At first blush, the new WikiLeaks reporting didn’t look much different than the old WikiLeaks reporting.
The Times published a piece written by three journalists that repackaged the contents of a WikiLeaks press release announcing the CIA document dump. The story’s breathless second paragraph read: “If the documents are authentic, as appeared likely at first review, the release would be the latest coup for the anti-secrecy organization and a serious blow to the CIA, which maintains its own hacking capabilities to be used for espionage.”
The Times article didn’t mention the possibility of a connection between the Russian government and WikiLeaks, which was the focus of a report published by the Director of National Intelligence in January. The Washington Post included a paragraph about WikiLeaks’ track record in its story about the CIA documents, and quoted Nicholas Weaver, a security expert at the University of California, Berkeley, speculating that the data was “probably legitimate or contains a lot of legitimate stuff,” in part because of the sheer size of the leak.
To be fair, the WikiLeaks dump is momentous, and the Times and the Post published stories about it before it was more than a few hours old. They attempted to check whether the leak was genuine, and made it clear that their determinations of the leak’s authenticity were only preliminary. It is, after all, easy to slip in a few fabricated documents in a trove of thousands.
The question of how to approach WikiLeaks seems yet unsolved. Should journalists absolve the site of its apparent participation in a Russian campaign to tip the results of the U.S. election? Does the gravity of the documents contained in the CIA leak necessitate reporting on them, even before they’re thoroughly vetted? If these documents appear genuine, how much should news articles question why WikiLeaks published them?
For its part, WikiLeaks appears to be shifting its strategy with its latest document dump. In the past, it has let the public loose on its leaked documents with little more than a few paragraphs of introduction, occasionally building search functions to let users sift through the largest dumps. The CIA leak, on the other hand, came with a detailed press release and analysis of the some key findings from the documents, written in a journalistic style.
Uncharacteristically, WikiLeaks appears to have gone out of its way to redact sensitive information and withhold malicious code from the CIA documents it made public. That’s a slight departure from previous leaks, which were wholly unfiltered. In an opinion piece published in the Times in November, Zeynep Tufekci, a scholar of technology and society, wrote about the difference between whistleblowing and document dumping:
Whistle-blowing … is a time-honored means for exposing the secret machinations of the powerful. But the release of huge amounts of hacked data, with no apparent oversight or curation, does the opposite. Such leaks threaten our ability to dissent by destroying privacy and unleashing a glut of questionable information that functions, somewhat unexpectedly, as its own form of censorship, rather than as a way to illuminate the maneuverings of the powerful.
The analyses in the WikiLeaks release appear to be nudging reporters toward a few storylines in particular: bureaucratic infighting between the CIA and the National Security Agency, and the dangers of “cyberweapons proliferation,” to name two. But a section of the release with answers to frequently asked questions includes an odd section that speaks directly to journalists.