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How WikiLeaks has changed today's media

By Kaj Larsen, CNN
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Wikileaks journalists speak out
  • WikiLeaks has had a major impact on modern journalism
  • The organization is in disarray, but has spawned other "hacktivist" sites
  • CNN's Kaj Larsen examines WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his impact
  • "WikiWars: The Mission of Julian Assange" airs Sunday night on CNN, 8 p.m./11 p.m. ET.

CNN takes you inside the private world of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. Watch "WikiWars: The Mission of Julian Assange," Sunday night at 8/11 ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- While investigating a recent story about the geopolitical battle for natural resources in the Arctic, I searched for unfiltered, candid dialogue on the issue.

Instead, I found a web of conflicting theories, opinions and political doublespeak.

So, as many journalists have done since 2009, I went to WikiLeaks.

Mining through the treasure trove of diplomatic cables released by the organization, I found recaps of blunt conversations between American ambassadors and foreign diplomats describing their thoughts on this geopolitical tug-of-war in the Arctic.

It is the kind of access that veteran journalists once spent their careers cultivating. Years ago, such conversations may have taken place in muted whispers in the back of a restaurant, an off-the-record conversation with a confidential source.

Today, these details are laid out for everyone to read, digitized and accessible with a quick keyword search.

This isn't gossip in the school lunch cafeteria; this is more like having a hidden camera in the principal's office recording 24 hours a day.

Leaks as a tactical weapon

WikiLeaks has been credited as a force for political change, from Egypt's revolution to the battle for resources in the Arctic Ocean.

Classified State Department cables released by the organization in late 2010 provided some of the spark that fueled the Tunisian revolution. Sympathetic detonations created a chain reaction that touched Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

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Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, stops short of taking credit for the Arab Spring that has changed regimes in North Africa and threatens others in the Middle East.

It is apparent, though, that this kind of global change is exactly what Assange envisioned.

Assange believes that information kept classified by governments should be distributed freely. Leaks are the tactical weapon, redistribution of power the strategic objective.

There is no definitive manifesto written by Assange. My CNN colleagues and I talked to multiple sources, studied endless hours of behind-the-scenes footage of Assange and read nearly all his publications to develop a portrait of a shifting organization inextricably linked to an enigmatic leader.

Assange in the spotlight

Before founding WikiLeaks, Assange published his musings in an online community of digital anarchists known as Cypherpunks.

What emerges from his writings is a portrait of a fiercely intelligent man who has created an organization that threatens traditional institutions of power.

The secret life of Julian Assange

In April 2010, WikiLeaks made international headlines after releasing classified video of a U.S. helicopter gunship attack in 2007 that killed two Reuters journalists and about a dozen Iraqis.

The crew mistook the journalists' cameras for weapons while seeking out insurgents who had been firing at American troops in the area, according to a U.S. investigation.

Leaked video reveals chaos of Baghdad attack

In Assange's world view he is filling what was the traditional role of journalism, the fourth estate, to provide a check on state power and state abuse:

"Transparency should be proportional to the power that one has. The more power one has, the greater the dangers generated by that power, and the more need for transparency," Assange once said.

WikiLeaks papers reveal Gitmo detainees' plots

As WikiLeaks continued to release more controversial documents in 2010 -- and rose in power and infamy -- Julian Assange as a public figure responded with increasing opacity.

He found himself under the white-hot light of transparency that he was more accustomed to shining on others.

For all Assange has done to open dialogue about information and power, as an individual he is plagued with absolutism and arrogance.

Perhaps he says it best himself: "I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all of the rest. If you have a problem ... piss off."

As Assange became increasingly autocratic and enmeshed in international legal troubles, several top lieutenants at WikiLeaks have defected, most notably Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

Domscheit-Berg said Assange's inability to trust his colleagues clouded the organization's mission.

"What I'd never understood was why he was not shedding light on things to people that worked with him," Domscheit-Berg said during a conversation in Berlin. "Whenever you asked him about some detail, he just said, 'It's not your business,' and 'Next question.'

"He's not living up to his own standards and that is one of the major reasons why I and a few others actually left the project."

Domscheit-Berg pens tell-all book on Assange

Domscheit-Berg has gone on to start a rival organization called OpenLeaks, which may foreshadow what the future of political "hacktivism" looks like.

Isolated and under investigation

Assange has taken on the world's most powerful institutions and practices, states, corporations, even corruption.

But now even journalists, the traditional support pillar of whistleblowers and activists, are turning against him.

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Protesters: WikiLeaks suspect a 'hero'

David Leigh of the Guardian in London, who collaborated with Assange on the release of the Afghan War logs in July 2010, castigates Assange as merely a source. Leigh and fellow journalist Bill Keller of the New York Times have made healthy profits writing books excoriating Assange.

The larger point, however, is not whether Assange is fulfilling the role of the fourth estate, or why the same people he collaborated with have turned on him: It's that he is becoming increasingly isolated.

The legal landscape for Assange is troubling as well.

According to sources on both sides, it is almost certain that he will be extradited to Sweden at some point this summer to face questioning in connection with sexual misconduct allegations.

Assange appeals extradition order

The U.S. Justice Department is marshaling an investigation as well. U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker whose information launched WikiLeaks to prominence, may ironically provide the crucial evidence in a case against Assange.

If Manning is offered a reduced sentence to tie Julian Assange to the solicitation of classified material, the Justice Department has a more substantial case against Assange.

Protesters demand better treatment for Manning

With Manning eligible for the death penalty, it is not an implausible scenario that he would take this route. The young former soldier is reportedly under extraordinary pressure, and cooperation may pose an attractive alternative to a lengthy prison sentence or worse.

What's next?

Assange is looking increasingly like he is out of secrets and out of moves.

The leaking landscape is becoming increasingly decentralized, and organizations from Openleaks to The Wall Street Journal have set up rival leaking websites.

DreamWorks starting a WikiLeaks file

Domscheit-Berg said that with the exception of a load of leaked documents about a major financial institution, he took all documents with him when he left the organization.

Even the technical functionality of WikiLeaks is in question. Since the site has come to international prominence it has been plagued with problems, lost its funding and is riddled with rumors of government planted malware.

But the initial idea of a protected place for anonymous actions of conscience still retains power.

Assange once described WikiLeaks as "a mechanism to maximize the flow of information to maximize the amount of action leading to just reform."

If WikiLeaks was merely a kick-start to a more open, transparent flow of information that creates positive change in the world, then Assange may still have one great secret left:

He has already won.