Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has decided to release all 251,287 of the United States diplomatic cables that he acquired last year, without editing out the identities of diplomatic informants and highly sensitive classified information. It’s a decision that is in stark contrast to the efforts of news organizations including the Guardian and the News York Times to redact such information, out of real fears that informants could suffer reprisals including arrest and violence. Since November of last year, those two papers and also Der Spiegel, El País and Le Monde had begun publishing a small selection of the cables, with identities and other information redacted.
The News York Times’ Lede blog says that, actually, a Wikileaks computer file containing all the raw US cables was posted online “by mistake” last year, as revealed last week by Der Freitag, a small, left-leaning publication based in Berlin. Der Freitag said that it had found a 1.73 GB file named “cables.csv”; its contents were ”definitively unredacted versions of the cables.” While “cables.csv” was encrypted, its password could be found on the internet. Then on Monday, a “former Wikileaks operative” said that the file had been available at least since March:
As Spiegel Online reports, the password-protected file with the unredacted cables was made available because of “a chain of careless mistakes, coincidences, indiscretions and confusion” that followed the splintering of the antisecrecy organization into rival factions over the past year.
The most important of these errors appears to have been made some time before Dec. 12, 2010, when someone working with WikiLeaks posted the encrypted cable archive on a file-sharing site at a time when supporters of the group wanted to make sure that the leaked data could be made public if the group’s founder, Julian Assange, was arrested and his site closed down. A copy of the file, which seems to have been last modified on June 9, 2010, also appears to have been posted on the mirrors or complete copies of the main WikiLeaks site the group encouraged its supporters to create.
The password that unlocks the file was revealed in part because Mr. Assange also broke with editors at The New York Times and The Guardian — after both published some carefully redacted versions of the cables last year — over differences in philosophy and critical reports about his personal life.
A Guardian article says that Assange had actually “foreshadowed” a plan to release the entire trove of cables at a secret meeting last November:
The diary of one of those present at Ellingham Hall, the stately home which was then their base, records: “Heated conversation about rough plans on releasing cables … JA insistent all cables must somehow eventually be released.” His wish has now been realised, after a year punctuated by his arrest, heated quarrels with former associates, and a chapter of accidents within Assange’s chaotic organisation. A few days after the Ellingham Hall meeting Assange turned himself in for arrest on an extradition warrant sought by Sweden, on allegations of sexual assault by two young WikiLeaks supporters there. He is still fighting extradition.
On 7 December, the day of his arrest, a huge file of WikiLeaks information was posted on the Pirate Bay filesharing site by one of his supporters. According to the group’s former No 2, computer expert Daniel Domscheit-Berg: “These people said they wanted to keep WikiLeaks operational, but they never spoke to Julian.” As a result, it was never apparently realised that the file-set included Assange’s copy of all the classified US cables.
Domscheit-Berg suggests that “laziness” on Assange’s part led to the revelation of the password for the files:
Earlier in the year, according to Domscheit-Berg, Assange gave a copy of the cables file to the Guardian…. He provided the Guardian with a password and access to a special online server, on which he said he would place a copy of the cables file, which would only remain in existence for a short time. What Assange did not reveal was that he had not followed conventional security practice and created a new password for the transaction. Instead, according to Domscheit-Berg, he had merely reused the existing master password, already known to others within WikiLeaks. “The file was never supposed to be shared with anyone at all. To get a copy you would usually make a new copy with a new password. He was too lazy to create something new.”
David Leigh, a Guardian editor, indeed published a book about Wikileaks earlier this year; the book noted the password provided by Assange because it was assumed that that password was obsolete. But as the News York Times’ Lede blog says
Mr. Leigh said in an e-mail to The Times that he had included the password in the book on WikiLeaks only after Mr. Assange assured him it would expire after a few hours. He said Mr. Assange was responsible for any breach.
WikiLeaks insisted in a note on its official Twitter feed that Mr. Assange did not tell Mr. Leigh that the password was temporary. The group also said in an unsigned statement: “WikiLeaks has commenced pre-litigation action against The Guardian and an individual in Germany who was distributing the Guardian passwords for personal gain.”
How the release of so many thousands of secret diplomatic files will play out remains to be seen. The Guardian says that the Australian cables included a document that identifies 23 Australians alleged to have links with al-Qaida, leading to an “angry response” from Robert McClelland, Australia’s attorney general. What is sure is that Wikileaks, along with its stated aims of transparency and truth, is an all-too human organization. The latest release of all the cables online without rhyme or reason, and even by accident — human error — points to a lack of thought and decisiveness of what to do with all that information, as if Wikileaks and those behind it, having found themselves the keepers of so much that is so valuable have gotten a bit … self-inflated? consumed with the power potentially at their disposal?
Now, finding themselves left holding a very big bag of goods, the choice has been made simply to throw it all to the winds and see what ensues.
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