What Was WikiLeaks All About?: A Classic Case of Cyber Security
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Issue Vol. 32.2 Apr-Jun 2017 | Date : 06 Sep , 2017

The case of WikiLeaks is an eye-opener for many reasons. It has shown how a great power responds when its might is challenged. Though in this case, the challenge was not thrown militarily, but through leaking its secrets which were treated as ‘Highly Classified Information’. It does not matter for great powers that who, how or in which area their might has been challenged because great powers want to dominate in every field. They always want to be in control of the situation and that is why they are always suspicious about the intentions of anyone who tries doing anything which does not suit their interests.

The official website of WikiLeaks states that it specialises in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption. It has so far published more than ten million documents and associated analyses. Julian Assange in his own words defines WikiLeaks as, “a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents.” He said, “We give asylum to these documents, we analyse them, we promote them and we obtain more.” The website further reveals that WikiLeaks has contractual relationships and secure communications paths to more than 100 major media organisations from around the world. This gives WikiLeaks sources negotiating power, impact and technical protections that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to achieve.1

The website has been involved in many prominent leaks, most of which have been targeting US government policies. Some of the prominent leaks are on US military equipment in Afghanistan and Iraq, Collateral Murder, Afghan War logs, Iraq War logs, Guantanamo files and NSA World Spying. WikiLeaks has released a number of significant documents that have become front page news. Early releases included documentation of equipment expenditures and holdings in the Afghanistan War and a report on a corruption investigation in Kenya.

In April 2010, WikiLeaks published gun-sight footage from the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike by an AH-64 Apache helicopter in which Iraqi journalists were among those killed, known as the Collateral Murder video. In July the same year, WikiLeaks released the Afghan War Diary, a compilation of more than 76,900 documents about the War in Afghanistan not previously available to the public. In October 2010, the group released a set of almost 400,000 documents called the “Iraq War Logs” in coordination with major commercial media organisations.2

This allowed the mapping of 109,032 deaths in “significant” attacks by insurgents in Iraq that had been reported to Multi-National Force – Iraq, including about 15,000 that had not been previously published. In April 2011, WikiLeaks began publishing 779 secret files relating to prisoners detained in the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

In April 2011, WikiLeaks began publishing 779 secret files relating to prisoners detained in the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay…

In November 2010, WikiLeaks collaborated with major global media organisations to release US State department diplomatic “cables” in redacted format. On September 01, 2011, it became public that an encrypted version of WikiLeaks’ huge archive of unredacted US State Department cables had been available via BitTorrent for months and that the decryption key (similar to a password) was available to those who knew where to find it.

WikiLeaks blamed the breach on its former publication partner, the UK newspaper, The Guardian, and that newspaper’s journalist David Leigh who revealed the key in a book published in February 2011.3 The Guardian argued that WikiLeaks was to blame since they had given the impression that the encrypted file was temporary, taking it offline seven months before the book was published. The German periodical ‘Der Spiegel’ reported a more complex story involving errors on both sides. The incident resulted in widely expressed fears that the information released could endanger innocent lives.

Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders raised questions on WikiLeaks. Both the organisations were dissatisfied with the way the lives of informants was put at great risk by Assange and his team. On the other hand, the hackers and the programmers across the globe were still in wide support of Assange and WikiLeaks. Many media sources have called Assange an ‘Anarchist’ because he wanted no editing, no contextualising, no explanations, no thinking, no weighing of one person’s claims against another’s and no regard for consequences.4

The whole saga of WikiLeaks and the attention garnered by it would not have been so if Chelsea Manning had not leaked the secret Iraq War logs to WikiLeaks. Hence, Manning becomes a key to understand the response of US in this case.

United States vs Manning

Chelsea Manning who was formerly known as Bradley Manning has been held responsible for delivering thousands of Classified documents to WikiLeaks. As a US army intelligence analyst, she had access to Classified information which she had found very disturbing. The material included videos of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad Strike, the 2009 Granai Airstrike in Afghanistan and thousands of US diplomatic cables that later came to be known as Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diary.5

For leaking the Classified documents, Manning was charged with 22 offenses including aiding the enemy. This was the most serious charge against her and could also have led to death sentence; but later she was acquitted of this charge. The other criminal charges included violating the Espionage Act of 1917, stealing government property, violation of Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The court sentenced her to 35 years in prison along with forfeiting her pay and allowances. Most of the information leaked by Manning was published by WikiLeaks between April and September 2010.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 in Iraq after Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker in the US provided information to Army Counter-intelligence that Manning had acknowledged passing Classified material to the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks.

