WikiLeaks is a whistleblowing website that became the focus of a global debate over its role in the release of thousands of confidential messages about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conduct of American diplomacy around the world.
The once-fringe website, which aims to bring to light secret information about governments and corporations, was founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, an Australian activist and journalist, along with a group of like-minded activists and computer experts.
WikiLeaks made its initial reputation by publishing material as diverse as documents about toxic dumping in Africa, protocols from Guantánamo Bay, e-mail messages from Sarah Palin’s personal account and 9/11 pager messages.
When it published tens of thousands of confidential military field reports about the two wars in July 2010, it was denounced by American officials for endangering the lives of soldiers and civilians.
The release of some of a trove of 250 000 diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks led to anger and criticism from officials around the world.
WikiLeaks made the material on Iraq and Afghanistan available to a number of news organisations, including The New York Times, in advance.
The Guardian shared the diplomatic cable collection with The New York Times. By early December, WikiLeaks had posted only a few thousand on its website.
The uproar over the diplomatic cables coincided with mounting legal troubles for Assange, its founder.
Assange is being investigated in connection with accusations of rape and molestation involving two Swedish women.
He has denied the allegations, saying the relations were consensual, but on December 7 2010 police in Britain arrested him on a Swedish warrant issued in connection with the alleged sex offenses.
Assange was denied bail by a London court and ordered to remain in custody until a further court session on December 14.
Within 12 hours of the British judge’s decision to deny Assange bail, attacks on the websites of WikiLeaks’s “enemies,” as defined by the organisation’s impassioned supporters around the world, caused several corporate websites to become inaccessible or slow down markedly.
In a campaign that had some Internet activists declaring the start of a “cyberwar,” the battle-lines are being drawn ever clearer. Supporters of Assange cast him as a crusader, and foes, including the Obama administration, infuriated by revelations of sensitive material whose publication, say he threatens American security interests, alliances and lives.
WikiLeaks has a core group of five full-time volunteers and there are 800 to 1 000 people whom the group can call on for expertise in areas like encryption, programming and writing news releases.
Assange, an Australian, used years of computer hacking and what friends call a near genius IQ to establish WikiLeaks in 2006, redefining whistle-blowing by gathering secrets in bulk, storing them beyond the reach of governments and others determined to retrieve them, then releasing them instantly, and globally.
In recent months, some of Assange’s closest associates in WikiLeaks have abandoned him, calling him autocratic and capricious and accusing him of reneging on WikiLeaks’s original pledge of impartiality to launch a concerted attack on the United States WikiLeaks publishes its material on its own site, which is housed on a few dozen servers around the globe, including places like Sweden, Belgium and the United States that the organisation considers friendly to journalists and document leakers.
By being everywhere, yet in no exact place, WikiLeaks is, in effect, beyond the reach of any institution or government that hopes to silence it. Because it relies on donations, however, WikiLeaks says it has struggled to keep its servers online. It has found moral, but not financial, support from some news organisations, like The Guardian in Britain, which said in January that “If you want to read the exposés of the future, it’s time to chip in.”
WikiLeaks has grown increasingly controversial as it has published more material. (The United States Army called it a threat to its operations in a report in March 2010.) Many have tried to silence the site; in Britain, WikiLeaks has been used a number of times to evade injunctions on publication by courts that ruled that the material would violate the privacy of the people involved. The courts reversed themselves when they discovered how ineffectual their rulings were.
With Assange’s arrest, the authorities he has revelled in provoking will have a new degree of control over his movements, though not necessarily over WikiLeaks. His long months as a self-described refugee are over. Accustomed to a life in the shadows, staying with friends, paying cash and communicating mainly by Twitter, he has added a sense of mystery to the celebrity, or notoriety, that has developed around him.
In a reaction to his legal troubles in Britain, a message on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed said the group was “let down by the UK justice system’s bizarre decision to refuse bail” to its founder, but added that the releases of secret State Department cables that began last week would “continue as planned”.
Attorney General Eric H Holder Jr has said that American officials were conducting “a very serious, active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature” into the WikiLeaks releases, a position the Obama administration has held for months, since WikiLeaks began releasing secret Pentagon documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars in summer.
But the London arrest could complicate matters for Washington, backing up any criminal case it might begin against Assange behind the Swedish investigation. Sweden and Britain have extradition treaties with the United States, but both allow extradition rulings to be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
An early attempt to shut down the WikiLeaks site involved a United States District Court judge in California. In 2008, Judge Jeffrey S. White ordered the American version of the site shut down after it published confidential documents concerning a subsidiary of a Swiss bank. Two weeks later he reversed himself, in part recognising that the order had little effect because the same material could be accessed on a number of other “mirror sites”.
The Army has charged Pfc. Bradley Manning with disclosing a classified video of an American helicopter attack to WikiLeaks, as well as more than 150 000 classified diplomatic cables. The private is also the main suspect in the disclosure to WikiLeaks of more than 90 000 classified documents about the Afghan war.
Hundreds of Internet activists mounted retaliatory attacks in early December 2010 on the websites of multinational companies and other organisations they deemed hostile to the antisecrecy organisation and its jailed founder.
Targets of the attacks, in which activists overwhelmed the sites with traffic, included the website of MasterCard, which had stopped processing donations for WikiLeaks; Amazon.com, which revoked the use of its computer servers; and PayPal, which stopped accepting donations for Assange’s group.
Visa.com was also affected by the attacks, as were the websites of the Swedish prosecutor’s office and the lawyer representing the two women whose allegations of sexual misconduct are the basis of Sweden’s extradition bid.
The speed and range of the attacks appeared to show the resilience of the backing among computer activists for Assange, who has appeared increasingly isolated in recent months amid the furor stoked by WikiLeaks’ website posting of hundreds of thousands of secret Pentagon documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The cyber attacks in Assange’s defence seem to have been coordinated by Anonymous, a loosely affiliated group of activistmcomputer hackers who have singled out other groups before, including the Church of Scientology.
Anonymous claimed responsibility for the MasterCard attack in web, messages and, according to one activist associated with the group, conducted waves of attacks on other companies.
The group said the actions were part of an effort called Operation Payback, which began as a way of punishing companies that attempted to stop Internet file-sharing and movie downloads.
The cyber attacks on corporations were seen by many supporters as a counterstrike against the United States.
Assange’s online supporters have widely condemned the Obama administration as the unseen hand coordinating efforts to choke off WikiLeaks by denying it financing and suppressing its network of computer servers.