dissemination of information.

And Assange has said WikiLeaks, like a traditional news organization, uses an extensive process to assure the authenticity of the documents it releases. However, in a recent interview with the website, he acknowledged that in many cases WikiLeaks does not know the source of a leaked document.

As a "crowdsourced" operation in the Wikipedia model, volunteers around the world add to the site. Assange, hundreds of volunteers stationed around the world and a handful of full-time staffers parse documents and video, said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament and a WikiLeaks volunteer who has worked closely with Assange.

Jonsdottir helped work on a controversial U.S. military video that WikiLeaks released this spring showing a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two Reuters news agency employees and 10 other civilians.

In releasing the recent Afghan documents, WikiLeaks did something slightly different, partnering with three mainstream media outlets to sort and publish the material: the New York Times, the British newspaper the Guardian and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.

The Afghan documents, like many of WikiLeaks' projects, drew swift charges of recklessness from the governments involved. The website has also provoked legal threats over the years from a Kenyan politician, a British bank and the Church of Scientology, which was enraged when WikiLeaks published its internal manuals.

But WikiLeaks has proved an elusive target.

Two years ago, when WikiLeaks published internal documents of Bank Julius Baer of Zurich, raising questions about alleged money laundering and tax evasion, the bank tried to force the U.S. company that registered WikiLeaks' web domain name to disable the site entrance. The bid was ultimately unsuccessful.

The Swiss bank's troubles represent the challenge that the Internet poses to those trying to protect secrets, said Floyd Abrams, a prominent 1st Amendment lawyer who defended the New York Times against government efforts to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers.

"In our website-filled world, it is extremely difficult for the government or anyone else to determine who or what released the information or where that person or entity can be found," he said.

That means that more partnerships between WikiLeaks and the mainstream media could be on the horizon, said Tom Rosenstiel, founder and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"WikiLeaks has the ability through its network to amass many documents, but maybe not the expertise to make sense of them all," Rosenstiel said. "Old journalism still has the means, experience, expertise and resources."

David Savage in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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