Who’s Behind WikiLeaks?



Clint Hendler, staff writer, Columbia Journalism Review

April 8, 2010

A 2007 classified U.S. military video showing a U.S. Army helicopter crew shooting civilians on a Baghdad street was released on Monday. The organization that publicized the video is called The Sunshine Press, or WikiLeaks. It’s founded by a combination of computer programmers, academics and journalists and serves as a repository for classified material.

Copyright © 2010 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


Earlier this week, we talked about the release of a classified video that shows a combat video from an Apache gunship helicopter as it opens fire on a group of men on a street in Baghdad. Some armed, some not. And among them, two Iraqi journalists working for Reuters.

(Soundbite of classified video)

Unidentified Man #1: Hotel two-six, Crazy Horse one-eight. Have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage.

(Soundbite of a beep)

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, roger that. We have no personnel east of our position. So you are free to engage. Over.

Unidentified Man #1: Come on, fire.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

(Soundbite of a beep)

Unidentified Man #2: Roger.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #2: Keep shooting.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #2: Keep shooting.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #3: Bushmaster two-six, Bushmaster two-six. We need to move, time now.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. We just engaged all eight individuals.

CONAN: Before that incident ended, 12 people were killed. By now, millions of people have seen that grainy, disturbing video, which was obtained, decrypted and publicized by the Sunshine Press, also known as WikiLeaks. The organization founded by computer programmers, academics and journalists promises whistleblowers complete anonymity. In addition to this video, WikiLeaks published the emails at the heart of the Climategate controversy and pager messages sent in New York City on the morning of September the 11th.

If you have questions about this organization, about how it’s changing journalism, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That’s at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Clint Hendler covers transparency as a staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, and he joins us now from NPR’s bureau in New York.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. CLINT HENDLER: (Staff Writer, Columbia Journalism Review): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And how is – how new is this organization and what does it really consist of?

Mr. HENDLER: It’s a couple years old, founded, I think, 2006, 2007. What it consists of is a good question because it’s a little bit of a – they kind of run on the edge financially and personnel-wise. They have their two primary spokespeople is a man named Julian Assange, who is an Australian national, another man named Daniel Schmitt, who’s German.

Assange just said that the prime group of people who really make WikiLeaks run, about five people or so and then there’s an additional core of volunteers they can bring in project to project to help them out with analysis or decryption or what have you.

CONAN: Well, we’ll get to all of those in a minute. Who funds it?

Mr. HENDLER: That’s a good question too. They take donations from online readers. They also apparently have a more stable group of sort of more deep-pocketed donors. They have applied for a foundation support from sort of the traditional foundations who fund in journalism – the journalism arena. And they’ve also, you know, have people who obviously volunteer a lot of time and labor, legal help, things like that.

CONAN: And they are, as I understand it, established in Sweden, a country which has a law that prohibits journalists from disclosing their sources.

Mr. HENDLER: Yeah. They’ve been very clever about placing various parts of their operation around the world in countries that have legal jurisdictions that would be favorable to an enterprise like this either to help them avoid subpoenas that could force them to reveal sources, or you know, other favorable legal climates.

CONAN: And indeed, there have been a few incidents mostly involving disclosures about banks, where the banks have tried to go after them and have ended up, well, punching at the thin air.

Mr. HENDLER: Well, that’s partially correct, yeah. The most famous example, there was a Swiss bank involved bank records in the Cayman Islands. And actually, the bank was able to obtain an adjunction that briefly knocked WikiLeaks’s site off of the Internet, even in the United States from a U.S. federal court. It didn’t stand long. You know, traditional press freedom groups really cried foul, saying that it was, you know, a violation of a long-standing principle that you really can’t stop publication of, you know, documents.

CONAN: The old Pentagon papers case.

Mr. HENDLER: There you go, yeah.

CONAN: And so, they were able to go ahead and publish. That does not protect them necessarily from lawsuits after the fact.

Mr. HENDLER: You know, that may be the case. You know, I think that, like you said, punching at air, I mean, WikiLeaks is – they seem to have just enough of a structure to get them through the day. I’m not sure what litigants would find, you know, lying on the ground after a protracted legal battle.

CONAN: We’re talking with Clint Hendler, a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review. If you’d like to join us – we’re talking about WikiLeaks -800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Let’s start with Rob(ph). And Rob’s calling us from San Francisco.

ROB (Caller): How you doing? Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ROB: The point I want to make was now, both the original – the WikiLeaks video that’s been – that everyone’s – that scene from ’07 in Iraq with, you know, all the things the Reuters journalist pointed, the children of the car pointed out, it’s edited to get right to the points that they wanted to show. Now, the 39-minute video is actually also in the Internet as well, but the vast majority of people have seen the edited and, you know, graphic video with, you know, the little graphics and arrows and stuff on it. And very few people have seen the larger video that has the much more context in it. Instead of just presenting the video as it was and being able to see the story of what happened, WikiLeaks put out, you know, the edited video that told the story, there was already a narrative.

