2020-12-07

The Why and What of WikiLeaks — and the Fear and Self-Censorship Response

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by Neil Godfrey

When WikiLeaks first appeared in 2006 . . . human rights lawyers immediately paid attention. WikiLeaks was publishing important information that had been kept from the public but was essential for human rights accountability.

Julian Assange’s 2006 OKCupid dating profile using the name Harry Harrison:

“WARNING: Want a regular, down to earth guy? Keep moving. I am not the droid you are looking for. Save us both while you still can. Passionate, and often pig headed activist intellectual seeks siren for love affair, children and occasional criminal conspiracy. Such a woman should be spirited and playful, of high intelligence, though not necessarily formally educated, have spunk, class & inner strength and be able to think strategically about the world and the people she cares about.

“I like women from countries that have sustained political turmoil.
Western culture seems to forge women that are valueless and inane. OK. Not only women!

“Although I am pretty intellectually and physically pugnacious I am very protective of women and children.

“I am DANGER, ACHTUNG, and ??????????????!”

“Harry” went on to say he was directing a “consuming, dangerous, human rights project which is, as you might expect, male dominated”. . . . The profile warned: “Do not write to me if you are timid. I am too busy. Write to me if you are brave.”

Investigative journalism depends on leaks

Principled government bureaucrats hand journalists documents when they see wrongdoing because they believe the public ought to know what the government is really up to. Principled corporate employees hand journalists confidential documents, which demonstrate the unlawful or unethical practices of powerful corporations. Whatever the public interest is in the material disclosed, public and private sector whistleblowers can face criminal and civil legal action for ensuring the public has the information we need to hold these powerful interests to account

The imperative to protect journalists’ sources

Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom … Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public-watchdog role of the press may be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information may be adversely affected. — European Court of Human Rights, ‘Factsheet: Protection of Journalistic Sources’, February 2019 [pdf]

This is why WikiLeaks is so dangerous to those in power with something to hide – and why WikiLeaks must be defended and protected.

The role of Wikileaks

Unfortunately, however, in many places around the world journalists can face prosecution if they refuse to reveal their source.

WikiLeaks’ model provides a practical solution: its anonymous submission system was specifically designed to provide protection to journalists and whistleblowers that the law does not provide, thereby providing greater encouragement to sources to come forward to better enable ‘the vital public-watchdog role of the press’. Together with its robust publication policy, WikiLeaks provides sources better protection and a promise that their material – once verified – will be published. And published with maximum global effect: rather than documents being the preserve of certain elite journalists in the world’s capitals, WikiLeaks makes its information available to journalists, citizen journalists, activists and lawyers the world over.

This is why WikiLeaks is so dangerous to those in power with something to hide – and why WikiLeaks must be defended and protected.

A partial list of significant publications

The classified Guantanamo Bay manual detailing US torture techniques

The Minton report detailing Trafigura’s toxic dump on the Ivory Coast affecting over 100,000 people which the company had suppressed with a gag order in the UK

Collateral Murder, a video showing the US military killing two Reuters employees in Iraq

The Afghan War Diary, then ‘the most significant archive about the reality of war to have ever been released during the course of a war’ [revealing the Australian government lied when it announced the withdrawal of most Australian combat troops from Afghanistan]

The Iraq War Logs – the largest leak in US military history . . . The documents demonstrated there were many thousands more civilian deaths than reported or acknowledged by the US government, as well as the systemic failure to investigate reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi forces and abuse in US detention facilities. [The Iraq War Logs were used by lawyers in filing a case against the UK before the International Criminal Court.]

