The idea for WikiLeaks came from one of the most notorious leaks of all. In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg, a disillusioned military analyst, made copies of the Department of Defense's official history of the Vietnam War. After unsuccessfully trying to pass what became known as the Pentagon Papers to members of Congress, he eventually leaked them to the New York Times and Washington Post, where they sat while the Nixon White House tried to block their publication. The Pentagon Papers finally hit the presses more than two years after Ellsberg obtained them. "As a leak, it's almost an example of what not to do," says Assange. "By the time he got the info out, it was of little political consequence." The basic model hasn't changed much since then: Most whistleblowers still need a sympathetic politician or reporter to get the word out.
Assange had the experience—and the ego—to try to change this. As a teenager in Melbourne, he belonged to a hacker collective called the International Subversives. He eventually pled guilty to 24 counts of breaking into Australian government and commercial websites to test their security gaps, but was released on bond for good behavior. His official bio describes him as "Australia's most famous ethical hacker." In the years that followed, Assange helped write a book about his exploits in the online underground and says he went on to become an investigative journalist for Australian and British newspapers.
He saw an opportunity to use the Internet to radically streamline the leaking process. "Our belief was that we could do a Pentagon Papers a week," he says. "Then we could speed up the amount of political reform being generated by people disclosing documents from the organization to rest of the world."
WikiLeaks hatched in 2006 on a private mailing list used by Assange and other journalists and activists. To help navigate the technical, editorial, and organizational challenges, such as defining what Assange terms "ethical leaking," the WikiLeaks team approached experts for advice. Not all were enthusiastic. Steven Aftergood, who writes the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog and has published thousands of leaked or classified documents, says he wasn't impressed with WikiLeaks' "conveyor-belt approach" to publishing anything it came across. "To me, transparency is a means to an end, and that end is an invigorated political life, accountable institutions, opportunities for public engagement. For them, transparency and exposure seem to be ends in themselves," says Aftergood. He declined to get involved.
But WikiLeaks doesn't readily take no for an answer. When I contacted the impressive figures listed on its advisory board, some didn't know they were mentioned on the site or had little idea how they got there. Tashi Namgyal Khamsitsang, a former representative of the Dalai Lama, recalls getting a cryptic email from WikiLeaks a few years ago, but says he never agreed to be an advisor. Noam Chomsky is listed as a volunteer administrator of the WikiLeaks Facebook group. This is news to him. "I know nothing about it," he says. (*See update below.)
Ben Laurie laughs when I ask why he's named on the site. "WikiLeaks allegedly has an advisory board, and allegedly I'm a member of it," he says. "I don't know who runs it. One of the things I've tried to avoid is knowing what's going on there, because that's probably safest for all concerned." Laurie says his only substantive interaction with the group was when Assange approached him to help design a system that would protect leakers' anonymity. "They wanted a strong guarantee that [anything published] couldn't possibly be tracked back to the original person who leaked the stuff," says Laurie. Though his advice wasn't heeded, Laurie, who lives in London, started receiving unannounced visits from Assange. "He's a weird guy," Laurie says. "He seems to be quite nomadic, and I don't know how he lives like that, to be honest. He turns up with a rucksack, and I suspect that's all he's got."
Assange's passion—and paranoia—were palpable. "I don't know what's behind this obsession," Laurie adds. "He's always been kind of worried about the guy who has some secret and has to either keep those secrets secret or reveal them but without revealing himself."
When asked about his supposed advisors' denials, Assange downplays the board as "pretty informal." But can WikiLeaks be trusted with sensitive, and possibly life-threatening, documents when it is less than transparent itself?
John Young, founder of the pioneering whistleblower site, Cryptome.org, is skeptical. Assange reverently describes Cryptome as WikiLeaks' "spiritual godfather." But Young claims he was conned into registering the WikiLeaks domain when Assange's team first launched (the site is no longer under his name). He fought back by leaking his correspondence with WikiLeaks. "WikiLeaks is a fraud," he wrote to Assange's list, hinting that the new site was a CIA data mining operation. "Fuck your cute hustle and disinformation campaign against legitimate dissent. Same old shit, working for the enemy."
*Update: In late April, WikiLeaks set up a new, official Facebook page. However, the WikiLeaks Facebook page mentioned above, which used to be linked to on the main WikiLeaks site, is still on Facebook and still lists Noam Chomsky as an administrator. It also lists Gudmundur Ragnar Gudmundsson as an admin. A Gudmundur Ragnar Gudmundsson is also listed in the credits of WikiLeaks' "Collateral Murder" video.