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WikiLeaks Now Victim Of Its Own Leak

Sep 3, 2011
Originally published on September 3, 2011 7:48 pm

The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, once said his mission was not simply to divulge secrets, but to make sure the release of that information actually made a difference.

He shared his trove of diplomatic cables with The New York Times, the Guardian in London, and other news organizations so they could draw the world's attention to the most important parts.

But that approach has now collapsed. The entire WikiLeaks collection, consisting of a quarter-million diplomatic files, is now out in raw form on the Internet. They are unfiltered, unanalyzed and unedited. No names of diplomats or secret sources have been removed.

The release was apparently inadvertent, but the backlash has been swift and harsh. WikiLeaks, which gained worldwide fame for publicizing U.S. government secrets, is once again the target of intense criticism. But this time, it's not just the U.S. government and others who wanted to keep those documents private. Even former WikiLeaks supporters are criticizing the organization for sloppy security.

This is not what WikiLeaks or its partners wanted.

"Our relationship with WikiLeaks was based on the agreement that we would be allowed to redact these things and nothing would be published that hadn't been carefully redacted for reasons of personal safety," says David Leigh of the Guardian newspaper, one of the editors who negotiated with Assange. "We're extremely upset that Assange, on his own responsibility, has now published everything."

But Assange and WikiLeaks blame the Guardian, and Leigh in particular. They say Leigh, in a book about WikiLeaks, divulged a password needed to unlock all the documents.

Leigh says that's nonsense, and other WikiLeaks news partners issued a joint statement with the Guardian, highlighting WikiLeaks' own failure to safeguard its files.

Even the alleged leaker of the diplomatic cables, U.S. Pfc. Bradley Manning, is now down on WikiLeaks, it seems. Bradley is in a military prison, but his support network said Friday that any source who provides secret information has the right to expect that that information will be "handled with care."

Journalism professor C.W. Anderson of the City University of New York says the WikiLeaks model involved collaboration among three groups: people with inside information, like Manning; computer activists with the skills to manage big dumps of data; and news organizations eager to make use of the leaks. But those relationships have now fractured.

"Former WikiLeaks people are fighting all the time, so that relationship is deeply damaged. The relationship with the traditional media organization is certainly damaged beyond repair," he says. "The whole thing is just such a mess."

Nor, says Anderson, are potential leakers likely to want to work with WikiLeaks in the future.

"If I had a very nervous person, who had secret documents I wanted to share, and I looked at what was going on, I would not come near them with a 10-foot pole," he says.

Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, notes that the leaking of government secrets is not an everyday phenomenon.

"It depends on the existence and the willingness of an individual with access to significant information to break ranks and disclose that information," he says. "If Bradley Manning was the source of these cables, it seems there's only one source of that caliber, and Bradley Manning is not going to be disclosing any more in the near future."

Yet WikiLeaks has already made its mark, and Anderson says the entire episode reflects the way information is now gathered, stored and shared.

"I think the idea that leaks are going to occur in gigabytes of data, piped through anonymous servers — the horse is out of the barn — I don't think we'll ever go back to the old way," he says.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: WikiLeaks, that group that gained an awful of attention for publicizing the secrets of various governments is now itself the target of intense criticism. More than a quarter million diplomatic files that had been in WikiLeaks' custody are now on the Internet uncensored and available to anybody with skills to find them. Document release was apparently inadvertent and NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that even former WikiLeaks supporters criticize the organization for sloppy security.

TOM GJELTEN: The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, once said his mission was not simply to divulge secrets, but to make sure the release of secret information actually made a difference. That's why he shared documents with the New York Times, the Guardian in London, and other news organizations so they could draw the world's attention to the most important parts. That approach has now collapsed.

The entire WikiLeaks trove of diplomatic cables is now out in raw form, unfiltered, unanalyzed, unedited, or unredacted as censors would say. No names have been removed. It's not what WikiLeaks wanted, and not what its news partners wanted. David Leigh of the Guardian newspaper was one of the editors who negotiated with Julian Assange.

DAVID LEIGH: Our relationship with WikiLeaks was based on the agreement that would be allowed to redact these things and nothing would be published that hadn't been carefully redacted for reasons of personal safety. So we're extremely upset that Assange on his own responsibility has now published everything.

GJELTEN: Assange and WikiLeaks actually blame the Guardian and David Leigh in particular. They say Leigh, in a book about WikiLeaks, divulged a password needed to unlock the whole document trove. But Leigh says that's nonsense, and other WikiLeaks news partners issued a joint statement with the Guardian yesterday highlighting WikiLeaks' own failure to safeguard its files.

Even the alleged leaker of the diplomatic cables, Private First Class Bradley Manning is now down on WikiLeaks it seems. His support network yesterday said any source who provides secret information has the right to expect that that information is quote "handled with care."

C.W. ANDERSON: The whole thing is just such a mess.

GJELTEN: Journalism professor C.W. Anderson of the City University of New York says the WikiLeaks model involved a collaboration between three groups: people with inside information to release, like Bradley Manning; computer activists with the skills to manage big dumps of data; and news organizations eager to make use of the leaks. But what's happened in the last few months, Anderson says, is that the relationships among those groups have broken down.

ANDERSON: Former WikiLeaks people are fighting all the time, so that relationship is deeply damaged. The relationship with the traditional media organization is certainly damaged beyond repair.

GJELTEN: Nor, says Anderson, are potential leakers likely to want to work ever again with WikiLeaks.

ANDERSON: You know if I had a very nervous person who had secret documents I wanted to share and I looked at what was going on, I would not come near them with a 10-foot pole.

GJELTEN: One thing to remember here is that the leaking of government secrets is not an everyday phenomenon. Steven Aftergood directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: It depends on the existence and the willingness of an individual with access to significant information to break ranks and to disclose that information.

GJELTEN: Aftergood points, for example, to the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. U.S. officials suspect they all came from Private First Class Manning, now in a military prison.

AFTERGOOD: If Bradley Manning was the source of these cables, it seems there's only one source of that caliber, and Bradley Manning is not going to be disclosing any more in the near future.

GJELTEN: So among the possible consequences of the WikiLeaks episode, less leaking, and news organizations more wary of leakers, and yet at C. W. Anderson points out, the WikiLeaks episode itself reflected the way information is not gathered, stored and shared.

ANDERSON: I think the idea that leaks are going to occur in gigabytes of data piped through kind of a anonymous servers; the horse is out of the barn. I don't think we'll ever go back to the old way.

GJELTEN: The original WikiLeaks disclosures shed light on what U.S. diplomats knew and weren't saying about what had already happened in their regions. But the fallout from the WikiLeaks case may be as important for what it signals about where the world may now be headed.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.