Three months ago, WikiLeaks, a whistleblower Web site that posts classified and sensitive documents, put out an urgent call for help on Twitter.
“Have encrypted videos of U.S. bomb strikes on civilians. We need super computer time," stated the Web site, which calls itself “an intelligence agency of the people.”
Somehow — it will not say how — WikiLeaks found the necessary computer time to decrypt a graphic video, released Monday, of a United States Army assault in Baghdad in 2007 that left 12 people dead, including two employees of the news agency Reuters. The video has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube, and has been replayed hundreds of times in television news reports.
The release of the Iraq video is drawing attention to the once-fringe Web site, which aims to bring to light hidden information about governments and multinational corporations — putting secrets in plain sight and protecting the identity of those who help do so. Accordingly, the site has become a thorn in the side of authorities in the United States and abroad. With the Iraq attack video, the clearinghouse for sensitive documents is edging closer toward a form of investigative journalism and to advocacy.
“That’s arguably what spy agencies do — high-tech investigative journalism," Julian Assange, one of the site’s founders, said in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s time that the media upgraded its capabilities along those lines.”
Mr. Assange, an Australian activist and journalist, founded the site three years ago along with a group of like-minded activists and computer experts. Since then, WikiLeaks has published documents about toxic dumping in Africa, protocols from Guantánamo Bay, e-mail messages from Sarah Palin’s personal account and 9/11 pager messages.
Today there is a core group of five full-time volunteers, according to Daniel Schmitt, a site spokesman, 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.
The site is not shy about its intent to shape media coverage, and Mr. Assange said he considered himself both a journalist and an advocate; should he be forced to choose one, he would choose advocate. WikiLeaks did not merely post the 38-minute video, it used the label “Collateral Murder” and said it depicted “indiscriminate” and “unprovoked” killing. (The Pentagon defended the killings and said no disciplinary action was taken at the time of the incident.)
“From my human point of view, I couldn’t believe it would be so easy to wreak that kind of havoc on the city, when they can’t see what is really going on there," Mr. Schmitt said in an interview from Germany on Monday night.
The Web site also posted a 17-minute edited version, which proved to be much more widely viewed on YouTube than the full version. Critics contend that the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.
By releasing such a graphic video, which a media organization had tried in vain to get through traditional channels, WikiLeaks has inserted itself in the national discussion about the role of journalism in the digital age. Where judges and plaintiffs could once stop or delay publication with a court order, WikiLeaks exists in a digital sphere in which information becomes instantly available.
“The most significant thing about the release of the Baghdad video is that several million more people are on the same page,” with knowledge of WikiLeaks, said Lisa Lynch, an assistant professor of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, who recently published a paper about the site. “It is amazing that outside of the conventional channels of information something like this can happen.”
Reuters had tried for two and a half years through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the Iraq video, to no avail. WikiLeaks, as always, refuses to say how it obtained the video, and credits only “our courageous source.”
Mr. Assange said “research institutions” offered to help decrypt the Army video, but he declined to detail how they went about it. After decrypting the attack video, WikiLeaks in concert with an Icelandic television channel sent two people to Baghdad last weekend to gather information about the killings, at a cost of $50,000, the site said.
David Schlesinger, Reuters editor in chief, said Tuesday that the video was disturbing to watch “but also important to watch.” He said he hoped to meet with the Pentagon “to press the need to learn lessons from this tragedy.”
WikiLeaks publishes its material on its own site, which is housed on a few dozen servers around the globe, including places like Sweden, Belgium and the United States that the organization considers friendly to journalists and document leakers, Mr. Schmitt said.
By being everywhere, yet in no exact place, WikiLeaks is, in effect, beyond the reach of any institution or government that hopes to silence it.
Because it relies on donations, however, WikiLeaks says it has struggled to keep its servers online. It has found moral, but not financial, support from some news organizations, like The Guardian in Britain, which said in January that “If you want to read the exposés of the future, it’s time to chip in.”
On Tuesday, WikiLeaks claimed to have another encrypted video, said to show an American airstrike in Afghanistan that killed 97 civilians last year, and used the opportunity to ask for donations.
WikiLeaks has grown increasingly controversial as it has published more material. (The United States Army called it a threat to its operations in a report last month.) Many have tried to silence the site; in Britain, WikiLeaks has been used a number of times to evade injunctions on publication by courts that ruled that the material would violate the privacy of the people involved. The courts reversed themselves when they discovered how ineffectual their rulings were.
Another early attempt to shut down the site involved a United States District Court judge in California. In 2008, Judge Jeffrey S. White ordered the American version of the site shut down after it published confidential documents concerning a subsidiary of a Swiss bank. Two weeks later he reversed himself, in part recognizing that the order had little effect because the same material could be accessed on a number of other “mirror sites.”
Judge White said at the time, “We live in an age when people can do some good things and people can do some terrible things without accountability necessarily in a court of law.”
Source : nytimes