Cablegate became known as ‘the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain’ and there is no denying the overwhelming public interest in the material. From Tunisia to Tonga, Canberra to Cairo, and the West Bank to West Papua, WikiLeaks disclosures provided an unprecedented insight into the conduct of diplomacy and revealed corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuse the world over. [For example, WikiLeaks disclosures related to West Papua confirmed what those of us working on human rights there have long known – the Indonesian military is engaging in widespread human rights abuse while on the payroll of the huge US/Australian-run Freeport gold and copper mine – but the existence of these documents makes it much harder for our governments to deny that it is happening.] [A cable was cited before the European Court of Human Rights in a CIA rendition case from Italy.] [WikiLeaks cables were cited by lawyers fighting for the rights of the Chagos Islanders against the British government]

Reports about Sri Lankan military operations against the Tamils and in the groundbreaking documentary No Fire Zone, which led to a UN investigation into war crimes, and were cited by Tamil lawyers in London seeking an arrest warrant for former President Rajapaksa.

All of the above quotations and data is from Jennifer Robinson‘s chapter in A Secret Australia. I have added the links. The dating profile comes from Leigh and Harding’s WikiLeaks

See also: List of material published by WikiLeaks (Wikipedia); for a brief review of WikiLeaks releases relevant to Australia up to early 2011, see Michelle Fahy, with Bill Williams, Sue Wareham and Gerry Schulz, What has WikiLeaks Revealed?, Medical Association for Prevention of War, January 2011. (Cited by Richard Tanter in A Secret Australia)

One would think that the Australian government would be doing something to protect democracy’s and Assange’s interests. One would also think that all journalists and scholars would be going out of their way to make use of the material and the questions it all raises. The following observations are depressing:

Academic self-censorship

Given more than half a century of such apparently successful attempts to displace attention from the actual nature and consequences of US foreign policy and that of its allies, it is surprising how little academics in Australia have directly utilised the documentary evidence provided by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, or used the issues raised by them as a stimulus to further inquiry. Displacement on an institutional scale prevails, in part as a result of purposive state action, and partly the consequence of academic self-censorship.18 — Richard Tanter, “WikiLeaks, Australia and Empire”, A Secret Australia, pp. 23 f

18 On self-censorship in academic international relations, see the Forum ‘Censorship in Security Studies’ in the Journal of Global Security Studies, vol. 1, issue 4, November 2016, pp. 323-360, especially Benoît Pelopidas, ‘Nuclear Weapons Scholarship as a Case of Self-Censorship in Security Studies’ and Richard Ned Lebow, ‘Self-Censorship in International Relations and Security Studies’. — pp. 40 f

And giving Assange the last say in this post:

Of course the phenomena that occurs with us, and that we arc able to document in quite a concrete way, simply reflects the corruption of US academia and English-speaking academia more generally in terms of its understanding of international relations, because of its over-proximity to the State Department, in terms of feeder schools, or think-tanks where people aspire to security clearance or they have other forms of proximity to it, or they are scared about being prosecuted, That has been going on for decades. So the description we have of the world is not the description of the world as it actually exists, because our description of the world rests significantly on what academics have been able to do, and what journalists have been able to do. Enormous sections of that are opaque as a result of this type of self-censorship. So we had to produce a book instead. — Julian Assange in Scott Ludlam and Julian Assange, “Despair and Defiance: An Audience with Julian Assange”, A Secret Australia, p. 215


Cronau, Peter, and Felicity Ruby, eds. A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks Exposés. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2020.

Leigh, David, and Luke Harding. WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. London: Guardian Books, 2011.

See also:

Brevini, Benedetta, Arne Hintz, and Patrick McCurdy, eds. Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism and Society. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.


 


2020-12-04

The antidote to George Orwell’s memory hole in 1984

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by Neil Godfrey

Assange now faces 18 charges related to publishing information leaked to WikiLeaks that attract 175 years in jail.2

2 Julian Assange charged under Espionage Act in unprecedented attack on First Amendment

Of the charges, 17 relate to publication, and one to acting to protect the identity of his source. He is not charged with doing anything other than what any journalist might do in the course of their work. . . .

The propaganda campaign to smear the name of Julian Assange has intentionally tried to divert the public from the message, from the information he has made available to all, about how governments lie to and betray their own citizens. So threatened have been the powers that be in the United States by the information released by WikiLeaks that prominent figures and politicians have called for his extrajudicial execution.

