The WikiLeaks Hoax, Part I

WikiLeaks has done it again. For the second time in less than four months, the shadowy outfit has succeeded in publishing a leak that has completely dominated the news cycle. Even news outlets and commentators that are critical of its posting of tens of thousands of U.S. military reports on the war in Afghanistan are prepared to confer upon WikiLeaks the honorific of a “whistleblower organization.”

But is that what it is? In April, WikiLeaks published its first mega-scoop of 2010: the so-called “Collateral Murder” video showing a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack in which two Iraqi Reuters employees were killed in Baghdad. At the time, I pointed to glaring differences between WikiLeaks’s handling of the video and the modus operandi that had characterized the “old” WikiLeaks. (See my “The Strange Career of WikiLeaks” at weeklystandard.com.)

The original WikiLeaks website in fact went offline in December 2009, allegedly to make way for a funding drive. It was, as I put it, an “equal opportunity” publisher of classified materials of all sorts from a wide variety of sources. The site, as such, had no clear political orientation and it would indeed have been contrary to the nature of the project to have had any. Like its namesake Wikipedia, the “old” WikiLeaks was, in effect, merely a platform. It was not the team that maintained the platform that provided the site with its essential content, but rather the sources who uploaded material to it.

The “new” WikiLeaks, by contrast, had all the trappings of a propaganda vehicle. Or, more precisely, just a propaganda stunt. When WikiLeaks published the “Collateral Murder” video, the site might indeed have been more appropriately called “WikiLeak” in the singular. For it contained barely any other leaks and none of any consequence.

A site that proudly boasted about having published some 1.2 million leaked documents -- namely, in its previous incarnation -- had managed to post all of twelve in its new incarnation in 2010. Most of them were about Iceland. In the meanwhile, the “old” WikiLeaks archives have been restored to the new site, thus creating a greater semblance of continuity. But the remarkable penury of leaks has continued.

Now, WikiLeaks has managed to chalk up exactly one more leak, and the publication of the files that the site has dubbed “The Afghan War Diary” confirms that the vocation of the “new” WikiLeaks is not unfiltered information, but rather targeted propaganda: highly targeted, since -- Iceland aside -- the real focus of the new site is obviously just the USA.

In light of the evolution of the site in the last four months -- or, more precisely, the striking lack thereof -- there is reason to doubt that there even really is any WikiLeaks “organization” as such that stands behind it. It would appear rather that the WikiLeaks brand itself -- complete with ubiquitous spokesperson Julian Assange and his distinctive shock of white hair -- is part of the desired propaganda effect. After all, if the world’s most famous and courageous “whistleblower organization” only ever blows its whistle about American “abuses,” then what does that say about America?

It is not so much the content of the leaked Afghan war reports that confirms the propagandistic vocation of the new WikiLeaks, but rather the circumstances of their publication. Given the sheer quantity of the reports and their often highly technical character, it will take months if not years for serious analysts to sift through the data sufficiently so as to come to any robust conclusions about the course of the Afghan war. This, notwithstanding the fact that WikiLeaks helpfully pre-spins the material for its readers, noting, for example, in its introduction to the reports that

The material shows that cover-ups start on the ground. When reporting their own activities US Units are inclined to classify civilian kills as insurgent kills, downplay the number of people killed or otherwise make excuses for themselves.

But what truly gives away the game is the fact that three selected news organizations were given a substantial head start in viewing the files. This permitted the three organizations to enjoy the prestige of breaking the story and to set the terms of the debate even before the raw material had been posted online by WikiLeaks.

And what, above all, gives the game away is just which three news organizations have thus been granted the privilege of being WikiLeaks “media partners,” as the site refers to them. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and over the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has developed a well-nigh metaphysical, so to say, dismal view of America and of the logic of American military interventions and counterterror operations. No three international print media organizations have done more to propagate this dismal view than precisely Germany’s Der Spiegel, Britain’s The Guardian, and America’s own New York Times.

