Secret war at the heart of Wikileaks
Monday 25 October 2010
A civil war at the heart of Wikileaks has virtually paralysed the whistle-blowing website from publishing any new exposés outside of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, say former staffers and volunteers.
The website's recent unveiling of more than 390,000 secret US military documents from the Iraq war – on top of the 77,000 Afghan war logs it published earlier this year – has been hailed as one of the most explosive intelligence leaks in living memory, providing an astonishing level of previously unknown detail on two deeply controversial conflicts.
But a number of former members say that the website's obsession with pursuing the US military has resulted in Wikileaks losing sight of its founding principle that all leaks should be made available to the public no matter how large or small.
Speaking to The Independent last night, the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange hit back at the claims, accusing former colleagues of being "peripheral players... spreading poisonous false rumours".
At least a dozen key supporters of the website are known to have left in recent months. They say Wikileaks has ignored reams of new exposés because so much attention has been paid to the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.
The heavily encrypted arm of the website that allows users to safely send information to the organisation has been offline for four weeks, making new submissions impossible.
According to former supporters, the submission section is down because a number of key personnel have fallen out with Assange over the direction of the website and his behaviour. "Outside of the Iraq and Afghan dossiers, Wikileaks has been incapacitated by internal turmoil and politics," Smari McCarthy, a former Wikileaks volunteer and freedom of information campaigners from Iceland, told The Independent.
"Key people have become very concerned about the direction of Wikileaks with regard to its strong focus on US military files at the expense of ignoring everything else. There were also serious disagreements over the decision not to redact the names of Afghan civilians; something which I'm pleased to see was not repeated with the Iraq dossiers."
Wikileaks admits that one member of the submission team has left but says that wing of the website is down for a system overhaul and will be back online soon.
Part of the problem for Wikileaks has been the huge amount of data it has had to mine in processing the Afghan and Iraq war logs, which comprised tens of thousands of field reports written in dense military jargon. But some of those who have grown uncomfortable with the direction of the website say more attention should still have been paid to leaks from outside of the US military – specifically the dramatic increase in submissions from whistleblowers within closed countries, dictatorships and corporations.
Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of Iceland's parliament who recently quit Wikileaks, played a key role in the website's release earlier this year of "Collateral Murder", the 39-minute video showing an Apache helicopter gunning down a group of armed men, civilians and two Reuters journalists in Baghdad. Its release brought Wikileaks global notoriety but Jónsdóttir believes the website should have paid more attention to the smaller, less headline-grabbing leaks.
"I don't want to take away from the importance of the Iraq dossiers," she said yesterday. "But I have been saying for some time that before all these big scoops came along, Wikileaks was very much about creating small hubs in different countries where people could leak important information to. It shouldn't just be about the international scoops."
The sometimes erratic behaviour of Wikileaks' founder has also caused a number of fallouts within the organisation. The Australian-born 39-year-old walked out of a CNN interview when an interviewer pressed him on the disagreements within Wikileaks and asked him to comment on an ongoing "molestation" investigation against him in Sweden. Assange, who vehemently insists that recent relationships he had with two women in Sweden were entirely consensual, criticised CNN's interviewer for dwelling on his private life.
Last month the website's second most visible face after Assange – a German spokesperson who went by the name Daniel Schmidt, but whose real name is Daniel Domscheit-Berg – broke ranks to disclose that he had quit after being suspended by Assange for unspecified "bad behaviour". Like others who have since left Wikileaks, he cited both the website's direction and Assange's behaviour as motivating factors behind his leaving. "This one-dimensional confrontation with the USA is not what we set out to do," Mr Domscheit-Berg told Der Spiegel.
Asked about Mr Domscheit-Berg's comments Mr Assange replied: "Like many former employees who are suspended from a group he has now decided to turn on his former employer. But these are not valid criticisms."
He also says those who accuse Wikileaks of ignoring whistleblowers outside of Iraq and Afghanistan are wrong.
"We are definitely concerned about that perception, but it's important to stress that such a perception is not correct," he said. "Over the past four years we have published leaks from more than 100 countries, from New York to Nairobi. We always prioritise our releases based on their potential impact and the timeliness. The next release will be relating to Afghanistan. After that we will probably do some smaller releases of a timely nature."
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