WikiLeaks may have gone quiet but can't be written off

By Jerome Taylor

Nine months ago you could barely pick up a newspaper without seeing the word WikiLeaks - or the silver-haired visage of its mercurial founder, Julian Assange.

In less than a year the whistleblowing platform had turned the world on its head. Journalism and government secrecy would never be the same again.

Starting with the haunting footage of an American Apache helicopter gunning down a group of armed and unarmed Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad - and ending spectacularly with the publication of thousands of classified diplomatic cables - 2010 was the year WikiLeaks crashed on to the world stage.

Which begs the question, what ever happened to WikiLeaks' 2011?

The contrast between what is happening within the WikiLeaks of today compared with this time last year could hardly be more stark. Last year Assange was on the cusp of becoming one of the world's most recognised faces. Now he is waging a battle to secure his own freedom as the organisation he founded struggles to replicate past successes.

Even before last year's string of exposes, the Australian's organisation had been up and running for the best part of four years and boasted a string of successful scoops.

But in July WikiLeaks upped its game monumentally when it released a database of 76,000 war logs from Afghanistan. In October it followed up with a further 400,000 war logs from Iraq and then, as the year came to a close, came the coup de grace - an enormous tranche of secret cables from United States embassies across the globe that allowed us all to take a peek into the often bitchy, snide, corrupt and double-dealing world of international diplomacy.

And there were promises of more to come. Assange said he had access to the hard drive of a major banking executive, thought to be someone high up in Bank of America.

A whistleblower from Switzerland even flew to London to hand over CDs containing, we were told, damning details of tax dodging within Switzerland's secretive financial system. There were also promises of a video showing a missile strike on the Afghan village of Granai, which killed scores of civilians.

Fast-forward six months and to all intents and purposes the leaks have indeed stopped. If you discount the ongoing publication of State Department cables, which until this week were trickling out in dribs and drabs, we have seen no major new exposes published by WikiLeaks this year.

None of its rival offshoots, including the much-touted OpenLeaks, has been able to reveal information of anything like the calibre that WikiLeaks mustered regularly.

Part of what has stemmed the tide is WikiLeaks itself. Wanted by prosecutors in Sweden for questioning over alleged sexual offences against two women, Assange has had to spend more than 200 days cooped up in a Norfolk mansion as his lawyers battle to shoot down his potential extradition to Stockholm.

He is tagged electronically, has to report to the local police station every day and his internet access is extremely slow, making effective co-ordination with WikiLeaks staff around the world arduous.

The organisation's pariah status within a growing number of governments has also left it vulnerable to attack. This week its website was hit by yet another huge denial-of-service assault, a disruption technique which is notoriously difficult to defend against. It is not lost on transparency campaigners that while hundreds of arrests have been made around the world for cyber protests by people who are ideologically supportive of Assange, no one has yet been prosecuted or even arrested for disruption assaults on WikiLeaks itself.

It is still not known whether the website's encrypted submissions system is operational. Late last year WikiLeaks was hit by a series of defections, with key volunteers allegedly crippling the website's submissions system. Even if someone wanted to hand an information grenade over to WikiLeaks it is not at all clear how they might do that.

Assange admitted to me yesterday that his organisation had been battered in recent months, but he vowed that WikiLeaks would continue to do what it does best.

"The best way to describe WikiLeaks as an organisation is that we are like Hanoi in the Vietnam War," he said. "We have been bombed, some pieces of our infrastructure have been destroyed and there has been a fog of war.

"But nonetheless the most important element of the war - our ongoing publication of the cables - has continued. Just like Hanoi did, we are becoming better at dealing efficiently with continued attacks and adversity while we scale up our infrastructure."

Which is why writing off WikiLeaks entirely would be a mistake. All it needs is another scoop and it would soon be back on top. After all, it was allegedly the actions of one man - Private First Class Bradley Manning - which allowed WikiLeaks to get its hands on a cache of information that gave it the "Collateral Murder" video, the Afghan and Iraq war-logs and the State Department cables.

"If you look at what WikiLeaks put out last year it really is quite remarkable," says Greg Mitchell, an American journalist at The Nation. "There was sort of this promise that it would be ongoing and yet we've had hardly any major new leaks. But ... they have the brand and they have millions of followers."

Those supporters could prove to be a vital lifeline for WikiLeaks. Its Twitter account alone has more than one million followers. In the past, WikiLeaks felt compelled to work with major newspapers and television networks to process the sheer volume of information that it had access to. Those relationships have proved fickle with Assange, who has always been deeply suspicious of mainstream media. But now that WikiLeaks is a household name, what's to stop it publishing new leaks direct to the masses?

This week WikiLeaks did just that, releasing a searchable database of 133,877 cables all at once. A small number of major news organisations already have access to the full 250,000 diplomatic cables.

More recently, Assange had partnered with more than 90 news organisations to give them limited access to cables in their geographical areas - a clever technique which ensured that the WikiLeaks flag spread even as Western media began to lose interest in new releases.

But this week's mass publication of cables is a return to its pre-Bradley Manning roots when it largely relied on volunteers to analyse and publicise its leaks. "Crowdsourcing could be the future for WikiLeaks if it can get their submissions system back up and secure," says Kevin Gosztola, a journalist at the website Firedoglake.

This week the organisation even asked its followers to vote on whether it should release the full, unredacted database of 250,000 cables. Using the Twitter hashtag #wlfind, followers are already trawling through the cables, highlighting those they believe to be newsworthy.

- INDEPENDENT

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