Clarification Appended: Jan. 4, 2011
On Dec. 9, 2006, an unsolicited e-mail arrived for Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower of Vietnam War renown. The return address said only "WikiLeaks," and the signature at bottom, "WL." In the orotund prose of a manifesto, the message invited Ellsberg to become the public face of a project "to place a new star in the firmament of man." Ellsberg knew nothing of the group, which had yet to make its debut. Nor had he heard of its leader, a then 35-year-old Australian named Julian Assange, best known in his own circles as a teenage hacker turned "cypherpunk" a prolific coder with visions of technology as a tool for political change.
The audacity of the e-mail kept Ellsberg reading. WikiLeaks aimed at nothing less than the decline and fall of oppression by organized exposure of its secrets. "Governance by conspiracy and fear," the author wrote, depended on concealment. "We have come to the conclusion that fomenting a world wide movement of mass leaking is the most cost effective political intervention." So fanciful did the proposal appear that Ellsberg saw only two ways to read it, he told TIME: as either "a little ploy by the CIA or NSA to draw in leaks" or "a very naive venture to think that they can really get away with it." Ellsberg made no reply.
Four years later, a great deal can be said about Assange, much of it unpleasant. He is inclined to the grandiose. Contempt for nearly every authority drives his work, and unguarded e-mails leaked, naturally reveal hopes that transparency will bring "total annihilation of the current U.S. regime." In London, he is fighting extradition to face allegations in Sweden that he sexually assaulted two WikiLeaks supporters.
What no one can say about the man, any longer, is that his boasts are empty. In 2010, WikiLeaks became a revolutionary force, wresting secrets into the public domain on a scale without precedent. Assange and company wrought deep disruptions in the marketplace of state power, much as tech-savvy insurgents before them had disrupted markets in music, film and publishing. The currency of information, scattered to the four corners of the globe, is roiling not only U.S. foreign relations but also the alliances and internal politics of other nations.
WikiLeaks has established itself, too, as a competitor to news media and intelligence agencies. By posting documents in their entirety, the site "disintermediates" the market, as economists say, weakening the old prerogatives of editors and analysts to filter information for their audiences. "This is not just a threat to those who would want to keep their own secrets," says a former member of the site's steering committee, who declined to be named. "WikiLeaks is a threat to those who would like to have other people's secrets too."
Not the least of Assange's achievements is a technological one. WikiLeaks brought to life what one of its early advisers described as "a recurring idea in hacker culture a digital safe haven that is anonymous, massively collaborative and highly resistant to attack or penetration by intelligence services." Redundant hardware and Web servers span international borders. Participants in its design say WikiLeaks has made novel use of an alphabet soup of existing geek tools, such as mutually anonymous file sharing, decoy ciphering to flood eavesdroppers with empty data, and encryption of files in transit and in storage.
The results are impressive. In Ellsberg's day, it took nearly a year to photocopy the 7,000-page Pentagon papers and most of another year to get excerpts published. The push-button model of WikiLeaks compresses the timeline radically and permits the universal broadcast of voluminous archives in full, so much so that leak hardly seems to suffice as a metaphor. This year's breach of containment spilled nearly half a million documents, including 76,607 military reports from Afghanistan, 391,832 from Iraq and, beginning Nov. 28, a stream of diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks says will eventually number 251,287.
The Obama Administration responded with new floodgates. "The government has recognized that WikiLeaks is not an event it is a capability and anybody who can get material out of a classified system can now publish it worldwide in a way that can't be redacted or removed," says Clay Shirky, a New York University Internet scholar. "The idea of a widely shared but secure secret is over." So in the U.S. national-security establishment, the scale of the loss induced a retreat from the "need to share" culture that emerged after Sept. 11, 2001, and that pressed rival agencies to exchange information instead of hoarding it. In the run-up to the WikiLeaks dump, the State Department cut the link from its Net-Centric Diplomacy database, which stores cable traffic, to the Pentagon's classified SIPRNet. Today, three shifts of officers and analysts are working around the clock in separate State and Defense Department crisis teams, sending alerts about fresh disclosures in real time.
Yet for all the efforts to bar the stable door, there has been little agreement on what has happened. Had the world just witnessed an act of journalism? Theft? Public service? Espionage? As talk turned to action, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had little doubt, announcing a "very serious, active, ongoing" criminal investigation, and sources said the FBI sought foreign-intelligence warrants to search for evidence of contact between WikiLeaks and Army Private First Class Bradley Manning before the soldier allegedly sent his trove of documents on a compact disc.
An important legal precedent loomed. If Assange did nothing more than accept the disc and publish its contents, lawyers in and out of government said, criminal charges against him would put the New York Times and other news organizations in equal jeopardy. The Espionage Act of 1917 is so vaguely drafted, according to Louis Klarevas of New York University's Center for Global Affairs, in a recent post at TheAtlantic.com, that it could be "interpreted as making it illegal to post a link to WikiLeaks on your Facebook page." Conspiracy to steal government property, another charge under consideration, faces much the same objection if it is defined as asking a source for information to be published.
Nor was the threat of legal action the only way authorities responded. A sustained assault on the economic and structural foundations of WikiLeaks soon followed. The Swiss bank PostFinance closed WikiLeaks' account because Assange is not a full-time resident of Switzerland (as if that always mattered to Switzerland's famously discreet banking industry). Visa and MasterCard, which process payments for the Ku Klux Klan, cut off WikiLeaks "pending further investigation," Visa said, "into the nature of its business." PayPal ejected WikiLeaks for promoting illegal activity, which has yet to be alleged in court. Amazon, a major Web-hosting provider, removed WikiLeaks from its servers after a telephone call from Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
Because public access to the Internet relies on private companies, these precedents were alarming. "This is absolutely a tipping point," says Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "This should be a very clear call to anyone who takes freedom of speech online seriously." Many foreign leaders, even U.S. allies, agree. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva pledged support for Assange and accused Washington of mounting a "siege on freedom of expression." Bolivian Vice President Alvaro García Linera responded by hosting WikiLeaks cables on his official government website.