So effective has been that smear campaign in the mainstream media that the narrative many held about Assange was changed from him being a ‘truth-telling hero’ to being some sort of ‘evil and perverted traitor’. The facts have been ignored as this contest for a narrative continues. There can be no excuses for the abandonment of Julian Assange by the Australian government and by far too many journalists in the mainstream media.

(Ruby and Cronau, p. x)

A Secret Australia does not address the smear campaigns against Assange; it draws attention to his legacy instead.

For responses to the propaganda campaigns against his person see

Some things Julian Assange as said I do not like at all. I may not even particularly like to get too close to him as a person. But none of that matters. None of that should distract us from the political issue and the contributions Wikileaks has made in the interests of a free society.

Here is a recent discussion about “Wikileaks and its continuing influence on journalism and foreign policy” (on the Late Night Live program) involving several of the contributors to the new publication A Secret Australia.

Mentioned briefly in that discussion were the following four specific innovations Wikileaks introduced to journalism:

1. The Anonymous, Secure Digital Dropbox

When WikiLeaks introduced its dropbox, everything changed – and not just for those who read the news. It immediately put pressure on other journalists and media outlets to start taking the digital security of sources more seriously. . . . 

 

2. Verification Journalism

The use of datasets to figure out ‘What is the story?’ had been around before WikiLeaks, but the online publisher popularised it by having an enormous political impact that was difficult for anyone to ignore.

More to the point, WikiLeaks mainstreamed the concept of providing the full dataset so we could see if what was being reported was true. . . . 

 

3. Global Collaborative Journalism

WikiLeaks has innovated in global publishing as well, introducing a new model for large-scale collaborative global partnerships publishing across many media outlets with many different owners. Historically, media outlets have been competitive with each other – get the story, get it exclusively, and run it before your rival. WikiLeaks completely flipped this thinking. It built an alliance estimated to include at least 89 media partnerships across the world to analyse and publish the US State Department cables. . . . 

 

4. Journalism as a Permanent Record and Archive in the Digital Age

WikiLeaks’ model of journalism offers another benefit in the form of the digital archive.

. . . . One of Julian Assange’s greatest worries has been how easily truth can disappear in the digital age and how easily the historical record can be erased. Newspapers can silently remove news stories from their archival databases, and, with that act, the evidence of history. The story disappears. Evidence of what really happened on that day and place may not exist anywhere else.

The WikiLeaks innovation of not just publishing but keeping a public archive of all its source material supporting its journalistic stories is important. It allows the reader to verify the news story at the time it is published, but it also serves as a kind of failsafe for the future. As long as the archive is kept intact and available, it prevents the history that was reported in the stories based on it from ever being fully erased, even if the stories themselves are taken down by media partners. It is the antidote to George Orwell’s memory hole in 1984 . . . . 

(Dreyfus (in A Secret Australia), pp. 55-61)

Check it out: https://wikileaks.org/


Cronau, Peter, and Felicity Ruby, eds. A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks Exposés. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2020.


 


2020-02-26

The Assange Hearing

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by Neil Godfrey

What I have learned so far:

— the prosecutor in delivering his opening statements openly stated that he was addressing the media;

— many of the journalists left the courtroom after the prosecution set out its case and did not stay to hear the defence;

— information that has been public knowledge for ten years (published, in the public domain) that Wikileaks and Assange personally went to great lengths to remove sensitive names and sources from their files before they were released to the public means nothing to those in power: they still have the audacity to accuse Assange of not redacting key information and names;

— that the U.S. is allowed to target an Australian for exposing war crimes and the Australian government will not object.


2019-04-16

(Why are) Biblioblogs Silent on the Julian Assange Arrest?

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by Neil Godfrey

I subscribe to a wide range of biblioblogs and have been surprised to see no post (with one exception) on the Julian Assange business. Not even anything by James Crossley who has posted and written about political and ideological issues at length, but he has been quiet more generally lately. It’s not a biblical topic, you might say, and I don’t expect most biblioblogs to touch it, but a substantial number do comment on current affairs of note from time to time.

