WikiLeaks is a Sieve

Laurie Penny interviews Juan Branco (WikiLeaks Defence Team) and Salil Shetty (Amnesty International) in Web Summit, Nov 8th 2016.

WikiLeaks is the first service of the digital era, through which a broad public has had direct access to sources of secret documents. In ten years, the widely celebrated organization has become an actor, whose motives and practices are put in question by not only countries that were the subject of revelations, but also Journalists without Borders, as well as groups of human rights organizations, Amnesty International included. And now, WikiLeaks is accused of meddling with the presidential elections in favor to Russia. How did this happen?

WikiLeaks, founded in 2006, made the first major revelations about US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2010 a video, where the US Army Apache-helicopter fired on civilians in Iraq, was released. Two Reuters photographers were also killed in that attack. The leaks about torture in Guantanamo told more about US´s illegal practises in war. WikiLeaks is said to have been a catalyst for even the Arab spring.

WikiLeaks received a lot of awards and its activities for the transparency of countries have been praised until recent years as, also with nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“However, the activities of WikiLeaks were questioned already when the first materials were published,” says the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE’s Head of Services and a digital media expert, Mr. Kari Haakana.

“Although, the first skeptics were the United States and the Western Allies who said it would not be ethical to reveal things related to war bypassing the official communication channels. That would cause security problems.”

Also, freedom of the press rights organizations reacted as early as 2010 saying that the revelations about war included also data from hundreds of Afghans who helped the Western Allies, and who thus became in danger of death.

Revealing data about private citizens

In email leaks there has since been more and more not only ordinary people’s messages, but also their personal information, addresses, phone numbers, passport and ID numbers, credit card numbers and health information. Information of rape victims, sick children, mental patients and homosexuals have been revealed for instance in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Information science professor Zeynep Tufekci wrote in the Huffington Post in July 2016, that among the leaked Erdoğan messages were sensitive and private information about almost all adult women in Turkey without any kind of news value. The leaked data of those women was not even Erdoğan’s inner circle posts, but, for example, chain letters, exchanging recipes and holiday wishes. Messages showed some of the women´s political positions, but messages linked to AKP were not what they were claimed to be.

“Their addresses are out there for every stalker, ex-partner, disapproving relative or random crazy to peruse as they wish. And let’s remember that, every year in Turkey, hundreds of women are murdered, most often by current or ex-husbands or boyfriends, and thousands of women leave their homes or go into hiding, seeking safety”,Tufekci wrote .

“There is not a single good reason to put so many people in danger of identity theft, harassment and worse.”

The original leaker of the Erdoğan messages was a national security blogger Michael Best. He deleted the files just hours after the revelation when he noticed that there were private information among them. However, WikiLeaks did not break the links that led to the missing files. For some journalists in Reuters and Wired magazine deleting the data was a sign of the fact that the information was significant. Even the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted that deleting data was actually a way to ensure data accuracy. He was referring to a Reuters news story that claimed the Turkish administration was behind the removal.

Who analyzes the data?

During its operation, WikiLeaks has leaked to the internet more than 10 million files. One reason for dumping tens of thousands of unanalyzed emails to the internet at once was certainly the fact that WikiLeaks no longer has a sufficient number of staff to do its analysis. WikiLeaks website mentions that the staff would be around one hundred around the world, but Julian Assange´s lawyer Juan Branco told reporters last November in Web Summit, Lisbon, that the WikiLeaks core team is actually very small, only about 10 people. Already in 2010 Julian Assange accused journalists and, in particular Amnesty International, that they did not come to the rescue analyzing the files.

“Honestly there is a very opportunistic approach which is how do we get the most impact as a media organization and how do we make sure this will be read and the media would take an effort to read this information”, Juan Branco said.

“This is a very big issue for WikiLeaks. There are a lot of documents published by WikiLeaks, that just are not treated by the media because it doesn´t go out at the moment in which there is an interest for the subject. Maybe media has not journalists available or see no interest in the documents and they are just left there. And because there is such an amount of documents, hundreds of thousands of documents, they don´t take the time to do it. And WikiLeaks itself cannot do it either because they don´t have the means to do it. WikiLeaks needs the media not only just to relay the information because in the end WikiLeaks doesn´t pick up much of the informations to reveal them but just publishes blankly the whole set of documents and then the media finds the scoops in it.”

