News / Science & Technology

What Is Wikileaks?

Wikileaks first came online in 2007, promising any individual a forum to anonymously publish previously classified, hidden or sensitive documents and make them publicly available.  The idea was relatively simple: given the viral nature of the Internet - and the ease of duplicating digital documents - once secret information was published, it could never become secret again.

The first documents were often of limited long-term importance but still generated notoriety- such as the publication of documents from the Church of Scientology, or then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's personal emails.  But Wikileaks also had a broader political agenda; its "...primary agenda is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East..." according to its own mission statement.

That hasn't stopped Wikileaks from publishing a variety of documents unflattering to the U.S. and other national governments.  Examples include U.S. military protocols for Guantanamo Bay detainees and battlefield video of a controversial U.S. airstrike in Baghdad. As more and more documents began to clog its servers, Wikileaks abandoned it's all-access-posting rule in favor of requesting submissions from leakers. Wikileaks network of volunteers then attempt to authenticate the document, and determine its overall relevance and importance.

Ironically, for an organization that has described itself as an "...intelligence service of the people...", much of Wikileak's operations remain intentionally shadowy. Founder Julian Assange, an Australian reformed computer-hacker, says Wikileaks has hundreds of volunteers around the world to help translate and authenticate documents, but he won't name them. The site's servers are said to be scattered in dozens of locations; again, Assange won't say where.  Even Assange himself cloaks himself in mystery, shuttling between undisclosed locations and unnamed supporters.

Not surprisingly, Wikileaks' activities have earned it praise from some free-speech quarters and harsh criticism, or worse, from a variety of national and institutional interests. The site has faced numerous lawsuits (all of which they've won), hack attacks, police harassment in Germany, Israel, Kenya and elsewhere.  Assange says he himself has been the target of high-level intelligence services.

In an interview earlier in 2010 with VOA, Assange described his job as part journalism, part advocacy.

"Wikileaks aims to achieve just political reforms by getting out information that has been suppressed to the public," he said.  "We never censor," he added. "And as far as we're aware, we've never made a mistake."

With the recent release of tens of thousands of U.S. military documents on the Afghan war, Assange and Wikileaks has already been sharply criticized and condemned by the White House and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

You can listen to our earlier interview with Julian Assange, and learn more about Wikileaks here.

Doug Bernard

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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