For people like me, the WikiLeaks story has it all: Candid revelations about US relations with foreign governments. A major security breach in the US military. And questions about media ethics and law in the digital age.
But when I've written about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, it's generally been to either use the diplomatic cables in general reporting or to correct the record on the group's influence in the Middle East. I haven't really looked at WikiLeaks in itself – the technical details of how it enables a leaker to secretly and securely provide information over the internet without direct threat of getting caught – and I've also ignored, for the most part, the odd characters and strange quirks of hacker culture.
So I was brought up short when reading Steve Fishman's fascinating piece on Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking thousands of US diplomatic cables and US army field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan who is currently in jail. Tucked away on page 7 of the New York Magazine article, in a passage on how Mr. Assange has alienated many former collaborators, he writes about how Daniel Domscheit-Berg, "fed up with what he saw as Assange’s dictatorial ways, defected to launch his own site – OpenLeaks. Perhaps more important, WikiLeaks’ technology architect departed with him. And so, for the past year, WikiLeaks has been unable to receive leaked documents online."
This is apparently well known to people who've been following the story closely (Michael Parenti, who's been very helpful with all this, was gently laughing at me on Twitter). But it's still fascinating. What it means is that the potential flow of online information to WikiLeaks, the organization's reason for being, is shut off. If you visit the group's online submissions page there is still a bullet point on "our anonymous electronic drop box" that "Its (sic) easy to submit" to.
The site explains "we have created our novel method of submission based on a suite of security technologies designed to provide anonymity. We have put a great deal of technical and design work into the drop box because we take the journalist-source relationship very seriously."
But if you read on, you find that it's "currently closed for re-engineering security and useability concerns." The secure chat function for submitters seeking advice and the "secure upload" function are likewise shut. Desperate to leak? "Post your information to one of our trusted truth facilitators listed below. You may post to whatever country in the list that you feel most suitable given the nature of the material and your postal service."
That might better be written as "you can send the information to whatever country you like, as long as it's Australia." The only "trusted truth-facilitator" on the list is a PO Box at the University of Melbourne.
While using the mail provides a fair degree of anonymity, it would be a simple matter for US or Australian intelligence to monitor attempts to reach that address, and many people have been found over the years based on the addresses listed on letters they've posted. In effect, WikiLeaks and its cyber-anarchist cool reputation have been reliant on snail mail for months, at a time when Assange has been soliciting global donations for both his legal defense and to keep the operation running.
And the group's Internet problems have little to do with government interference and more to do with internal squabbling if Mr. Domscheit-Berg, once one of Assange's closest collaborators and now a critic, is to be believed (Mr. Parenti has a series of interviews with Domscheit-Berg from earlier this year up at his Vimeo site).
Mr. Manning continues to sit in jail. Assange continues to fight extradition to Sweden, where he's wanted for questioning over allegations of sexual assault. But the chances of Assange being prosecuted by the US on allegations that he was in a criminal conspiracy with Manning took a hit this week.
Adrian Lamo, a hacker and online activist, was the man who turned Manning in. Last year, he provided logs of online chats between him and Manning to Wired Magazine, which published a redacted version. This week, Wired released the full logs, which appear to support Assange's claim that he didn't know who he was in contact with while receiving the leaked cables and US military reports
When Mr. Lamo asked Manning if he were "worried that Julian would slip up" he responded: "He knows very little about me... he takes source protection uber-seriously... 'lie to me' he says." If you're interested in more on Lamo and who knew what when, Glenn Greenwald at Salon has been covering this all intensively.