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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