Cooperation with media

In the past, WikiLeaks did close cooperation with major media houses such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and Der Spiegel and they are still mentioned in the partner list in WikiLeaks´s website. The partners are said to be more than 100. In the leak about US diplomatic cables WikiLeaks contacted also the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Yle in the beginning of 2011.

“I had already contacted Julian Assange´s right hand and spokesperson Kristinn Hfransson and asked for the diplomatic letters concerning Finland. I knew Hfransson as I was the chairman of investigative journalism association”, says Ms. Minna Knus-Galán who was making an investigative journalism program, Spotlight, for Swedish Yle at the time.

“Me and the producer of the programme A-studio, Mr. Matti Virtanen were sent a message in the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday, and we were told to come already the next evening in London to pick up material about the diplomatic cables.”

Minna Knus-Galán and Matti Virtanen flew to London right away, picked up an encrypted flash drive and took it to Helsinki where a small group of YLE employees was waiting for them. Together they read 1,000 pages of material in a few days. At the same time, also the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat got “a leak about the leak” and their journalists flew to Norway to the newsroom of Aftenposten to go through a wider pile of letters. Stories started to be published in YLE and Helsingin Sanomat a week from the WikiLeaks contact.

In analyzing the documents you also need the expertise of the content and the culture which the leak concerns.

“We had a group of NATO experts, politics journalists and former correspondents from Moscow and Washington. At the time WikiLeaks specifically wanted that we would do this properly, taking time for it. WikiLeaks also wanted to add to the agreement that the material and the sources must be protected. You could only use computers, which were not connected to the Internet. And if there were names of people, who could get problems if their names were published, they may not be published”, Minna Knus-Galán told.

“And this was very important thing for me and for all of us, because WikiLeaks wasn´t so good at this. So far they had just downloaded everything in the internet without checking them properly.”

The WikiLeaks material Minna Knus-Galán and her colleagues went through was quite small compared to, for example, the Panama Papers that were leaked to ICIJ a (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists). They were altogether 11.5 million documents. This material was analyzed by ICIJ reporter group, which Minna Knus-Galán belongs to. With Panama Papers it took about a year before the first stories could be published.

Science as an excuse for rush

Assange admits to being impatient to wait for the material to go through. WikiLeaks tested the automatic censoring method, but it was abandoned. Journalist-driven analyzing began to decrease after Assange had quarrels with some media companies.

“We can’t sit on material like this for three years with one person to go through the whole lot, line-by-line, to redact,” Assange told in a story written by Raphael Satter and Maggie Michael for AP. “We have to take the best road that we can.”

Assange has argumented publishing very raw data as it was scientific journalism.

“Julian Assange criticized journalism of that journalists were only referencing and making summarys of the material without telling or linking the sources to the stories. And in the stories about Panama Papers, several media did publish the documents relating to the stories. However, this was not enough to Assange. In his opinion, the whole material should have been dumped into the internet”, says Minna Knus-Galán, who wrote the stories as one of the ICIJ’s members.

“I absolutely disagree with Julian Assange about it. Dumping is not journalism.”

According to Assange scientific journalism requires linking the basic source in every citation and argument as in scientific articles.

“It is okay and a good idea because nowadays you can do so in the internet. You have the source and document related to it. But not so that you dump millions of documents, and you don´t have any chance to make sure, whether someone’s life in danger, or if this is too personal or harming the privacy”, Knus-Galán says.

“For example, the Panama Papers includes a huge amount of copies of passports, there are names of the dead people, addresses, phone numbers, material that is very sensitive.”

Why Clinton, why not Trump?

Attorney Juan Branco told reporters in Web Summit, Lisbon on the day of US presidential election, why WikiLeaks did not leak anything from Trump, but only Clinton.

”WikiLeaks hasn´t received information on Trump”, he said. “What I know that Julian searched archives in order to see if there was anything of value on Trump and there wasn´t. And he gave me two arguments, first he was never in government and secondly he doesn´t even use email himself.”