Assessing the real-world impact of WikiLeaks will take some time. On the one hand, with far richer access to the workings of their governments, citizens and scholars were able to assess the performance of elected leaders and take part in the direction of policy. But mainstream advocates of open government were prepared to acknowledge the costs. Steven Aftergood, a relentless campaigner against excessive secrecy and director of the Federation of American Scientists, says Assange "fails to comprehend that some uses of secrecy serve to strengthen and defend an open society against attack from without or subversion from within."
And in that connection, the costs of the WikiLeaks affair were hard to predict. Would Iran, for example, slow its nuclear-enrichment program after reading Saudi King Abdullah's plea for U.S. forces to destroy it, or would the Saudis rush to mollify their powerful neighbor? Would Italian voters tolerate a Prime Minister who, by the U.S. ambassador's account, appeared to be "profiting personally and handsomely" from sweetheart energy deals with Russia? Would bruising personal observations about the Russian Prime Minister, the British royal family, the French President, the German Chancellor and oh, my the First Lady of Azerbaijan ("poorly informed"; "substantial cosmetic surgery") hurt delicate relationships?
These secrets were not, by any measure, the crown jewels of U.S. classified archives. None of the diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks were top secret, and none bore the NODIS stamp to indicate restricted distribution of close-hold material. The U.S. government has suffered graver losses. American spies sold their Soviet handlers the design of the hydrogen bomb, the names of double agents, the keys to American cipher codes and locations of U.S. eavesdropping equipment.
Yet the sheer scale of the recent breach transcended the impact of any one leak. Government officials often joke that they should write nothing down that they do not want to read on the next day's front page, but they do not usually behave as though they believe it. Now, says former U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill, several of whose cables from Baghdad were published, "the hazard is so broad, so systemic, it will have an effect on the communications system in and of itself." The broadcast of a cable in which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spelled out his fears about Iran, Hill says, ensures that "Maliki will not want to talk quite as loquaciously to the next ambassador."
Assange's declared efforts at "harm minimization," which involved removing some names from the documents, left many identifying details intact. Helmut Metzner, fired from his role as chief of staff to the German Foreign Minister, was the first known career casualty, after a leaked cable from the U.S. embassy attributed confidential information about German political talks to "a young, up-and-coming party loyalist who was taking notes." Though unnamed, an Iranian businessman, an Algerian journalist and a Chinese academic who gave sensitive information to U.S. officials were also thought to be identifiable and at risk of retribution. The Obama Administration, a senior official says, has quietly begun relocating vulnerable sources as well as intelligence officers who may be identifiable by rival services.
Assange, for his part, has generally dismissed assertions that lives are at risk, though he told the New Yorker he is prepared to accept "blood on our hands." When Aftergood asked him, in an e-mail exchange, whether he would publish the names and schools of children of U.S. officials, Assange replied in the abstract. Harms to innocents "tend to affect isolated individuals," he said, while the benefits of disclosure "affect systems of policy, planning [and] governance and through them the lives of all."
The worst or best, in the view of advocates for radical transparency could be yet to come. John Young, a New York City architect who left the WikiLeaks steering committee after clashing with Assange, says the group members are storing "a lot more information underground than they are publishing on the surface." Some of it comes from a hacker-on-hacker sting in 2006, when data jockeys at WikiLeaks detected what they believed to be a large-scale intelligence operation to steal data from computers around the world. The intruders were using TOR, an anonymous browsing technology invented by the U.S. Navy, to tunnel into their targets and extract information. The WikiLeaks team piggybacked on the operation, recording the data stream in real time as the intruders stole it.
In an encrypted e-mail dated Jan. 7, 2007, decrypted and made available to TIME by its recipient, one of the participants boasted, "Hackers monitor chinese and other intel as they burrow into their targets, when they pull, so do we. Inxhaustible supply of material?... We have all of pre 2005 afghanistan. Almost all of india fed. Half a dozen foreign ministries. Dozens of political parties and consulates, worldbank, apec, UN sections, trade groups."
The theft scandalized some WikiLeaks insiders, and Assange has held back from publishing most of its fruits. But shortly before his arrest in London, he issued a veiled threat that "comes straight out of cypherpunk fiction," according to Christopher Soghoian, a well-known security researcher.
Last July, it turns out, as controversy erupted over its release of the Afghanistan war logs, WikiLeaks had posted, without explanation, a 1.4-gigabyte encrypted file called "insurance.aes256." Some 100,000 people around the world have downloaded it. On Dec. 3, Assange said in an online chat with readers of the Guardian newspaper that the file contains the entire diplomatic archive, most of which has yet to be released, and additional "significant material from the U.S. and other countries." He added, "If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically."
That cryptographic dead man's switch, poised to launch a missile of payload unknown, made for a fitting close to Julian Assange's year. Whatever his fate in courts British, Swedish or American, he had built a machine that no one knew how to stop and loosed it on the world. "I don't think this is a practice or a culture that will change," says Jennifer Robinson, one of his lawyers. "Julian has really started something. By taking him out, they're not going to stop it."
With reporting by Eben Harrell / Stockholm
Clarification: The original version of the story included a quote by Louis Klarevas of New York University's Center for Global Affairs but did not indicate where it ran. The source was a piece by Klarevas on TheAtlantic.com.