CONAN: And I think he’s got a point, Clint Hendler. This was called – I believe the video was described as collateral murder.

Mr. HENDLER: Well…

ROB: Right.

Mr. HENDLER: Yeah. On the point of the versions of the video, they actually put out both versions simultaneously, the 39-minute version and the 17-minute version. They’re both disturbing to watch, you know, no matter the guilt or innocence or combatant status or noncombatant status of the people in it. So it is accurate to say they put out an edited version, but only if you also mention they put an unedited version at the same time.

Now, they certainly did package it quite extensively on a separate Web site called Collateral Murder was the term that they chose. That presented some ancillary information about the victims of the attack, contained downloadable files that gave the rules of engagement in Iraq at the time. They did present this with some of the analysis and interpretation already done, rather than just upload the raw video.

CONAN: And the highlight – the little shadow spots on the photographer’s camera, for example, they did not shadow spot somebody carrying an AK-47 or an RPG.

Mr. HENDLER: Yeah. I’ve seen, you know, bloggers who have skill looking at their old video point that out. And, you know, frankly, the images are so grainy, and when you would play them on YouTube, small enough that it’s really hard to make out. But that is correct. My understanding is that, you know, they chose to highlight certain elements of what was going on more than others.


Mr. HENDLER: But the whole video has made available.

CONAN: Rob, thanks very much for the point. And given that, do you think that it’s fair to say they have an agenda?

Mr. HENDLER: That’s a good question. You know, without getting too far into a perpetual debate about whether or not any journalism can be completely objective, I would say that WikiLeaks does tend to come at things from a sort of – a somewhat left-leaning point of view, but at the same time, they are – in the past, they’ve released a lot of documents that no one else has been willing to put out. And they have, as far as I know, never put out a document that has been edited or distorted in a way that would make, you know, independent analysis impossible.

In this case, they did put out a version that, you know, points you in one direction of thinking. But they also released the full video.

CONAN: They did release also the Climate-gate emails, which is certainly not on the left side of that cause.

Mr. HENDLER: Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s hard to get in issue to issue by saying whether they did something left or right, especially – I would say that, you know, they probably would say that they spend most of the time putting out information that gets to the truth. And I think that’s fair.

CONAN: There’s another interesting aspect to this. That was encrypted, that video. And they appealed for help on the – through Twitter, as I understand it, to help get people to help them make it, you know, descramble it.

Mr. HENDLER: Well, actually, Neal, there’s a interesting context there. The tweet where they said we’ve obtained encrypted video and could use some help, it came in a string of tweets at a time that the most straightforward reading would be that they were going to release video of a aerial attack in Afghanistan that may have killed up to a hundred civilians. And in the end, obviously, what we saw on Monday was an Iraq video.

And Ive spoken with Julian Assange since then and he told me that that was actually somewhat deliberate, that they were trying to – they weren’t interested in dispelling rumors that might lead people to think they were releasing a different video than the one they actually were. So that when they did get it out there, the U.S. government and the military wouldn’t have a response ready right off the bat.

They also did send a Icelandic journalist to Baghdad to do a little bit of leg-work reporting before they got – getting this video out. And to some extent, they were concerned about, you know, making it known that he was on the ground while they were doing that.

CONAN: To follow up and get pictures of the two children who were injured in that attack and other things like that, and also to confirm some of the aspects of it.

Let’s get another called on the line. This is Reid(ph). Reid with us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

REID (Caller): Hi there. Thank you for letting me on your show.

CONAN: Go ahead.

REID: I was talking – actually on Facebook, there was somebody who was saying that because it was edited, they – we didn’t have the whole story, which I now hear you had the whole story at another site, that they shouldn’t have put the story out. But I feel like some of these stories are so hard to get to that most people would never even hear about them. They’re not on our radar. That it’s probably a good thing to get it out even if it is biased because then at least afterwards you can sort out the details and you actually get to hear about it and do something about it.

CONAN: It’s clear Reuters tried to obtain this particular piece of footage to see what happened to their journalists ever since the day it happened using Freedom of Information Act requests. They were completely frustrated. And indeed, we wouldn’t be talking about this footage, Clint Hendler, if WikiLeaks hadn’t gotten it.

Mr. HENDLER: That’s certainly the case. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Reuters did make an attempt. They did file a Freedom of Information Act request. And, you know, that did not end up getting the video out. But someone decided to give it to WikiLeaks.

CONAN: And somebody presumably with access to it, somebody within the Defense Department, you would think.

Mr. HENDLER: You know, yeah, I would guess so. I can’t think of another place where itd be. You know, it’s possible that some other branch of the government was involved in investigating the incident, maybe it came out that way. Who can say.

