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What is WikiLeaks?

WikiLeaks releases lots of classified information to the public. But who is behind WikiLeaks and how does the organization work?

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PIER, Getty Images

Recent US history is dotted with major government leaks. There's the Pentagon Papers, which revealed a secret bombing campaign led by the US during the Vietnam War. Then there's Deep Throat, a pseudonym for the government informant who leaked information about the Watergate Scandal and helped bring down the Nixon administration. (It was revealed 30 years later that Deep Throat was former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt.)

These days, one of the biggest leakers of classified information in the world is WikiLeaks.

Over the past 11 years, the group claims to have released over 10 million secret government documents through its website. The leaks range from a video showing an American Apache helicopter in the Iraq War shooting and killing two journalists to emails from the Democratic National Committee exposing alleged misconduct during the 2016 presidential campaign.

On March 7, 2017, the organization released thousands of documents that allegedly detail the methods and tools that the CIA uses to break into phones, TVs and cars, including how key software from the world's top tech companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, could be breached by the CIA.

While the authenticity of these documents has yet to be confirmed or denied by the CIA, a spokesman said, "It is [the] CIA's job to be innovative, cutting edge and the first line of defense." All this raises questions about what devices and software the CIA could break into.

But what about WikiLeaks? What is it? How does the group work? What is its motivation for leaking supposed classified material? Details about the group are tightly controlled, but here's what we know.

WikiLeaks didn't immediately respond to CNET's request to comment for this article.

What is WikiLeaks?

WikiLeaks is an international nonprofit organization founded in 2006. Its purpose is to vet and publish first-source, restricted documents. As of this writing, WikiLeaks claims to have released over 10 million documents, but the organization hasn't revealed how many more documents it has in its possession.

One of the most high profile releases was a video of a US military helicopter gunning down journalists and civilians in Iraq in 2007. An outside source revealed that the leak came from former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley).

How does WikiLeaks work?

Think of WikiLeaks as a middleman. As opposed to a whistleblower leaking information directly to the press, someone instead gives it to WikiLeaks, which then vets and distributes the information. Sources are kept anonymous, with WikiLeaks protecting the whistleblower from retaliation.

WikiLeaks' website states, "Although no organization can hope to have a perfect record forever, thus far WikiLeaks has [been] perfect in document authentication and resistance to all censorship attempts."

Who is its leader?


WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange speaks from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Carl Court/Getty Images

The site's publisher is Julian Assange, 45, from Australia. Assange has said that before WikiLeaks, he worked as a computer programmer and as an activist -- he avoids the label "hacker."

In 2006, he helped found WikiLeaks. During its early years, Assange toured the world giving lectures and interviews fashioning himself as the face of the organization. His story was turned into the 2013 film "The Fifth Estate," with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Assange.

Four years ago, Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was accused of rape. Assange hasn't been formally charged and he's denied the allegation. Other charges against him have since been dropped because of statutes of limitation. He has been holed up in the embassy since June 19, 2012.

On February 24, 2011, a British court agreed to honor Sweden's request for Assange's extradition. If Assange leaves the embassy, he would immediately be taken into custody by British police and extradited.

During a 2013 press conference, President Obama addressed the topic of Assange and WikiLeaks, saying that leaks related to national security put people at risk. "I make no apologies and I don't think the American people will expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or get them killed."

Assange said that he fears Swedish officials will extradite him to the US to face prosecution over leaked government and military documents -- even though there's been no public request for extradition from the US.

In a tweet posted to the WikiLeaks Twitter account on January 12, 2017, Assange offered to agree to extradition to the US if President Obama released Chelsea Manning, who was serving a 35-year sentence for leaking thousands of US Army classified documents.

Five days later, President Obama commuted Manning's sentence. Shortly after, in a press conference streamed on Periscope on January 19, Assange said he was willing to hold up his end of the bargain, but hasn't settled on a date. Manning is expected to be freed on May 17, 2017.

What motivates WikiLeaks?

This is where things get tricky. On its website and social media pages, WikiLeaks states, "We open governments."

