How Wikileaks shone light on world's darkest secrets

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

How does a website run by just five full-time staff generate so many scoops? Archie Bland investigates

When the Ministry of Defence first came across Wikileaks, staffers were stunned. "There are thousands of things on here, I literally mean thousands," one of them wrote in an internal email in November 2008. "Everything I clicked on to do with MoD was restricted... it is huge." The website, an online clearing house for documents whose authors would generally prefer them to stay in the private domain, has since been banned from the MoD's internal computers, but it did no good: eventually, that email ended up on Wikileaks. And when a US Army counter-intelligence officer recommended that whistleblowers who leaked to the site be fired, that report ended up on Wikileaks too.

The authorities were right to be worried. If any further proof were needed of the website's extraordinary record in holding the authorities to account, it came this week, in the release of shocking video footage of a gung-ho US helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 12 people, including two unarmed employees of the Reuters news agency.

The US government had resisted Freedom of Information requests from Reuters for years. But when an anonymous whistleblower passed the video on to Wikileaks, all that quickly became futile. An edited version of the tape had received almost 4 million hits on YouTube by last night, and it led news bulletins around the world.

"This might be the story that makes Wikileaks blow up," said Sree Sreenivasan, a digital media professor at New York's Columbia Journalism School. "It's not some huge document with lots of fine print – you can just watch it and you get what it's about immediately. It's a whole new world of how stories get out."

And yet despite Wikileaks' commitment to the freedom of information, there is something curiously shadowy about the organisation itself. Founded, as the group's spokesman Daniel Schmitt (whose surname is a pseudonym) put it, with the intention of becoming "the intelligence agency of the people", the site's operators and volunteers – five full-timers, and another 1,000 on call – are almost all anonymous. Ironically, the only way the group's donors are publicly known is through a leak on Wikileaks itself. The organisation's most prominent figure is Julian Assange, an Australian hacker and journalist who co-founded the site back in 2006. While Assange and his cohorts' intentions are plainly laudable – to "allow whistleblowers and journalists who have been censored to get material out to the public", as he told the BBC earlier this year – some ask who watches the watchmen. "People have to be very careful dealing with this information," says Professor Sreenivasan. "It's part of the culture now, it's out there, but you still need context, you still need analysis, you still need background."

Against all of that criticism, Wikileaks can set a record that carries, as Abu Dhabi's The National put it, "more scoops in its short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years". By earning its place as the natural destination for anyone with sensitive information to leak who does not know and trust a particular journalist – so far, despite numerous court actions, not a single source has been outed – Wikileaks has built up a remarkable record.

Yes, it has published an early draft of the script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Wesley Snipes' tax returns; but it has also published the "Climategate" emails, an internal Trafigura report on toxic dumping in Ivory Coast, and the standard operating procedures for Guantanamo Bay.

Whatever the gaps in its procedures, there is little doubt that the website is at the forefront of a new information era in which the powerful, corrupt and murderous will have to feel a little more nervous about their behaviour. "There are reasons I do it that have to do with wanting to reform civilisation," Assange said in an interview with salon.com last month. "Of course, there's a personal psychology to it, that I enjoy crushing bastards. I like a good challenge."

Full disclosure: What we wouldn't know without Wikileaks

Trafigura's super-injunction

When commodities giant Trafigura used a super-injunction to suppress the release of an internal report on toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast in newspapers, it quickly appeared on Wikileaks instead. Accepting that the release made suppression futile, Trafigura lifted the injunction.

The CRU's 'Climategate' leak

Emails leaked on the site showed that scientists at the UK's Climate Research Unit, including director Phil Jones, withheld information from sceptics

The BNP membership list

After the site published the BNP's secret membership list in November 2008, newspapers found teachers, priests and police officers among them. Another list was leaked last year. The police has since barred officers from membership.

Sarah Palin's emails

Mrs Palin's Yahoo email account, which was used to bypass US public information laws, was hacked and leaked during the presidential campaign. The hacker left traces of his actions, and could face five years in prison.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Bianca Miller in the final of The Apprentice
tvMark Wright and Bianca Miller fight for Lord Sugar's investment
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick