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A Closer Look at WikiLeaks’ Past, Future

BY Sarah C. Sullivan  July 27, 2010 at 10:42 AM EST

Australian founder of whistleblowing website, 'WikiLeaks', Julian Assange; AFP/Getty images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his whistle-blowing website stepped back into the international spotlight as the group revealed tens of thousands of classified U.S. records and military field reports of the Afghan war on Sunday. Called the “Afghan War Logs,” the archive “consists of 92,201 internal records of actions by the U.S. military in Afghanistan between January 2004 and December 2009,” the London newspaper the Guardian reported, though some of those records have not yet been released.

The New York Times, The Guardian and German magazine Der Spiegel were given access to the files weeks ago as long as they did not reveal the disclosure or publish the records before Sunday.

“The documents illustrate in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001,” The Times reported Monday.

The White House and Defense Department have rushed to examine the damage and threat to national security. Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman, said the military would probably need “days, if not weeks” to review all the documents and determine “the potential damage to the lives of our service members and coalition partners,” The Associated Press reported Monday. The Pentagon said that it was beginning a thorough investigation into the leak and who might be responsible.

While more than 70,000 records were revealed, “WikiLeaks withheld some 15,000 documents from release until its technicians could redact names of individuals in the reports whose safety could be jeopardized,” the Times reported.

Growing Anticipation and Anxiety

WikiLeaks may stay in the international spotlight amid anticipation of the release of a video promising to reveal secret information about one of the deadliest airstrikes in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001. The group is already well-known for a leaked, classified video that it dubbed “Collateral Murder,” depicting a U.S. Apache helicopter strike on civilians and journalists in Baghdad.

Assange, a former computer hacker from Australia and the site’s co-founder, spokesperson and editor-in-chief, has appeared from time to time for interviews abroad and satellite videoconferences in the U.S. On Sunday, he spoke at The Frontline Club in London following the release of the Afghan records. Last week, he surfaced at the TED Global Conference in Oxford. He has also appeared in media interviews around the Afghan document release in recent days. These appearances were notable as he has been largely out of the public eye for the past month after the arrest of an alleged WikiLeaks source in Iraq.

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Assange was scheduled to attend an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas and The Next HOPE Conference in New York but cancelled both appearances in June and only appeared via Skype from Australia for a Personal Democracy Forum conference.

Seeking a Free Speech ‘Haven’

The type of journalistic transparency that WikiLeaks aspires to establish in unveiling videos and releasing secret government and corporate documents remains a moving target. “Everyone is an amateur in this business,” Assange told Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker reporter who was recently given a look inside the operation.

Khatchadourian detailed the spartan accommodations: “WikiLeaks is not quite an organization; it is better described as a media insurgency. It has no paid staff, no copiers, no desks, no office. Assange does not even have a home.” As a result, it takes weeks, if not months, to break the encoded materials that are most often submitted online. WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video was “digitally encrypted, and it took Assange and his unnamed coworkers three months to crack,” Assange told The New Yorker.

When the information is released, however, it is almost certain not to disappear. “We use state of the art encryption to bounce stuff around the Internet, to hide trails, pass it through legal jurisdictions like Sweden and Belgium to enact those legal protections,” Assange explained at the TED conference. Iceland is another one of those jurisdictions, and the country out of which he worked to launch “Collateral Murder.”

Assange recently played a large role in the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, an endeavor that seeks to create a “global safe haven” for investigative journalism. Birgitta Jonsdottir, member of Parliament and chief sponsor of the IMMI proposal, who has spoken in defense of WikiLeaks, praised the unanimously passed legislation. “Iceland will become the inverse of a tax haven; by offering journalists and publishers some of the most powerful protections for free speech and investigative journalism in the world. Tax havens aim to make everything opaque. Our aim is to make everything transparent,” she said.

Assange’s goals reach much further than Iceland, however. “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Eastern Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations,” Assange said in the New Yorker interview. Part of the stated mission is to “expose injustice” and to reveal information that the governments around the world keep classified.

In a recent NewsHour interview, Daily Beast contributor and investigative reporter Philip Shenon described Assange’s known philosophy.

“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,” Shenon said.

