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