What Was WikiLeaks Good For?

"Leaking to the mainstream press. How safe is it? Not very," WikiLeaks tweeted last week—a bold statement after the organization's best source has spent two and a half years behind bars.

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"Leaking to the mainstream press. How safe is it? Not very," WikiLeaks tweeted last week—a bold statement after the organization's best source has spent two and a half years behind bars. Julian Assange announced Monday that WikiLeaks won't publish anything new until it figures out how to raise money. When it launched, the site's call to action was, in their own words, "an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis." The notion was that giving people the ability to anonymously share secrets would shake corrupt regimes, corporate evil-doers, and other corriodors of power. Revealing splashy secrets was always part of the site's appeal, but so was the process. As they wrote in their early manifesto: "That is why the time has come for an anonymous global avenue for disseminating documents the public should see."

WikiLeaks has had some major successes -- we noted earlier this year how its cache of State Department cables have become a new reference library for mainstream media. But judged by its own ambitions -- and the worst fears of its detractors cited in the many very serious essays on the future of journalism and privacy and the Internet -- the grand experiment of turning WikiLeaks into a conduit for "mass document leaking" has been an abysmal failure. It's not just that the sources for its most high-profile leaks have a troubling history of being thrown in a jail, there have been precious few of them.

Its highest profile leaks -- the dribs and drabs of that massive stash of confidential cables and the video of an horrific Apache helicopter attack in Iraq -- can all be traced back to exactly one person: Bradley Manning. And what could WikiLeaks publish now that he's lost his access to a military computer? Manning was not WikiLeaks's only source. But he was by far its best. The group wouldn't even vouch for the validity of the first document it ever published, which claimed to be a Somali rebel's "secret decision" to assassinate government officials. And the question of the memo's authenticity was quickly eclipsed by all the excitement about WikiLeaks itself, as The New Yorker's Raffi Khatchadourian reports. Most of the organization's pre-Manning leaks are of little importance, like the contents of Sarah Palin's Yahoo inbox, published in September 2008, after an anonymous "hacker" guessed her password. He didn't stay anonymous for long: David Kernell was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, plus three years of probation, though he was eventually moved to a halfway house. WikiLeaks also published religious texts from Scientology, which had, for the most part, already been revealed by exposés from such varied sources as the St. Petersburg Times and South Park. The biggest pre-Manning release, a cache of 570,000 pager messages sent on September 11, 2001, are heartbreaking but banal. Though, according to Manning, they may have come from an NSA database, they only revealed people acting just like you'd expect in an emergency: "please call" was one of the most common phrases.

After that preamble, you get to the meat of the history of WikiLeaks; one guy, a low-ranking enlisted soldier with problems with authority and enough security clearance, free time and blank CDs to download hundreds of thousands of files. He gave Assange's group the video of Reuters journalists shot to death by soldiers in Apache helicopters who mistook their camera lenses for RPGs, the Afghan war logs, Iraq war logs, secret State Department memos. And what happened to Manning? He was arrested in May 2010, six months after he contacted WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks continued to publish information it got from Manning while he was locked up -- the diplomatic cables, plus files from Iraq and Afghanistan -- giving the government new charges to levy against him. In March, the Army filed 22 new charges against Manning for illegally downloading State Department and military files and giving them to an "unauthorized source." Those were added to the 12 charges already against him; the new charges included "aiding the enemy" -- also known as treason, punishable by death. But hey! At least Manning's not forced to sleep naked in solitary confinement anymore. Meanwhile, the mainstream press who published the information leaked by Manning -- like Assange's nemesisThe New York Times -- are protected from such prosecutions by the First Amendment.
WikiLeaks may be out of commission -- as a fundraising appeal, "we're not doing what our supporers want us to do anymore" lacks a certain oomph -- but the world will spin on. Those who have secrets that governments want to protect are no safer than they were before WikiLeaks. Neither are the journalists who are in the business of listening to them. While Assange postures against the mainstream media, the Justice Department is still working to get New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources for a story, reported in 2003 and discussed in his 2006 book, about the warrantless wiretapping program that started under the Bush administration. Risen says he's willing to go to jail to protect his source. All those theoretical discussions of an anarchic new citizen press driven by anonymous file-sharing remain academic.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.