A grainy black-and-white video tracks a group of men who scatter in a cloud of dust to a soundtrack of gunshots. “Keep shooting,” a voice repeats calmly. “Keep shooting.” On the video, the Apache helicopter gunmen obey, until most of the men lie dead in the street. A van pulls up in an attempt to remove an injured man from the scene. The gunmen blow up the van.
The official response: Just another afternoon of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It’s likely that the 2007 incident wouldn’t have registered more than a blip in the nightly news except that two of the men killed were a Reuters photographer and his assistant. (The American helicopter crew mistook the camera for a weapon.) Even so, the chilling video footage of the incident would remain classified except for the extraordinary efforts of the website WikiLeaks.
Launched in 2007, WikiLeaks publishes classified documents—like the Apache helicopter video film of the shooting of the Reuters newsmen—that would otherwise never see the light of day. The volume of leaks on the website is overwhelming. Notable among them are Sarah Palin’s hacked e-mail messages, a banned report on assassinations and torture enacted by Kenyan police, and tens of thousands of classified documents related to the war in Afghanistan.
A notorious Australian ex-hacker, Julian Assange is only one of a dozen, mostly anonymous, people who helped set up the site, but he’s become the face of WikiLeaks and a tireless proponent of exposing the ruling class’s dirty secrets. “It is impossible to correct abuses,” Assange told the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2010, “unless we know that they’re going on.”
The rise of WikiLeaks comes at a crucial time, when daily and alternative newspapers—the traditional vehicles for exposing wrongdoing in government and business—are gutting newsrooms, disassembling costly investigative teams, and refocusing on profit. “When I look at the next ten years, investigative reporting is going to die in corporate settings,” Nick Penniman of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund recently told Columbia Journalism Review.
WikiLeaks represents a ray of sunshine. By placing raw documents in the public domain, the organization not only leaps past the interpretive and gatekeeping roles of investigative reporting but also subverts the power of governments and businesses to censor the paper trail of their actions. (Reuters filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the video that captured the shootings of its newsmen. The request was denied. WikiLeaks never asked for permission in the first place.)
Predictably, the first wave of reaction from U.S. officialdom has been righteous outrage. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who reportedly leaked the video and other documents, has been arrested. Assange leads a semi-clandestine existence, avoiding the United States, where he could conceivably be arrested.
The New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian recently blogged about the foolishness of the official response, likening it to music industry attempts to shut down file sharing. “The government has its own versions of WikiLeaks: the Freedom of Information Act,” he writes. “An official government Web site that would make the implementation of FOIA quicker and more uniform, comprehensive, and accessible, and that might even allow anonymous whistleblowers within federal agencies to post internal materials, after a process of review and redaction, could be a very good thing—for the public, and for the official keepers of secrets, too.”
Despite the roguishly idyllic, anonymous digi-world of government transparency offered by WikiLeaks, Julian Assange is himself a mysterious character—when you piss off international governments, Swiss banks, and touchy religious groups it’s best to keep a low profile. After exposing covered-up injustice on a global scale, Assange has become a globetrotter, working in Kenya and Iceland, Washington, D.C. and his native Australia. Mother Jones’s David Kushner profiled Assange and criticized the tactics of WikiLeaks, enraging the hacktivist enough to call the muckraking magazine a “right-wing reality distortion field.” Regardless, if you want to know when Sarah Palin’s e-mail account is hacked again, follow the WikiLeaks Twitter and Facebook accounts.
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