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."