By Jerome Taylor Friday September 02 2011
Last year, Julian Assange and his whistle-blowing website dominated the news agenda. Now it’s struggling with legal woes, cyber attacks and a press distracted by phone-hacking. But, says Jerome Taylor, writing Wiki off would be a mistake
Nine months ago, you could barely pick up a newspaper without seeing the words WikiLeaks – or the silver-haired visage of its mercurial founder, Julian Assange – splashed across the front pages.
The Age of the Leak, we were told, had arrived. In the space of less than a year the whistleblowing platform had turned the world on its head. Journalism, information gathering and government secrecy would never be the same again.
Starting with the haunting video footage of an American Apache helicopter gunning down a group of armed and unarmed Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad – and ending spectacularly with the publication of thousands of classified diplomatic cables – 2010 was the year WikiLeaks crashed on to the world stage. Which begs the question, what ever happened to WikiLeaks’ 2011?
The contrast between what is happening within the WikiLeaks of today compared with this time last year could hardly be more stark. Last summer, Julian Assange was on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s most recognised faces. Now, he is waging a battle to secure his own freedom as the organisation he founded struggles to replicate its past successes.
Even before last year’s string of exposés, the Australian’s whistleblowing platform had been up and running for the best part of four years and boasted a string of successful scoops that it was rightly proud of.
But in July, WikiLeaks monumentally upped its game when it released a database of 76,000 war logs from Afghanistan, sending its fortunes (both literally and figuratively) soaring. In October, it followed up with a further 400,000 war logs from Iraq and then, as the year came to a close, came the coup de grâce – an enormous tranche of secret cables from US embassies across the globe that allowed us all to take a peek into the often bitchy, snide, corrupt and double-dealing world of international diplomacy.
And there were promises of more to come. Assange said he had access to the hard drive of a major banking executive – thought to be someone high up in Bank of America. A famous whistleblower from Switzerland even flew over to London to hand over CDs containing, we were informed, damning details of tax dodging within Switzerland’s notoriously secretive financial system. There were also promises of a further video showing a missile strike on the Afghan village of Granai which killed scores of civilians. When would the leaks end, we asked?
Fast-forward six months and to all intents and purposes the leaks have indeed stopped. If you discount the ongoing publication of the State Department cables, which until this week were trickling out in dribs and drabs, we have seen no major new exposés published by WikiLeaks so far this year. No Bank of America scandals, no dodgy tax dossiers, no missile-strike videos.
None of its rival offshoots, including the much-touted OpenLeaks, has been able to reveal information of anything like the calibre that WikiLeaks regularly mustered. For the meantime at least, the leaking tap has been turned off.
Part of what has stemmed the tide is WikiLeaks itself. Wanted by prosecutors in Sweden for questioning over alleged sexual offences against two women, Assange has had to spend more than 200 days cooped up in a Norfolk mansion as his not-inexpensive lawyers battle through the courts to shoot down his potential extradition to Stockholm. He is electronically tagged, has to report to the local police station every day and – although he is allowed to go online – the internet access is extremely slow, making effective communication and co-ordination with WikiLeaks staff around the world sometimes arduous.
The organisation’s high profile and pariah status within a growing number of governments has also left it intensely vulnerable to attack. Earlier this week, its website was hit by yet another massive denial-of-service assault, a disruption technique which is notoriously difficult to defend against and now seems to befall the whistleblowing platform with alarming regularity. It is not lost on transparency campaigners that while hundreds of arrests have been made around the world for cyber protests by people who are ideologically supportive of Assange, no one has yet been prosecuted or even arrested for disruption assaults on WikiLeaks itself.
It is still not known whether the website’s encrypted submissions system is back online and operational. Late last year, WikiLeaks was hit by a series of defections, with key volunteers allegedly crippling the website’s submissions system and making off with a number of vital files. Even if someone wanted to hand an information grenade over to WikiLeaks, it is not at all clear how they might do that.
Assange admitted to me yesterday that his organisation had been battered in recent months, but he vowed that WikiLeaks would continue to do what it does best.
“The best way to describe WikiLeaks as an organisation is that we are like Hanoi in the Vietnam War,” he said. “We have been bombed, some pieces of our infrastructure have been destroyed, and there has been a fog of war. But nonetheless the most important element of the war – our ongoing publication of the cables – has continued. Just like Hanoi did, we are becoming better at dealing efficiently with continued attacks and adversity while we scale up our infrastructure.”
Which is why writing off WikiLeaks entirely would be a major mistake. The organisation may be down, but it’s not out. All the whistleblowing platform needs is another scoop and it would soon be back on top. After all, it was allegedly the actions of one man – Private First Class Bradley Manning – which allowed WikiLeaks to get its hands on a single cache of information that gave it the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghan and Iraq war-logs and the State Department cables.
“If you look at what WikiLeaks put out last year it really is quite remarkable,” says Greg Mitchell, an American journalist at The Nation. “There was sort of this promise that it would be ongoing and yet we’ve had hardly any major new leaks. But we could wake up tomorrow and discover they have something new in the works. They have the brand and they have millions of followers.”
