Wed., July 14, 2010 3:17pm (EDT)

Entering The Secret World Of Wikileaks
Updated: 4 years ago

The website Wikileaks publishes secret documents submitted by anonymous sources and makes them available to the public. The site, which went public in January 2007, has been compared to Daniel Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The website has leaked a variety of formerly secret documents, including "everything from investigative reports about corruption in the nation of Kenya to manuals from the Church of Scientology to Sarah Palin's hacked e-mails," explains journalist Philip Shenon. "They very famously released the so-called Climategate memos that were from a group of climate scientists that were seized upon by a group of conservatives to argue that global warming was a fraud."

Shenon, an investigative reporter who contributes to The Daily Beast, joined Fresh Air's Dave Davies for a conversation about the website and rumors of its demise, following the release of a video showing a U.S. military massacre in Baghdad. Shenon recently wrote a series of articles about Julian Assange, the site's founder.

"He believes that when he puts material out, it should be put out to some degree in context," says Shenon. "And he should, in putting that material out, prove that it's a) authentic and b) significant. He has a very difficult relationship with most mainstream news organizations because he believes they do not do that -- they do not prove the truth of what they are offering to their readers or viewers."

Shenon is a former reporter for The New York Times, where he led the investigation of the Sept. 11 commission and was chief Defense Department correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, congressional correspondent and Justice Department correspondent. He is also the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.

Interview Highlights

On releasing footage from a 2007 classified military video showing a U.S. Army helicopter crew shooting civilians on a Baghdad street in 2007

"He wanted to put it out in context so he released the video with an awful lot of documents -- military documents about the attack -- and he packaged the video itself in a variety of formats including shorter versions and longer versions. And he put it on a special website that had the domain name collateralmurder.com, and his decision to label this collateral murder suggests that he had a strong view as to what this video represented."

On the Pentagon's response to the classified video release

"Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates was hugely annoyed by [the video's] release. He said to see this video is to see war through a soda straw. That it was presented without the real context of what had happened in that attack. And the context, as far as the Pentagon is concerned, is these young soldiers aboard the helicopter were in an extremely dire situation. They'd come under attack earlier in the day and they had every reason to believe that the folks on the ground meant them harm."

On national security concerns

"That's the larger fear of Wikileaks, that down the road they're going to come up with more explosive material that really could harm national security and they'll put it out without much filtering. They have come under criticism in the past for that. They put out some time ago a text from Army material about [improvised explosive devices] in Iraq and how they functioned and American efforts to try to overcome the IED threat in Iraq, and this was scientific material that, if available to the insurgents in Iraq, could have presumably put American soldiers' lives at risk."

On the arrest of Bradley Manning, the potential leak of the 2007 classified military video

"A young solider, Bradley Manning, working in Iraq was arrested in June and accused of leaking classified material. It emerged pretty quickly that he is believed to be the principal source for Wikileaks. That he leaked the 2007 Iraq video and the 2009 Afghanistan video and he may have also leaked as many as a quarter-million State Department cables to Wikileaks. We learned that he apparently confessed much of this in an e-mail chat with a former computer hacker in California whose name came to Bradley Manning through press reports. These voluminous Internet chats really do suggest that Manning was the source of all of this material that Wikileaks has put out and intends to put out in the future."

On the Obama administration's position on government leakers

"They've been very tough and it's been greatly disappointing to a lot of my colleagues in the news business and to First Amendment advocates that the Obama administration, just as much as the Bush administration, seems determined to crack down on leaks."

On the Cybersecurity Act of 2009

"This is a bill that is moving very quickly through Congress that would allow the White House, in a period of national emergency, to declare something called a 'cyber-emergency' and, in extreme situations, shut down portions of the Internet or at least block Americans from having access to them. And that's produced an awful lot of concern among civil liberties groups."

On the nature of secrecy and disclosure

"There probably are some secrets worth keeping. And as somebody who worked at a large news organization for many years, I can tell you that when national security information came into The New York Times, there was a big debate within the paper about how to handle that material and whether or not the value of the release outweighed whatever damage might be done to national security. The warrantless wiretapping scoop from a couple years ago, the Times had that scoop for about a year -- or more than a year -- before it made it public. And you certainly hear at the Pentagon, at the White House, concern that one of these days somebody is going to leak something really important to an organization like Wikileaks. The example given to me is American nuclear secrets or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Would Wikileaks put that out to the world without much filtering, and isn't there a threat in that?" [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]