Leak at WikiLeaks: A Dispatch Disaster in Six Acts

An excerpt from Christian Stöcker in Spiegel Online

Some 250,000 diplomatic dispatches from the US State Department have accidentally been made completely public. The files include the names of informants who now must fear for their lives. It is the result of a series of blunders by WikiLeaks and its supporters.

In the end, all the efforts at confidentiality came to naught. Everyone who knows a bit about computers can now have a look into the 250,000 US diplomatic dispatches that WikiLeaks made available to select news outlets late last year. All of them. What’s more, they are the unedited, unredacted versions complete with the names of US diplomats’ informants — sensitive names from Iran, China, Afghanistan, the Arab world and elsewhere.

SPIEGEL reported on the secrecy slip-up last weekend, but declined to go into detail. Now, however, the story has blown up. And is one that comes as a result of a series of mistakes made by several different people. Together, they add up to a catastrophe. And the series of events reads like the script for a B movie.

Act One: The Whistleblower and the Journalist

The story began with a secret deal. When David Leigh of the Guardian finally found himself sitting across from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as the British journalist recounts in his book “Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy”, the two agreed that Assange would provide Leigh with a file including all of the diplomatic dispatches received by WikiLeaks.

Assange placed the file on a server and wrote down the password on a slip of paper — but not the entire password. To make it work, one had to complete the list of characters with a certain word. Can you remember it? Assange asked. Of course, responded Leigh.

It was the first step in a disclosure that became a worldwide sensation. As a result of Leigh’s meeting with Assange, not only the Guardian, but also the New York TimesSPIEGEL and other media outlets published carefully chosen — and redacted — dispatches. Editors were at pains to black out the names of informants who could be endangered by the publication of the documents.

Act Two: The German Spokesman Takes the Dispatch File when Leaving WikiLeaks

At the time, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who later founded the site OpenLeaks, was the German spokesman for WikiLeaks. When he and others undertook repairs on the WikiLeaks server, he took a dataset off the server which contained all manner of files and information that had been provided to WikiLeaks. What he apparently didn’t know at the time, however, was that the dataset included the complete collection of diplomatic dispatches hidden in a difficult-to-find sub-folder.

After making the data in this hidden sub-folder available to Leigh, Assange apparently simply left it there. After all, it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever find it.

But now, the dataset was in the hands of Domscheit-Berg. And the password was easy to find if one knew where to look. In his book Leigh didn’t just describe his meeting with Assange, but he also printed the password Assange wrote down on the slip of paper complete with the portion he had to remember.

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Read the full article by clicking HERE.

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One thought on “Leak at WikiLeaks: A Dispatch Disaster in Six Acts

  1. This certainly points out the flip side to Wikileaks self righteous “the people have a right to know” position. There was a lot of smug high-fiving going on when Wikileaks made Big Brother take a hit. Government secrecy is not necessarily always a good thing, to be sure, but when information leaked for another reason endangers lives, it should give us pause. When we set ourselves up as judges to (steal) and make information public, where do we draw the line? What should be released? And, are there ethical limits to how we can obtain the information in the first place? It sounds heroic to “intercept government dispatches,” but on the level of individual citizens, how this is different from stealing mail, hacking email or Facebook accounts and making the information and correspondence public?

    I just ask the questions. =)

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