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Despite latest coup, WikiLeaks faces challenges

By Ellen Nakashima and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 24, 2010; A14

"WikiLeaks," said the godfather of whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, "has become the future of unauthorized disclosure."

Speaking Saturday in London, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers and their damning history of American involvement in Vietnam a generation ago, expressed what is partly hope and partly a reflection of reality: the Internet makes it harder to keep secrets.

But still to be determined is whether WikiLeaks itself is that future, or some other Web site or collection of online organizations. WikiLeaks is evolving, working through challenges posed by the new media model, such as to what degree can a site devoted to holding the powerful accountable hold itself beyond reach? And can a site dedicated to combating secrecy continue to be so secret?

Indeed, as WikiLeaks is trumpeting its latest coup, a number of former WikiLeaks activists are painting another picture of an organization that is out of control, still too driven by the personality and ego of its mercurial founder, Julian Assange.

"I'm too busy ending two wars," is the response one reporter got in an e-mail from Assange after asking for clarity on an issue, according to a source who saw the e-mail, and thought it captured Assange's crusading and peremptory nature.

On Saturday, the tall, thin Assange got up on a platform and, wearing a navy suit and gray-stripe tie, proclaimed that the group's latest disclosure - about 392,000 documents from the Iraq battlefront - was about revealing "the truth."

Certainly the release Friday was a milestone, the result of the largest leak of classified military documents in history and what the editor of the British newspaper the Guardian called "an extraordinary moment in journalism."

A half-dozen or so journalistic heavyweights, including the New York Times, Qatar-based al-Jazeera and the Guardian, released stories Friday based on advance, privileged access to the documents.

The stories revealed that the U.S. military, despite its denials, did keep a body count of Iraqi casualties - at least 109,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2009, the vast majority civilians. They also gave fresh attention to the grisly abuses of Iraqi detainees, largely by Iraqi security forces, prompting human rights advocates to call for probes into how much U.S. officials knew about the torture. And it added new information about the apparent role of Iran in supporting Shiite militias.

Assange, 39, whose close-cropped blond hair frames an impish face, struck a defiant note against his critics, particularly those in the U.S. government.

Even before the documents and stories were published, the Pentagon issued a statement accusing WikiLeaks of putting at risk "the lives of our troops, their coalitions partners" and Iraqis who collaborated with coalition forces. The statement also said WikiLeaks induced "individuals to break the law" by leaking the material.

Said Assange of the Pentagon: "They are trying to issue deceptive statements to fool the world press into reporting something that is not true."

Beyond reach

The anxiety and anger that WikiLeaks' current and previous disclosures have raised in the U.S. national security establishment lies in part in the fact that the site is, for technical and other reasons, virtually beyond reach of the courts and authorities. Jeffrey H. Smith, a former CIA general counsel and currently an external adviser to CIA Director Leon Panetta, said "without question" he thought that Assange could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for possessing and sharing without authorization classified military information. But, he added, the challenge would be to get custody of Assange unless he comes to the United States voluntarily or is handed over by another country.

The Justice Department has said it is assisting the Defense Department in its investigation into the leaks to WikiLeaks. Though Smith said he did not know whether efforts were underway to gain custody, he said, "My supposition is that the Justice Department and Department of Defense are working very hard to see if they can get jurisdiction over him."

The Justice Department declined to comment.

WikiLeaks activists say they have made efforts to be responsive to criticism leveled after the July release of more than 70,000 classified military field reports from Afghanistan. They said that this time they worked for months with special software to remove sensitive identities and specific locations. WikiLeaks also said it brought in nonprofit organizations to help review the documents. The steps taken represent the maturation of the operation, activists said.

Beginning in 2006, Assange and his colleagues sought to create "an uncensorable system for untraceable mass leaking." The stated goal was to fight corruption and injustice and provide a way for electronic documents and images to become public while protecting the provider.

It drew occasional notice for disclosures ranging from bank corruption in Iceland to Sarah Palin's personal e-mails. Then it burst into global prominence in April when it posted video footage of a U.S. Apache helicopter firing on civilians in Baghdad, killing two Reuters employees. That was followed by the Afghanistan document release in July and on Friday, the Iraq War Logs. Though WikiLeaks has not identified the sources of its material, suspicion has fallen on a young Army intelligence analyst who was stationed in Baghdad.

Some say that the very emergence of WikiLeaks shows deeper flaws in the system: widespread overclassification of material and a lack of meaningful protections for whistleblowers dealing with information relating to national security.

Paying a price

But the phenomenal rise of WikiLeaks over the past six months has come at a price, former activists say. At least five people from the core group have left because of disagreements over the way Assange was running the operation, said Herbert Snorrason, a 25-year-old Icelandic activist who moderated a WikiLeaks chat room until about a month ago. "Quite a few others" who were more tangentially involved have also left, he said.

He said too many editorial decisions were being made solely by Assange, including to title the Baghdad video Collateral Murder, a move that suggested to some that WikiLeaks is not neutral. "It had unnecessary effects on how the project was perceived," he said.

Former colleagues questioned the focus on high-profile disclosures such as the Afghanistan records, which, they said, not only meant smaller projects languished but that the rushed staff was ill-prepared to vet so many records to ensure that names of civilians had been redacted.

Herbert said the most significant lesson to come from the Afghanistan document release is that "focusing attention" on WikiLeaks is undesirable. "Seeking credit means going into the spotlight, inviting attacks," he said.

"Was this whole thing just built up so that this high-profile material would come in? So it would take on this fame-oriented, pop band direction?" said Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a 32-year-old Berlin resident who was suspended by Assange in late August and resigned last month.

The organization's secrecy frustrated some.

"There was too much cloak and dagger," said Domscheit-Berg, referring to what he said was Assange's practice of not using his credit card to avoid leaving a trail for investigators, and his general practice of not sharing information about plans with core members. "I'm not into operating like an intelligence service."

Because of maintenance or improvements to the WikiLeaks Web site, the organization has been unable to accept new submissions since Sept. 29. Assange has been refused a residency permit in Sweden, where he faces allegations of rape and sexual assault. He denies the charges and says it is part of an American-led campaign to ruin his reputation.

Still, said Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks activist, "We are a small but healthy organization." He said that "WikiLeaks as a one-man organization" is more perception than reality, which should change in coming months. More people will be speaking out, and there might even be a physical headquarters, he said.

The charge of lack of transparency is "unjust," Hrafnsson said, because WikiLeaks has maintained secrecy to protect sources and shield volunteers who want to keep a low profile.

"We are basically a young organization going through the primary stages," he said. "If you take a long-term perspective, it will be quite different."

WikiLeaks "will survive in some shape or form," said one former core volunteer. "There are many people out there that support what it does." In fact, the activist said, "it might mutate into more than one site."

Faiola reported from London. Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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