If you know of any biblioblog which has touched on the topic do please leave me a note below.


2019-04-12

Julian Assange & WikiLeaks – Comments

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by Neil Godfrey

[Daniel] Ellsberg was called The Most Dangerous Man in America by President Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. Now Ellsberg, an articulate and energetic seventy-nine years old, was passing on the baton to Assange—and going one step further. He agreed that Assange was a ‘good candidate for being the most dangerous man in the world’ and he should be ‘quite proud of that’. He also had some advice for Assange. He was ‘not safe physically wherever he is’.

Fowler, Andrew. 2011. The Most Dangerous Man in the World: The Explosive True Story of Julian Assange and the Lies, Cover-Ups and Conspiracies He Exposed. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press.

About two days ago I watched this press conference. The editor-in-chief sums up the fundamentals of journalism in a democratic society: If it’s newsworthy, if it’s in the public interest, and if it’s true — it should be published.

So many of knew Julian Assange’s days in the Ecuadorian embassy were imminently threatened but was not expecting the arrest so soon.

I know many readers of this blog have no time for Assange. I cannot deny I find his narcissism very unlikeable. But that’s not the point, of course. (And yes, I know the reasons others loathe him go well beyond his personality.)

A Real Test

https://twitter.com/ryangrim/status/1116295855122853889

-o0o-

Important Background

https://twitter.com/Snowden/status/1116285397284290560

-o0o-

The excerpt of the UNHR document in easier to read size:

The full document is at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24042&LangID=E

-o0o-

Good Bullshit-free Analysis and Summary

Continue reading “Julian Assange & WikiLeaks – Comments”


2018-07-13

Once more on Julian Assange

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by Neil Godfrey

I know. Julian Assange is not easy to like as a person.

From Peter Van Buren’s Why I Stand With Julian Assange (The American Conservative)

Assange is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. In 2010, he was a hero to opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others called him an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Now most of Assange’s former supporters see him as a traitor and a Putin tool for releasing emails from the Democratic National Committee. Even with the sexual assault inquiry against him having been dismissed, Assange is a #MeToo villain. He a traitor who hides from justice inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, or a spy, or some web-made Frankenstein with elements of all the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words “generous,” “warm,” and “personable” are rarely included in their descriptions.

But none of that matters. What matters is that Assange has ended up standing at a crossroads in the history of our freedom . . . .

Then in conclusion

Wikileaks’ version of journalism says here are the cables, the memos, and the emails. Others can write about them (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange a traitor), or you as a citizen can read the stuff yourself and make up your own damned mind. That is the root of an informed public, a set of tools never before available until Assange and the internet created them.

If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party under the Espionage Act, whether as a journalist or not, the government will turn that precedent into a weapon to attack the media’s role in any national security case. On the other hand, if Assange leaves London for asylum in Ecuador, that will empower new journalists to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable.

Freedom is never static. It either advances under our pressure, or recedes under theirs. I support Julian Assange.

 

 


2018-06-19

A moving plea for Julian Assange

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by Neil Godfrey

It is easy to find fault with Julian Assange as a person and with some of the views of John Pilger, but it is also easy to find much good in both of them. I found John Pilger’s address on behalf of Julian Assange very moving

Bringing Julian Assange Home

 


2010-12-14

Why the public fear of democracy? Why the defence of Big Brother?

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by Neil Godfrey

User big brother 1984
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Strange how so often I read public indignation over WikiLeaks comparing what Wikileaks has done with having their own personal files being hacked and made public. The presumption is that the government has all the rights of a private person. It’s as if many people really want their government to have all the privileges of private individuals. Many seem to think that unless the government has such personal privacy rights then it cannot protect their — the public’s — interests!

