July 26, 2010— -- It may be remembered as one of the largest intelligence leaks in U.S. history. But for WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website that just released 90,000 classified Pentagon documents, this is just business as usual.
Founded in 2007 by Julian Assange, an Australian Internet activist, the site has made a reputation for itself as a safe haven for whistleblowers interested in anonymously spilling government and corporate secrets.
"This is something that I find meaningful and satisfying," Assange told the German newspaper Der Spiegel before publishing the Afghanistan war logs. "That is my temperament. I enjoy creating systems on a grand scale, and I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards."
When Assange first launched WikiLeaks three years ago, few knew who - if anyone - he might crush.
In March 2007, the site leaked a manual describing the day-to-day operations of the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay detention facility. In 2008, it published a classified Pentagon "Rules of Engagement for Iraq."
WikiLeaks has also made headlines for releasing secret banking documents, controversial correspondence between climate scientists, and the contents of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's email account.
The massive dump of Pentagon documents on the Afghan war is by far the site's largest and most controversial secret revealed so far.
"I think this may be the most important in terms of its effect on U.S. policy," said David Ardia, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the director of the Citizen Media Law Project. "This is a very rich vein of information available to inform what is a critically important debate about the U.S. role and the potential for success in Afghanistan. And I think this release of information can have a profound effect on that debate."
Ardia said the WikiLeaks Afghanistan documents could be remembered as a kind of modern-day Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.
"I think when the Pentagon Papers were released they had a profound impact on the debate around the U.S. role in Vietnam," he said, adding that they served as a "shining" indication" that speech should not be constrained.
"Whether this will stand for something similar, or perhaps be an indication of that principle in the 21st century, is very possible," Ardia said.
The man behind the massive leak has made it very clear that he believes the documents will spark a sea change in public opinion.
WikiLeaks Founder: This Will Change Our Perspective on All Modern Wars'
"They will change our perspective on not only the war in Afghanistan, but on all modern wars," Assange told the German newspaper Der Spiegel before publishing the classified reports. "This material shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war. The archive will change public opinion and it will change the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence."
He also revealed his personal motivation behind launching a site condemned by the White House and other international officials.
"We all only live once. So we are obligated to make good use of the time that we have and to do something that is meaningful and satisfying," he told Der Spiegel.
"I think no one knew quite what to make of WikiLeaks, at first, because we had no model to analyze it against," said Ardia. "They launched however with a fairly substantial tranche of documents that I think established their place in the media eco-system very quickly."
Traditional media had long been the channel by which top-secret information reached the public, he said. And that process typically involved a significant amount of verification, analysis and conversation with the individual giving up the intelligence.
"WikiLeaks compresses and circumvents a lot of that process. There isn't a lot of back and forth between the source and WikiLeaks," he said.
But he and others say the site, which is funded by donors, has succeeded because it knows how to maintain its sources' anonymity and anticipate the political and corporate reactions to its leaks.
"They understand that they are going to be in the crosshairs of a lot of powerful interests so they have consciously set themselves up to provide the greatest amount of protection of its original sources," Ardia said.
WikiLeaks Deletes Web Information to Protect Sources' Identity
Though anyone can submit information to the website, experts say the site doesn't keep logs of who visits the site and what they post. Before the site publishes documents, they say it makes sure that information that might identify the source has been deleted.
A recent New Yorker magazine profile on Assange revealed that WikiLeaks' small staff conducts conversation via encrypted online chat services.
To protect against potential censhorship, Ardia said WikiLeaks maintains servers in several countries around the world (in about 20 undisclosed locations, according The New Yorker).
The different servers "mirror" (or replicate) the data, he said, so that if one country shuts down a server, other servers can still supply the information.
But experts also point out that WikiLeaks doesn't just make good use of technology, it also makes good use of politics.
"It's less technical and it's more political," said Bruce Schneir, a security technologist and author. "It's a deft use of politics."
The site is careful to operate in countries, such as Iceland and Sweden, that have the strongest press freedom laws.
Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said that though other sites traffic in classified documents and whistleblowers, none have gone as far as WikiLeaks in terms of soliciting and protecting sources.
Though the site isn't breaking any laws in the countries in which it operates, he said, some wonder what the backlash might be in the countries that have to deal with the consequences.
As WikiLeaks continues to push the envelope in the dislosure of classified intelligence, he said it's possible that it might become more difficult for whistleblowers to share information in the first place.
"Some have been supportive whereas others have raised major concerns that this may lead to less information in the future," he said.