WikiLeaks works to expose government secrets, but Web site's sources are a mystery
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 8:57 PM
BERLIN -- For an organization dedicated to exposing secrets, WikiLeaks keeps a close hold on its own affairs. Its Web site doesn't list a street address or phone number, or the names of key officers. Officially, it has no employees, headquarters or even a post office box.
Yet, about 30 times a day, someone submits a sensitive document to this cyber-whistleblower to be posted online for all to see. Politicians' private e-mails, secret CIA reports, corporate memos, surveillance video -- all have been fair game.
The three-year-old group was catapulted into the spotlight last month when it released a U.S. military video of a helicopter attack on Iraqis, graphic images that drew a worldwide audience.
That might have been just the warmup. Newly leaked material -- including what WikiLeaks officials describe as an explosive video of civilian casualties in Afghanistan -- is being prepared for release, part of a growing treasure trove of formerly secret documents and recordings that exceeds a million records.
The site has provoked official and corporate anxiety for years, but now WikiLeaks is tapping new technology and a growing list of financial backers to move closer to what the group says it has long sought to become: a global foe of excessive government secrecy and an enabler of citizen activists, journalists and others who seek to challenge the powerful.
WikiLeaks has pioneered an approach that capitalizes on its secretive nature. Lacking a home base or traditional infrastructure, it is almost entirely virtual, relying on servers and helpers in dozens of countries. It is accessible anywhere the Internet goes, yet it is relatively immune from pressure from censors, lawyers or local governments. Its founders say those who submit material to the site typically do so anonymously.
The goal, said Daniel Schmitt, one of WikiLeaks' five core directors, is to make the organization unstoppable.
"The message of WikiLeaks to the controllers of information is this: You can either be transparent, or transparency will be brought to you," he said.
The group's tactics have riled governments around the world, and some have struck back. China has repeatedly sought to block the Web site, and corporations have filed lawsuits, ultimately without success.
A 2008 U.S. Defense Department assessment -- marked "SECRET//NOFORN" but posted online by WikiLeaks in March -- said it "must be presumed that wikileaks.org has or will receive sensitive or classified DoD documents in the future," noting several instances in which Defense documents have appeared on the site.
The assessment proposes the "identification, exposure, or termination of employment of or legal actions against current or former insiders, leakers or whistleblowers" to puncture the veil of anonymity shielding WikiLeaks' sources from scrutiny.
Also watching closely are mainstream news outlets. At a time when newspapers and broadcast organizations are shedding jobs, the arrival of a global leak machine untethered by traditional journalistic rules of attribution and balance is inciting intense interest as well as apprehension.