Three years after WikiLeaks shook up the international community by leaking more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, the organization is at it again. Yesterday, it unveiled 1.7 million documents from the era of Henry Kissinger in the form of a searchable database called PlusD. It’s the biggest leak of previously classified information in human history.
The leak will undoubtedly make for some intriguing historical analyses and anecdotes, some of which pertain to people and organizations that still wield power. But it doesn’t say much for the continued relevance of WikiLeaks.
With its leader under house arrest, its biggest source about to stand trial on capital charges and a financial blockade hamstringing its ability to raise money, it’s a wonder WikiLeaks can manage to get anything accomplished. With that in mind, the Kissinger cable leak is an impressive feat.
How Far WikiLeaks Hath Fallen
Yet for the most part, the things we’ll learn from this new trove of documents are based in the past. Three years ago, WikiLeaks was releasing data that had an immediate impact on things going on around the world. Prior to that, it made headlines by releasing the now-infamous video of a U.S. helicopter killing civilians in Iraq.
Today, they’re putting out might be a gold mine for historians and academics, but it probably won’t impact the future as much as past data dumps have.
It’s a radical departure from the rhetoric and expectations of late 2010. It was then that, emboldened by the impact of Cablegate and the Iraq War Logs, WikiLeaks proudly announced that it was in possession of a Bank of America executive’s hard drive, the contents of which would be released to the public. The leak, Assange assured the world, had the potential to “take down a bank or two.”
Whatever Happened To That Hard Drive?
And yet it never materialized. At least a portion of that data was allegedly destroyed by a former WikiLeaks collaborator with whom Assange had a falling out. It’s not clear what, if any, data remains. The data, the seizure of which caused Bank of America to launch an internal, preemptive investigation, has yet to see the light of day.
Since those triumphant, headline-grabbing days, WikiLeaks has been considerably quieter, periodically releasing data that might be interesting, but which lacks the impact of earlier dumps. Last year, the organization leaked millions of internal emails from private intelligence firm Statfor. It revealed a few intriguing details, but the emails were mostly, as GigaOm’s Matthew Ingram put it, “underwhelming.”
As Ingram pointed out, WikiLeaks was no longer working with the influential media partners it boasted in 2010. Instead of teaming up with journalists from the New York Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel, Assange was relying on the likes of Anonymous, a shadowy collective with an altogether different type of reach than the Grey Lady.
Losing Partners and Data Sources
Even more so than it needs powerful media partners, an organization like WikiLeaks needs reliable, well-placed sources. It’s worth recalling that Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of handing WikiLeaks the Collateral Murder video and diplomatic cables, is about to stand trial on charges that could result in his execution.
There’s a certain deterrent factor at play there. And on a more practical level, WikiLeaks no longer has a source quite as well placed as Manning now that he’s in jail. Meanwhile, the hacker who leaked the StratFor emails could face life in prison. Governments have little tolerance for the type of ruckus WikiLeaks has caused, and they’re making that clear to would-be collaborators by aggressively prosecuting the sources of past leaks.
Combine these factors with the financial blockade, Assange’s legal woes and infighting within the organization and it’s easy to conclude that WikiLeaks has been rather handily marginalized.
Sure, there’s still global fallout from past leaks, and the Manning trial, a historical event with huge implications, hasn’t even started. But WikiLeaks is clearly less nimble and impactful than it was three years ago. And short of a bombshell such as a Manning acquittal or another explosive leak on the order of the promised BofA disclosure, there’s little reason to think things are going to turn around any time soon.
Lead photo courtesy of Wikipedia