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WikiLeaks works to expose government secrets, but Web site's sources are a mystery

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"There are new possibilities that come with a creative use of the cyber medium," said Robert M. Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But it's important to have the measuring sticks of accuracy, fairness and journalistic independence."

He added: "There's a difference between journalism and just putting out information."

Working from home

Schmitt, 32, a German who lives in the former East Berlin, is part of an eclectic group of journalists, technicians and activists who have guided WikiLeaks since it was founded about three years ago. Tall and slim with dark-framed glasses and a trim beard, he worked as a computer networker for a private company before quitting to devote himself to WikiLeaks. Like the other directors, including founder Julian Assange, an Australian journalist, he draws no salary for what he says is a full-time job with long hours and few days off.

Working from their houses -- or, in Schmitt's case, from a couple of laptops in his small apartment -- members of the core team pore over each day's fresh material. About a third of it is immediately tossed out, including self-written exposés, pranks and forgeries.

The rest is vetted with the help of a network of hundreds of expert volunteers with specialties ranging from law to handwriting analysis and video encryption. To limit the possibility of threats or legal intimidation, only Schmitt and Assange are public about their roles.

What the organization doesn't do, they say, is exclude material based on internal views about what is considered important or politically palatable.

Some of the better-known leaks have targeted icons of the political right. The Web site was the conduit for the posting of stolen personal e-mails written by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), and it exposed a secret 2004 U.S. handbook for dealing with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Left-leaning causes and personalities have been hit as well. Schmitt said the founding group's original plan was to focus not on Western governments and their policies, but to expose corruption and wrongdoing by autocratic regimes in the developing world.

Baghdad video hits nerve

WikiLeaks' sharply worded pronouncements about some of its material have drawn fire from media critics and others who accuse the group of straying into advocacy.

Some of the harshest criticism came after last month's Iraq video, which portrayed a U.S. Apache helicopter's assault on a group of Iraqis in Baghdad that killed several civilians, including two employees of the Reuters news service. An edited 17-minute version of the video -- donated by an anonymous source and unencrypted with the help of volunteers -- was posted on the WikiLeaks site April 5 under the heading "collateral murder."

The gunship camera footage from July 2007 shows a group of Iraqi men, some of them armed, being raked by the helicopter's 30-mm cannon as they walk along a Baghdad street. Later, the helicopter destroys a van that stops to help a wounded man, killing the driver and badly wounding two children who were unseen passengers in the vehicle.

A firefight had occurred earlier in the same neighborhood, and the cockpit voice recordings suggest that the pilots thought the men were insurgents from the earlier attack. The Pentagon had long blocked the release of the video, and in a statement April 5, said it regretted the loss of innocent life.

Edited and unedited versions of the video have been viewed nearly 8 million times, provoking shock but also condemnation. Some critics blasted WikiLeaks as an incarnation of "Baghdad Bob," the nickname of the former Iraqi information minister under Saddam Hussein.

Since the video was released, Assange and other WikiLeaks officials have defended their airing of the its disturbing images as an important counterbalance to those served up by television and Hollywood.

"We're being desensitized by watching fake violence, but we're not seeing the real stuff, the real pain and real cruelty," Schmitt said. "How can you have an opinion about this war if you don't know what it looks like?"

As the controversy over the Baghdad video simmered, WikiLeaks was in a kind of stand-down. Since mid-December, the Web site has been essentially frozen while the group's leaders have take an extended time out to retool technical infrastructure and strategize about ways to stabilize their finances. Until now, WikiLeaks has relied on volunteer donations and team members' bank accounts to cover annual costs said to exceed $300,000 -- with most of the money used to pay for servers and technical support.

Capitalizing on its newly elevated profile, the group has courted new contributors as well as nonprofit foundations, with the aim of raising cash for a worldwide network with links to local news providers on every continent.

WikiLeaks officials say they want to empower traditional media outlets by increasing their reach and investigative firepower at a time when many newspapers and broadcasters are slashing budgets.

"We're not there to take journalists' jobs away," Schmitt said. "On the contrary, our goal is to make mainstream journalism cheaper. We enable them to do things that no single newspaper can do by itself."

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