Immune to Critics, Secret-Spilling Wikileaks Plans to Save Journalism ... and the World

Leaked-documents site challenges government and media establishment.

ByABC News
July 7, 2008, 9:48 AM

July 7, 2008 — -- When online troublemaker Julian Assange co-founded Wikileaks, the net's premiere document-leaking site last year, some were skeptical that the service would produce anything of interest.

Now, after 18 months of publishing government, industry and military secrets that have sparked international scandals, led to takedown threats and briefly gotten the site banned in the United States, Assange says Wikileaks is just getting started changing the world.

"In every negotiation, in every planning meeting and in every workplace dispute, a perception is slowly forming that the public interest may have a silent advocate in the room," Assange writes.

Launched in January 2007, Wikileaks was conceived as a safe place for whistle-blowers to reveal their secrets to the world. Today, nobody doubts that the site has had an enormous impact -- much of it good. But critics charge that Wikileaks' hands-off policy of publishing nearly everything that comes its way has turned the site into a free-for-all. The U.S. military has decried Wikileaks as "irresponsible" for publishing classified information, and even critics of government secrecy have railed against the site's publication of secrets that have no obvious news value, and potentially harm some individuals' privacy.

"That is a threat to the fabric of our society, which is based on the rule of law, and they are saying there is no law," says Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy Project.

The site started off with a bang. It's first disclosure -- published even before its official launch -- was a suppressed report on the looting of the African nation of Kenya by former president Daniel Arap Moi, a leak that led to an upset in Kenya's presidential election.

Then in November 2007, Wikileaks published never-before-seen operating manuals for the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, revealing that the United States had a policy for hiding some detainees from the International Red Cross, and used dogs to intimidate prisoners. The same month, the site published lists of U.S. munitions in Iraq, including stores of banned chemical weapons. Documents leaked from the Swiss bank Julius Baer in January strongly hinted that some customers were engaged in widespread money laundering.

In February, the site published the Pentagon's 2005 rules of engagement for troops in Iraq, revealing that troops were authorized to pursue former officials in Saddam Hussein's government, as well as terrorists, into neighboring Iran and Syria. The document was classified "secret", meaning that in the eyes of the military, its release could be expected to cause "serious damage" to U.S. national security.

The world's governments and press have taken notice. The New York Times reported on the rules of engagement leak, and the Iranian government held a press conference to warn the United States about crossing its border. The Washington Post reported on the Guantanamo documents, forcing the Pentagon to respond.