Indeed, Trump is very skeptical of using email or even a computer. He himself has also been well taking care of that there will be found reasons to criticize him. He expresses them on twitter. Now the Internet Archive is also making an archive, which will bring together all of what he has ever said on video.

“There is probably a possibility of people leaking information from his company. I don´t know why it didn´t happen or why it didn´t reach WikiLeaks”, Branco said.

“The New York Times and Washington Post used dozens of journalists investigating Trump business cases. They found a lot of things, but very superficial. They didn´t have direct access. They described the system very well, but exterior. They didn´t manage to get inside sources. And they had a lot of human means in order to try to find that.”

Juan Branco is one of the four members of WikiLeaks´s legal team.

”I don´t know how Trump secures his information, but I guess there must be a lot of information about an organization like this. He has built such an imperium. He has a system of power which is very tough and it doesn´t work by the rules like a state. It can even intimidate people.”

According to Branco the decision to publish information related to Clinton wasn´t easy for Assange. Assange had just in February 2016 received the United Nations ruling that arresting him would be arbitrary.

“We feel the empathy and we feel that people starts understanding that this case makes no sense. And then what happens. Julian has to make a big decision, which is: Ok I just got this information about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party which revealed their attitudes against Sanders and information about corruption in Clinton relations. What do I do? First I know I don´t have current information from the other side, the other candidates, especially Trump. So I know this would affect the campaign. I know this is a time which there is a very strong division in the US which means I will get a lot of attacks if I start publishing against Clinton.”

“And on the other hand the simple idea of not publishing or waiting to publish until after the fourth of November because the source could have an intention in revealing this information or because there could be states that could be interested in disturbing the election etc., for him it made no sense because there were public interest in these revelations. Information that could change the perception on the candidate that would rule the first power of the world.”

”Ok, he didn´t have the same on Trump, but that´s what happens when you are a media organization. Sometimes you follow the information that will change the dynamics of power, but you have to publish it, it´s basically your job. If the information is true and there is public interest, why should you retain it? And so he decided to go”, Branco said.

The question of timing was difficult for WikiLeaks. There would have been criticism also if the information would have been revealed after the election.

“The question would have been raised, why didn´t you publish it before. The same question has been raised today, why are you publishing it now? There´s no good decision about it. You will be always criticized”, Branco said.

“And yet we have to remember that when he decided to make these revelations in July, Clinton had 12 per cent advance over Trump. It was not as if he made the gamble that because of her emails there was a chance that Trump would get elected and therefore he would get help from Trump. Trump never supported WikiLeaks.”

Spreading false information

Media has responded not only to the last US presidential elections, but also to Julian Assange very passionately. Even so, that some of journalists have made hasty and even false interpretations of what Assange says.

Glenn Greenwald, the writer of the Snowden case, Pulitzer-winning journalist and founder of the leaks-based publication, accused strongly The Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs in the beginning of January of spreading false information when he referenced wrong the interview of Italian journalist, Stefania Maurizi.

Assange was said to have claimed that he did not leak material associated with Russia, because Russia is so open state that leaks are not needed. Jacobs made also a conclusion that Assange praises Trump and that he has, in fact, long been in good terms with Putin. Jacobs´s claim was quickly tweeted thousands of times.

For Greenwald spreading wrong information by his colleagues was too much, and he wanted to correct the claims. In the original interview, Assange said that Russia is likely to use others paths to leak, better than WikiLeaks. According to Greenwald, Assange explained his words also by the fact that he has no Russian-speaking staff to go through the material.

Deliberately abused?

Greenwald does not take a position on whether Russia was behind the leaks or not. He said in an interview with Democracy Now program, that although Assange claimed that the whistleblower was not associated with the Russian administration, it was still questionable if he knew himself, who really was behind the leak.

WikiLeaks operating principle is based on anonymity. In the leaking platform there are a number of filters that conceal the source.

“WikiLeaks tries to know as little as they can about the sources, because they don´t want to be in a position where they could announce or be forced to announce or give information about the sources. So they really separate themselves as much as possible to the sources by different processes and steps”, Juan Branco said.

In Chelsea Manning’s case the source became public, though. According to Branco, Assange and Manning were also personally involved with each other.

