By Jonathan Fildes for The BBC News
Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks is once again at the centre of attention as it makes public more than 90,000 secret records of incidents and intelligence reports from the US military about the war in Afghanistan. It is the latest in a long list of “leaks” published by the secretive site, which has established a reputation for publishing sensitive material from governments and other high-profile organizations.
In April 2010, for example, it posted a video on its website that shows a US Apache helicopter killing at least 12 people – including two Reuters journalists – during an attack in Baghdad in 2007. A US military analyst is currently awaiting trial, on charges of leaking the material along with other sensitive military and diplomatic material.
In October 2009, it posted a list of names and addresses of people it claimed belonged to the British National Party (BNP). The BNP said the list was a “malicious forgery”.
And during the 2008 US elections, it published screenshots of the e-mail inbox, pictures and address book of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Other controversial documents hosted on the site include a copy of the Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta, a document that detailed restrictions placed on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It provoked controversy when it first appeared on the net in December 2006 and still splits opinion. For some it is lauded as the future of investigative journalism. For others it is a risk.
In mid-March 2010 the site’s director, Julian Assange, published a document purportedly from the US intelligence services, claiming that Wikileaks represented a “threat to the US Army”. The US government later confirmed to the BBC that the documents were genuine. To keep our sources safe, we have had to spread assets, encrypt everything, and move telecommunications and people around the world” “The unauthorised publication of Army and DoD sensitive documents on Wikileaks provides foreign intelligence services access to information that they may use to harm Army and DoD interests,” a spokesperson told BBC News.
The site now claims to host more than one million documents. Anyone can submit to Wikileaks anonymously, but a team of reviewers – volunteers from the mainstream press, journalists and Wikileaks staff – decides what is published. “We use advanced cryptographic techniques and legal techniques to protect sources,” Mr Assange told the BBC in February.
The site says that it accepts “classified, censored or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic or ethical significance” but does not take “rumour, opinion or other kinds of first hand reporting or material that is already publicly available”. “We specialise in allowing whistle-blowers and journalists who have been censored to get material out to the public,” said Mr Assange.
It is operated by an organisation known as the Sunshine Press and claims to be “funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public”. Since it appeared on the net, it has faced various legal challenges to take it offline.
In 2008, for example, the Swiss Bank Julius Baer won a court ruling to block the site after Wikileaks posted “several hundred” documents about its offshore activities. However, various “mirrors” of the site – hosted on different servers around the world – continued to operate. The order was eventually overturned Wikileaks claims to have fought off more than “100 legal attacks” in its life, in part because of what is described as its “bulletproof hosting” The site is primarily hosted by Swedish ISP PeRiQuito (PRQ), which became famous for hosting file-sharing website The Pirate Bay.
“If it is legal in Sweden, we will host it, and will keep it up regardless of any pressure to take it down,” the ISP’s site says. The site also hosts documents in other jurisdictions, including Belgium. Its experience of different laws around the world meant that it was drafted to help Icelandic MPs draw up plans for its Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). The plan calls on the country’s government to adopt laws protecting journalists and their sources.
“To keep our sources safe, we have had to spread assets, encrypt everything, and move telecommunications and people around the world to activate protective laws in different national jurisdictions,” Mr Assange said at the time.
“We’ve become good at it, and never lost a case, or a source, but we can’t expect everyone to go through the extraordinary efforts that we do.” Despite its notoriety, the site has faced financial problems. In February, it suspended operations as it could not afford its own running costs. Donations from individuals and organisations saved the site.
Mr Assange told the BBC that the site had recently gone through “enormous growth” and had received an “extraordinary amount of material”. “It exceeds our ability to get it out to [the] public at the moment,” he said in February.
As a result, he said, the site was changing and hoped to set up a number of “independent chapters around the world” as well as to act as a middle-man between sources and newspapers. “We take care of the source and act as a neutral intermediary and then we also take care of the publication of the material whilst the journalist that has been communicated with takes care of the verification.”
“It provides a natural… connection between a journalist and a source with us in the middle performing the function that we perform best.” The latest documents – released in partnership with the New York Times, the Guardian and the German news magazine Der Spiegel – appear to be the first high-profile example of this new tactic.