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WikiLeaks' Spokesman: We Have 'Changed The Landscape Of The Media'

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (left) and spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (left) and spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson

The pro-transparency organization WikiLeaks has itself been criticized for a lack of transparency about how it operates. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Kristin Deasy, WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson responds to these criticisms and talks about the organization's goals and methods.

RFE/RL: Some critics of WikiLeaks say that the organization adheres to something of a double-standard. On one hand, it demands transparency from corporations and public officials. But on the other, it is not transparent itself. Can you talk about what goes on behind the scenes at WikiLeaks? Are there conversations about the moral pros and cons of releasing or not releasing a document? Or is everything just released in the name of transparency?

Kristinn Hrafnsson:
Well, we are very transparent in the way...we are working [and] what we are publishing. It is true that some of our people are working without having their identity known. I think that should be understandable in light of the threats and the attacks that the organization has been under. These are people that have to think [about] their family and their security, and some of them are contributing part-time.

Apart from that, it is very hard to sort of equate the partial secrecy of WikiLeaks [with] the secrecy of a military organization or a government with large powers or of a large corporation. It's hard to equate that, in my mind. But overall, I think it's pretty well-known what WikiLeaks does and how it operates.

RFE/RL: Some people say WikiLeaks is the modern equivalent of the brown envelope, the anonymous leaks and submissions that mainstream media organizations would get in years past. Now that technology has changed the situation, you have WikiLeaks receiving this information and releasing it. But the difference is that if "The New York Times," for example, got such information they would offer the parties involved a right of response or rebuttal. The idea is this helps present the information in a more balanced way. Do you think that's something WikiLeaks should be doing?

Hrafnsson: Well, why is there a need for rebuttal, a chance to rebut the material that we have been publishing? The material speaks out for itself. It is authentic, and nobody has claimed that it's not. So, by publishing the material, the people can value it on its own merit...There is no need for a right to reply when you are dealing with material of this nature.

Kristinn Hrafnsson: "There are a lot of misunderstandings about WikiLeaks, but this is changing, gradually, I feel."
RFE/RL: Obviously, people have lots of different reasons they submit information to you. Maybe they have an ax to grind or maybe they really think it is in the public interest for it to be out there. How do you weigh these motives? How do you vet the material? Are there some things that you just don't release because either you don't think it's in the public interest or it was submitted for the wrong reasons?

Hrafnsson: Well, you weigh the information on the same basis as any editorial office of any media [that] would weigh information that gets to their in-box. I mean, this is basically a journalistic call.

RFE/RL: Does it go to anyone in WikiLeaks for approval or evaluation? Are there people with the authority to say it is OK to be released?

Hrafnsson: Well, material is evaluated by a group of people in WikiLeaks, but in the end, it's the call of the editor -- pretty much as with traditional media.

RFE/RL: After WikiLeaks released thousands of U.S. embassy cables, some Russian newspapers began reporting what they said were diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks, but there was no way to confirm that. Could you clarify how WikiLeaks works with the media? Because there was a lot of confusion as to whether or not these cables were actual WikiLeaks cables, or whether they were just rumors and they were being packaged that way. Is there any way a media organization can know whether another media organization claiming to work with WikiLeaks is actually working with them?

Hrafnsson: Well, the way we work with media all over the world -- and we are now working with media all over the world -- is that they get access to a portion of the cables. And when they report on the content, we publish the actual cables on our website. So that is usually how it works, and the verification of when the story is based on the cables, basically, is the publication of the cables on our website.

RFE/RL: Initially, you were only working with five officially sanctioned, if you will, media organizations -- "The New York Times," "The Guardian," et cetera. Has that situation changed and you're now partnering with a greater number of organizations on an official level?

Hrafnsson: Yes, I mean, this is a project that had two phases. In the first phase, we were working with the large publications you mentioned -- "Der Spiegel," "The Guardian," "The New York Times," "El Pais," and "Le Monde."

In the second phase, we are working on a more regional, local level with the media all over the world -- Central America, Latin America, various countries in Asia, et cetera, and in Europe -- with more of a focus on regional matters. That is actually an ongoing project, although I am not able to pull up how many media we are now working with. But there are many dozens at the moment.

RFE/RL: Is WikiLeaks something that only receives information? It began as a hackers collective, more or less. So are there any proactive ways used to get certain information, or is it all passive and the organization just takes what people bring to it?

Hrafnsson: There is no hacking involved in WikiLeaks, no proactive work in getting information. We are on the receiving end, and we don't use the topics of the content that is passed on to us, contrary to some claims. So we are passive recipients of information, and what we do is we verify the content's authenticity.

We clean the material of traces that could possibly point to the source, and we then get it out to the public -- either by directly posting it to our website or, as we have been doing in the last few months, entering into a direct cooperation with the mainstream media in analyzing the material and publishing stories based on them.

RFE/RL: There is an Internet collective called Anonymous, which I'm sure you know about, and they have claimed to have a relationship with WikiLeaks in some form. Are you working with Anonymous on an official level?

Hrafnsson: There is no official or unofficial relationship with this group. I have no idea who the members are. There's no connection there.

RFE/RL: Do you think that WikiLeaks is generally misunderstood by the media?

Hrafnsson: There are a lot of misunderstandings about WikiLeaks, but this is changing, gradually, I feel. The traditional media are more and more seeing that WikiLeaks is an addition to the media landscape and has very much changed the landscape of the media in the last few months. [This has progressed] even to the extent that some big media -- traditional media operations -- are weighing the option of opening a similar gateway on their own websites.

So...there is gradually more and more understanding of what WikiLeaks is doing and the necessity of the work here with regard to increasing transparency.