“In recent times the activity of WikiLeaks has become harder to estimate. It can be argued that there might not be altruistic transparency on the background. More than that, it seems that WikiLeaks has become — if not a stooge for countries and states, but the organization WikiLeaks or Assange himself have been exploited”, says Kari Haakana.

“The question is, whether Assange was deliberately abused or deliberately in co-operation, and what kind of collaboration is required from him. Or is he just a mediator, which completely without estimating the meaning of the contents only publishes the leaked material.”

Juan Branco admits that estimating the material is difficult.

“WikiLeaks receives a huge amount of information, most of it being false or just provocative or manipulative in order to try to push them to make an error and then take off the credibility from the organization. Only the filtering of information, even first trying to find out what is true and what is not, before knowing if it´s important, it takes a lot of time and energy.”

“Also you have to have knowledge about the situation and the country to know if it´s true or not. This takes a lot of time and human means. And then you get to the other problem about confidence. Who do you trust to make this check, who do you trust to handle the documents? Who do you know will not betray you and therefore betray the source? And so you have to work with very limited amount of people.”

Hysteria and opportunism

According to Greenwald Trump coming to power has confused people so that they do not really know how to put themselves in relation to WikiLeaks. Old opinions change, depending on which is more advantageous for them. In the past, Democrats thought Julian Assange was the hero of transparency, when he revealed the Bush administration’s war crimes. Now he is a traitor and a liar. For Republicans this has gone to the contrary: from demanding him convicted to opposite reversal. Even in 2010, Trump said to Fox News reporter that Assange “should be given the death penalty, or something”. Now he has changed his mind, for opportunistic reasons, as Greenwald says.

”Even someone like Sarah Palin, who also called for WikiLeaks´s death execution, who herself had her own emails published by WikiLeaks in the past is coming on Facebook and saying ´I want to apologise to Julian Assange, he is doing a very important service, and ps., it´s really important to go see Oliver Stone´s film about Snowden´”, Greenwald quotes.

Glenn Greenwald points out that the media has started speculating with a really consequential and dangerous issue and rising up tensions between two nuclear armed powers who have decades of tensions, and who have almost come to a nuclear war several times simply through misperception and miscommunication. For him, it seems, that there are journalists who publish unverified and even false information just in order to feed hysteria between USA and Russia.

Greenwald urges the journalists to demand skepticism and insist on seeing conclusive evidence, publicly presented, even from the information they get from the CIA and intelligent agencies.

What was found?

So, what was the information that Clinton was leaked about? Was something illegal revealed? The most important information of Hillary Clinton was her close connections with the major banks. Earlier in the spring there was already in the news that she had collected more than 21 million by making speeches to banks and other financial sector representatives, health- and pharmaceutical companies and other lobbyists. This information was announced by Clinton herself in her tax info.

The Yle Head of Services, Kari Haakana says, that the revelations were not very significant.

“In my view, there was a lot of secondary information, such as, for example, how Clinton’s staff had welcomed the other Democrat candidates. It is in itself interesting information for the enthusiasts of politics, but I think there was not any other significant information.”

Inside WikiLeaks

The fatal year of WikiLeaks was 2010, when its founder, Julian Assange, was first elected as the Person of the Year by the readers of Le Monde and The New York Times, and immediately after that he was suspected of rape in Sweden. Assange did not arrive to respond to the accusations. In 2012 he fled to the Embassy of Ecuador in London, from where he volunteered to take part in the hearing of the Swedish authorities via video connection to Sweden. He was afraid that Sweden would hand him over to the United States, where he was accused of spying. He believed to get the death penalty there.

Many of the rape suspicions expired in 2015, and the last one in May 2017. At the end of 2016 the Swedish lawyers eventually traveled to London to hear Assange. The United Nations expert panel also found in February 2016 that Assange was arbitrarily detained by Sweden and United Kingdom since his arrest London on December 2010.

Julian Assange has led the legal team of his case heavy-handed. Branco is one of four members of the team.

”Julian is very tough and says that I won´t change my activities. We have tried to push him to adapt and to be less offensive, but often it doesn´t work. He does know better than anyone his own case”.

