Wikileaks: Hitting 'send' to expose a dirty secret

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Alex Roslin – August 28, 2010

Faced with mounting secrecy and the failure of official channels of complaint, whistle-blowers seem to be turning increasingly to the Internet and websites pledged to expose government and corporate secrets, in the public interest.

For whistle-blowers, the sites allow them to expose secrets as fast as they can hit "send." Critics argue the sites may endanger lives by posting national security information.

The best known is WikiLeaks, a nonprofit site run by Julian Assange, an Australian-born former teen hacker.

WikiLeaks shot to prominence in April when it posted classified military footage of a U.S. Apache gunship killing 12 Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and wounding two children.

In Ottawa, whistle-blower advocate David Hutton is watching WikiLeaks with growing fascination.

Hutton, the executive director of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, said sites like WikiLeaks could be a powerful new tool for whistle-blowers as they face growing government secrecy, while official channels for complaints seem to be failing.

"WikiLeaks could turn out to be the norm in the future. It may make it harder for governments and corporations to keep dirty secrets," he said.

WikiLeaks caused more sensation in July when it published 77,000 classified U.S. military documents painting a dismal picture of the war in Afghanistan. The reports revealed details of U.S. commando units assigned to kill or capture insurgents, secret Pakistani support for the Taliban and abusive and corrupt Afghan authorities. The site promises to release another 15,000 Afghan-related files in coming weeks along with a video showing a U.S. airstrike on Afghan civilians.

The Pentagon has reacted with fury, demanding the return of the documents. In July, U.S. army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was charged with leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. The FBI is still exploring charges against WikiLeaks itself.

Nonetheless, the site could herald a new culture of whistle-blowing on steroids, free of dependence on journalists or integrity commissioners to right wrongs.

At the same time, WikiLeaks could create a new model for gumshoe investigative reporters who collaborate with websites to reveal whistle-blower information. WikiLeaks gave early access to its Afghan files to the New York Times, the Guardian of London and Germany's Der Spiegel, which analyzed the documents and published lengthy reports.

The models are still experiencing growing pains. Human-rights groups slammed WikiLeaks for not deleting the names of Afghan civilians who helped Western forces. Assange seems to have taken the criticism to heart, pledging to remove civilian names from his next release.

Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, for his part, has called Assange his "hero" and praised his work as "exemplary."

"For 40 years I've hoped that someone would put out information on the scale that I did, but in a more timely way than I did," he said in a PBS interview.

Hutton notes, "People are concerned about WikiLeaks, but what level of concern should we have that access to information is just a joke in this country?"

Original article on Montreal Gazette website


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