How Wikileaks Works

by | Dec 1, 2010 08:53 AM ET

Let's imagine that you have learned a secret, and this secret is so important, or so damaging, that you need to tell someone. But let's also imagine that you need to remain anonymous. For example, you might fear that you would face retaliation, jail or perhaps murder if people found out how the secret got out.

What would you do?

You might go to the government, perhaps to a watchdog agency, to disclose your secret. But what if the secret involves the government? Or what if the government needs to protect someone who played a role in your secret, perhaps because of campaign contributions or insider connections? The government might not help, or might bury your secret, and you with it. You might go to the police, but the police force is usually part of the government. So the police may be out as well. You might go to a well-known reporter at a major news organization, but there is some risk that the reporter might consciously or accidentally reveal your identity. Or the reporter might bury your story as well.

In other words, if you have a big, dirty secret - especially one that involves the government - it may be hard to get the word out anonymously. In that case you might want to try Wikileaks, at Wikileaks.org. Wikileaks describes itself in this way: “Wikileaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists.”

That anonymity is important to maintaining Wikileaks' incoming flow of information. Wikileaks claims that it has never blown the cover of any informant. And Wikileaks provides a number of ways to submit material, as well as instructions for ensuring anonymous Internet submissions.

Based on its promise and track record of anonymity, Wikileaks has been able to break several important releases of secret material. And this really gets to the heart of the Wikileaks process. First, someone has to gain possession of secret material in some way, and then that someone has to trust Wikileaks enough to send it in.

Where might the leaked material come from? In the case of the Sarah Palin Yahoo email account and the Climate Research Unit email account, a hacker had to break into the accounts and steal the emails. In the case of the British National Party membership list, the web site for the organization accidentally posted its membership list on its web site for a short period of time, and someone snagged a copy before it disappeared.

But by far the most common, and most damaging, source of leaks is insiders who secretly collect the information and then send it to Wikileaks. Insiders might do this out of a sense of justice or as a form of retaliation against an employer. Whatever the motive, several of the resulting leaks have been spectacular.

For example, an insider managed to leak an audio and video stream recorded during an Apache helicopter attack that killed civilians in Iraq. This leaked video is the one that put Wikileaks on the map, because Wikileaks was the sole outlet for the video. And the video was so incendiary that most major media outlets around the world picked it up. It was incendiary because two Reuters reporters were killed, because the U.S. Military tried to cover up the incident and because the military personnel involved used rather amazing language during the attack that did not reflect well on U.S. forces.

Since that watershed moment, Wikileaks has benefited from several more major insider releases. For example, Wikileaks released hundreds of thousands of pages of information known as the Iraq War Logs, and has also come into possession of hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables. These cables reveal behind-the-scenes comments and actions by U.S. diplomats that have proven quite embarrassing to the United States and its allies. Many commentators have stated that, because of the release, both allies and enemies of the United States have lost face, and it may be possible to uncover the identities of people working secretly behind the scenes.

If you think about it, Wikileaks should not be necessary, at least in the United States. The U.S. government is supposed to be government by the people and for the people. Such a government should be completely transparent to the entire population in every action it takes. Unfortunately, the U.S. government appears to be far from transparent, and Wikileaks is helping to remove that opacity one leak at a time.

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