The lead prosecutor against Manning in her court-martial argued that she provided “unfettered access” to the material and had displayed an “absolute indifference” to Classified information. On the other hand, Manning’s lawyers argued that the government had overstated the harm which the release of the documents has caused. Also, the government had overcharged Manning in order to obtain evidence against Assange.

The US realised its power once it decided to retaliate against 9/11 attacks.

The defence motion on dismissing the charge for aiding the enemy was rejected by the judge, Colonel Denise Lind. She ruled that government must be able to show that Manning knew the enemy and held that the CIA, FBI, DIA, State Department and Department of Justice ought to release documents showing their assessment of whether the leaked material had damaged national interests of the US.6

The prosecution was given ‘unreasonable time’ i.e. more time than required to prepare the case against Manning. Manning stated before the court that she wanted those ‘Classified’ files to be known to the American public in order to prompt a wider debate on US foreign policy. Manning was accused of having harvested hundreds of thousands of documents from secure networks and then making them available within hours to the enemies of the US by dumping them on the internet.

The accusation of ‘aiding the enemy’ was challenged by Manning’s team defence lawyers which included Harvard Law School Professor, Yochai Benkler, who said, “Until WikiLeaks started publishing the material Manning leaked, even the Pentagon viewed the anti-secrecy website as a legitimate journalistic enterprise.” It was only after the leak, that the public, the military and traditional news media in the US projected WikiLeaks as a group that supported terrorism.

The Chief Prosecutor Major Ashden Fein’s closing argument representing the US government tells a lot about the thinking of US as a state on this issue. The argument started with portraying Manning as an ‘anarchist’ who sought to ‘make a splash’ by providing vast archives of secret documents to WikiLeaks. Fein categorically mentioned that “Manning was not a whistleblower, but a traitor who understood the value of compromised information in the hands of the enemy and took deliberate steps to ensure that they along with the world received it.”7

Before being sent to prison, it was revealed that Manning had herself stated that the data she leaked were ‘items of historical significance’ which revealed the ‘true nature’ of the 21st century asymmetric warfare. However on August 14, 2013, during the final hearing, Manning apologised for her past actions and said that she was sorry for their unintended consequences.8

The great power behaviour of US in this case can’t be understood completely just by discussing this case. The reason is that the whole WikiLeaks case, Julian Assange’s role, Chelsea Manning’s sentence to 35 years of prison didn’t happen in a vacuum. All of this had a wider context attached to it which lay in the background amidst this controversy. The background to this was the US war on Afghanistan and Iraq. Many scholars argue that these two wars cemented the status of the US as a hegemon in the system. Others argue that the US realised its power once it decided to retaliate against 9/11 attacks.

National Security vs Freedom of Speech

In the US, Freedom of Speech is the very first protected right listed in the Bill of Rights. The Americans have cherished this right historically and many even argue that it envisages US values. The tension between national security and Freedom of Speech has been very apparent in the WikiLeaks case.

On November 26, Assange sent a letter to the US Department of State, via his lawyer Jennifer Robinson, inviting them to “privately nominate any specific instances (record numbers or names) where it considers the publication of information would put individual persons at significant risk of harm that has not already been addressed”. Harold Koh, the Legal Adviser of the Department of State, rejected the proposal, stating: “We will not engage in negotiations in the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained US Government classified materials.”9

Assange responded by writing back to the US State Department, “You have chosen to respond in a manner which leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful and you are instead concerned to suppress evidence of human rights abuse and other criminal behaviour.” Ahead of the leak, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and other American officials contacted governments in several countries about the impending release.

The scenario depicted above clearly reveals the ‘lack of will’ on the part of US authorities to engage with Assange. The White House released an official statement which read, “We strongly condemn the disclosure of Classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens national security. WikiLeaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents which may contain information that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners and local populations who co-operate with us.”10

Julian Assange, while replying on the issue of contacting US government, remarked that it is not the job of any journalist to contact governments and ask permission to report something. However, he accused the majority of US media of doing precisely that i.e. asking permission from US government before publishing.