It is not easy to be inside or around WikiLeaks. Whistleblowers will get life sentences in their countries or even be killed. Also the lawyers feel threatened.

Juan Branco told in Web Summit AMA meeting that earlier he was scared to walk in public places. When he first visited Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy, ​​he was checked at the airport and held there for over five hours without questioning. Also his computer was checked and shut down. Later this happened every time he went to US.

“For the first months I had to be off the record about that I was working with WikiLeaks. I had to go out from social media, change my numbers, my phone, my computer etc. It´s very tough, because you isolate yourself. Soon I started feeling threatened. Even for very tough lawyers it has been difficult. Two of our team have commited suicide”, Branco says.

“I got my staff stolen several times and there were burglars twice. You get weird messages in your phone that you don´t know where they come from”, Branco told.

“It´s very strange because you think of yourself a lawyer as someone who is exterior of the activity of your client, but you are treated as you were involved.”

“One of the ways of protecting yourself is being secretive about it. Or on the contrary being public. I was very secretive for months and at some point when there were revelations of the NSA spying over French presidents, it was said they were spying private homes, etc. I thought that this may be an opportunity to for me to go public and to build a shield of it. If anything happens to me it would be immediately publicized.”

“But the US is not going to kill anyone because of this so we are not as exposed as we were in the Russian system. It´s not the same being harassed little by little by a state like the US than face an immediate death”, Branco said. “When you release something important information about Russia, your life is immediately at stake.”

The impacts of WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks was founded ten years ago to be a community of global transparency and open knowledge, revealing the abuse of power. Originally, it was supposed to reveal the irregularities precisely the governments, businesses and rulers of previous Soviet republics, China, North Africa and the Middle East. However, the target was changed to the west, the USA and the Western Allies. Assange explains that this is due the language issue and also whether the leaks even come from there. Effects on the other parts of the world have thus come via the US-perspective.

Despite the wide criticism of WikiLeaks it has in any case had a significant impact on society and journalism. Minna Knus-Galán says that it affected, for example, the emergence of the Arab Spring. However, there can be many opinions about the consequences of Arab Spring.

“In autumn 2010, the largest media companies began to publish the WikiLeaks leakage of US diplomatic cables, of which the most important were just from North African Arab countries. They revealed a very wide range of corruption, to which the public reacted”, Minna Knus-Galán says.

The most significant impact is probably, however, the service itself, which is an example for other journalistic services that deal with large amounts of data.

“All the cases like Panama Papers and such are the result of the fact that this kind of transfer of mass data and their treatment by the public digital means has become possible. WikiLeaks is the pioneer in this. The model has been created for the way information can be brought to the public and deal with it out there. Especially the large media newsrooms have developed other models and methods for how such leakage can be made. There are dropping services and other tools through which the informant can safely send data. These were developed especially in response to these first revelations”, Kari Haakana says.

Juan Branco sees WikiLeaks having more long-term than short-term effects. Its value is in an extensive collection of material on the activities of the ruling regime.

”WikiLeaks in an amazing library of power and how it works in the 21st century. And this will last forever, at least as long as the website exists and remains alive. International Criminal Court uses a lot WikiLeaks documents, especially the cable cases, to understand the dynamics between different powers. For researches it´s a fantastic mine and it has already been produced academic articles. It´s going to nourish historians, political scientists and legal scholars for decades. It´s unbelievable to know that there´s so much transparency of so many systems of power, thanks to this kind of organization. It´s something that never have been in previous times”, Branco said.

Before WikiLeaks there were only classified archives about the documents of the US government that allowed you to go back to 50 or 70 years. According to Branco there has not been archives about parties and political campaigns in the US earlier.

As with all technology, WikiLeaks can be used by the leakers, the recipients of the leaks and those who use the data in two ways. For good or bad. At the moment, the key to Pandora’s box unfortunately seems to be lost.

This story was originally published in Metropolia UAS´s blog Median maailma on the 9th January, 2017.

Update about allegations towards Julian Assange 8th August 2017: Many of the rape suspicions expired in 2015, and the last one in May 2017.

Photos: Minna Kilpeläinen

Video: Kai Ansio

Read more:

No secrets — Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency. Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, 7.7.2010

Leaking services:

How to create a secure leaks platform