The Beginner's Guide to WikiLeaks

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This post will be updated to reflect new developments. It was first published 12/8/2010 at 3:29pm. Its time-stamp indicates when it was last changed.

WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, an Australian citizen. The site's mission was to create "an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis." It is not related to Wikipedia, and is not a "wiki" in any technical sense. What it did was create a secure way to upload secret files for public dissemination. By 2008, the repository held 1.2 million documents, including important leaks about Kenyan police killings and the treatment of Guantanamo's prisoners. Though well-known by some covering Internet security issues, the site burst into the mainstream with the April 2010 release of an annotated video called "Collateral Murder," which showed showed leaked footage of a U.S. helicopter crew killing a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists.

The group followed up the video with the bombshell releases of hundreds of thousands of documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The new releases were coordinated with major newspapers (The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel) and generated global news. WikiLeaks reportedly received all of those documents from one Army private, Bradley Manning, who snuck them out of a military installation near Baghdad on burned CDs. Manning was outed by hacker Adrian Lamo and arrested in May. In June, Lamo showed Wired's Threat Level chat logs that purportedly showed that Manning had handed WikiLeaks more than 250,000 State Department cables. In July, WikiLeaks released an encrypted file on peer-to-peer file sharing networks that purportedly contains all the information the organization has ever received. Its contents have yet to be revealed.

Late this year, WikiLeaks released the whole set of cables to El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian. The New York Times obtained the cables from The Guardian. Since November 29, the cables have been dribbling out on the newspapers' websites, and then afterwards -- and with similar redactions -- on WikiLeaks' own servers. WikiLeaks has not released the entire archive of cables into the wilds of the Internet. The BBC reported that WikiLeaks approached the State Department for help redacting the documents and was rebuffed.

The U.S. government's response has been furious, and aided by private companies. They've had their accounts suspended by Amazon's cloud computing services, PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, and a Swiss bank. A key domain service dropped WikiLeaks, too, so WikiLeaks.org is no longer accessible. To fight back, WikiLeaks made it easy to mirror the website; now more than 1,500 different copies of the site are hosted across the world. Meanwhile, Julian Assange remained on the run. He was arrested in Britain December 7 on charges related to two disputed sexual encounters he had in Sweden. It is unclear whether he'll be extradited to Sweden. After a December 14 hearing/media circus, he was released on 200,000 pounds bail and an agreement to surrender his passport, respect a curfew, and wear and electronic tag.

The prosecutor in the case maintains she has received no political pressure. Friday, Assange's lawyer told ABC News he expected his client to be charged in the United States under the U.S. Espionage Act, and a grand jury appears to be considering charges. Wired's Kevin Poulsen suggests he may be charged for conspiracy to violate a different computer fraud law.

The releases of the cables continue, though the organization may be in disarray. Pro-WikiLeaks forces largely drawn from the loosely affiliated group Anonymous had been making reprisal denial-of-service attacks on Visa, Mastercard, and the Swiss bank, but appeared to change course Thursday, December 9. They've launched a new "operation" to widely disseminate the cables. Assange says his next target is a U.S. bank, widely rumored to be Bank of America.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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