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The Strange Career of WikiLeaks

Twists and turns.

12:00 AM, Apr 29, 2010 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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“Courage is contagious.” So runs the pithy motto adorning the bottom of the upload page of the currently minimalist WikiLeaks website. The original site is no longer online. It disappeared from the web shortly before the new year, allegedly to make way for a necessary fundraising drive. “We protect the world – but will you protect us?” WikiLeaks asked in shilling for donations from visitors.

The Strange Career of WikiLeaks

According to the WikiLeaks organization itself, the old site’s database contained some 1.2 million documents. The current site features exactly twelve. The limited assortment appears to be little more than window-dressing, posted in order to create the appearance of continuity and to provide an appropriate setting for what is the real and virtually exclusive focus of the current site: WikiLeaks’s now famous “Collateral Murder” video and the “Collateral Murder” campaign of which it forms part.

I use the word “campaign” in the sense, more exactly, of a propaganda campaign. For WikiLeaks’s “Collateral Murder” bears all the markings of precisely that. Consider, to start with, just the title, which has clearly been chosen not to describe the events depicted in the video, but rather to influence the audience’s perception of them. This is also the obvious purpose of the nearly three minute introduction that WikiLeaks has added to the video proper. From the downright Orwellian use of the Orwell quotation with which it begins to the narrative text shots that linger on the screen far longer than is necessary to read them to the spooky electrical static effects and beeps on the soundtrack that interrupt the silence at irregular intervals, the introduction to “Collateral Murder” is highly sophisticated and very highly produced cinema. But a leak it is not.

Similarly, the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” dedicated website features photos not only of the two Reuters employees killed in the American Apache helicopter attack, but also of the two unfortunate children who were wounded in the unmarked van that the American troops fired on in the aftermath of the initial attack. Such photos of children who are bandaged or even displaying their scars are anything but “leaks.” They are classics of war propaganda, which a given party in an armed conflict has every interest in disseminating as widely as possible in order to delegitimize the efforts of its enemy, also in the eyes of the latter’s own public.

In this case, the photos in question permit the WikiLeaks “producers” to tell a story that is unfavorable to the efforts of the American military in Iraq and favorable to the anti-American, anti-Iraq-government insurgency. Photos of the thousands of Iraqi children who have been killed or maimed in terror attacks that intentionally target civilians would tell a different story. But WikiLeaks is apparently not interested in that story.

In short, WikiLeaks is not the website – and perhaps not the organization – that it once was. If we are to judge by its “Collateral Murder” campaign, the very nature of the WikiLeaks project has changed dramatically. Once upon a time, WikiLeaks did exactly what its name implies. It provided a seemingly equal opportunity platform for leaks of classified materials of all sorts and from a variety of sources.

Consultation of original WikiLeaks pages that are still available on mirror sites shows that much of the material did not really consist of leaks strictly speaking. But apart from a crusading stance toward the freedom of information, it does not reveal any obvious political bias or preferences. For instance, a WikiLeaks reprint of an April 27, 2009 article from FrontPage Magazine via the The Hawaii Free Press bears the title “Obama's Chilling Crew: The legal harassment of those investigating Tony Rezko.” The piece refers to the legal efforts of the “Iraqi-British ex-Baathist billionaire” Nadhmi Auchi to suppress news articles on his financial relationship with the Obama backer Rezko, and it notes that eight such articles that were removed from other sites were re-posted on WikiLeaks. Incidentally, the WikiLeaks post containing the articles in question appears in the meanwhile to have been scrubbed. It was not to be found on three Wikileaks mirror sites consulted by the present author. According to Wikinews, WikiLeaks also hosted a copy of Geert Wilder’s anti-Islam film Fitna after the film was removed from the LiveLeak video-sharing site.

