A Wiki for Whistle-Blowers

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Ian Waldie / Getty

By March, more than one million leaked documents from governments and corporations in Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Bloc will be available online in a bold new collective experiment in whistle-blowing. That is, of course, as long as you don't accept any of the conspiracy theories brewing that Wikileaks.org could be a front for the CIA or some other intelligence agency.

The website claims that it will use the same software platform as Wikipedia, the wildly popular online grassroots encyclopedia, to let users anonymously post documents and analyze them. In theory, this system will protect leakers' identities while exposing government and corporate corruption worldwide.

"Instead of a couple of academic specialists, Wikileaks will provide a forum for the entire global community to examine any document relentlessly for credibility, plausibility, veracity and falsifiability," its organizers write on the site's FAQ page. "They will be able to interpret documents and explain their relevance to the public. If a document is leaked from the Chinese government, the entire Chinese dissident community can freely scrutinize and discuss it..."

Already, the site claims to have received 1.2 million documents, which will be available when Wikileaks goes live some time in the next two months. As an example of what to expect, the site's organizers posted a memo on civil war policy issued in November 2005 by the Somalian Islamic court system's Office of the Chief of the Imams. Wikileaks also posted a 17-page analysis of the memo. According to Dr S. Samatar, professor of African History at Rutgers University-Newark, the analysis is "very well-written, but is out of date because events have since overtaken it." He says he was contacted by a Wikileaks organizer two weeks ago and was asked to look over the analysis. Samatar says he did not previously know the organizer, nor did he know anything about the site.

Finding out much about the site or who is behind it is not easy, which may explain the suspicion building around it. The site says its organizers include Chinese dissidents, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the U.S., Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. In an e-mail to TIME, a Wikileaks organizer named James Chen wrote, "We are serious people working on a serious project... three advisors have been detained by Asian government, one of us for over six years." Yet the speculation that Wikileaks might a front for an intelligence agency is understandable, considering the recent arrival of "Intellipedia" — an internal wiki system used by 16 U.S. spy agencies.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project of Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists and writer of the blog Secrecy News doesn't buy that theory. "I just think they're naive," says Aftergood, who was contacted by Wikileaks via e-mail in late December to join the site's advisory board. "They have a very idealistic view of the nature of leaking and its impact. They seem to think that most leakers are crusading do-gooders who are single-handedly battling one evil empire or another." Aftergood declined their offer.

John Young, who writes the blog Cryptome.org, was also contacted by Wikileaks' organizers and asked to sit on its advisory board. He too declined their offer. "Their idea is a good one, but they're moving too fast without providing any evidence that they can pull this off," he says. Young gave Wikileaks a taste of its own medicine by leaking the organizers' e-mail exchanges with him on his own blog.

Even if Wikileaks is successful in posting 1.2 million documents online and protecting the identities of its leakers, a fundamental challenge remains: how to prove the documents' authenticity. Says Aftergood: "Anyone who's been in the business for any length of time knows leakers leak because they are trying to advance an agenda of their own, or because they have some personality or psychological quirk that leads them to disclose information out of official channels." Documents could easily be planted on the site by the same "corrupt" governments and corporations Wikileaks seeks to expose.

Savvy web users, of course, know that public wikis are never trusted for their authenticity for the simple reason that anyone can post or edit them. Instead they're viewed as a first step in the research process. And if Wikileaks is used with a healthy dose of skepticism, it could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act. "For journalists, I think [Wikileaks] is actually a good thing," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institue. "This could be a place where they could go to seek documentation of something they already have some other reporting on or to find further documentation." Who knows, they might even find the smoking gun that reveals what shadowy organization is behind Wikileaks.