EDITORS' NOTE: This is an updated version of a story that was first published in April 2010, just as WikiLeaks and Julian Assange became international phenomena. 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' origins.
The clock struck 3 a.m. Julian Assange slept soundly inside a private compound in Nairobi, Kenya. Suddenly, six men with guns emerged from the darkness. A day earlier, as Assange tells it, they had disabled the alarm 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 thirtysomething 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 told me last year, speaking on the phone from an undisclosed location in Africa.
Was Assange's paranoia justified? Perhaps: A few weeks before the raid, in August 2007, his website, WikiLeaks, had posted a document exposing corruption in the highest levels of the Kenyan government. Still, this is one of many plausible-yet-unverified tales of persecution told by Assange, who has established himself as the world's most famous source of secret information and the elusive public face of WikiLeaks, 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 submit sensitive or secret materials to be disseminated and downloaded around the globe. In April, it posted its most explosive leak yet, a video shot by an American attack helicopter in July 2007 as it fired on a group of men on a Baghdad street, killing 12, including two unarmed Reuters employees. (Two children were seriously wounded.) WikiLeaks said it had obtained the classified footage from whistleblowers inside the US military. It also said it would soon release similar footage from an American strike in Afghanistan.
Since its launch in December 2006, WikiLeaks has published everything from the operating manuals of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to NATO's secret plan for the Afghanistan war and inventories of US military matériel in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus plenty of dishier stuff—Sarah Palin's hacked emails and Wesley Snipes' tax returns, as well as fraternity initiation books and a trove of secret Scientology manuals. (See "Leaking Truth to Power," below.) Assange claims that the site gets as many as 10,000 new pages daily.
WikiLeaks' commitment to what might be called extreme transparency means that it hasn't turned away documents of questionable news value or origin. 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 WikiLeaks, but without much luck. After it 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—but nothing came of it. Even the hyperlitigious Church of Scientology has failed to get its materials removed from the site.
This March, WikiLeaks published an internal report written by an analyst at the Army Counterintelligence Center titled "WikiLeaks.org—An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups?" Sensitive information posted by WikiLeaks, it said, could endanger American soldiers, and the site could be used "to post misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda." It concluded that identifying and prosecuting whistleblowers who leak to the site "would damage and potentially destroy this center of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions."
Such reactions to WikiLeaks' brazenness only seem to further energize Assange (pronounced ah-SANJ), a former white-hat hacker whose biography suggests he has the skills to wreak digital havoc on his antagonists, if he wanted to. WikiLeaks' 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 Scientology's "attempted suppression," it has posted even more church documents. It said the Army report was proof that "U.S. Intelligence planned to destroy" the site. Soon afterward, Assange asserted that he'd been tailed by two State Department employees on a flight out of Iceland, where he had been lobbying for new press freedom laws. He tweeted that "WikiLeaks is currently under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation."
Assange can be as prickly about unwanted scrutiny as any of his targets. After MotherJones.com published a version of this story, he left a comment saying it was filled with "extremely irritating tabloid insinuations of the type that might be expected from a poor quality magazine." That comment then inexplicably accumulated tens of thousands of "recommends" from just a few thousand page views.
WikiLeaks can get away with its aggressive M.O. because its primary server is in Sweden (Assange says it's the same one used by the giant file-sharing 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. So far, the only group to shut down WikiLeaks has been the organization itself, which took its main site offline indefinitely earlier this year to convince its supporters to help it meet its $600,000 budget.
Amid the swirl of wanted and unwanted attention, Assange lives like a man on the lam. When I spoke with him, he never seemed to use the same phone number twice. His voice was often hushed, and gaps filled the conversation, as if he was constantly checking over his shoulder. He wouldn't even reveal his age—"Why make it easy for the bastards?"
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 and online transparency pioneer 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."
Illustration: Stuart Bradford / Photo: Esther Dyson via Flickr
THE IDEA FOR WikiLeaks came out of one of the most notorious leaks of all. It took nearly two years for Daniel Ellsberg to get the Pentagon Papers into the public domain. "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 reporter or politician to get the word out.