It was, after all, none other than Der Spiegel that in January 2003, before the Iraq War had even started, published a spectacular cover story on the impending American invasion under the apodictic title “Blood for Oil.” The phrase was the Spiegel editors’ clever riff on the slogan of the German street protests opposing the first Iraq War twelve years earlier: “No Blood for Oil.” The editors did not even feel the need to add a question mark. The knowing subtitle read: “What [the intervention in] Iraq is really about.” The ostensible reasons, of course, simply could not be true. (For numerous further examples of Der Spiegel’s propagation of the dismal view, see the Der Spiegel archive of the regrettably now largely inactive German media watch blog Medienkritik.)

Even independently of WikiLeaks, Der Spiegel and the Times have occasionally dabbled in content-sharing in recent years. But what the publications share, above all, is not content, but spin -- typically, spin that is detrimental to America’s image and American security interests. (For just one among many examples, see my “The CIA Rendition Controversy: Is Khaled Al-Masri Lying?” in World Politics Review.)

WikiLeaks may have itself decided to provide the chosen three media organizations the leaked files in advance, as the standard news accounts suggest. Or it could well be that the original source provided them to both WikiLeaks and the chosen three, thus giving some of the world’s most thoroughly establishment “old” media a unique chance to partake of the fight-the-power hipness of the new media “whistleblower organization.”

But one thing, in any case, appears certain: WikiLeaks did not obtain the files via its famous online “secure submission” form. Once upon a time, the secure submission form was the centerpiece of the WikiLeaks project. It was here that anonymous sources were supposed to upload their sensitive material and to enjoy the assurance that in so doing their anonymity would be preserved. But as the blog Wikileak.org has documented, the site’s secure submission technology has been compromised for many months now. Wikileak.org is a techie blog devoted to critical examination of the WikiLeaks project. It is not affiliated with the project.

On June 12, WikiLeaks demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt just how uninterested it was in preserving the security of the site. On that day -- as was predicted would happen by Wikileak.org -- WikiLeaks failed to renew its SSL certificate: a basic form of web security certification that can be purchased for as little as $30 per year. Already at the time of the April release of its “Collateral Murder” video, WikiLeaks claimed to have raised some $370,000 in its funding drive.

Attempting to access a site with an invalid SSL certificate will typically generate a warning that secure connection to the site is not possible. Attempt, for instance, to connect to the original WikiLeaks “secure submissions” page here in either IE or Firefox and you will currently receive such a warning. It was only after Wired.com called attention to the lapsing of the WikiLeaks SSL certificate that WikiLeaks finally restored its ostensibly secure submissions form, though at a different address than previously.

The Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan [English link] has, moreover, pointed to a further discrepancy between the carefully cultivated public image of WikiLeaks and the reality of the site. If the “secure submission” system was supposed to provide technical assurances of anonymity to potential leakers, it was the location of the WikiLeaks servers in Sweden that was supposed to provide them legal assurance: thanks, namely, to the robust source protection provisions in the Swedish Press Freedom Act. The current WikiLeaks submission page still promises that submissions are “protected under Swedish and Belgium [sic] press secrecy laws.”

But the law in question only applies to media that have been issued a “publishing license” by Swedish authorities. Sydsvenskan reports that WikiLeaks has no such license. Asked by Sydsvenskan what he thought of WikiLeaks’s promise of protection for sources under Swedish law, Anders R. Olsson, a Swedish journalist specializing in free speech issues, replied, “I think it is a bit strange that Wikileaks doesn't seem to know the rules.”

Thus, we have a “whistleblower organization” that is not in a position to provide the legal protections to sources that it promises with great fanfare and that makes no effort to maintain the secure submission environment that was supposed to be its very raison d’être. It is small wonder, then, that apart from the two blockbusters WikiLeaks has hardly published any leaks at all since its supposed re-launch. The whole edifice of the “new” WikiLeaks appears in fact to be nothing but a facade.

Who or what lies behind the WikiLeaks facade? For some clues, make sure to catch part II of “The WikiLeaks Hoax,” forthcoming on Pajamas Media.