WikiLeaks has played a crucial part in changing how we view confidential and top-secret information. The international non-profit organisation was set up in Iceland in October 2006 by Australian computer programmer, Julian Assange, and holds the motto ‘We open governments’. The main impetus of the site is to publish original secret files, documents, and details, plus classified media and news leaks provided through anonymous sources. It is done under the umbrella of ‘freedom of information’. They have had nominations for the UN Mandela prize (2015) and nominations over six consecutive years for the Nobel peace prize (2010-2015).
WikiLeaks accepts any restricted or censored material that has either diplomatic, political, ethical or historical significance. They don’t accept opinion, rumour or any first-hand accounts or material that can be found publicly on other websites. For some, the site has opened up the world in a completely new, unique and transparent way. For others, the site is a dangerous tool that is putting millions at risk and shouldn’t be active.
But has WikiLeaks actually compromised anybody? Or have they simply compromised duplicitous institutional machines hell-bent on maintaining a fantastical narrative? Have they made the world a safer place? And are governments that are complaining about WikiLeaks after being exposed actually just overplaying the ‘national security’ card? Has the exposed data not been in the public interest? These are the key questions we need to be asking when assessing the value of this controversial online platform.
Perhaps one of the most notable leaks in the history of WikiLeaks came as a result of Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning). The former United States Army soldier disclosed almost 750,000 classified or sensitive (but not classified) diplomatic and military documents. The result for Manning was a 35 year prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act, among other acts. She was released in May 2017 as a result of having her sentence commuted by Barack Obama during his presidency to almost seven years confinement, starting in 2010.
While working in the army unit in Iraq as an intelligence analyst during 2009, Manning had access to a number of classified databases. This included videos showing the 12th July 2007 Baghdad airstrike, 482,832 Army reports known as the ‘Iraq War Logs’, material showing the 2009 Granai airstrike in Afghanistan, 251,287 U.S. diplomatic cables, and the disclosure of more than 91,000 internal U.S. military logs for the war in Afghanistan known as the ‘Afghan War Diary’. All of this material was published by WikiLeaks or its partner websites between April and November 2010.
There was a mixed response to the leaks. It was claimed by Denver Nicks, who wrote a biography on Manning, that much of the leaked material - and, in particular, the diplomatic cables - was seen by many as being the catalyst for the 2010 Arab Spring. Manning told Amnesty International regarding her choice of releasing the material that: “Humanity has never had this complete and detailed a record of what modern warfare actually looks like. Once you realise that the co-ordinates represent a real place where people live, that the dates happened in our recent history; that the numbers are actually human lives—with all the love, hope, dreams, hatred, fear, and nightmares that come with them — then it’s difficult to ever forget how important these documents are.”
One of the most shared videos worldwide from the information release was that of the Baghdad airstrike, in which two Apache helicopters conducted air-to-ground attacks for 39 minutes on Iraqi individuals, including two war correspondents working for Reuters, and a van driver who was helping one of the wounded journalists. The attack also led to two children being badly wounded. In total, seven men were killed and three wounded. Nearby buildings were also attacked. A military legal review was conducted, which claimed some of the men were armed insurgents and that the journalists couldn’t be easily identified as press. The report recommended that journalists wear special vests in order to identify themselves, and to update the U.S. military on their whereabouts. Many people globally felt a war crime had been committed. Reactions were mixed, with some claiming crucial context was missing, while others praised its release, saying the laws of war were violated.
More recently, in 2016, WikiLeaks was responsible for the release of e-mails from John Podesta, who was serving as Hillary Clinton’s chairman for her 2016 presidential campaign. These e-mails provided insight into the inner workings of her political campaign, including excerpts from speeches and e-mails that had been exchanged with Barack Obama in 2008. Over 20,000 pages worth of e-mails were published. The timing of their release coincided with a tightening in the presidential race between Trump and Clinton. However, it was said in opinion polling that they didn’t appear to have affected Clinton’s perceived trustworthiness. The discussion of these hacked e-mails did come up many times during the election discussions and debates though. It was perceived by many that Russia had played a part in the hacking, although Assange denied they were the source. The CIA are investigating Russia’s involvement in the election.
There was also a release in July 2016 of almost 20,000 e-mails and more than 8,000 attachments that belonged to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). They are the governing body for the U.S. Democratic Party. One of the main sources of knowledge gained from this release included the bias of many DNC staffers against Senator Bernie Sanders, instead favouring Clinton’s campaign. This again became a stumbling block for Clinton during the election, with many claiming she had unfairly gained her position against Sanders. It was suggested that the Primary had been rigged in favour of Clinton.
The Royal Navy and William McNeilly
In 2015, William McNeilly, who worked as an able seaman in the Royal Navy, served as a whistleblower for WikiLeaks to expose serious security issues pertaining to the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons system. In an 18-page report published online titled ‘The Secret Nuclear Threat’, he claimed it was easier to access nuclear weapons than getting into most nightclubs. The Royal Navy admitted after the release that they would look into the claims, along with its unauthorised publication, although claimed many elements were “subjective” and “unsubstantiated personal views, made by a very junior sailor.” Despite the serious nature of the document’s contents, the Royal Navy felt it didn’t pose any security risk to their operations or personnel. McNeilly lost his role in the navy.
The Guantánamo Bay Files
The release in 2011 of The Guantánamo Bay Files saw 779 secret documents pertaining to the detainees released. It contained details of interviews, classified assessments, and internal memos. As a result, it came to light that over 150 innocent Afghans and Pakistanis had been held for many years without charges, including an 89-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy who were weak mentally and physically. They also revealed that, according to the planner of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda had nuclear capacity that they would use in retaliation for any attacks on Osama Bin Laden. The files revealed that the evidence had been gained through torture. The U.S. media downplayed the oppressive and unjust actions of the USA, while foreign media highlighted this. It came after the release in November 2007 of the standard operating procedures for the detention camp (dated 2003), which showed some prisoners were off-limits for the International Committee of the Red Cross, despite this being something the U.S. military had denied.
Ultimately, WikiLeaks has provided greater transparency on a wide range of issues and events. In many cases, there has been a lack of context or expert insight that could benefit the public with their interpretations, along with some bias. It is often left to journalists to relay the general mood of each release, which can influence the impact it has, especially depending on the home country of the press. However, the releases have led to many individuals involved being charged and imprisoned, and have also led to reviews and investigations that have brought others to justice.
From tax avoidance to US intelligence, hacked e-mails to nuclear accidents, oil scandals to political campaigns, killings to air-strikes, bribery cases to espionage orders, WikiLeaks has covered it all. Of course there is fear among governments and officials of what could be released. However, it has also shown a greater need for accountability and responsibility. Safety is a concern, but it does not appear to have been disastrously compromised thus far - although it is only down to the ethical judgment of those publishing at WikiLeaks on how far they will go, and how much they’re holding back.