WikiLeaks reveals more than state secrets with Afghan War Diary

WikiLeaks' work with the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel also points to future of Web journalism

In case you missed it, we just had our Drudge Report Moment for this millennium, our Pentagon Papers.

Last weekend, WikiLeaks -- the controversial site where whistle-blowers can expose secrets to the world -- dropped a bombshell: some 90,000 classified documents detailing the real story of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

[ Also on InfoWorld: The whistle-blowers are on the run in "Spies, WikiLeaks, and hackers, oh my!" | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

This was preceded by a month of denials and disappearances by WikiLeaks spokesghost Julian Assange, who's emerged as the public face of the otherwise anonymous collective.

WikiLeaks was in the news last month after Assange's alleged source, U.S. military analyst Bradley Manning, was arrested and charged with espionage. According to white hat hacker and journalist Adrian Lamo, Manning boasted of stealing some 250,000 confidental state department cables and sending them to WikiLeaks. Thinking Manning posed a security threat to the United States, Lamo ratted him out to authorities, leading to the arrest.

Following Manning's arrest, Assange made himself extremely scarce -- canceling public appearances or appearing only via video -- to avoid being served with legal papers and questioned about Manning. He also issued some annoyingly coy denials about receiving said cables. (Assange continues to claim he doesn't know who sent him these materials.)

Well, we now know he received something pretty hefty in the mail, and it wasn't Aunt Prunella's annual fruitcake.

Interestingly, WikiLeaks took a different tack with this leak. Instead of posting the documents right away, it sat on them for a month while reporters from three highly respected news organizations -- the New York Times, London's Guardian newspaper, and Germany's Der Spiegel -- made narrative sense out of them. Then the Wiki and the three newspapers shared their findings simultaneously with the world.

WikiLeaks also apparently withheld 15,000 documents in order to redact personally sensitive information. Its actions with the Afghan War Diary may mark its maturing as an organization, which has been criticized here and elsewhere for occasionally acting like jackasses -- disclosing personal private information that could have easily been redacted, for example, possibly putting people in harm's way, or leaving itself open to manipulation by leakers with a political agenda.

Of course, you could argue these latest leaks may carry their own political agenda. They come at a time when Congress is mulling cutting our losses in Afghanistan, which has become another Vietnam-like quagmire in the eyes of many. And they confirm what anyone who's been paying attention already suspected: Pakistan is not exactly the must gung-ho partner in the war on terror, despite the White House party line over the last nine years.

Just as interesting to me about all this, though, is the collaboration between WikiLeaks and its "media partners." Assange knew he had a story that was bigger than he could handle, so he called in the big guns to do the type of analysis and contextual references his org is incapable of. By doing so, it also gave the disclosures more heft -- real journalists are vetting this stuff, not some shadowy organization that might just be some 14-year-olds in their parent's basement for all we know.

It's a model more blogs should adopt; the melding of sources and expertise would improve the quality of what's published on the Web immensely, as well as help keep real journalism alive (and real journalists employed -- some collegial self-interest at play here).

Still, by spreading the story among three news orgs, instead of sharing it all with a single outlet, Assange made sure WikiLeaks stayed at the center of the story. Assange says WikiLeaks' mission is all about "transparency." I think there's a fair amount of egotism involved too. Assange could certainly could use a little more transparency within his own organization.

We don't need WikiLeaks to reveal its sources; we need it to reveal the rules it operates by, whether it has ever rejected materials submitted to it as fakes, whether it has ever withheld information that was deemed too sensitive (and what kind of information falls into that category), and to be a bit less vague about how it authenticates the documents that find their way to WikiLeaks' doors. In other words, tell us why we should trust you, Julian. That would go a long way toward earning WikiLeaks respect as well as notoriety.

Blown any whistles lately? What secrets do you want to see revealed? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "WikiLeaks reveals more than state secrets with Afghan War Diary," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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