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Inside WikiLeaks’ Leak Factory

WikiLeaks has revealed the secrets of the Pentagon, Scientology, and Sarah Palin—and the explosive video of a US attack on civilians and journalists in Iraq. Meet the shadowy figure behind the whistleblower site.

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 3:21 PM EDT

EDITORS' NOTE: An updated version of this story is posted here. Comments on this version of the story have been turned off. Julian Assange's response to the original article is here. Read follow-up posts on WikiLeaks' media blitz, the MoJo-WikiLeaks feud, WikiLeaks' relaunch, and WikiLeaks' sketchy origins.

The clock struck 3 a.m. Julian Assange slept soundly inside a guarded private compound in Nairobi, Kenya. Suddenly, six men with guns emerged from the darkness. A day earlier, they had disabled the alarm system on the electric fence and buried weapons by the pool. Catching a guard by surprise, they commanded him to hit the ground. He obliged, momentarily, then jumped up and began shouting. As the rest of the compound's security team rushed outside, the intruders fled into the night.

Assange, a thirty-something Australian with a shock of snow-white hair, is sure the armed men were after him. "There was not anyone else worth visiting in the compound," he says, speaking on the phone from an undisclosed location in Africa.

The self-centeredness and shadowy details of Assange's tale—and his insistence that he must be taken at his word—are typical. They're part of his persona as the elusive yet single-minded public face of WikiLeaks, the website that dubs itself the "uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis." Designed as a digital drop box, the site is a place where anyone can anonymously post sensitive or secret information to be disseminated and downloaded around the globe. Earlier this week, it posted its most explosive leak yet, a video shot by an American attack helicopter in July 2007 as it opened fire upon a group of a men on a Baghdad street, killing 12, including two unarmed Reuters employees. (Two children were also seriously wounded in a subsequent attack.) WikiLeaks said it had obtained the classified footage from whistleblowers inside the US military.

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Since its launch in December, 2006, WikiLeaks has posted more than 1.2 million documents totaling more than 10 million pages. It has published the operating manuals from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, NATO's secret plan for the Afghan war, and inventories of US military materiel in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September 2007, a few weeks before Assange's alleged close call in Nairobi, it posted a document exposing corruption in the highest levels of the Kenyan government. Assange claims that the site receives as many as 10,000 new documents daily.

WikiLeaks' commitment to what might be called extreme transparency also means that it won't turn away documents that have questionable news value or are just plain dishy. It's posted Sarah Palin's hacked emails and Wesley Snipes' tax returns, as well as fraternity initiation manuals and a trove of secret Scientology manuals. According to WikiLeaks' credo, to refuse a leak is tantamount to helping the bad guys. "We never censor," Assange declares.

Powerful forces have come after the site, but without much luck. In 2008, after WikiLeaks posted documents alleging money laundering at the Swiss bank Julius Baer, the firm unsuccessfully tried to shut down its California servers. When the site posted a secret list of websites blacklisted by the Australian government, including several child pornography sites, the 22-year-old who owned WikiLeaks' German domain had his laptop seized by police searching for kiddie porn. Even the hyper-litigious Church of Scientology has failed to get its materials removed from the site.

Such unsurprising reactions to WikiLeaks' brazenness only seem to further energize Assange's conviction that it's always wrong to try to stop a leak. WikiLeaks isn't shy about antagonizing its enemies. Its reply to the German raid sounded like the opening shot of an Internet flame war: "Go after our source and we will go after you." In response to the Church of Scientology's "attempted suppression," it has posted even more church documents.

WikiLeaks can get away with this because its primary server is in Sweden (Assange says it's the same one used by the giant download site The Pirate Bay), where divulging an anonymous source, whether one's own or someone else's, is illegal. Several mirror sites across the globe provide backup in case one goes down. (Much of the WikiLeaks website is currently inaccessible due to a fundraising drive.)

Though the site appears secure for now, its foes have not given up on finding its weaknesses. In March, WikiLeaks published an internal report (PDF) written by an analyst at the Army Counterintelligence Center titled "WikiLeaks.org—An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups?" The analyst stated that sensitive information posted by WikiLeaks could endanger American soldiers and that the site could be used "to post fabricated information; to post misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda." He concluded that identifying and prosecuting the insiders who pass information on to WikiLeaks "would damage and potentially destroy this center of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions."

WikiLeaks said the report was proof that "U.S. Intelligence planned to destroy" the site. Soon afterwards, Assange asserted that he'd been tailed by two State Department employees on a flight out of Iceland, where he had been lobbying for a new press freedom law. He tweeted that "WikiLeaks is currently under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation."

Amid this swirl of wanted and unwanted attention, Assange (pronounced A-sanj) lives like a man on the lam. He won't reveal his age—"Why make it easy for the bastards?" He prefers talking on the phone instead of meeting in person, and seems to never use the same number twice. His voice is often hushed, and gaps fill the conversation, as if he's constantly checking over his shoulder. Like him, the organization behind his next-generation whistleblowing machine can also be maddeningly opaque. It's been accused of being conspiratorial, reckless, and even duplicitous in its pursuit of exposing the powerful. "It's a good thing that there's a channel for getting information out that's reliable and can't be compromised," says Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. But, he adds, "There's a difference between what you can legally do, what you can technically do, and what you ought to do."

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