Dec 10, 2010

WikiLeaks secretly covering up release errors

WikiLeaks has been erroneously releasing cables containing names, places and conversations that have potentially endangered human lives, write Grahame Bowland and Luke Miller.

WikiLeaks has been erroneously releasing cables containing names, places and conversations that have potentially endangered human lives. The organisation has then attempted to cover up its mistakes by secretly and retroactively editing the documents on its website. In extreme cases entire sections, and even entire documents, have been removed. Crikey can not give specific examples without risking the personal safety of the redacted names, but it raises serious questions about WikiLeaks' ability to manage such a large amount of documentation, and the folly of the US State Department’s refusal to assist WikiLeaks in preparing the documents for release. Of the 1203 cables released so far, at least 365 of the cables have been updated by WikiLeaks since they were initially released, mostly for formatting issues. Of the edited cables, more than 45 contain significant non-trivial edits, including 15 cables deleted entirely from the archive. Examples of cables that were initially published with names but have been secretly censored at a later date include discussions with representatives of the US by nationals of their own countries’ elections, military activities and rulers. In addition to names, whole sections of the cables have also been excised. One cable was taken down for three days and, when it returned, nearly half the content, including a frank discussion with the president of an African nation on a wide variety of topics, including the Israel-Palestine peace process and the war in Afghanistan, was missing. In a different cable, a secret escape route from a major country in the Middle East was initially described in detail but vanishes in an update several days later. As well as edits, at least 15 cables that were published have been removed in their entirety from the archive. These cables cover diverse topics and it is not immediately clear why they have been removed. The removal of cables and then their addition back to the archive several days later with edits suggest WikiLeaks is receiving instructions from interested parties to take problematic cables down until the redaction errors have been fixed. This is despite WikiLeaks claiming that before release the documents are "all reviewed and they're all redacted, either by us or by the newspapers concerned". Critics of WikiLeaks have long accused the organsiation of recklessness, with the US saying such releases put "lives in danger". To counteract such criticism for the current "cablegate" releases, WikiLeaks requested but was denied editing assistance from the US State Department. On the other side, there has been some criticism from transparency advocates that WikiLeaks should not be censoring the documents at all, with rival whistle-blower website cryptome calling redactions "immensely deceptive" and stating "Never redact. No vital secrets. No deals with cheating dealers." With about 4% of cables containing significant post release modifications, it seems that in the seismic battle between WikiLeaks and the US government, some people are falling through the cracks.

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18 thoughts on “WikiLeaks secretly covering up release errors

  1. Michael James

    I find it incredible that Crikey appears to be suggesting that the US State Department assist WikiLeaks in editing cables before they are released.

    That would be akin to having your house burgled, then helping the burglar to clean up your items before they are sold at a garage sale.

    Lets be honest here, the cables were illegally stolen and passed on by an individual within the US Government, who is apparently awaiting trial.

    Wikileaks took those cables, knowing they were illegally obtained and transmitted, and then started publishing them.

    Now there are calls for the State Department to assist them to ‘clean up’ these files?

    I suspect that while Mr Assange may not have broken any rules in Australia, he sure as hell has in the US and potentially several other countries. I expect however that he will never see the inside of a US prison.

    More likely his publish and be damned style will see informants in Iraq and Afghanistan outed to people like the Taliban and Al Quaida, who will then kill said informats.

    The family of the now dead people exposed by Wikileaks will demand to know who was responsible for thei loved ones death, and Mr Assange may well end up bearing the brunt of their anger.

    Wikileaks is playing with real peoples lives, the cost of which can be far more than the ‘information must be free” crowd potentially understand.

  2. Jackon Taylor

    Dear Michael

    You sure as hell? Can you name any? Has the Pentagon, State Department or anyone else? I didn’t think so.

    Rooting around in the 1917 Espionage Act may bring up something but as one Human Rights lawyer noted yesterday, it is one thing to charge someone for a crime, it is another to strip-mine a statute looking for an excuse.

