Online Platform WikiLeaks The Web Site That Reveals The World's Secrets

The online platform WikiLeaks publishes confidential documents on the Web and recently attracted worldwide attention by posting video footage showing the shooting of a dozen people, including two Reuters photographers, from a US helicopter in Baghdad in 2007. But the network is highly secretive about itself.

A still from a classified US military video released on WikiLeaks showing the shooting of a number of people from a US helicopter in Baghdad in 2007.
WikiLeaks

A still from a classified US military video released on WikiLeaks showing the shooting of a number of people from a US helicopter in Baghdad in 2007.

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Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, photographers for the Reuters news agency, died on the morning of July 12, 2007, on the dusty streets of Baghdad. About a dozen people were killed in the attack, shot from an American Apache helicopter -- that much was known for sure.

Little more detail came to light for a long time, although there were not only witnesses, but also a video of what happened, filmed from one the two helicopters involved. Reuters has tried since then to clarify its employees' deaths, filing applications and asking Washington to release the aerial images.

Now, over two years later, the video has reached the public, thanks to online platform WikiLeaks, which posted the Baghdad war images on the Internet. The video has been accessed more than five million times on the YouTube Web site alone and prompted headlines and outrage around the world.

The video shows the cruelty of war. It also demonstrates how the rules of publicity are changing in the 21st century. WikiLeaks defines itself by the radical degree to which it breaks rules. It is preparred to publish items even if doing so violates privacy rights or confidentiality laws. A volatile document must fulfill one particular condition in order to be published on WikiLeaks: someone, at some point, needs to have classified it as secret.

The activists who run the site, by contrast, reveal almost nothing about themselves. Who exactly is behind WikiLeaks is kept secret, as is the number of servers the site uses and where they're located, as well as who precisely reviews documents submitted to the platform. The only thing the organization divulges about itself is that it was founded by "Chinese dissidents and by journalists, mathematicians and engineers." An Australian named Julian Assange, apparently a former hacker who later became a journalist, is considered to be the site's publisher. The official justification for the secretiveness is that it protects participants from countries with an uncertain legal situation.

Some critics consider WikiLeaks nothing more than a mixture of paranoia and self-importance. Yet a US intelligence report about WikiLeaks surfaced a few weeks ago -- published on WikiLeaks, of course. The site's activists scented a plan in the report to destroy their organization, although the document itself read more like a well-executed homework assignment done by a college student.

Germany Waking up to WikiLeaks

Unlike in the US, German media have been slow to discover WikiLeaks. That's likely to change, though, following the release of the Baghdad video. The platform, which is financed by donations, has announced other similarly powerful leaks coming, including comparable videos from Afghanistan. It plans to publish the entirety of 37,000 e-mails taken from the internal communications of Germany's far-right National Democratic Party. SPIEGEL published excerpts from these communications in 2008, which resulted in a lawsuit.

According to its own information, WikiLeaks has published more than 1.5 million documents since its inception approximately three years ago. Those documents include statistics and reports, for example concerning the inefficient financial coverage of the elderly and the ill within Germany's private health insurance system, corruption in Africa, the extravagant escapades of the Thai crown prince, and Sarah Palin's e-mails.

Again and again, this has included material with an explosive impact. There was a report, for example, by German Armed Forces military police concerning the air strike against two tanker trucks in Kunduz,, Afghanistan, last September, in which scores of civilians were killed. The site also published the US military's guidelines for the Guantanamo detention camp. Documents submitted to the site are encoded when they're uploaded, routed to various servers spread around the world, checked for authenticity, and finally published.

Attempts at Censorship Failing

WikiLeaks is considered impossible to censor, technically as well as legally. Around 100 legal proceedings have been carried out against the site, according to its organizers, but not a single one has had lasting success.

Ernst Uhrlau, head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND), discovered this when his organization tried to take legal action to prevent the publication of a dossier. Lawyers working for WikiLeaks asked which law from which country the intelligence service was invoking. The BND kept silent.

Swiss private bank Julius Bär didn't get much further either. WikiLeaks published documents online in 2008 that implied the bank had been complicit in tax evasion by many if its clients. The bank managed to force the blocking of the WikiLeaks domain ending in ".org" -- but the documents continued to be retrievable at other Internet addresses.

But WikiLeaks doesn't seem to be content with simply publishing classified documents -- it also tries to give them additional journalistic commentary. The site prefaced the Baghdad video with a short text announcing that the images would show an "indiscriminate slaying." The objectivity that quality journalism strives for doesn't apply to WikiLeaks any more than privacy rights do. The site also published the membership lists of the far right-wing British National Party, including names and addresses in full.

Keeping Secrets is Getting Harder

"Government agencies and politicians need to learn to deal with the fact that it's not so easy to keep things under wraps anymore," says Peter Schaar, Germany's federal commissioner responsible for both data protection and freedom of information. What he sees as problematic is the balance between openness and data protection. "WikiLeaks isn't subject to any journalists' code of ethics or national law," Schaar says. "That means there's a serious risk when you end up harming the interests of more people than could find use in a certain publication."

Along with Assange from Australia, a German has also emerged to represent WikiLeaks to the global public. He calls himself Daniel Schmitt, and reveals neither his real name nor his age. His task is to allay the fears of his skeptical fellow Germans about these anonymous do-gooders. To that end, he meets with journalists, appears on television, gives talks and accepts prizes.

Schmitt doesn't care "at all" that some of the informants who pass on confidential data to WikiLeaks are only doing it for their own gain. "The best case is when you get a mud-slinging match with the truth and everybody gets a bit sticking to them, Schmitt says.

Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher of the daily German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, believes there is another reason why sources keep passing documents to WikiLeaks in particular. While federal prosecutors around the world tried again and again to force journalists to divulge their sources, or disregarded press confidentiality -- as happened to the German political magazine Cicero, whose editorial offices were searched in 2005 -- Schirrmacher suggests that WikiLeaks was trusted because it was seen as unassailable. "No one can search their offices," Schirrmacher says, "because nobody knows precisely where to search. It's a perfect playground for secret agents."

Public prosecutors did carry out one search, at the home of the man who owns the Web address wikileaks.de, in an attempt to hold him responsible for Internet censorship lists published on WikiLeaks. The German investigators left without finding anything significant, but shortly afterward, the German WikiLeaks address stopped working for a period. There were accusations of censorship -- until it turned out that the owner of the site simply hadn't extended his contract.

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