Secret videos, Pentagon plots and a mysterious, silver-haired, globetrotting Australian — it all sounds like a bad Hollywood thriller (and it probably will be within 12 months; we humbly suggest a potential career revival for Paul Hogan in the lead role). But it’s actually a story playing out across computer screens around the world.

As reported in Crikey last week, secretive whistleblower website WikiLeaks released a classified US military video of an airstrike attack on Baghdad in 2007, which killed 12 civilians, including two Reuters journalists. Published on a site with the emotive title ‘Collateral Murder‘, Wikileaks offered two videos: a 39-minute unedited version of events and an 18-minute edited and annotated version.

WikiLeaks gave its own introduction:

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“The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-site, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.”

The videos hit the world’s media with a bang, and the reactions to the footage were just as explosive: from The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, who labelled it a “war crime”, to Hot Air‘s Ed Morrissey who staunchly defended it as the reality of war. The world was now paying attention to this mysterious online media outfit.

So just what — or who — is WikiLeaks? Where is it getting this stuff? And how does it get away with it? (no connection to Wikipedia, by the way; the prefix “wiki” is just a term used by collaborative websites) has been around since 2006 and acts as a sort of “drop box” where anyone can anonymously post and release sensitive or secret documents and information online. The site is run by an outfit called The Sunshine Press, which describes itself as:

“…an non-profit organization funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public.”

It’s allegedly run by a nine-member “advisory board”, but recently one man has stepped forward as the public “face” of WikiLeaks: Australian Julian Assange. Mother Jones recently ran an extensive profile on this international man of mystery, who it describes as a “shadowy”, “self-centered”, “man on the lam”.

His paranoia and secretive lifestyle are probably not without good cause: as the New York Times revealed last month the Pentagon identified WikiLeaks as a “threat” and in 2008 the US Army Counterintelligence Center prepared a report (which WikiLeaks, ironically, got its hands on: you can download it here [PDF]) detailing ways it could bring the organisation down.

The Collateral Damage videos aren’t the first big scoops by WikiLeaks, just the latest and the biggest. It has a long history of aggravating people, governments and organisations with the release of secret and damning documents — from the Guantanamo Bay operating procedure manual in 2007, Sarah Palin’s personal emails in 2008, the membership list of the British National Party and the Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist in 2009.

Everything is kept on servers in Sweden, where iron-clad whistleblower laws protect the anonymity of sources out of the reach of angry governments. But the increased attention on WikiLeaks and Assage from the new videos has brought with it increased scrutiny.

Yesterday, Assange appeared on The Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert subjected him to an uncharacteristically humourless grilling (it’s our Video of the Day), saying:

“This is footage of an Apache helicopter attack in 2007. The army described this as a group that gave resistance at the time, that doesn’t seem to be happening. But there are armed men in the group, they did find a rocket propelled grenade among the group, the Reuters photographers who were regrettably killed, were not identified… You have edited this tape, and you have given it a title called ‘Collateral Murder.’ That’s not leaking, that’s a pure editorial.”

Assange defended his and WikiLeaks‘ actions, acknowledging the site does editorialise for the sake of gaining maximum media impact, but also releases all information it is given in its entirety so the public can make up its own mind.

Don’t expect this to die down any time soon — according to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, WikiLeaks is set to drop an even bigger bomb soon: footage of a US airstrike in Afghanistan last year that may have killed up to 147 civilians.

Will it strike another big blow for freedom of information? Or will this be the one that finally blows up in WikiLeaks‘ face? Stay tuned.

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Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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