What happened to the presumption that governments are accountable to the people? I used to think of governments as public bodies. There was something called the “public service”. We used to speak about the “public interest” and the public’s right to know. Democracy itself was predicated on a free and open information society.

So when someone in that public service leaked a document to the press and the press published it, the scandal that would ensue would be over what the government had been up to in secret for fear of those to whom it was accountable.

The turn around from all of these values and assumptions staggers me somewhat. What an amazing turnaround that so many people now seem convinced that a government really should be treated like a private brother, only a bigger one.


2010-12-03

Old Fashioned Democracy in the Internet Age

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by Neil Godfrey

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What a quaint idea that has only rarely been heard since the days of Thomas Jefferson: “Information is the currency of democracy” — Thank John Pilger for this reminder of something fundamental, yet that has been so lost in recent years that when people see it in action today they run scared and cry treason! Just like when our eyes are so used to the dark that the light hurts.

Hear the interview with John Pilger on the current tragicomedy over WikiLeaks at  http://www.abc.net.au/rn/breakfast/stories/2010/3083583.htm

(I loved his “They read our emails, so why shouldn’t we read theirs?” 🙂

Heartening also to see human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson is still active on the side of basic decency, as he is most times:

Do read Crikey’s report on his call for us to stand up for Julian Assange at http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/09/14/we-should-stand-up-for-assange-geoffrey-robertson/

Or if all of that is too heavy for you, how about John Lennon’s

Imagine there’s no country
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for

Is that what the fear is all about? That our favourite country is embarrassed about the exposure of its lies and true face?


2010-07-27

Afghan files in a spreadsheet

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by Neil Godfrey

90,000 files for those with an inclination for the open society and an informed public – not easily digested by slower readers at a single sitting.

Some busy people at the Guardian have organized the main points into an XLS spreadsheet for download  – but helpful to read the guide on the download page first:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/datablog/2010/jul/25/wikileaks-afghanistan-data


Lessons from Wikileaks for Historical Jesus “Historians”

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by Neil Godfrey

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How do professionals go about assessing the veracity (let’s say historicity) of very detailed reports that claim to be classified official documents?

With thanks to the person who emailed me notice of this, here is an excerpt from an interview with Guardian reporter Declan Walsh:

Walsh: “There are reports that an insurgent commander had created a poison powder that could be added to the food of coalition soldiers, and he called that ‘Osamacapa’”.

NPR: “That particular report, the detail of the person who was distributing this powder not only has his name and height, the appearance of his eyes, the address of his store, which he locks whenever the police are around, remarkable detail about the person who was allegedly distributing ‘Osamacapa’”.

Walsh: “That’s right, experts who have looked over these reports for us have told us, paradoxically, that sometimes the more detail you see in a report the less likely it is to be true because the people who are giving this information are painting very elaborate stories in order to affect an air of plausibility, whereas, in actual fact it may have not been true at all”.

The audio file of the interview can be accessed on NPR’s site here. It is less than 5 minutes long (mp3 file) and worth listening to in its entirety.

I first encountered this recognition of “abundance of detail” in the book “Propaganda” by Jacques Ellul some years ago now. Ellul studies cases where propagandists dull the critical senses of their audiences by overloading them with details. When more detail than any one person can thoroughly digest at a time is barraged at them, the target audience tends to find it easiest to assume that where there is smoke there must be fire. This does not necessarily, or even usually, mean enormously lengthy reports or stories, but more usually comes in the form of many shorter news clips, each with its own details, to impress targets with impressions of “something true there somewhere”. So on that principle the propagandist has succeeded in his task. (I am speaking here of psychological principles at work. No-one can compare the details of modern information gluts with the gospel narratives. The point is the psychological effect of hearing details. They are there for both plausibility and to hold interest.)

Hence the importance of independent verification and sourcing of all details at all times. Without this, there is no basis from which to decide if what we are reading is “smoke from fire” or nothing but staged “smoke and mirrors”.

And this is what we hear at work in the interview with Declan Walsh.