Those supporters could prove to be a vital lifeline for WikiLeaks. The organisation’s Twitter account alone has more than one million followers. In the past, WikiLeaks felt compelled to work with major newspapers and television networks to process, analyse and redact the sheer volume of information that they had access to. Those relationships have proved notoriously fickle with Assange, who has always been deeply suspicious of mainstream media, often falling out with those he worked with.
But now that WikiLeaks is a household name, what’s to stop it publishing new leaks direct to the masses?
This week, WikiLeaks did just that, releasing a searchable database of 133,877 cables all at once. A small number of major news organisations already have access to the full 250,000 diplomatic cables, either through direct deals with WikiLeaks or via their own journalistic sources. More recently, Assange partnered up with more than 90 news organisations around the world to give them limited access to cables in their geographical area – a clever technique which ensured that the WikiLeaks flag spread even as Western media began to lose interest in new cable releases.
But this week’s mass publication of cables is a watershed moment for WikiLeaks – or at least a return to its pre-Bradley Manning roots, when it largely relied on volunteers and crowdsourcing to analyse and publicise its leaks.
“I think crowdsourcing could be the future for WikiLeaks if it can get their submissions system back up and secure,” predicts Kevin Gosztola, an independent journalist at the political website Firedoglake who has done extensive work on analysing the State Department cables. “It’s lucky to have that option considering how many bridges were burnt, something I blame both on Julian and the news organisations he worked with.”
In a statement released online this week, WikiLeaks outlined its new publication strategy: “Crowdsourcing has proved to be a success: regional issues overlooked by our initial Western partners have been picked up around the world.”
Yesterday, the organisation even began asking its followers to vote on whether it should release the full, unredacted database of 250,000 cables.
The organisation has yet to make a decision on full disclosure but using the Twitter hashtag #wlfind, followers of WikiLeaks are already trawling through the newly released cables, highlighting those that they believe to be potentially newsworthy. Many of the dispatches have in fact already been covered in international or regional media, but some are entirely new.
In January 2006, for example, the American embassy in Stockholm detailed how 120 Chinese children who arrived in Sweden as refugees had gone missing over the previous two years, victims of a Europe-wide smuggling network that the authorities were struggling to get a handle on. A cable from Canberra revealed that American officials were so concerned about the state of Australia’s air-safety system in 2009 that they considered downgrading Australian airlines flying to the States.
One of the most troubling cables unearthed this week revolves around the alleged murder of an entire Iraqi family by US troops. In March 2006, Philip Alston, a UN Special Rapporteur investigating extra-judicial killings, wrote to the American mission in Geneva asking for details on a raid by multinational forces on the house of Faiz Harrat Al Majma’ee. Alston reported how, after a brief exchange of fire, troops stormed the house, “handcuffed all residents and executed all of them”. An air strike was launched on the house shortly after the raid but, according to Alston’s report, “autopsies carried out at the Tikrit Hospital’s morgue revealed that all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed”.
I contacted Alston to see whether he had any further luck in uncovering what happened that day. “[The US] studiously avoided responding to any communications sent to it during this period,” he says. “The tragedy is that this elaborate system of communications is in place but the [UN] Human Rights Council does nothing to follow up when states ignore issues raised with them.”
Even nine months after the first cables were released, WikiLeaks can still generate news for the right reasons – news that mainstream organisations missed out on first time around.
That’s something Assange is clearly proud of, as he explained why his staff have spent so much time and effort working on the cables, rather than preparing new releases.
“There are not many archives that can even in theory match the significance of the diplomatic cables so we have put all our weight into publishing that material as quickly and as widely as possible,” he says.
And yet there are the lingering question marks over WikiLeaks’ credibility amid the seemingly incessant bickering that goes on between Assange and his opponents, as well as ongoing allegations that the whistleblowing platform has been careless in protecting confidential sources contained within the diplomatic cables. Many transparency campaigners have been horrified by the in-fighting that has broken out between WikiLeaks supporters and rivals at OpenLeaks, while human rights groups have expressed concerns that the identities of US embassy informants have been exposed in the most recent tranche of unredacted cables.
“Once it switched from releasing a handful or a few dozen cables per day to tens of thousands of cables per day, its previous redaction policy seems to have been abandoned,” comments Steven Aftergood, who blogs about intelligence and secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, a watchdog group.
WikiLeaks argues that access to the unredacted files is now available because rival whistleblowers in Germany and at The Guardian newspaper made the encryption password to a back-up cache of cables available (a charge The Guardian denies).
Whatever the rights and wrongs, there are many who believe that it is the ongoing fallouts that really threaten to undermine WikiLeaks’ future.
“Whether there is reason or not to doubt WikiLeaks’ ability to publish new leaks, or whether it really does have a credibility problem or not, I do think future whistleblowers may think twice about going to it,” says Gosztola, a staunch defender of whistleblowing websites. “I don’t rule out the fact that WikiLeaks can revitalise and renew its credibility, but it will take a lot of effort.”
Assange, for his part, insists that WikiLeaks as an organisation is more than prepared for future publications once it puts the State Departmentcables to bed.
“The process of publishing the cables has allowed us to build a network of trusted investigative and fearless journalists in more than 50 countries,” he says. “It is that network – and our more than one million followers – that WikiLeaks will use to amplify future whistleblower disclosures. We will continue to synergise between these two groups. Crowds need a megaphone to direct them to where the action is.”
– Jerome Taylor