Ian Burrell: Site's success is all down to its anonymity

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Why would a whistleblower leak a document to a website run by obscure figures – and said by some rumour-mongers to be linked to the CIA – rather than sending it to an established news organisation?

For starters, in the digital age the whistleblower is more conscious than ever of the dangers of leaving a trail that can be traced by an employer. In another era secrets arrived in plain brown envelopes – but even then, whistleblowers like Foreign Office clerk Sarah Tisdall, who leaked to The Guardian in 1983 on cruise missile deployment, went to jail.

Perhaps better to send the information far overseas. And for disclosures of sizeable electronic files there can be few more attractive recipients than a website that uses servers in multiple jurisdictions for the express purpose of protecting whistleblowers.

Then there is the capacity issue. WikiLeaks exists as a giant notice board for secret policies and will publish vast amounts of data that would not survive the editing process of a newspaper website, let alone the limited column inches of a print publication or the squeeze on airtime faced by broadcast media.

So WikiLeaks gets its scoops, such as the 39-page BBC legal defence in its libel case with international commodities trader Trafigura, and the list of the membership of the British National Party. When the British Government tried to remove from the site a document relating to the sale of Northern Rock it was unsuccessful.

Is this site reliable? Well, it claims to have a team of people assigned to verification of the material it publishes but, in a recent article, Wired magazine noted the pressure on the site's resources when it releases 1,000 documents a day.

WikiLeaks is becoming an increasingly valuable source of information for other media. But it cannot, in such a format, replace traditional news organisations on which it relies to give its leaked documents a wider projection and the credibility that comes with expert analysis of their true significance.