There are really two points here worth noting. One is the presence of “eyewitness detail”. The other is the analysis of sources and verification of these.

So primary evidence, even primary evidence claiming to be from eyewitnesses, that comes from classified official sources, must be independently assessed for its factualness or “historicity”.

If this sort of rigour is required for contemporary primary sources, how much more cautious must anyone claiming to be a researcher of Christian origins be with respect to his or her sources?

Reliable independent verification of narratives contained in our sources is the prerequisite for justifying confidence in the historical core of the narratives — according to historians from Schweitzer to Hobsbawm.

Using criteria as a substitute to manufacture evidence just doesn’t cut it! By contrast with “real life” and the sort of historical research applied by scholars of nonbiblical topics (including ancient ones), many “historical Jesus historians” seem to be playing in a world of make-believe, pulling out this or that detail from gospels or rabbinical sources at it fits their whims in order to publish some will-o’-the-wisp variation of an iconic, and therefore unquestionable, orthodox tale.

(Aside: NPR’s approach to Wikileaks and the Afghan papers is not what I am addressing here. I have other views on that as everyone does. The point here is to bring to the fore a detail of method and approach to “historicity” of events from a source someone kindly forwarded me recently.)


2010-06-17

WikiLeaks is Asking for Urgent Help

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by Neil Godfrey

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This is from David Heath of ITWire:

Following the arrest of the person suspected of leaking the “Collateral Murder” video, WikiLeaks feels that it is under attack and is seeking urgent support.

iTWire received the following message in the past few minutes, it’s meaning is very clear.  We ask readers to assist where they can.

WikiLeaks may be under attack.

You were generous enough to write to us, but we have not had the labor resources to respond.

Your support is important to us. Please read all of this email to understand what is going on. We apologize for not getting back to you before. It is not through any lack of interest on our part, but an enforced lack of resources.

One of our alleged sources, a young US intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, has been detained and shipped to a US military prison in Kuwait, where he is being held without trail. Mr. Manning is alleged to have acted according to his conscious and leaked to us the Collateral Murder video and the video of a massacre that took place in Afghanistan last year at Garani.

The Garani massacre, which we are still working on, killed over 100 people, mostly children.

Mr. Manning allegedly also sent us 260,000 classified US Department cables, reporting on the actions of US Embassy’s engaging in abusive actions all over the world. We have denied the allegation, but the US government is acting as if the allegation is true and we do have a lot of other material that exposes human rights abuses by the United States government.

Mr. Manning was allegedly exposed after talking to an unrelated “journalist” who then worked with the US government to detain him.

Some background on the Manning case:

http://fdlaction.firedoglake.com/2010/06/11/transcript-daniel-ellsberg-says-he-fears-us-might-assasinate-wikileaks-founder/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradley_Manning
http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/06/leak/
http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/06/wikileaks-chat/
http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/06/state-department-anxious/
http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2010/06/143011.htm

[ note that there are some questions about the Wired reportage, see: http://www.boingboing.net/2010/06/13/video-wikileaks-foun.html#comment-809677 ]

WikiLeaks a small organization going through enormous growth and operating in an adverserial, high-security environment which can make communication time consuming and the acquisition of new staff and volunteers, also difficult since they require high levels of trust.

To try and deal with our growth and the current difficult situation, we want to get you to work together with our other supporters to set up a “Friends of WikiLeaks” group in your area. We have multiple supporters in most countries and would like to see them be a strong and independent force.

Please write to friends@sunshinepress.org if you are interested in helping with Friends of WikiLeaks in your area. You will receive further instructions.

We also have significant unexpected legal costs (for example flying a legal team to Kuwait, video production. Collateral Murder production costs were $50,000 all up).

Any financial contributions will be of IMMEDIATE assistance.

http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Special:Support

Please donate and tell the world that you have done so. Encourage all your friends to follow the example you set, after all, courage is contagious.

Julian Assange
Editor in Chief
WIKILEAKS

Continue reading “WikiLeaks is Asking for Urgent Help”