The End of WikiLeaks As We Know It

What's left for Julian Assange and his organization?

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The past week in WikiLeaks has been a confusing one but one thing seems increasingly clear: Julian Assange has a disaster on his hands. After government officials and former WikiLeaks media partners broadly condemned the organization's release of over a quarter of a million unredacted diplomatic cables, Assange could face prosecution and jail time in Australia for having revealed the identity of at least one of the country's intelligence officers. The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders is also dialing back their support for Assange's organization by temporarily suspending its WikiLeaks mirror site. Even longtime WikiLeaks defender Glenn Greenwald admits that WikiLeaks has failed "to do everything possible to avoid harm to innocent people."

As Greenwald expresses well, nobody wins with the full release of the unredacted WikiLeaks cables. In fact, everybody loses:

This incident is unfortunate in the extreme for multiple reasons: it's possible that diplomatic sources identified in the cables (including whistleblowers and human rights activists) will be harmed; this will be used by enemies of transparency and WikiLeaks to disparage both and even fuel efforts to prosecute the group; it implicates a newspaper, The Guardian, that generally produces very good and responsible journalism; it likely increases political pressure to impose more severe punishment on Bradley Manning if he's found guilty of having leaked these cables; and it will completely obscure the already-ignored, important revelations of serious wrongdoing from these documents. It's a disaster from every angle.

The backlash raises the question: Is this the end of WikiLeaks as we know it?

Let's focus on the "as we know it" part of that question. WikiLeaks describes itself as a "not-for-profit media organization" that provides "an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists." In a matter of speaking, WikiLeaks as we know it ended with the departure of  the organization's former spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg last fall. Upon leaving, Domscheit-Berg crippled the site's submissions system. "Children shouldn't play with guns," Domscheit-Berg later wrote. "That was our argument for removing the submission platform from Julian’s control … We will only return the material to Julian if and when he can prove that he can store the material securely and handle it carefully and responsibly."

WikiLeaks has been unable to rebuild its submission system, due in part to a lack of funding. The eruption of controversy over the questionable legality of WikiLeaks' activities left the organization with only four methods of donating funds--direct deposits to a bank in Germany, one in Iceland, the electronic currency Bitcoin or checks by mail. Lately, the organization is also having trouble keeping its servers online. Following the release of all 251,287 diplomatic cables, the site's searchable database overloaded prompting pleas for donations. The collapsing infrastructure doesn't mean that WikiLeaks is no longer accepting or hosting secrets, but that would-be whisteblowers are restricted to mailing or hand-delivering material to the organization. There are also now a number of WikiLeaks copycats, including Domscheit-Berg's own OpenLeaks, that offer to host leaked information.

With this week's release of unredacted diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks has alienated themselves from past allies and inevitably threatened their reputation with future funders. Chief amongst those allies are the organization's five media partners--The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El País and Le Monde--who said in a joint statement that they "deplore the decision of WikiLeaks to publish the unredacted state department cables, which may put sources at risk." As Times editor Bill Keller explained in recounting his relationship with the organization and Assange earlier this year, WikiLeaks has been "roundly criticized for its seeming indifference to the safety of those informants, and in its subsequent postings it has largely followed the example of the news organizations and redacted material that could get people jailed or killed. Assange described it as a 'harm minimization policy.'" This policy has effectively been thrown out the window. According to an initial survey of the released documents, The Guardian, one of these former allies, found:

The newly published archive contains more than 1,000 cables identifying individual activists; several thousand labelled with a tag used by the US to mark sources it believes could be placed in danger; and more than 150 specifically mentioning whistleblowers.

The cables also contain references to people persecuted by their governments, victims of sex offences, and locations of sensitive government installations and infrastructure.

Assange has so far defended the release that there's "no claim by official sources that WikiLeaks has caused the death of any individual anywhere in the world." Regardless of what he says now, however, Assange is also remember for his lack of sympathy for those sources. "Well, they’re informants," he told The Guardian last year in a conversation with editors about redacting names of sources. "So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them."

Supporters continue to stand by the mission of WikiLeaks. As Reporters Without Borders echoed in their statement about no longer offering a mirror, "WikiLeaks has done something very worthwhile by making vital information available to the US and international public." Greenwald reminds us (emphasis his), "Despite the fault fairly assigned to WikiLeaks, one point should be absolutely clear: there was nothing intentional about WikiLeaks' publication of the cables in unredacted form. They ultimately had no choice."

But he's only half right. The more we learn about the timeline of events that led to the initial leak at WikiLeaks, the more apparent it is that no single actor caused the accidental release of the data, and outspoken critics like Domscheit-Berg were also at fault. However, WikiLeaks' actions this week were extremely intentional, and they even tried to frame the decision as a democratic imperative. After initially denying that there had been a leak at all, the organization taunted their former media partners for misreporting the story and then tweeted out a link to the encrypted document. Before uploading all of the cables release to their searchable database, they denied that they had "released the names of any 'informants'" before polling their million plus Twitter followers over whether or not they should host the full release. WikiLeaks ultimately framed the release as a democratic imperative when they announced that their followers voted "over 100 to 1 in favor of release."

Greenwald continues, "Serious caution is warranted in making claims about the damage caused by publication of these cables. … That said, there's little doubt that the release of all these documents in unredacted form poses real risk to some of the individuals identified in them, and that is truly lamentable. But it is just as true that WikiLeaks easily remains an important force for good."

To return to the original question, though, the backlash from the release of the unredacted cables puts WikiLeaks' future in serious jeopardy. Though supporters continue to stand behind WikiLeaks' ideology--the "important force for good" ideology--they've shown serious doubts in the practical details of the WikiLeaks model. The organization is struggling to keep its servers running; its relationship with the media is completely compromised; and should harm come to innocent people as a result of these unredacted cables, WikiLeaks' critics will have been proven right. Putting aside the collective anxiety about the organization's future, it's unclear what will happen to WikiLeaks, to Assange or to the recently exposed sources in the coming weeks. But things will never be the same.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.