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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

WikiLeaks' stance that all leaks are good leaks and its disregard for the established protocols for verifying them also alarms some journalists. The site suffers from "a distorted sense of transparency," according to Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "They're giving you everything they've got, but when journalists go through process of granting someone confidentiality, when they do it well, they determine that source has good information and that the source is somehow deserving of confidentiality." Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, thinks WikiLeaks' approach gives fresh ammunition to those who seek to pressure journalists to cough up the names of their unnamed sources. She forbids her staff from using the site as a source.

But even if mainstream journalists and whistleblower advocates snub WikiLeaks, they can't keep its scoops from going viral. "Outfits like WikiLeaks—and blogs like ours that mediate some of these documents—don't feel the same sense of responsibility," says Nick Denton, publisher of the gossip site Gawker, which published the hacked Palin emails after they appeared on WikiLeaks. The site's recent scoops have brought it more visibility and legitimacy. Following the release of the Iraq helicopter attack video, bloggers Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias praised Wikileaks for posting footage traditional outlets would have never sought out. Former Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell called the video a "much-needed antidote to scrubbed media coverage." The video has already become too big for outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post to ignore.

Assange says WikiLeaks balances its obligation to publish as much as possible with a sense of responsibility. While anyone can submit a document to WikiLeaks, leakers cannot publish or comment on their submissions. Before being posted, submissions are vetted by Assange and four other reviewers whose identities he will not reveal. Each has an area of expertise, such as programming or language skills. If the submission's source is known, the group investigates the leaker as best they can. Who gets the final call in a dispute? "Me, actually," Assange says. "I'm the final decision if the document is legit."

Assange's efforts have undeniably had an impact, but whether that impact has been entirely positive is debatable. Not long after Assange claims he was targeted in Kenya, WikiLeaks published a report from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights linking the national police to the torture and death of 500 young men suspected of opposition activity. The Kenyan government had buried the report, but after WikiLeaks published it, the Sunday Times of London picked up the story, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Execution called for Kenya's attorney general and police commissioner to be fired.

WikiLeaks paid a price for its coup. Two Kenyan human rights activists were assassinated in broad daylight—the result, Assange says, of their links to the leaking of the report. The problem, he says, was not that WikiLeaks failed to protect their identities but that they "weren't acting in an anonymous way." Assange might be accused of a similar disregard for security—after all, he'd traveled to Nairobi after WikiLeaks' first big Kenyan leak. Nevertheless, Assange says there's been a concerted campaign to silence him and his collaborators, vaguely citing an "ambush" of a colleague last year. (He's since described it as an encounter with a "'James Bond' character in a Luxembourg car park, an event that ended with a mere 'we think it would be in your interest to…'")

All of which has fed into Assange's mysterious ways—and his hunger to bring ever more information out of the darkness. Last June, Assange made a rare public appearance in London to accept the Amnesty International Media Award. During his acceptance speech, the lanky hacker looked into the audience and declared that WikiLeaks' fight was just getting started. "Seeing ongoing political reforms that have a real impact on people all over the world is extremely satisfying," he said. "But we want every person who's having a dispute with their kindergarten to feel confident about sending us material."

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