Amid criticism, WikiLeaks shifts focus

WikiLeaks, which grew out of the cypherpunks list over a decade ago, has left its early days as an informal collaboration far behind.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read

When WikiLeaks launched with little fanfare in early 2007, its founders touted it as a unique collaboration that would rely on the same anyone-can-edit software and sense of community that made Wikipedia such a success.

Instead of having a small group of experts examine documents, WikiLeaks promised, the forthcoming Web site would allow "the entire global community" to "interpret documents and explain their relevance to the public." News coverage at the time quoted spokesman Julian Assange emphasizing the lack of hierarchy, saying WikiLeaks is "an international collaboration, primarily of mathematicians."


That was then. In the nearly four years since its launch, WikiLeaks has morphed from a friendly collaboration of like-minded geeks to an operation dominated by Assange's London press conferences and outsized personality.

Instead of the informal global collective of mathematicians and programmers that once existed, according to internal e-mail messages reviewed by CNET, Assange has become a force so formidable that he kicked out Daniel Schmitt, the organization's second-best-known representative. Schmitt told Der Spiegel last month that "there is a lot of resentment there and others, like me, will leave."

Assange did not respond to queries for this article.

The group's focus also has changed. At its inception, WikiLeaks announced that "our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East." Since the summer, the group has focused exclusively on the United States--in particular, its controversial military adventures abroad.

Also, all documents not related to the Iraq war files have been removed from WikiLeaks.org, and no submissions are currently accepted. And instead of continuing the Wiki-based approach that allows "the entire global community" to participate, WikiLeaks has given exclusives to a handful of mainstream media organizations and no longer allows the public to comment on documents.

Especially since the summer release of the Iraq war files, Assange has encountered a barrage of criticism, including a profile in the New York Times last weekend that used language such as "erratic and imperious behavior" and "a nearly delusional grandeur." The Obama administration has accused him of violating U.S. law, and some of the more strident conservatives have called for cyberattacks on Wikileak's servers, with a Fox News commentator implying that Assange could be legally assassinated as an "enemy combatant."

"He's paranoid about agencies stalking him," says Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Whether it's paranoia or sheer common sense, that sentiment is hardly new.

The birth of WikiLeaks
It was a humble text-only mailing list called cypherpunks, hosted by Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore, that laid the philosophical foundation for WikiLeaks. Longtime cypherpunk John Young, a New York architect, was the first to register the WikiLeaks.org domain name but has since become a critic. (Full disclosure: I subscribed to the mailing list during that time.)

From 1995 through at least 2002, Assange and some of WikiLeaks' other founders spent thousands of hours debating strong encryption, offshore data havens, and how to use technology to obtain documents and then publish them anonymously. The discussions there seemed to be a decade ahead of their time: list co-founder and Cyphernomicon author Tim May joked back in 1987 that strong encryption and anonymity would lead to someone offering: "Stealth bomber blueprints for sale. Post highest offer and include public key."

Today, that seems more plausible than not.

One common topic among the mostly libertarian-leaning cypherpunks is honing technological approaches to liberating information that a government or other influential organization would prefer to keep secret.

In a 1996 message, for instance, Assange announced a demonstration at the Scientology building in Melbourne in response to the church's aggressive legal attempts to remove its secret scriptures from the Internet. He wrote:

The fight against the Church is far more than the Net vs a bunch of wackos with too much money. It is about corporate suppression of the Internet and free speech. It is about intellectual property and the big and rich versus the small and smart. The precedents the Church sets today the weapons of corporate tirany [sic] tomorrow.

A year later, Assange announced that he had finished programming a beta version of a pioneering cryptographic file system, which he described as a "rubber hose proof" file system. The idea was to encrypt and hide data on a hard drive so thoroughly that it would be invisible to a government agency.

Government agents might suspect that some data existed, but they wouldn't be able to prove it. So even if the laptop's owner were tortured by being beaten with a rubber hose, he or she could claim that there was no more encrypted data left on the hard drive. As Assange put it at the time, "I can never prove that I have revealed the last of my keys. "

A 2001 cypherpunks post by Assange appears to preview his vision for what WikiLeaks would become: "Post-war U.S. liberties were usually restored after appalling abuses by the mendacious followed by intensive lobbing by civil rights activists. It'd be nice to cut the former phase short."