The Whistleblowers: Is WikiLeaks a Blessing or Curse for Democracy?
The whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks, which posted the Afghanistan war logs this week, has made publishing government secrets its mission. Many see founder Julian Assange as a hero, but others, including the Pentagon, consider him a threat to national security.
He walks in quickly, a spring in his step. Even before greeting anyone in the room, he searches for a power outlet for his small, black computer.
It's a simple, inexpensive notebook, but the world's intelligence agencies would pay a lot of money for the chance to see what's on it.
The man's name is Julian Assange. He has just come from Stockholm, following a brief stay in Brussels. Before that, he was off the radar for a couple of weeks.
Assange is practically a wanted man these days. It's almost as if he were on the run.
Five agents from the United States Department of Homeland Security tried to pay him a visit two weeks ago, just before he was scheduled to speak at a conference in New York. But their efforts were in vain. Assange decided to stay in England after his attorney had told him that various other US government agencies were also very interested in speaking with him. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently characterized Assange and his work as "irresponsible."
A Forum for Anonymous Leaks
Assange is the founder of the Internet platform wikileaks.org. Together with a handful of full-time employees and many volunteers, he has operated the site since 2007. WikiLeaks gathers and publishes material that companies and government agencies have designated as secret. The site acts as a forum for whistleblowers and only publishes original documents -- in other words, no rumors or material written by the WikiLeaks staff.
In the past, WikiLeaks has published e-mails written by former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, exposés about the corrupt activities of former Kenyan leader Daniel Arap Moi and secret documents from the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. At that time, the site was mainly visited by insiders, but it gained international attention in April, when Assange invited a group of journalists to the National Press Club in Washington to watch a video.
The film showed the deadly 2007 attack by an American Apache helicopter on a group of about a dozen civilians in Baghdad, two of them employees of the Reuters news agency. The voices of the helicopter crew were also audible, their cynical comments only adding to the horror of the images on the video. Since the incident, Reuters had tried in vain to obtain a copy of the video. Assange, however, managed to get one. It was his biggest scoop to date.
A Threat to National Security
For some people, Assange and his collaborators are heroes fighting for total freedom of information and against any form of censorship. But for others they are traitors.
From the standpoint of the American authorities, the Australian is a serious threat to national security -- something the Pentagon has even put in writing. As early as 2008, the US military classified WikiLeaks as a serious security problem and discussed how best to combat the site. That document was also leaked to Assange -- and then published on wikileaks.org.
Since then, some have voiced concerns about his safety, and even his life. But it isn't quite clear whether the man who is now firing up his computer in London is dangerous or in danger. He is certainly conspicuous: a tall, thin man with snow-white hair and skin that seems unnaturally pale for the summer -- partly because he has spent the last few weeks preparing his next project and hardly ever going outdoors during the day.
In a room on the fifth floor of the building that houses the offices of the Guardian, he is giving the British daily newspaper, the New York Times and SPIEGEL an early look at a group of more than 90,000 individual reports from the war in Afghanistan, most of which are marked "secret."
The publication of this archive, says Assange, will not only change the way the public sees the war, it will also "change the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence." According to Assange, the documents "shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war" and will "change our perspective on not only the war in Afghanistan, but on all modern wars."
The archive contains intelligence information, assessments and many names, both of military officials and sources. The publication of secret military documentation of a war, which was never intended for the public, raises new questions. Is this journalism, covered by the public's right to information? Is it a legitimate look behind the propaganda machinery of the war? Or is it an act of espionage, and are Assange and his collaborators making themselves guilty of revealing government secrets? And are they ultimately jeopardizing the international troops and the Afghan informants helping them?
- Part 1: Is WikiLeaks a Blessing or Curse for Democracy?
- Part 2: A Database on a Flash Drive
- Part 3: An Attempt to Get Revenge?
- Part 4: 'We Have No Idea if Manning Was Our Source'
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