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Surge Desk

How WikiLeaks Works: A Primer

Jul 26, 2010 – 12:04 PM
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(July 26) -- It doesn't have a paid staff or office. Its founder is a mysterious, silver-haired hacker-scientist turned journalist-activist. It's the bane of politicians and governments around the world. It's WikiLeaks. Once again, the organization is dominating headlines -- this time for publishing an unprecedented leak of classified U.S. documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan.

On Sunday, the Swedish "whistleblowing" website released about 90,000 classified military records covering the past six years of the war, including unreported Afghan civilian killings and covert operations against Taliban figures. White House National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones said the release "put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk."

Of course, the primary purpose of WikiLeaks has always been to expose secrets, no matter the cost. But how does the organization go about its extremely sensitive work? Surge Desk answers your basic questions on the details that have surfaced so far.

1. What is WikiLeaks' purpose?
WikiLeaks launched in 2006, declaring that its primary interest is "exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations." Founder Julian Assange says his website is a forum for the Internet community to generate accuracy, scrutiny and discussion of sensitive information.

2. How is WikiLeaks run?
Volunteers maintain the site. There are only a handful that work for Assange full time. The organization is so covert that certain members go only by initials, and online chats are done in code. It receives funding from private donors to foundations. WikiLeaks operates out of several countries, including Sweden and Iceland, where the privacy protection and digital rights laws are more favorable to its mission.

3. How does WikiLeaks get the inside scoop?
The process is this: The website is set up to allow for completely anonymous submissions from whistleblowers around the world via a supposedly secure online form, although questions have been raised lately about its reliability. Assange and company (nameless and faceless contributors) then leaf through the confidential submissions, repackage them into multimedia presentations and publish them on the Web, still guaranteeing their sources complete anonymity.

Problematically for the site, the blanket anonymity has proved to be a bit more difficult to maintain in practice. Earlier this year, a 20-year-old college student who hacked into Sarah Palin's e-mail account was arrested and convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice after WikiLeaks published the e-mails. The organization is now also attempting to mount a legal defense of one Bradley Manning, the private allegedly behind Sunday's leak and the year's earlier, extremely graphic, high-profile video of a fatal U.S. aerial attack on civilians in Iraq, titled "Collateral Murder." He was last reported to be held in military detention in Kuwait and is likely facing a military trial.

4. Where can WikiLeaks documents be found?
Economic Disaster Area

5. What's next for WikiLeaks?
Assange said at the TED Global conference that WikiLeaks was "getting an enormous quantity of whistleblower disclosures of high caliber." With the Afghanistan war documents adding to the site's growing renown, it's not unreasonable to think that other caches of secret info will find their way to the site in the months ahead.

Julian Assange Press Conference: 10 Things the WikiLeaks Founder Wants the World to Know
Just Who Is Julian Assange, the Man Behind WikiLeaks?
Report: Was Accused 'Collateral Murder' Leaker Bradley Manning the Source?
Filed under: Nation, Tech, Surge Desk