  3. David

    Michael James that is really some christal ball you have there. All soothsayers will be flocking to your door oh wizard. Perhaps you should inform the families of those who will be murdered by the Taliban before the event, thus saving them. Given your amazing talent to see into the future, should be a piece of p-ss.

  4. Norman Hanscombe

    I don’t always agree with Michael James; but even when I disagreed, I recall his positions having none of the incoherent drivel cobbled together by the two posters above who haven’t a clue about what M.J. actually wrote.

    Not, mind you, that their confusion was a surprise.

  5. Rowan

    In this case “secretly” covering up release errors is the right thing to do. If they are, as you say, taking the offending cables down and then uploading redacted versions in order to remove names of people at risk.

    Ideally the names of at risk people should be removed in advance — the US State Department should have assisted here, no question — but failing that, then any at risk names mentioned in the cables should be edited in secret as quickly as humanly possible once WikiLeaks are alerted to an issue.

    What’s the alternative? WikiLeaks publicizes the fact that it took down a specific cable to redact parts of it in order to hide someones identity? Oh, and by the way, if you go to Google’s cache, that persons identity could still be there, caught in Google’s time warp.

    The US State Department should be assisting them to redact sensitive names. The cat is out of the bag. This information is going to be released whether the US arrest Assange or not. But instead of minimizing risk to informants and other at risk people mentioned in the cables, the US is refusing to help and instead will try and use the deaths of any of these at risk people to their advantage in their battle against WikiLeaks.

  6. bob.allan

    You either publish leaked information or you don’t. To edit it defeats the purpose, exposing you to the same allegations being levelled at the current crop of leakees. Not releasing specifics is no doubt a wise move in many circumstances but having denied others the right to draw the line who gives you, whoever you are, the right to decide where it should be? This could all get very scary & not just for those in the spotlight now.

  7. Moira Smith

    I used to run several websites. It is normal to edit webpages ‘on the run’ whenever you notice a typo, or need to make a change or update the content. I would change the ‘last edited’ date at the bottom of the page in question but never felt it necessary to post a notice at the top saying what I’d changed unless it was a really major edit eg contradicting something previously stated. The terms ‘secretly’ and ‘cover up’ are value-laden in the context of this ‘news story’.

  8. MLF

    @Moira – not necessarily, because WL undertook (and professed) to redact the cables before publishing them to prevent potential danger to lives. It appears they have been a bit lacks in this.

    @Rowan – why on earth would the State Department assist a group who is publishing stolen documents? Firstly, the SD maintains that they should not be published at all. Secondly, to carry out such redaction could be (lets face it, would be) seen by many as somehow “authorising” their publication.

    If WL is going to do it, then they should damn well make sure they do it properly. And if they have endangered lives by poor administrative efforts, then there’s alot more reason to bring charges against them.

  9. oggy

    Michael James
    “Wikileaks is playing with real peoples lives”, i suggest to u the 760 odd acknowledged US bases worldwide have been and are still doing just that,but thats ok they are the good guys protecting us.I have no doubt the thousands of US agents worldwide are already in overdrive protecting essential personnel that they have need of.Those others not protected ,well just collateral damage in the great war.
    Wikileaks is now filling the vacuum left by the broadsheets who used to inform us of events untoward,and who used to protect their sources.Secretive Govt’s and organisations better get ready because it seems this cat is well and truly out of the bag ,thank goodness for the whistleblowers i just don’t know where they get the courage,maybe their “conscience” demands their actions .

  10. GlenTurner1

    MLF wrote “why on earth would the State Department assist a group who is publishing stolen documents?”.

    The reason is simple: to protect its sources. As Mark Arbib can attest, all it takes is one disgruntled private and your world is turned upside down without the US State Department lifting a finger to protect you. That’s bound to dampen the enthusiasm of people to speak freely with US diplomats, to the detriment of US policy making.

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