According to The Guardian, access to WikiLeaks was blocked for federal workers by the US government…

The US government tried to rubbish and devalue WikiLeaks as an organisation. Assange said that the US government cannot and will not get the value of the leaked documents because it is not in their interest to do so. He claimed further that it did not mean that people of the world especially Americans cannot appreciate the access to documents that reveal the truth of what is going on.11

Assange wanted to use the release of Classified information to catalyse a change and to shift the perceptions of people on US foreign policy, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The national security argument has been used as an excuse and justification by the US government to classify large amounts of information on a variety of topics about which the public is deliberately kept in the dark.

Former Canadian Defence Minister said something ordinary yet remarkable about the ‘Classified Information’ and the US War on Terror. He said, “It is ironic that the US should be fighting monstrously expensive wars allegedly to bring democracy to those countries, when it itself can no longer claim to be called a democracy when thousands of billions of dollars have been spent on projects which both Congress and the Commander-in-Chief know nothing about.”

According to The Guardian, access to WikiLeaks was blocked for federal workers by the US government. The US library of Congress, the US Commerce Department and other government agencies had also banned the website. Another media house, MSNBC, in its article reported that the Obama administration warned Federal Government employees and students in educational institutions, studying for careers in public service, that they must refrain from downloading or linking to any WikiLeaks document.12

This high-handedness shown by the US government in the case is exemplified by a statement of Julian Assange when he said, “My God, I know I am an Australian, but that doesn’t mean WikiLeaks deserves a kangaroo court.” Things started turning worse for Assange when some US politicians openly advocated murdering him. Although nothing like that happened, the Obama administration clamped down on whistleblowers with unprecedented rigour. The administration targeted not only the whistleblowers, but also those who helped them in publishing secrets.

Matthias Spielkamp from Reporters without Borders said that the attempts by the US government to prevent WikiLeaks from releasing information amounted to restrictions on the Freedom of Press. The year 2010 was very happening in terms of the twists and turns in this case. In this year, WikiLeaks released videos of 2007 military helicopter strikes on Baghdad, Iraq and casualties related to that and documents on the Afghanistan War were also released in the same year.

The major twist came when a Swedish Court issued an arrest warrant for Assange on charges of rape made by two Swedish women, who were also former employees of WikiLeaks. Assange handed himself over to the London Police and was placed in custody while a case was made to extradite him to Sweden for a trial. Meanwhile, Assange got released on bail and while speaking to media he refuted the rape charges by saying that the case was politically motivated to undermine him.13

Assange feared that a fair trial would not be given to him in Sweden because of which he appealed against the extradition ruling of the court. British Supreme Court rejected his appeal and he was asked to turn himself to British police on an extradition notice. It is after this that Assange refused to comply with the court’s order and made a plea for asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It can be understood that Assange feared that if he was extradited to Sweden, he may have been extradited back to the US from there considering Sweden is an old ally of US.

Britain also played its part as a long time ally of the US by threatening Ecuador that its embassy in London could be raided if they grant asylum to Assange. This behaviour showed a complete disrespect of International Laws for which Britain was criticised by civil rights communities globally. Ecuador also condemned these threats and within a few hours they decided to grant political asylum to Assange. Since then, i.e. August 2012, Assange is caged up inside the Ecuadorian embassy and from time to time, he is seen addressing the media and his supporters from the premises of the Embassy.


The case of WikiLeaks is an eye-opener for many reasons. It has shown how a great power responds when its might is challenged. Though in this case, the challenge was not thrown militarily, but through leaking its secrets which were treated as ‘Highly Classified Information’.

It does not matter for great powers that who, how or in which area their might has been challenged because great powers want to dominate in every field. They always want to be in control of the situation and that is why they are always suspicious about the intentions of anyone who tries doing anything which does not suit their interests.

These interests are termed ‘national interests’ which in reality is the interest of the ‘state’ and not of the nation per se. A deliberate attempt was made to project the state’s interest as national interest. The fact that a country such as the US which cherishes the Freedom of Speech and Expression has come down hard against whistleblowers, journalists and civil society groups, leads to a conclusion that the interest of state is paramount and all the ideals like free speech and democracy are secondary to this.


1. Taken from Wikleaks official website

2. Taken from Guardian website

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Martand Jha

Junior Research Fellow at Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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