Signs That WikiLeaks Is Starting to Crack

Internal strife and a scoop-free batch of cables sheds light on the troubled organization

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Friday's massive release of WikiLeaks cables didn't produce much hard news, but the story behind the release did shed some light on how mounting internal turmoil is threatening the organization's future. Der Spiegel confirmed on Monday that an encrypted but easy-to-crack database containing unredacted versions of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables has been making rounds on the Internet and can be traced back to in-fighting between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his former deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Described in the German press as a "Leak at WikiLeaks," the database shows how Assange's organization is failing to protect the identities of its sources, but perhaps more importantly, how the army of whistleblowers is losing footing in their uphill battle for transparency.

The most interesting revelation in the latest batch of WikiLeaks cables has more to do with how the release happened than the release itself. It's unclear what exactly happened as the organization was moving the data onto public servers, but WikiLeaks appeared to be scrambling somewhat. The release stalled after the first few sets of cables were posted when WikiLeaks' servers were hit with a denial of service attack. News emerged around the same time that federal prosecutors ordered Dynadot, an internet registrar that hosted WikiLeaks data, to surrender "information on Julian Assange," and Dynadot complied. The upper limit of how many of unpublished cables WikiLeaks was releasing rose from the organization's initial estimate of 35,000 to Monday's grand total of 133,887. The organization explained the purge in a Monday blog post:

Cablegate launched nine months ago today. Despite the amount of material yet to be reported on, mainstream media organisations in Europe and the United States have slowed their rate of publishing Cablegate derived stories. This has led to the misperception in Europe and the US that WikiLeaks has been less active in recent months. In fact, WikiLeaks has stepped up its activity … Through crowdsourcing, WikiLeaks hopes to maximise the impact of the information in the diplomatic cables by allowing universities, investigative journalists, human rights advocates, lawyers, and prosecutors to access the source material all over the world.

New York magazine described this approach as "Julian Assange Acting Out for Attention" and pointed to a Reuters source who said that Assange was "'frustrated' at the lack of media attention."

Whether out of frustration or hope for a broader reach, WikiLeaks is changing its tactics. But based on Domscheit-Berg's criticism of the organization, the new approach could be a dangerous one. The leaked database of unredacted cables confirms what Domscheit-Berg has been saying about WikiLeaks since he defected from the organization and helped start the rival whistleblower site OpenLeaks. Despite promising to do so, WikiLeaks can't guarantee the anonymity of its sources. In his exposé on the organization published last year, Domscheit-Berg suggested the WikiLeaks team was "overtaxed and perhaps, to some extent at least, just not up to the job" and described WikiLeaks' system as "a security risk for everyone involved."

WikiLeaks defenders would dismiss Domscheit-Berg's claims as the gripes of a disaffected defector. Before last week's release, Domscheit-Berg cited the same reasoning when he admitted to deleting over 3,500 unpublished WikiLeaks documents. WikiLeaks supporters accused Domscheit-Berg of sabotage of deleting important information about Bank of America and the U.S. no-fly list. But Domscheit-Berg defended himself in an interview with Wired. He claimed that the relevant information in the deleted data had already been made public and echoed his concern that WikiLeaks can't protect its sources.

The latest announcement that WikiLeaks is moving away from working closely with a small amount of news organizations adds weight to these concerns. Der Spiegel reports that the database wasn't so much a leak as it was the result of a WikiLeaks "slip up." WikiLeaks posted the encrypted file online and later posted the password that unlocked the file without realizing it. News organizations worked hard to keep this from happening, but as Paul Carr at TechCrunch argues, the slip up is symptomatic of a larger problem:

In truth, it almost doesn't matter who is responsible: the eventual release of the unredacted cables was inevitable. The message of Wikileaks--and the amoral cult of leaking for lulz that came in its wake--has always been one of callous contempt for the human cost of "free information". From Assange’s well-publicised remarks to Guardian reporters that "if [informants] get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.", to LulzSec and Anonymous' willingness to publish the personal details of anyone even tangentially associated with their 'enemies', what we see time and time again from mass-leakers is a sociopath's disregard for individuals, combined with a Hollywood serial killer’s hunger for attention. Sooner of later--for attention, to make some misguided political point, for the lulz--someone was bound to obtain and leak the raw documents.

Indeed, WikiLeaks themselves say they want to "maximize the impact" of their secret spilling. But if critics like Carr and Domscheit-Berg are right, the new more chaotic approach might also maximize the harm as well.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.