Perhaps the biggest genuine scoop produced by the old WikiLeaks involved the publication in November 2008 of what was identified as a list of IP address ranges assigned by the German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom to the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, under a disguised domain name. The authenticity of the document was inadvertently confirmed by Deutsche Telekom, when its T-Systems division sent an e-mail to WikiLeaks claiming the document as its property and requesting that it be deleted. The IP address ranges were assigned to the bvoe.de domain name as part of a so called “BVOE project.” Within two days of the publication of the list on WikiLeaks, all the bvoe.de networks are reported to have been purged by T-Systems from the European IP registry RIPE. In their article “WTF is BVOE?”, two of the anonymous hackers of Germany’s “Chaos Computer Club” – “0023” and “0042” – describe being “amazed and amused” as they followed the process in real time.

The fact that both the document and the subsequent scrubbing operation appeared to reveal collusion between the BND and Deutsche Telekom was already enough to raise some eyebrows. Via its subsidiary T-Mobile, Deutsche Telekom is a major player on the international wireless market. It is the parent company of T-Mobile America. The German federal government remains the principal shareholder in Deutsche Telekom.

But it was the revelation that the BND-linked IP addresses had been used to edit Wikipedia entries that sparked particular interest and controversy. One of the entries was the German-language Wikipedia entry on the BND itself. The edited passage concerned the Goethe Institute: the German government’s worldwide network of German cultural centers. Before the edit from the BND-linked IP, the passage read:

…it is an open secret that many of the foreign offices of the Goethe Institute are used by the BND as unofficial headquarters.

After the edit, it became the bizarre non-sequitur:

The foreign offices of the Goethe Institute are not, however, used by the BND as unofficial headquarters.

More surprisingly, a BND employee apparently saw fit to edit the German-language Wikipedia entry on “nuclear weapons technology” [Kernwaffentechnik], in order to provide, as WikiLeaks put it, “detail on how to build a more efficient plutonium ‘dirty bomb.’” In fact, the BND author commented that “it is debatable whether plutonium-based dirty bombs…are really effective” and then went on to suggest alternative “short-lived isotopes” that “would exhibit greater activity with the same amount [of material]” – as if he or she were offering helpful advice to would-be terrorists.

The mirrored WikiLeaks summary on the BND IP assignments notes that “The BND apparently had second thoughts on the wisdom of posting this description; a mere two minutes later, the same IP address removed the comment.” But this is misleading. The author at the BND IP address had previously added the remark twice. As the relevant Wikipedia history logs show, he or she only deleted one of the two instances.

Otherwise, the summary states that the authors at the BND-assigned IP addresses made “a lot of standard edits,” whatever that means. It is difficult to check the claim now. The reference given for it is a search of IP ranges done on the Wikipedia edit search tool, WikiScanner. But neither the linked search results nor the original WikiScanner site are presently available.

Web searches revealed, furthermore, that IP addresses assigned to “bvoe.de” had been responsible for an automated attack on the American website Rantburg in April 2006. The attack temporarily forced the site offline. As described in a forum discussion on Rantburg, it took the form of the IPs “sending a continuous stream of queries…for Abu Musab Zarqawi.” Zarqawi was at the time the head of al Qaeda in Iraq. He would be killed by American forces two months later. Rantburg is largely dedicated to issues related to the war on terror.

In September 2008, two months before the leaking of the BND IP-assignments, WikiLeaks had already posted a sensitive BND-related document: eleven “missing” pages from the so called Schäfer Report on the BND’s apparently ample and, in any case, dubious contacts with German journalists. The report had been prepared for a German parliamentary oversight committee and a redacted version of it was made public in May 2006.

Calls for a parliamentary inquiry had been sparked by the revelation in November 2005 that the German journalist and intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom had been the target of extensive BND surveillance in the 1990s. Schmidt-Eenboom is the author of several books on the BND. Among other things, he has written about what he has described as the agency’s “very good contacts” with the infamous Iraqi state intelligence service of Saddam Hussein. In a January 2006 interview with the Berlin-based alternative weekly Jungle World, Schmidt-Eenboom claimed that the BND “surely” maintained these “very good contacts” even during the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As further revelations in the German press made clear, and as the Schäfer Report confirmed, other German journalists had far cozier relations with the BND, willingly providing their services as informants. In return, they are reported to have received money or tips from the agency. One of the journalists implicated in the affair would admit outright to having been a BND agent.

