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It has been some time since WikiLeaks stunned the world with classified video of U.S. military attacks on civilians in Iraq and thousands of secret diplomatic cables—revelations that triggered an all-out attack on founder Julian Assange by the U.S. government, which roped in Amazon (AMZN) and other companies as accomplices. On Sunday, the shadowy organization announced what it called an “extraordinary” new release of information, a cache of several million e-mails from the security-consulting firm StratFor (Strategic Forecasting). The nature of the e-mails and WikiLeaks’s new partnership with the hacker collective Anonymous raise questions about the organization’s relevance.
The rise of WikiLeaks, led by the almost-mythical figure of Assange, has been something straight out of a science fiction novel. A global organization made up of hackers and borderline anarchists, aided by freedom-of-information advocates such as Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir and activist/hacker Jacob Appelbaum, releases a massive trove of military and government documents and video, which it obtains from a courageous, whistle-blowing, former military intelligence analyst named (Bradley Manning, who has now been in prison on espionage charges for more than 18 months).
The military information that WikiLeaks released, including video of U.S. military aircraft killing civilians in Iraq, shocked the nation and the world. The follow-up to that release was somewhat less of a blockbuster in intelligence terms. The thousands of diplomatic cables WikiLeaks published—with the help of the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers, among other partners in mainstream media—drew criticism because some argued they might put U.S. agents or foreign activists at risk. For the most part, there was little of value or urgency in most of the cables.
While some of WikiLeaks’s partners published cables that showed U.S. diplomatic sources thought Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi was a loud-mouthed idiot with a penchant for voluptuous blonde nurses, it was hardly a revelation for most who have followed events in that country. Some cables referring to events in the Middle East were cited as a trigger for the uprisings in Tunisia that precipitated the Arab Spring demonstrations in that country; others argued that those links were a stretch and that few cables contained crucial intelligence information.
Now WikiLeaks has millions of e-mails from StratFor, a security-consulting firm that works with corporate clients and also has ties to the U.S. government. While it may make the release of these e-mails seem more interesting, it seems a stretch to describe StratFor as being “somewhat akin to a privatized CIA,” as Wired magazine has called it. The company is known to have ties to the U.S. military intelligence establishment, as the release from WikiLeaks makes clear, but there doesn’t seem to be much qualifying as smoking guns in the e-mail dump. (WikiLeaks and its media partners are apparently still combing them.)
When it comes to partners, WikiLeaks is no longer working with any leading U.S. or British newspapers—a development that probably isn’t surprising, given the kind of enmity that people like former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller clearly hold for Assange. Instead, the list of partners includes outlets such as Al Akhbar in Lebanon, Bivol in Bulgaria, and La Nación in Costa Rica. In the U.S., the organization said it is working with the McClatchy newspaper chain and with Rolling Stone magazine. Not exactly a Who’s Who of mainstream media sources.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks has a new, non-media partner in Anonymous, the hacker collective that arose out of the anarchic online community 4chan with a history of releasing private information (including internal documents from the Church of Scientology) and targeting corporations and governments with hack attacks. The groups clearly share similar goals, and Anonymous used massive “denial of service” attacks to bring down websites run by Visa (V), MasterCard (MA), PayPal (EBAY) and others that cut off payments to WikiLeaks after it released classified documents.
Does moving away from such media partners as the New York Times and partnering with a group like Anonymous mean WikiLeaks is gaining strength or losing it? While journalism professor Jay Rosen called the organization the first “stateless media entity,” much of the publicity it gained came through existing outlets like the Times and the Guardian. Will McClatchy and Rolling Stone—or La Nación and Malaysia Today—serve the same purpose? Moreover, the partnership with Anonymous may make sense, but it almost feels as if Anonymous is taking the lead role, as WikiLeaks’ dominance continues to weaken.
Foreign Policy magazine columnist and author Evgeny Morozov has argued for some time that WikiLeaks is disintegrating, thanks in part to the legal issues around Assange (who is still fighting extradition over rape charges in Sweden), as well as what some former collaborators say is the WikiLeaks founder’s difficult personality and desire for power. Anonymous may be on the rise now, but it suffers from different issues, including what appears to be a lack of any organized power structure. That may make it more flexible and difficult to target but could blunt its effectiveness.
Attempts to duplicate WikiLeaks’s success, meanwhile, haven’t really taken off. OpenLeaks, which was started by a former colleague of Assange’s who left the organization, has yet to have much obvious impact. Mainstream media efforts to set up WikiLeaks-style platforms for leaks at the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere also seem to have been largely ineffective. Could it be that WikiLeaks’s rise to prominence was a unique process produced by the chance combination of Assange and Manning? If so, is the world better off without WikiLeaks? Or did it serve a purpose others should be trying to fill?
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