Why Wikileaks matters.
This week marked the international coming-out party for a new media organization that could upend the sacred cows of traditional journalism. Wikileaks, an Internet-savvy investigative journalism outfit, released a video showing an American Apache helicopter open fire on a group of men, killing two Reuters employees, along with 10 other people, on July 12, 2007.
"There was no threat warranting a hail of 30mm [caliber gunfire] from above," says Anthony Martinez, a former U.S. Army noncommissioned officer who has watched thousands of hours of aerial footage of Iraq.
The video, seen through the perspective of the Apache gun camera, captures a dark moment in the Iraq war. As the American airmen chuckle over the body count, it also amounts to a damning indictment of war culture. No traditional journalism organization was able to bring it to the public, as these tapes are normally classified; Reuters filed an FOIA request but never received a response.
True to its promise to release complete source material, Wikileaks has posted the full 38-minute gun camera video on YouTube. But the focus of its Monday press conference was an annotated, 19-minute edited version, published on the site collateralmurder.com. It opens with a quote from British provocateur-cum-journalist George Orwell:
Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.
The video proceeds to transcribe the radio chatter and break down the action with highlights and arrows. A group of men gather in the street; one reporter talks on the phone and another shoulders a camera bag. Seconds later, the pilots, mistaking a camera lens peeking around a corner for an RPG, strafe a cluster of civilians. That is almost forgivable. But events turn from queasy to horrifying when the crew open fire on an unarmed van that has stopped to pick up the journalist left alive. As Wikileaks shows in a closeup, two children sitting in the front seat of the van were struck by the barrage of gunfire.
The video was sensational, and it exploded online Monday -- it's since gotten more than 2 million views on YouTube and prompting a follow-up story by the New York Times.
Many viewers were undoubtedly encountering Wikileaks for the first time, though the organization was launched in December 2006. The site, which is funded by private donors and does not accept government or corporate funding, encourages would-be whistleblowers to upload incriminating material anonymously on its website. The small editorial staff verifies submitted documents, decrypts or translates them when necessary, and then publishes them in full -- often with commentary.
This is not to imply that Wikileaks' editors are merely passive distributors of their sources' information. They cultivate and protect anonymous sources, verify submitted materials, add context, and promote important leaks. In the case of the Iraq gun-camera footage, the process began with using volunteers to help decrypt the submitted file. Then they worked with Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson to verify the video on the ground in Baghdad. Hrafnsson says he found the two children who were injured in the attack, and Wikileaks has posted recent pictures and other documents. The whole story cost the organization about U.S. $50,000, according to Julian Assange, the site's co-founder.
Assange describes Wikileaks as pioneering a revolutionary model for bringing previously hidden material to light. "The mainstream press is, per capita, not competitive with Wikileaks in terms of sourcing," he says.
The diffuse, international nature of the organization has protected Wikileaks from the fate of other organizations that seek to expose wrongdoing by powerful interests. It prints no paper, but instead stores its articles online in Sweden, where journalists are required by law not to reveal sources. Its domain name, wikileaks.org, is registered in California, where the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation intervened when an aggrieved Swiss bank tried shut the site down.
Still, some are skeptical of using Wikileaks as a blueprint for a new, hard-hitting form of journalism. "What happened is obviously not right," says Martinez, who estimates that he watched real-time video from about 50 Apache engagements during his two tours in Iraq. However, he takes issue with Wikileaks' presentation of the events, claiming that the footage definitely shows at least one man loitering with an RPG and another with an AK-47 -- though he notes that carrying an AK-47 in the street was hardly unusual in Baghdad during the summer of 2007.
Neither weapon is highlighted in the Wikileaks video. "These two guys, they look pretty armed to me," he says. "That's completely ignored."
Yet, we wouldn't be seeing the guns at all if not for a sustained campaign by Wikileaks. At its best, the rise of Wikileaks represents the type of accountability journalism made famous in the 1970s by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, and practiced today by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker and Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times -- and Seymour Hersh in both eras.
Wikileaks, however, makes no bones about its desire to advance a political message, promising sources that their material will be used for "maximal political impact." Assange says that he hopes Wikileaks' work on this case will lead to "world-wide attention to the issue, and hopefully a renewed investigation into those events, and a change in government policy."
Assange writes initial analyses and stories from leaked material himself, and there's often a Noam Chomsky-esque critique of America in his work. It's clear he distrusts big corporations and governments. He has more reason to do so than most, having lived and worked in Kenya, where he has helped to expose hundreds of government-sponsored extrajudicial assassinations. Two of his colleagues were killed in March 2009, in an attack some have linked to the Kenyan police.
Wikileaks' editors are definitely outspoken, but they can't quite be accused of partisanship. They released the evidence of toxic waste dumping, which The Guardian had been barred from running, but also posted the so-called "climategate" emails from the University of East Anglia in November 2009, mere weeks before the Copenhagen talks. They've also leaked the confidential creditor list of collapsed Icelandic Bank Kaupthing, Australia's secret blacklist of censored URLs, and more than 500,000 pager messages from New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Despite these public-interest successes, Wikileaks' disregard for gag orders and their unabashed advocacy makes full-throated praise for the organization rare. Yet no journalist I've spoken to will speak ill of Wikileaks in private: Every reporter understands that Wikileaks is the thin end of the wedge. If they can't run a dangerous story, no one can.