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The Purpose and People of WikiLeaks

July 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Daily Beast contributor Philip Shenon, a former New York Times investigative reporter, speaks with Judy Woodruff about who and what is behind the online whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now back to our main story. We take a closer look at what is WikiLeaks and who is behind it.

And, for that, we turn to Philip Shenon, a contributor to the Daily Beast website, where he has covered the WikiLeaks story. He is a former investigative reporter for The New York Times.

Philip Shenon, good to have you with us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is WikiLeaks?

PHILIP SHENON: WikiLeaks is largely the — the big project of one Julian Assange, a former computer hacker from Australia who decided that he wanted to do his best to make all secrets public. Four years ago, he set up this Web site that was designed to do just that. And, over these four years, it has produced a remarkable number of what you and I would call scoops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All secrets. So, he’s interested in everything, or a few things?

PHILIP SHENON: Anything and everything. I mean, they have had everything from Sarah Palin’s hacked e-mails, to the e-mails among global climate scientists that were described as climate-gate, to the video that we now know about from April that showed this American airstrike in Baghdad back in 2007.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does he say — do they say is their mission, their purpose?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, Assange, who really is at the heart of everything at WikiLeaks, describes this grand conspiracy between governments and other powerful institutions to hide the truth from the public. And he is going to do his best to make all of that material just as public as he can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, when he said I — we — we played earlier a quote from him where he said it’s — he said, these documents will show the true nature of this war. Then the public can take steps to address the problems.

So, it sounds as if he has an agenda.

PHILIP SHENON: Well, he is certainly somebody who has made clear he is opposed to this war. And the documents do suggest that this war has often gone very, very badly, despite the statements from the Bush and the Obama administrations of progress in the war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why the deal with these newspapers, The New York Times, and then two major European papers, because, in the past, it is our understanding that Assange has been critical of the mainstream media? So…

PHILIP SHENON: Basically, he has real disdain for major news organizations. But I think this was a stroke of genius. It accomplished two things. One is, he knew that The New York Times and The Guardian and “Der Spiegel” would know absolutely how to package this for maximum impact.

And they did. And also, too, they did a lot of the vetting for him. You know, Assange has said he doesn’t want to be responsible for deaths of innocent people, for doing real damage to human beings. And The New York Times and these other organizations are able to vet the material to make sure that doesn’t happen.

And they can also go a long way to proving the authenticity of this material.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is — now, we spoke about this a few minutes ago, too, a little bit, but what is known about the source or sources of all these documents?

PHILIP SHENON: I think all the evidence on the public record suggests that it was leaked by a single 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist in Iraq, this fellow by the name of Bradley Manning, who is now in custody and charged with stealing classified information.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-two years old, an enlisted man, intelligence analyst in the Army. How in the world did he get access to important information?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, he was an intelligence specialist. This was his field. And, you know, it is just remarkable what we are learning about how much information, secret information, top-secret information, is available to very junior officers in the military and other government employees.

And I think there must be a real panic in the government at this moment at the thought that there are other young people or not-so-young people who have access to the same information and can download it with a couple of keystrokes on a computer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what does it say about the value of the material? Because we heard Steve Coll a few minutes ago say that most truly important information, words to this effect, are marked top-secret or it has some other classification that is not part of these documents.

PHILIP SHENON: That’s true.

And, apparently, these documents are largely secret or classified — low-level classified information. This doesn’t include really top-secret information, though there are an awful lot of people not much older than Bradley Manning, not much more senior who do have access to that material.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does Assange, do the people around him at WikiLeaks consider themselves journalists, or…

PHILIP SHENON: They use that term. But Assange is more likely to describe himself as an information activist, that his whole goal is to release this information, not so much to put it in the context that most mainstream journalists do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is it — and for these news organizations that took this information and vetted it, as you put it, what is — what was their responsibility? I mean, how did they today, in putting this out, describe what their responsibility was in checking it?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, I think this has been extraordinarily uncomfortable for The New York Times, where I worked for more than 20 years, because they don’t — when classified information walks into The New York Times, or we — our reporters discovered it, there was a big internal debate about what to do with it, whether or not it could do real damage to national security. And months, years would be taken sometimes to vet this material.

In this case, WikiLeaks set the terms and they said, you can have it, but you can only have it for a month. And, apparently, a lot of the information that was released through The New York Times, for example, wasn’t — the authenticity of it is still, to some extent, in question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, right now, we are hearing from WikiLeaks they have another 15,000 or so pages they’re going to release…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … more than that. And…

PHILIP SHENON: That’s the start.


PHILIP SHENON: Apparently, they have 15,000 pages related to this particular information dump. But Assange was talking today about having a million documents, a million reports that he will some day make public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the nature of that? We will see.

PHILIP SHENON: He said it involves every nation on Earth with a population of more than a million.

I think that the 15,000 he’s talking about now are specifically related to the United States. They may be cables from the State Department that Manning has previously acknowledged leaking to WikiLeaks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it raises all sorts of interesting questions.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Shenon, thank you very much.