Established in 2006, the website WikiLeaks (WL) is a “non-profit media organization” whose purpose is to publicize secret or confidential information about various governments and corporations around the world. Professing a commitment to “revealing … suppressed and censored injustices,” WikiLeaks has published large amounts of illegally obtained, classified data about the U.S. government. A project of The Sunshine Press, WikiLeaks claims that its efforts are supported by thousands of volunteers worldwide. Through most of its history, the WikiLeaks website has been hosted on a Swedish Internet server, thereby benefiting from that country’s proactive “whistle-blowing” laws.
The primary founder of WikiLeaks is Julian Assange, a convicted computer hacker from Australia. According to The New Yorker, WikiLeaks began in 2006 when Assange became obsessed with the idea of creating a website that would disrupt governmental “conspiracy.” Assange has characterized the leaking of classified information as “an anarchistic act.” In an invitation to potential WikiLeaks collaborators sent during the website’s maiden year, Assange explained that the site’s primary targets would be highly oppressive regimes such as those in China and Russia, but that a “social movement” to expose secrets could also be used to “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the U.S. administration.”
WikiLeaks’s operations are conducted in relative secrecy. According to The New Yorker, “[k]ey members are known only by initials—M, for instance—even deep within WikiLeaks, where communications are conducted by encrypted online chat services.” At one time, WikiLeaks listed Noam Chomsky as a member of its advisory board, although Chomsky denied the association. WikiLeaks’s attorney is Mark Stephens, whose law firm — Finers, Stephens, and Innocent — has an “ongoing pro-bono relationship” with the George Soros-backed Open Society Institute (OSI).
In 2007, WikiLeaks released a manual detailing daily operations at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Although the manual was not classified, it was designated “for official use only.” The document included schematics of the facility as well as specifics regarding prisoner processing and interrogation methods.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks published the contents of then-Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s private email account. The emails had been obtained from the 20-year old son of a Democratic state senator from Tennessee, who had hacked into the former Alaskan governor’s Yahoo email account.
At a June 2009 ceremony in London, Amnesty International presented Wikileaks editor Julian Assange with its Media Award, in recognition of his expose of hundreds of recent extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya. That same year, the website ran into financial difficulties and reduced its operations while it focused on fundraising. It was not until early 2010 that WikiLeaks resumed operations.
In April 2010, WikiLeaks became an international sensation when it publicized a classified video that showed Iraqi civilians, who were mistaken for insurgents, being attack by the U.S. military during the Iraq War. WikiLeaks circulated a highly edited version of the video which, along with the video’s provocative title — “Collatoral Murder” — was meant to mislead viewers into believing that the American troops had knowingly targeted innocent non-combatants.
WikiLeaks became the center of controversy again in July 2010 by releasing 77,000 secret files pertaining to the Afghan War, which had been illegally obtained from the U.S. government. Made available to a number of publications including The New York Times, the documents contained information on American military operations and informants, thus putting innocent lives in jeopardy.
In October 2010, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 pages of classified documents on the Iraq War, dating from early 2004 through January 1, 2010. These documents catalogued such things as battles with insurgents, roadside bomb attacks, equipment failures, and shootings by civilian contractors. They also suggested that U.S. forces had often failed to follow up on credible evidence that Iraqi forces had mistreated, tortured and killed insurgents whom they had captured.
In November 2010, WikiLeaks released yet another major document dump — consisting of more than 250,000 classified U.S. State Department communications, many of which contained sensitive information on major American diplomatic relations from 1966-2010. Among the more notable disclosures were the following:
WikiLeaks was assisted in obtaining this information by Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst who had illegally procured the data and passed it along to Assange. News reports have stated that Manning, a homosexual officer, had been greatly upset over the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Regarding the consequences of his data theft, Manning said: “Everywhere there is a U.S. post, there is a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. It’s open diplomacy, worldwide anarchy in CSV format [a computer file format]. It’s a climategate with a global scope, and breathtaking depth. It’s beautiful and horrifying.”
WikiLeaks initially made these 250,000 files available to the Guardian, which subsequently published — along with the New York Times, SPIEGEL, and other media outlets — a number of carefully chosen, and heavily redacted, dispatches. Editors at these publications took pains to black out the names of informants — particularly those in totalitarian countries — whose lives could be endangered by the publication of the documents. But in August 2011, an unintended security breach at WikiLeaks resulted in the online publication of the unedited, unredacted versions of all quarter-million files — complete with the names of U.S. diplomats’ informants hailing from Afghanistan, the Arab world, China, Iran, and elsewhere.
In early February 2011, WikiLeaks made public some 1,400 secret U.S. embassy cables which suggested that the Obama administration had covertly agreed to share sensitive information about Britain’s nuclear program — specifically, the serial numbers of every Trident missile the U.S. had supplied to Britain — in exchange for Russian cooperation in signing the “New START” [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] agreement in April 2010. Although the treaty did not involve Britain, the leaked cables showed that Russia had used the treaty negotiations to demand more information about the UK’s Trident missiles, which were manufactured and maintained in the United States.
In April 2011, WikiLeaks released nearly 800 classified U.S. military documents containing details about nearly every one of the 779 individuals who had been held in custody at the U.S. Navy’s detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 2002. The documents showed that most of the 172 prisoners who were still in custody (as of April 2011) had been rated as “high risk” figures who, if they were to be released, would pose a threat to the United States and its allies. The documents also showed that many other detainees who had been released were likewise designated as “high risk.”The New York Times, which was given early access to the Wikileaks files, reported that the documents showed “the patchwork and contradictory evidence that in many cases would never have stood up in criminal court or a military tribunal.”
A portion of WikiLeaks’s funding is obtained through a global network of affiliated foundations and organizations. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the “lynchpin” of the website’s funding is the German Wau Holland Foundation. Assange revealed to the paper, “We’re registered as a library in Australia, we’re registered as a foundation in France, we’re registered as a newspaper in Sweden[.]” Assange also said that WikiLeaks has two tax-exempt charitable organizations in the U.S. that “act as a front” for the website, but the identity of these organizations is unknown. Former WikiLeaks insider John Young disclosed to CNET News that the organization had negotiated with the Open Society Institute (OSI) for funding. However, no direct funding from the OSI has ever been confirmed.
A notable employee of WikiLeaks is the anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Israel Shamir, who serves as the website’s content aggregator in Russia. In this role, Shamir is responsible for selecting and distributing secret cables to Russian news organizations.