CONAN: Reid, what did you learn from it?

REID: What have I learned from the video?

CONAN: Yeah.

REID: Well, I guess I – what I think mostly, it’s how far removed we are from that world and how it isn’t on our radar and basically, how I feel we bury our heads in the sand and we don’t hear about it. And when something like this comes out, it’s very clear that things are going on that we’re not really tied into.

CONAN: Reid, thanks very much for that thoughtful reply. Appreciate it.

We’re talking with Clint Hendler, a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review, about WikiLeaks, which publicized that image from a Apache – a helicopter – gunship helicopter. There, I managed to get it all out. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let’s go next to Marcus(ph). Marcus in San Antonio.

MARCUS (Caller): Hi, Neal. I just had a comment. And I was curious, though, what you meant by the term disturbing video. I’ve seen the video and (unintelligible). It’s easy to draw conclusions from the video but we have to remember that the folks on that Apache gunship acted accordingly based on the information and data they had at that time.

So I was just curious to know what you found disturbing about that because it implied to me that maybe they did something wrong or was it disturbing to see the loss of life of innocent bystanders. So, that’s all.

CONAN: It is disturbing to see a group of men standing around, and I believe that some of them were armed and I believe that some of them were journalists and clearly some of them were unarmed. I understand what the rules of engagement were at that time and that they were operating within those rules of engagement and that it’s difficult for us sitting here in Washington, D.C. or San Antonio, Texas to put ourselves in the position of those men in the helicopter or know what the situation was with the U.S. troops that were under fire not far away. Nevertheless, yes, the loss of life is disturbing.

MARCUS: Absolutely. And I agree with you there. And that’s my whole point is, you we – we’re limited to what we see and read and it’s easy for us to draw our own conclusion. But I would hope that the general public is a little more objective and understand that those folks are under tremendous amount of pressure and time constraints when they do act, trying to do their job out there for us.

CONAN: And trying to do their job out there for us, and yet, also, we have to remember, acting in our name. And as our previous caller, Reid, was suggesting, maybe we should be paying more attention to what’s going on there and provide ourselves with the context and understand what more is going on.

MARCUS: Absolutely. And if the government was a little more transparent, that’s easier for us to do. Yeah.

CONAN: Marcus, thanks very much for the phone call. And that’s another part of this, Clint Hendler, is that the government was not ready with a response and has yet to figure out how to respond to this WikiLeaks video.

Mr. HENDLER: Yeah. That’s correct. At this point, they’ve confirmed that they think – they have no reason to believe the video is inaccurate. And they have released a bunch of investigative records from a more or less contemporaneous, you know, report, that the army did into what to happened that day. This event was reported on at the time it actually happened, you know, not with the level of detail, obviously, that this video provided. But it was known about and it was investigated at the time.

CONAN: Let’s go to Blake(ph). Blake with us from Salt Lake City.

BLAKE (Caller): Yeah. I actually – somewhat similar comments to the last caller is that the many people I’ve spoken to, and several of my friends who are in the military, are of the opinion that the people who were in the chopper were actually acting – as you’ve mentioned, within the rules of engagement. I think the main concern that me and many of the people I’ve spoken to are having is the level of – it seems the level of cover-up that the government had applied to it, going to the length of encrypting the video and denying Reuters access to it.

And I think that’s the main reason why WikiLeaks is kind of important is that this information does need to be provided and there needs to be more transparency and they’re doing their best to ensure that there is some level of transparency.

CONAN: And if an American news organization had gotten that video, Clint Hendler, and tried to release it, well, there would have been serious repercussions.

Mr. HENDLER: I’m not so sure about that. It’s – actually, it’s a fairly common practice for American news organizations to release classified documents that they get a hold of one way or the other. But this certainly was a very easy way for a lot of news organizations all over the world to get the video at once, no one had it as an exclusive. And basically, they had absolutely nothing to worry about legally. I don’t think, though, that most American news organizations wouldve had too much to worry about here.

CONAN: All right. Blake, thanks very much for the call.

BLAKE: Of course. Thanks for taking it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And this is an organization that calls itself the People’s Intelligence Service. Is this kind of media organization with – which the Internet makes possible, are we going to be seeing more of this, Clint Hendler?

Mr. HENDLER: There is, of course, a huge blossoming of new kinds of media organizations that have been brought to life by the extremely, you know, cheap methods of disseminating information online. WikiLeaks is one very interesting and pretty unique example of that. I’m not sure – I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw sites that do something like WikiLeaks that are more focused on a particular nation or particular region, perhaps. But, you know, this is definitely something that we wouldn’t have seen without the Internet.

CONAN: Clint Hendler, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. HENDLER: Absolutely. Thank you.

CONAN: Clint Hendler handles transparency as a staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review and joined us today from NPR’s bureau in New York City.

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