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<nettime> Wikileaks: Archie Bland (The Independent) reports
Patrice Riemens on Sat, 10 Apr 2010 12:06:25 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Wikileaks: Archie Bland (The Independent) reports

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How does a website run by just five full-time staff generate so many
scoops? Archie Bland investigates

When the Ministry of Defence first came across Wikileaks, staffers
were stunned. "There are thousands of things on here, I literally
mean thousands," one of them wrote in an internal email in November
2008. "Everything I clicked on to do with MoD was restricted... it
is huge." The website, an online clearing house for documents whose
authors would generally prefer them to stay in the private domain,
has since been banned from the MoD's internal computers, but it did
no good: eventually, that email ended up on Wikileaks. And when a US
Army counter-intelligence officer recommended that whistleblowers who
leaked to the site be fired, that report ended up on Wikileaks too.

The authorities were right to be worried. If any further proof
were needed of the website's extraordinary record in holding the
authorities to account, it came this week, in the release of shocking
video footage of a gung-ho US helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 12
people, including two unarmed employees of the Reuters news agency.

The US government had resisted Freedom of Information requests from
Reuters for years. But when an anonymous whistleblower passed the
video on to Wikileaks, all that quickly became futile. An edited
version of the tape had received almost 4 million hits on YouTube by
last night, and it led news bulletins around the world.

"This might be the story that makes Wikileaks blow up," said Sree
Sreenivasan, a digital media professor at New York's Columbia
Journalism School. "It's not some huge document with lots of fine
print ? you can just watch it and you get what it's about immediately.
It's a whole new world of how stories get out."

And yet despite Wikileaks' commitment to the freedom of information,
there is something curiously shadowy about the organisation itself.
Founded, as the group's spokesman Daniel Schmitt (whose surname is a
pseudonym) put it, with the intention of becoming "the intelligence
agency of the people", the site's operators and volunteers ? five
full-timers, and another 1,000 on call ? are almost all anonymous.
Ironically, the only way the group's donors are publicly known is
through a leak on Wikileaks itself. The organisation's most prominent
figure is Julian Assange, an Australian hacker and journalist who
co-founded the site back in 2006. While Assange and his cohorts'
intentions are plainly laudable ? to "allow whistleblowers and
journalists who have been censored to get material out to the
public", as he told the BBC earlier this year ? some ask who watches
the watchmen. "People have to be very careful dealing with this
information," says Professor Sreenivasan. "It's part of the culture
now, it's out there, but you still need context, you still need
analysis, you still need background."

Against all of that criticism, Wikileaks can set a record that
carries, as Abu Dhabi's The National put it, "more scoops in its
short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years".
By earning its place as the natural destination for anyone with
sensitive information to leak who does not know and trust a particular
journalist ? so far, despite numerous court actions, not a single
source has been outed ? Wikileaks has built up a remarkable record.

Yes, it has published an early draft of the script for Indiana Jones
and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Wesley Snipes' tax returns;
but it has also published the "Climategate" emails, an internal
Trafigura report on toxic dumping in Ivory Coast, and the standard
operating procedures for Guantanamo Bay.

Whatever the gaps in its procedures, there is little doubt that the
website is at the forefront of a new information era in which the
powerful, corrupt and murderous will have to feel a little more
nervous about their behaviour. "There are reasons I do it that have to
do with wanting to reform civilisation," Assange said in an interview
with salon.com last month. "Of course, there's a personal psychology
to it, that I enjoy crushing bastards. I like a good challenge."


Full disclosure: What we wouldn't know without Wikileaks

Trafigura's super-injunction

When commodities giant Trafigura used a super-injunction to suppress
the release of an internal report on toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast
in newspapers, it quickly appeared on Wikileaks instead. Accepting
that the release made suppression futile, Trafigura lifted the

The CRU's 'Climategate' leak

Emails leaked on the site showed that scientists at the UK's Climate
Research Unit, including director Phil Jones, withheld information
from sceptics

The BNP membership list

After the site published the BNP's secret membership list in November
2008, newspapers found teachers, priests and police officers among
them. Another list was leaked last year. The police has since barred
officers from membership.

Sarah Palin's emails

Mrs Palin's Yahoo email account, which was used to bypass US public
information laws, was hacked and leaked during the presidential
campaign. The hacker left traces of his actions, and could face five
years in prison.

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