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The website that reveals state secrets

John D. Sutter
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WikiLeaks: 'Just scratched the surface'
  • encourages whistle-blowers to send secret documents
  • Site, founded in 2007, has caught public's attention in recent months
  • WikiLeaks released controversial combat video from Iraq
  • Site is run by elusive Australian named Julian Assange

(CNN) -- In the early 1970s, when Daniel Ellsberg wanted to get top-secret information about the Vietnam War to the public, he leaked the bombshell Pentagon Papers to elected officials and national newspapers.

But if Ellsberg, a former U.S. military analyst, wanted to leak secret documents today, he probably would send them to a powerful and controversial new venue for whistle-blowing: a website called

"People should definitely think of WikiLeaks as the way to go" when other methods of leaking information fail, he said recently.

WikiLeaks, a nonprofit site run by a loose band of tech-savvy volunteers, is quickly becoming one of the internet's go-to locations for government whistle-blowers, replacing, or at least supplementing, older methods of making sensitive government information public.

Some have praised the site as a beacon of free speech, while others have criticized it as a threat to national security.

WikiLeaks made headlines when it published on Sunday what it says are more than 90,000 United States military and diplomatic reports about Afghanistan filed between 2004 and January of this year.

The site first gained international attention in April when it posted a 2007 video said to show a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq killing a dozen civilians, including two unarmed Reuters journalists.

Video: U.S. Apache attack video
Video: Afghan war documents on WikiLeaks

At the time, Maj. Shawn Turner, a U.S. military spokesman, said that "all evidence available supported the conclusion by those forces that they were engaging armed insurgents and not civilians."

Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, has been charged by the U.S. military with eight violations of the U.S. Criminal Code for transferring classified data, according to a charge sheet released by the military this week.

Manning's military defense attorney, Capt. Paul Bouchard, is not speaking with the media about the charges, said U.S. Army Col. Tom Collins. Bouchard did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment. WikiLeaks may also offer an attorney for Manning, according to

  • Iraq
  • Media
  • Journalism
  • U.S. Army

The high-profile video has led some observers to say that WikiLeaks is forcing a new era of government transparency.

"It's a whole new world of how stories get out," Columbia University journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan told British newspaper The Independent in April.

Others have said the website may be a threat to society and the rule of law.

A 2008 U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center report (PDF), which was classified until it was uploaded to WikiLeaks in March, says that information posted to could "aid enemy forces in planning terrorist attacks."

The report "is authentic, and it speaks for itself," Collins said.

What is WikiLeaks?

The premise of the WikiLeaks, which has been operating largely out of the public spotlight since 2007, is simple: Anyone can leak documents, videos or photographs, and they can do so while remaining anonymous.

The site says that none of its whistle-blowers has been outed because of WikiLeaks.

Visitors to the site will notice a large link that simply says "submit documents." Reports, photographs and videos given to the site are reviewed by a global network of editors and then, if deemed to be important and real, are posted online.

"Every submitted article and change is reviewed by our editorial team of professional journalists and anti-corruption analysts," WikiLeaks says on its website. "Articles that are not of high standard are rejected and non-editorial articles are fully attributed."

But the site does differ from traditional media outlets..

In The New Yorker, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote that WikiLeaks is "not quite an organization; it is better described as a media insurgency."

In part, this is because of the technology employed by the site.

The site's documents and other leaks are backed up on computer servers in several countries. WikiLeaks also maintains several Web addresses to make it difficult -- the site claims impossible -- to remove the secret documents from the internet once they are posted on WikiLeaks.

The website is run by an organization called Sunshine Press, which takes public donations. reported that WikiLeaks has a $600,000 annual budget.

Who manages the site?

WikiLeaks' elusive editor and co-founder is an Australian named Julian Assange. In profiles, writers describe him as an eccentric who wanders the globe, carries all of his belongings and keeps semi-residences in Kenya, Iceland and Sweden, where the site's Web servers are reportedly located.

"In my role as WikiLeaks editor, I've been involved in fighting off many legal attacks," Assange told BBC News. "To do that, and 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."

Lately, Assange is reported to be living in Iceland, which recently passed laws to protect anonymous speech like that promoted by WikiLeaks.

Assange -- who has stark white hair and a deep voice, and appears only occasionally in YouTube videos and in media interviews -- tells reporters that the aim of WikiLeaks is to promote a more open democracy, where government officials and bureaucrats can't keep dark secrets from the public.

"We have a mission to promote political reforms by releasing suppressed information," he said in April Video.

Assange did not respond to an e-mail about this story.

Site causes controversy

In its attempts to unearth and publicize this hidden information, however, the site has stirred a number of controversies.

WikiLeaks has published information as varied as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's personal e-mails; manuals from the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; e-mails that spawned the "Climategate" global-warming controversy late last year; and documents that Assange reportedly says altered the outcome of the 2007 presidential election in Kenya.

'Climategate' review clears scientists of dishonesty

Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief executive officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said it's unclear what WikiLeaks' lasting impact will be. If the site publishes state secrets without cause, a public backlash could quickly kill the following the site is trying to build.

"If they're publishing just to publish ... the public reaction against that information is going to be so negative," he said.

Schwartz said his group has benefited from WikiLeaks, which was able to obtain some congressional public records his organization could not.

"They are effective in terms of getting to documents that people have trouble accessing in other ways," he said.

Ellsberg Video, the former U.S. Department of Defense official who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the '70s and who now donates to WikiLeaks, said the site has the potential to change the way the world's governments operate.

He says the site will make leaders more accountable to the public.

The recently released military videos are "a very small door, so far, into the huge library of broadly withheld information," he said.

He called Assange a hero for trying to shed light on those hidden catalogues.


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