Certainly the publication of classified documents, emails and videos does give an unusual inside look into a government's dealings and actions. And while this has made WikiLeaks popular among some open government advocates, not everyone is convinced WikiLeaks' intentions are pure.

Critics like documentary maker Alex Gibney question WikiLeaks' motivation, especially when the organization released emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign manager John Podesta, apparently to hurt Clinton's campaign. In an interview with ITV on June 12, 2016, Assange said, "We do see her as a bit of a problem for freedom of the press."

There's the possibility WikiLeaks could have been given these documents by the Russian government in order to affect the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. In a combined report released on January 6, 2017, the CIA, FBI and NSA said Russian hackers used WikiLeaks to distribute documents and emails from the DNC.

"WikiLeaks sources in relation to the John Podesta emails and the DNC leak are not members of any government," Assange said in response shortly after.

So far no one has been able to publicly corroborate Assange's statement.

How do we know the content released by WikiLeaks is real and unaltered?

We don't.

As much as WikiLeaks aims to bring transparency to government, the organization itself is not transparent about its own processes and procedures. It's still up to news organizations to verify and authenticate any documents released.

In WikiLeaks' early years, Assange refused to redact any information, including names that would have normally have been redacted by most news organizations. The New York Times reported that when it collaborated with WikiLeaks alongside The Guardian and Der Spiegel on the Afghanistan war logs -- a collection of internal US military logs from that conflict -- Assange disagreed with the paper's decision to redact the name of an Afghan informant.

"If an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, he deserves to die," Assange allegedly told the Guardian's Nick Davies.

WikiLeaks still doesn't appear to redact names or information. Last year's DNC email leak included social security numbers and credit card information. Assange claims deleting such info would harm the integrity of the archive.

The organization didn't respond to a request for comment about its practices.

Why is WikiLeaks controversial?


DNC Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz, attending a campaign rally a day before she resigned.

Alexander Tamargo/WireImage

WikiLeaks has been both praised and criticized for the work it does. Releasing classified documents violates national security laws.

Classified documents also contain sensitive information that could endanger people. There's no evidence that any of WikiLeaks' disclosures have led to anyone's death so far.

But there are numerous examples of the disclosures hurting reputations. Former DNC Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Shultz, for example, resigned after the party's emails were released and showed her alleged bias against Clinton's primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders.

Who works for WikiLeaks?

According to its website, WikiLeaks has a staff of over 100 people working for it around the world. It doesn't specify whether those people are paid or volunteers, nor does it say what roles they serve.

Did Edward Snowden leak documents through WikiLeaks?


Edward Snowden's leak of classified information revealed numerous global surveillance programs.

Handout, Getty Images

No. Edward Snowden, 33, a former US government contractor and CIA employee, leaked thousands of classified NSA documents detailing surveillance programs to reporters Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman. This is is documented in Poitras' film "Citizenfour."

Do news organizations work with WikiLeaks?

Yes, sometimes. On its website, WikiLeaks names dozens of news and research organizations as "partners," including the Associated Press, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

WikiLeaks also says it has contractual relationships and secure communications paths to more than 100 major media organizations around the world. "This gives WikiLeaks sources negotiating power, impact and technical protections that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to achieve."

If WikiLeaks protects whistleblowers, what happened with Chelsea Manning?

When Manning was an intelligence analyst for the US Army, she anonymously leaked classified information to WikiLeaks. Manning confided what she had done to an online acquaintance, who then reported her to the FBI. She was later convicted of espionage as well as theft, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. In January, President Obama commuted Manning's sentence.

Are WikiLeaks and Wikipedia related?

No. Though the WikiLeaks website was initially set up as a wiki, a communal publishing service, the platform was abandoned by the organization in 2010 when the website went dark for a fundraising drive.

How does WikiLeaks make money?

According to its website, WikiLeaks is funded by "its publisher, its publication sales and the general public."

What awards has WikiLeaks won?

WikiLeaks has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six times (hundreds of people and organizations are nominated each year). It's received humanitarian and journalism awards including:

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