What is WikiLeaks?
It describes itself as “the intelligence service of the people,” and has the potential to radically alter the ability of governments, corporations, and other organizations to keep secrets. WikiLeaks made its biggest splash so far a few weeks ago when it released 90,000 classified U.S. military documents from Afghanistan. But the 3½-year-old site had already done a lot of mischief, publishing, among other things, the Standard Operating Procedures manual for the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; “the collected secret ‘bibles’ of Scientology”; the so-called Climategate e-mails from the University of East Anglia; and a batch of Sarah Palin’s private e-mails. Earlier this year, the site caused a worldwide uproar by releasing a classified video taken through the gunsight of a U.S. Apache helicopter in Iraq. The video shows a gunner mowing down two Reuters journalists and 16 other civilians, including two children. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange describes himself as “an information activist,” and says the fundamental human struggle is between individuals and powerful institutions. “Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy,” Assange says. “The way to justice is transparency.”

How does the site operate?
Certainly not transparently. People with access to controversial or classified documents send them to the site, often anonymously. Then a group of volunteer editors decides what information is important and reliable, and publishes it accordingly. Operating from undisclosed and changing locations around the world, WikiLeaks maintains its content on more than 20 servers and under hundreds of domain names, and its most sensitive information passes through countries that offer it legal protection, including Sweden, Iceland, and Belgium. WikiLeaks is almost impossible to sue because it exists mostly in cyberspace, and it can’t be shut down because it has an elaborate cybersecurity system devised by devoted computer geeks. With just five paid staff members, it’s supported mainly through donations of time and money from leftist activists and others who believe in its mission.

What is WikiLeaks’ agenda?
Assange, a convicted Australian hacker and gifted cryptographer, says his purpose is simply “to allow whistle-blowers and journalists who have been censored to get material out to the public.” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls WikiLeaks “the world’s first stateless news organization.” But it does seem to have an agenda. The Apache helicopter video, for instance, was labeled “Collateral Murder” and included graphic images of civilians being gunned down on a Baghdad street. An abridged version produced by WikiLeaks included the pilots laughing as the Iraqis are shredded by machine-gun fire; not included are images showing that one of the men fired upon from the helicopter was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. In releasing the Afghanistan documents, Assange said they contain “evidence of war crimes” that he hoped would “change the war’s course.” 

Might they do that?
The release certainly revved up the debate over the war and raised doubts about its direction. The huge cache revealed that U.S. forces have killed hundreds of civilians, and provided graphic descriptions of the chaos, corruption, and double-dealing faced by U.S. and NATO commanders on the ground. But U.S. officials say the unredacted disclosures put U.S. personnel and Afghan informants in grave danger, and that the raw data will prove useful not only to the Taliban but to intelligence services in countries with the resources to make sense of such vast vaults of information. “If I’m the head of Russian intelligence,” says former CIA Director Michael Hayden, “I’m getting my best English speakers and saying, ‘Read every document and tell me, how good are these guys? What are their approaches, their strengths, their blind spots?’” Assange is not moved. “It is not our role to play sides for states,” he says. “States have national-security concerns, we do not.”

What impact could that philosophy have?
It could open a new era in which governments and other powerful interests find it increasingly difficult to keep sensitive information from the larger public. Even in free societies, there have always been limits on free speech, and news organizations and publishers can be held accountable through libel suits, court injunctions, and even prosecutions if classified information or corporate secrets are released. Because it has no physical location, WikiLeaks, thus far, has been immune to any form of restraint or punishment. “Even if the government were to march into an American or foreign court to seek an injunction,” says constitutional scholar Rodney Smolla, “there is no way to recall the millions of cites and retransmissions that occur almost instantly on the Internet.” The untouchable way WikiLeaks operates marks a seismic shift in the age-old struggle between the authorities and whistle-blowers. Says First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams: “We seem to be moving to a world in which few secrets are safe from disclosure, including genuine ones.”

The man behind the curtain
Julian Assange, 39, was born in Australia to two peace activists who met at a demonstration against the Vietnam War. His mother believed she was being stalked by a former lover and moved the family around constantly, and Assange attended 35 different schools by high school. At 16, he developed an obsession with computers and helped form a hackers collective known as the International Subversives. He eventually pleaded guilty to breaking into government and commercial websites, but he convinced the court he was only trying to “test their security gaps” and didn’t serve jail time. A few years later, he split with his girlfriend, with whom he had a child, and pursued a long, unsuccessful custody battle that further embittered him toward authority. To make himself an elusive target, he now lives a bizarre, peripatetic life, with no permanent home and few belongings. When he travels, even for long stretches at a time, he reportedly takes only a blue backpack containing mobile phones, hard drives, and a large assortment of sweatpants and socks. “Is it in the CIA’s interests to assassinate me?” he asks. “Maybe.”