TOPICS > Nation

WikiLeaks Under Fire After Document Dump Risks Identifying Sources

September 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The latest WikiLeaks document dump of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables included the names of thousands of people who had spoken in confidence to American diplomats. Ray Suarez discusses what created the controversy and the potential fallout with Wired's Kim Zetter.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the new furor over WikiLeaks.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: For nearly two years, the online organization WikiLeaks and five media partners in the U.S. and Europe have been publishing U.S. diplomatic cables that offered insights into policy-making and titillating gossip about world leaders.

But the latest document dump of more than a quarter-million cables has brought new controversy. Because of what was described as a series of technical errors, the latest release disclosed the names of people, activists, human rights advocates and dissidents who had spoken confidentially to U.S. diplomats.

WikiLeaks’ media partners, including The New York Times, Britain’s Guardian, and several non-government and human rights organizations, condemned the disclosures, saying they could put sources at risk.

For more, we go to Kim Zetter, who has been covering the story for Wired.

And, Kim, how was this release different from the pattern set up earlier by WikiLeaks?

KIM ZETTER, Wired: Well, when WikiLeaks and its media partners began publishing the cables back in November, they used what WikiLeaks called harm minimization, which was blacking out the names of intelligence sources, informants who had spoken with U.S. diplomats.

In this latest dump of the cable database, WikiLeaks hasn’t blacked out any of those names. So what we have are about between 2,000 and 3,000 names of people identified by U.S. diplomatic sources whose identity should have been — should have been protected.

We have about 150 whistle-blowers identified, about 1,000 activists named in the documents. So, previously, all of these would have been blacked out and protected.

RAY SUAREZ: And how does WikiLeaks explain this different approach?

KIM ZETTER: Well, WikiLeaks is saying that they are releasing the database because it’s already out there anyway.

It was released inadvertently in part by WikiLeaks supporters. And it was — there was a pass phrase that was protecting the document, but that was also published. So, WikiLeaks essentially was saying the cat is out of the bag, and so we’re just going to release it anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: Britain’s Guardian newspaper was criticized by WikiLeaks for sort of midwifing this release.

Has WikiLeaks pivoted, taken the emphasis off the Guardian, and started to say, well, this is what it intended to do anyway, sort of changed its tone?

KIM ZETTER: No. It still is laying blame at the Guardian’s feet.

What happened here was, last year, WikiLeaks had made available this cache of cables to the Guardian when they were discussing collaboration. And they had told a Guardian editor that the — the file itself would be on a WikiLeaks subdirectory server, and it would be available for only a short period of time.

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, had given the Guardian editor a pass phrase to open the file. And the editor assumed that the pass phrase itself, the password, would expire after a certain time along with the file. And, of course, that’s not the case. That’s not how it works.

WikiLeaks was supposed to remove the documents — or was supposed to remove the file from that server after the Guardian accessed it, and never did. So the file was always left online.

RAY SUAREZ: So, just to be clear, the entire file of documents and the password were at one time just sitting there on the Internet if somebody wanted to look at it?

KIM ZETTER: The password wasn’t on the WikiLeaks server. The file was.

What happened was, the Guardian actually published the password in a book that it published back in February about its collaboration with WikiLeaks. And it’s unclear exactly why they felt it necessary to disclose the password at that point. But they thought that it was no longer a relevant password.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier, you talked about the names of sources and other people that diplomats have spoken to over the years. Has this, for some of them, moved beyond annoyance or embarrassment to something that may even put them in jeopardy?

KIM ZETTER: Yes, it’s unclear presently if it has actually affected anyone. But the risk is there. I mean, these people have been identified. Many of them are in repressive regimes who could arrest them, who could torture them.

So, it’s really unclear at this point what might happen to them. The U.S. diplomatic — the U.S. State Department had been notifying people prior to publication — prior to this latest publication about the risk that their names might be exposed. But it’s unclear whether or not those people can actually be protected.

RAY SUAREZ: After the blast from WikiLeaks, the Guardian, for its part, said the decision to public was Julian Assange’s and his alone. But they added, interestingly, “We’re learning in numerous ways how hard it is in a digital age to keep control of information.”

Do you find that’s true?

KIM ZETTER: Yes.

And, you know, it’s kind of clear that this was an inevitability in regards to WikiLeaks, because WikiLeaks is so — such a disjointed organization. People join it, they leave it on a regular basis. And so it’s unclear exactly how they can maintain constant and consistent control over the data that they have, especially if they’re sharing it with media partners.

RAY SUAREZ: Now that it’s all out there, what have they got left? Does it lose some of its power once it’s all released?

KIM ZETTER: Well, I think that it’s 250,000 cables, and people are still going through them. So, I think that people will be finding gems within them for many weeks, maybe even months, to come.

It’s unclear what else WikiLeaks has in its cache besides these documents. If this is, you know, the final sort of burst of WikiLeaks’ secrets, then it remains to be seen what else might be exposed from this.

RAY SUAREZ: Kim Zetter of Wired magazine, thanks for joining us.

KIM ZETTER: Thanks for having me.