Video expands notoriety of WikiLeaks site
Three months ago, WikiLeaks, a whistle-blower Web site that posts classified and sensitive documents, put out an urgent call for ...
The New York Times
The video: www.wikileaks.org
Three months ago, WikiLeaks, a whistle-blower Web site that posts classified and sensitive documents, put out an urgent call for help on Twitter.
"Have encrypted videos of U.S. bomb strikes on civilians. We need super computer time," stated the Web site, which calls itself "an intelligence agency of the people."
Somehow — it will not say how — WikiLeaks found the necessary computer time to de-encrypt a graphic video, released Monday, of an Army assault in Iraq in 2007 that left 12 people dead, including two Reuters news-agency employees. The video has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube and has been replayed hundreds of times in television reports.
The video is drawing attention to the once-fringe Web site, which aims to bring to light hidden information about governments and multinational corporations — protecting the identity of those who help do so. Accordingly, the site has become a thorn in the side of authorities in the United States and abroad. With the Iraq attack video, the clearinghouse for sensitive documents is edging closer toward a form of investigative journalism and to advocacy.
"That's arguably what spy agencies do — high-tech investigative journalism," Julian Assange, one of the site's founders, said Tuesday. "It's time that the media upgraded its capabilities along those lines."
Assange, an Australian activist and journalist, founded the site three years ago along with a group of like-minded activists and computer experts. WikiLeaks has published documents about toxic dumping in Africa, protocols from Guantánamo Bay, e-mails from Sarah Palin's personal account and 9/11 pager messages. The Web site has five full-time volunteers, according to spokesman Daniel Schmitt, and the group can call on 800 to 1,000 people for expertise.
The site is not shy about its intent to shape media coverage. WikiLeaks didn't merely post the 38-minute video, it used the label "Collateral Murder" and said it depicted "indiscriminate" and "unprovoked" slaying.
"From my human point of view, I couldn't believe it would be so easy to wreak that kind of havoc on the city, when they can't see what is really going on there," Schmitt said from Germany on Monday night.
(The Pentagon defended the killings and said no disciplinary action was taken at the time of the incident. However, Army Capt. Jack Hanzlik, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday that the military hasn't been able to locate the video within its files after being asked to authenticate the online version.)
The Web site also posted a 17-minute edited version, which was viewed much more widely on YouTube than the full version. Critics contend the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.
By releasing such a graphic video, one that a media organization had tried in vain to obtain through traditional channels, WikiLeaks has inserted itself in the national discussion about the role of journalism in the digital age.
Reuters had tried for 2 ½ years through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the Iraq video, to no avail. WikiLeaks, as always, refuses to say how it obtained the video.
Asssange said "research institutions" offered to help decrypt the Army video, but he declined to detail how they went about it. WikiLeaks and an Icelandic television channel then sent two people to Baghdad last weekend to gather information about the killings, at a cost of $50,000, the site said.
David Schlesinger, Reuters editor-in-chief, said Tuesday that the video was disturbing to watch "but also important to watch." He said he hopes to meet with Pentagon officials "to press the need to learn lessons from this tragedy."
WikiLeaks publishes its material on a few dozen servers around the globe, including jurisdictions such as Sweden, Belgium and the United States that the organization considers friendly to journalists and document leakers, Schmitt said. By being everywhere yet in no exact place, WikiLeaks, in effect, is beyond the reach of any institution or government that hopes to silence it.
In California in 2008, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White ordered the U.S. version of the site shut down after it published confidential documents concerning a subsidiary of a Swiss bank. He reversed himself two weeks later, in part recognizing that the order had little effect since the material could be accessed on other "mirror sites."
Because it relies on donations, however, WikiLeaks says it has struggled to keep its servers online. The Web site has found moral — but not financial — support from some news organizations.
On Tuesday, WikiLeaks claimed to have another encrypted video, allegedly showing a U.S. airstrike that killed 97 Afghan civilians last year, and used the opportunity to ask for donations.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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