On Friday evening, the international whistleblower organization “WikiLeaks” released the largest leak of classified military documents in history. These documents bear the title “Iraq War Diaries”, and describe US military involvement in Iraq between Jan. 1, 2004 and Dec. 31, 2009 mainly through the logs of soldiers on the ground.
In total, WikiLeaks released 391,831 files deemed top-secret by the Defense Department. According to an overview of the “War Diaries”, the documents report more than 15,000 undisclosed civilian deaths, numerous instances of Iraqi coalition forces committing torture, and unreleased intelligence that Iran supplied Iraqi militias with chemical weapons to use against US forces.
While this might be one of the monumental leaks in history, it is not a “leak” in the general understanding of the term.
A “leak” refers to the disclosure of sensitive information in advance of its official release, or, in more controversial instances, of confidential information that was never sanctioned for release in the first place.
For an organization like “WikiLeaks” to obtain such information, it must have contact with an anonymous source whose position gives him/her access to classified files. They are also known as “whistleblowers”, people hoping to “blow the whistle” on activities they hope will be stopped once exposed. Whistleblowing poses a great personal risk, since most employees, and especially soldiers with access to top-secret military files, are bound to secrecy by confidentiality agreements.
Take the 1972 Watergate scandal, for example.
After a strange break-in at the Democratic National Committee building in Washington, D.C., Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein decided to investigate. Eventually, Woodward established a liaison with a whistleblower code-named “Deep Throat”, who took great pains to remain anonymous out of fear for his family and career. Ultimately, his classified information unearthed the landmark political scandal that led to then-President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Had Watergate occurred today, chances are that Deep Throat would not have gone to the Washington Post, where the information would have to be processed, but straight to WikiLeaks instead.
Julian Assange, the organization’s mercurial founder, said in an interview with Stephen Colbert, “Our promise to the public is to release the full source material.” Whereas leaks have traditionally been released to the public in the form of investigative journalism or television specials edited to fit into a certain word-count or time-slot, documents on WikiLeaks are presented in their raw, unedited form.
How does the organization do it? The release of such classified material is not technically illegal in the United States, although the Pentagon certainly can (as it currently doing) request that WikiLeaks remove sensitive files and return them to the Pentagon, on the basis that they may put the lives of soldiers in danger.
The more intriguing question is, “How do the sources do it?”
Of course, when it comes to this past Friday’s release, the public doesn’t know the sources of the leaks, nor their methods of information-gathering, since the revelation of their identities could land them in prison.
For reference, however, we do have the saga of US Intelligence Analyst Bradley Manning, who was arrested by the Army’s Criminal Intelligence Division in June for disclosure of classified information to unauthorized persons.
In April, Manning had leaked a video of a US helicopter air strike outside of Baghdad that killed a group of Iraqi civilians, and two Reuters photojournalists. (Full-disclosure: The army reported that a rocket-propelled grenade was found in the group’s possession, the photojournalists killed were not identified as press, and that the group was suspected of participating in a small-arms fire twenty-eight minutes beforehand.)
According to Wired Magazine, Manning’s security clearance gave him access to two important networks: SIPRNET, the network used by the US Defense and State Departments, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. These networks are full of classified information, much of which is kept secret from the public as a matter of national security.
While the “Iraq War Diaries” are sure to increase WikiLeaks’ international notoriety among governments, the organization is no stranger to major headlines. The organization, launched in 2006, has made waves for leaking a long list of controversial information. Among them are the East Anglia “Climategate” emails (which revealed controversial communications between climate change researchers), the full membership list of the far-right British National Party (some professions, such as law-enforcement, forbid membership in this party), and hundreds of internal United Nations reports.
But, perhaps the eeriest document released to the public via WikiLeaks is, in fact, a special report on WikiLeaks. In 2008, the US army commissioned a report entitled “WikiLeaks – An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups?” in which it concluded that WikiLeaks constituted a potential threat to national security. According to the report, sensitive information published on WikiLeaks “could be of value to foreign intelligence and security services (FISS), foreign military forces, foreign insurgents, and foreign terrorist groups for collecting information or for planning attacks against U.S. forces.”
Whether or not WikiLeaks is truly a threat to national security, this military report certainly brings up an interesting point. The goal of WikiLeaks and its sources may be to raise awareness of military abuses, or to increase military transparency, but whatever information is accessible to the public at large, is accessible to our enemies as well.
WikiLeaks has the enormous potential to serve as a check on the abuses of governments and militaries everywhere. After all, WikiLeaks won Amnesty International’s 2008 UK Media award for publishing a classified report on police killings in Kenya. But, when an organization makes the leaking of sensitive information its primary occupation, it may end up making countries around the world vulnerable to attack.