Assange had the experience—and the ego—to try to create a new approach. As a teenager in Melbourne, he belonged to a hacker collective called the International Subversives. He eventually pled guilty to breaking into Australian government and commercial websites to test their security gaps, but was released on bond for good behavior. His bio describes him as "Australia's most famous ethical computer hacker." In the years that followed, Assange helped write a book about his online exploits and says he went on to become an investigative journalist who broke stories "in most major venues." (He declined to help us find examples of his work.)
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 the rest of the world."
WikiLeaks hatched 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 "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 confidential material. "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.
When I contacted the impressive figures who'd been listed on WikiLeaks' advisory board, some didn't know exactly why they were named. Tashi Namgyal Khamsitsang, a former representative of the Dalai Lama, recalls getting a cryptic email from WikiLeaks a few years ago, but says he's never been asked for advice. Xiao Qiang, a Chinese democracy activist, says he exchanged emails with Assange but little more. (After this article was originally published, WikiLeaks removed its advisory board from an updated version of its website.)
Digital security expert 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 technical advice wasn't heeded, Laurie, who lives in London, started receiving 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."
When asked about his supposed advisors' denials, Assange downplays the board as "pretty informal." But can WikiLeaks be trusted with sensitive documents when it is less than transparent itself?
John Young, founder of the pioneering whistleblower site Cryptome.org, was an early skeptic. He leaked his correspondence with WikiLeaks, in which he declared it "a fraud" and bizarrely hinted that the site was a CIA data-mining operation. "Fuck your cute hustle and disinformation campaign against legitimate dissent. Same old shit, working for the enemy," he wrote. Assange reverently describes Cryptome as WikiLeaks' "spiritual godfather," and Young now expresses "admiration" for WikiLeaks. Yet he adds that the site is "totally untrustworthy for information but fabulous entertainment."
AT FIRST, WIKILEAKS was conceived as an open and "completely neutral" conduit for forbidden information. "WikiLeaks does not pass judgment on the authenticity of documents. That's up to the readers, editors and communities to do," a 2008 version of the site explained. It has since moved away from crowdsourcing the analysis of leaks and has even publicly toyed with the idea of selling its juiciest material to the highest bidder. It also no longer claims to be a neutral messenger: It created a site called CollateralMurder.com to host the Iraq helicopter footage; WikiLeaks and Assange were quick to call out those who offered differing interpretations of the video.
Assange says WikiLeaks balances its obligation to publish with a sense of responsibility. While anyone can submit a document, submissions are vetted by Assange and a handful of reviewers whose identities he won't 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 told me. "I'm the final decision if the document is legit."
Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, once objected to WikiLeaks' "distorted sense of transparency," but now thinks it has improved its vetting process. However, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says she forbids her staff from using the site as a primary source. She writes in an email, "I don't spend a lot of time worrying about WikiLeaks because I don't know anyone who considers them to be or confuses them with journalists."
But a growing number of journalists have embraced WikiLeaks and its scoops. "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 Gawker, which published the hacked Palin emails after they appeared on WikiLeaks. Following the release of the Iraq helicopter video, bloggers Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias praised WikiLeaks for posting footage traditional outlets would never have sought out. Ex-Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell called the video a "much-needed antidote to scrubbed media coverage." Former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee worked on WikiLeaks' PR campaign, blogging that the video would be "a turning point in accountability journalism."
Even with high-tech tools to protect sources' identities, revealing the truth remains a dangerous business. As part of its ongoing focus on Kenya, in late 2008, WikiLeaks published a report linking the country's police to the torture and deaths of 500 suspected opposition members. The Sunday Times of London picked up the story, and the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions called for Kenya's attorney general and police commissioner to be fired. Four months later, two local human rights lawyers were shot to death in broad daylight in Nairobi. WikiLeaks condemned the killing of these "WikiLeaks related" investigators; Assange says they were connected to the report but were not the source of its leak. The problem, he says, was that they "weren't acting in an anonymous way."
Such episodes have only bolstered Assange's sense of purpose. WikiLeaks' fight, he says, is just beginning: "We want every person who's having a dispute with their kindergarten to feel confident about sending us material."