WikiLeaks.org, the online organization that posted tens of thousands of classified military field reports about the Afghan war on Sunday, says its goal in disclosing secret documents is to reveal “unethical behavior” by governments and corporations.
Since it was founded in December 2006, WikiLeaks has exposed internal memos about the dumping of toxic material off the African coast, the membership rolls of a racist British party, and the American military’s manual for operating its prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies,” the organization’s Web site says. “All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information.”
The trove of war reports posted Sunday dwarfs the scope and volume of documents that the organization has made public in the past.
In a telephone interview from London, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, said the
documents would reveal broader and more pervasive levels of violence in Afghanistan than the military or the news media had previously reported. “It shows not only the severe incidents but the general squalor of war, from the death of individual children to major operations that kill hundreds,” he said.
WikiLeaks withheld some 15,000 documents from release until its technicians could redact names of individuals in the reports whose safety could be jeopardized.
WikiLeaks’ critics range from the military, which says it jeopardizes operations, to some open government advocates who say the organization is endangering the privacy rights of others in favor of self promotion.
Steven Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, in his blog posting on June 28 accused WikiLeaks of “information vandalism” with no regard for privacy or social usefulness. “WikiLeaks must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals,” he wrote.
The release of the data comes nearly three weeks after new charges were filed against an American soldier in Iraq who had been arrested on charges of leaking a video of a deadly American helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007 that killed 12 people, including a reporter and photographer from the news agency Reuters. He was also charged with downloading more than 150,000 highly classified diplomatic cables.
WikiLeaks made public a 38-minute video of the helicopter attack as well as a 17-minute edited version that it called “Collateral Murder.” The abridged version drew criticism for failing to make clear that the attacks happened during clashes in a Baghdad neighborhood and that one of the men fired on by the helicopter was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.
WikiLeaks has also made public a cable entitled “Reykjavik13,” about the banking crisis in Iceland, which was cited in the criminal charges against the soldier, Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, 22, an Army intelligence analyst. In keeping with its policy to protect the anonymity of its sources, WikiLeaks has not acknowledged receiving the cables or video from Private Manning. In the telephone interview, Mr. Assange, an Australian activist, refused to say whether the war reports came from Private Manning. But Mr. Assange said that WikiLeaks had offered to help pay for Private Manning’s legal counsel or provide lawyers to defend him.
Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker who earlier this year traded instant messages with Private Manning, said the soldier claimed he had leaked the cables and video to WikiLeaks. Mr. Lamo, who in 2004 pleaded guilty to hacking into the internal computer system of The New York Times, said he turned in Private Manning to the authorities for national security reasons. Private Manning, who served with the Second Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Contingency Operating Station Hammer east of Baghdad, was arrested in May after the military authorities said that he had revealed his activities in online chats with Mr. Lamo.
Investigators now believe that Private Manning exploited a loophole in Defense Department security to copy thousands of files onto compact discs over a six-month period.
WikiLeaks has a core group of about half a dozen full-time volunteers, and there are 800 to 1,000 people whom the group can call on for expertise in areas like encryption, programming and writing news releases.
Mr. Assange, 39, said the site operated from servers in several countries, including Sweden and Belgium, where laws provided more protection for its disclosures.