National Security Dangers

The Pentagon and government have sparred with WikiLeaks before. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates was questioned about the “Collateral Murder” video, he said it was “like looking at war through a soda straw.” He added, “These people can put anything they want out there and are never held accountable.”

Following the April 5 unveiling of “Collateral Murder” — which until its debut was known only as “Project B” — Pentagon officials placed Assange on a watch list. However, even prior to the release of the video, the Defense Department identified the website as a “a potential force, protection, counterintelligence, operational security (OPSEC), and information security (INFOSEC) threat to the U.S. Army,” a recently leaked document revealed on WikiLeaks. That document, dated March 15, was confirmed as real by Lt. Col. Lee Packnett, an Army spokesperson.

After the release of the Afghan war documents, government officials were quick to urge caution about the sensitive nature of such security information.

“Whenever you have the potential for names and for operations and for programs to be out there in the public domain, that it, besides being against the law, has the potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military, those that are cooperating with our military and those that are working to keep us safe,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.

And White House national security chief Jim Jones said in a statement that the leak of the records will “put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk.”

Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the famed 1971 Pentagon Papers, has spoken largely in favor of Assange’s work, though he does warn of the threat to national security. “He is doing very good work for our democracy,” Ellsberg told the Daily Beast. But, as the debate sharpens over what could and should be released, Ellsberg recognizes that there are some things that should be kept secret. “Yes, there are things that should be kept secret for some period of time,” he said.

Assange’s view that everything should be made public is cause for greater concern within the national security community as WikiLeaks plans its next release. Assange has said that he is working on two new projects: the first, a video from a May 2009 military air strike on the Afghan village of Garani, and the second, an estimated 260,000 diplomatic cables. There has been a flurry of information anticipating these revelations.

Allegations Around a Source

On July 6, Pfc. Bradley Manning was charged with leaking classified videos and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. The 22-year-old U.S. Army intelligence analyst has been held in Kuwait since his arrest in May. Adrian Lamo, a former hacker who turned Manning in to military officials, blasted WikiLeaks’ latest project on Monday.

“WikiLeaks has acted in a tremendously irresponsible fashion and … they took advantage of systems that were put into place for the purpose of intelligence sharing, for the purpose of making sure that all elements of national security both at home and abroad had access to the information they needed in order to do their job,” Lamo said on “Good Morning America.”

Manning had contacted Lamo and is said to have told him that he gave WikiLeaks a “significant amount of classified information,” ABC reported.

“Mr. Manning allegedly also sent us 260,000 classified U.S. Department cables, reporting on the actions of the U.S. Embassy’s [sic] engaging in abusive actions all over the world,” Assange wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “We have denied this allegation, but the U.S. government is acting as if the allegation is true.”

Lamo said that he turned Manning in after he recognized the serious harm this could do to troops abroad. “He was in a war zone and basically trying to vacuum up as much classified information as he could and just throwing it up into the air,” Lamo told Wired.

Much of the international community has been particularly alarmed by Manning’s statement warning of what will be revealed if the diplomatic cables are published. “Hillary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world, are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public,” Manning wrote in an online chat to Lamo, Wired reported. WikiLeaks plans to continue to support and defend its sources.

Garani Air Strike Facts in Dispute

The May 2009 Afghan airstrike video is believed to document what may have been one of the most deadly incidents for civilians in the war since 2001. But verifying the number of Afghan civilian casualties has proven difficult. “Provincial officials in Afghanistan have said that residents of two villages hit this week by American air strikes killed as many as 147 civilians,” according to the Associated Press. The U.S. military responded to the charge saying that the estimate was “extremely over-exaggerated.”

U.S. forces have not reported a confirmed number of people believed to be killed and have pointed to the Taliban insurgents firing from homes of Afghan civilians, Reuters reports. “We strongly condemn the Taliban for their brutality in deliberately targeting and using civilians as human shields,” Army Col. Greg Julian, a coalition spokesman, said.

According to the Central Command Team as reported by the American Forces Press Service, “A review of the physical evidence is inconclusive in determining the exact number of civilian and insurgent casualties.” It said, “The investigation team estimates that 60 to 65 Taliban extremists were killed in the engagements, while at least 20 to 30 civilians may have been killed during the fighting.”

Still, well over a year after the Afghan airstrikes, the Pentagon has only released interim findings and has yet to release the video.