On December 9, 2008, WikiLeaks posted yet another BND-related document: a classified 2005 BND report on organized crime in Kosovo. It would seem that this was the last straw as far as BND headquarters in the Munich suburb of Pullach was concerned. According to the site’s own account, nine days later, on December 18, WikiLeaks received what appears to be an e-mail from none other than BND president Ernst Uhrlau. The email demands that the 2005 Kosovo report be removed from the site and threatens “criminal prosecution” if it is not. A subsequent email would demand that all BND-related materials be removed from the site. (The alleged BND correspondence can still be consulted on the mirror site mirror.wikileaks.info.)

In the last email included in the correspondence published by WikiLeaks, one Jay Lim of the WikiLeaks “legal office” politely asks the BND president to “please inform us, under which statue [sic] or governing law you claim that that publication of the document is a criminal offence.” As Jay Lim and the rest of the WikiLeaks staff undoubtedly found out, German investigators and judges broadly interpret German law as permitting charges to be brought not only against state officials who leak sensitive information, but also against private persons who publish said information. The crime in question is commonly referred to as Beihilfe zum Geheimnisverrat or “Aiding and Abetting in the Betrayal of [State] Secrets.”

In September 2005, the editorial offices of the German monthly Cicero were raided by the police in connection with an “aiding and abetting” leak investigation. The investigation was opened in response to an article on Abu Musab al Zarqawi that appeared in the April 2005 issue of the magazine. The home of the article’s author, Bruno Schirra, was also raided. On Schirra’s account, police hauled away the virtual entirety of his research archive. Udo Ulfkotte, the author of several books both on the BND and on Islamist networks in Germany, has likewise been the target of a lengthy criminal investigation on suspicion of having “aided and abetted” in the betrayal of state secrets. Ulfkotte’s home and even his wife’s offices were raided by the police.

As it so happens, the BND-related documents were not available on  all but one of the WikiLeaks mirror sites consulted by the author during his initial consultations. Had WikiLeaks caved in to pressure from the BND and removed them? In response to an email query, an unnamed WikiLeaks representative told me that the absence of the BND-related documents is “funding related.” My anonymous correspondent chirpily added, “this will be back soon, especially if you help get us more funding.” A follow up email, asking for an explanation of how the ostensible financial problems of WikiLeaks would affect the selection of articles available on mirror sites, has thus far gone unanswered. My request that WikiLeaks provide me with two of the documents in question has likewise gone unanswered.

As of this writing – more than a week after my last contact with WikiLeaks – the website mirror.wikileaks.info does contain the BND-related documents. This is a site that I specifically mentioned in my correspondence with WikiLeaks. Mirror.wikileaks.info is in fact a mirror of a mirror, wikileaks.info. Oddly enough, however, the documents are still not available on wikileaks.info. Perhaps they will be. Almost all other historical WikiLeaks mirror sites, such as wikileaks.se, now simply point to or mirror the new site. They are no longer mirrors of the old one.

It remains to be seen if the current editors of WikiLeaks, whoever they are, are really as courageous as they make themselves out to be. Given that the U.S., unlike Germany, has no “aiding and abetting” leak laws, the publication of the “Collateral Murder” video took no courage on their part. If WikiLeaks ever does rediscover its original vocation, there are plenty of other documents related to German intelligence that would be of great interest: For instance, the German government’s largely classified report on German intelligence activities in connection with the Iraq war and America’s war on terror.

The report was presented to a parliamentary oversight committee in February 2006. It is supposed to contain some particularly interesting details about Khaled al Masri: the Lebanese-born German citizen who would become the poster child for the international campaign against the American practice of “extraordinary rendition.” According to leaks in the German press, a German police memo included in the report identified al Masri as a “proponent of military jihad.” The leaks would lead to the opening of an “aiding and abetting” investigation against four German journalists. (See my report on World Politics Review here.)

The old WikiLeaks once helped to shed a rather unflattering light on the operations of a major European intelligence agency. For the time being, it is striking that the new WikiLeaks appears itself to be the vehicle of precisely the sort of propaganda operation that was the bread-and-butter of some such agencies in what many will have believed was a bygone era.

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