What is Wikileaks?

Frequently asked questions about WikiLeaks, the website that published secret military documents providing details about the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009.
A news stand in London displays newspapers, some carrying the story on WikiLeaks' release of classified U.S. State Department documents. The online whistleblower WikiLeaks released classified U.S. diplomatic cables that reportedly raise concerns about unflattering assessments of world leaders and revelations about backstage U.S. diplomacy. ((Sang Tan/Associated Press))

On Nov. 28, 2010, Wikileaks began publishing  more than a quarter million leaked United States embassy cables. WikiLeaks says the documents show how the U.S. kept tabs on its allies and on the UN, turned a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses in states it supported, and how American officials described foreign leaders.

A month earlier, WikiLeaks released documents that suggested the U.S.  turned a blind eye to hundreds of reports of abuse, torture and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers.

On July 25, 2010 WikiLeaks published nearly 77,000 secret U.S. military and intelligence documents that revealed new details about the war in Afghanistan, including the close relationship of the Pakistani military with Afghan insurgents. At the time, the posting of those documents was described as the largest leak in American military history since the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Since then, the organization has continued to released secret documents that have rocked governments and military around the world.

What is WikiLeaks?

WikiLeaks is a non-profit global media organization that releases previously secret information directly to the public. Its founders say the site protects people who want to shine a light on government and corporate misconduct. It is not affiliated with the Wikipedia online encyclopedia.

The organization describes itself as providing "an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth."

WikiLeaks describes itself as the "uncensorable wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis."

It was originally based in Sweden and had collected 1.2 million leaked documents when it started posting documents in 2007.

Why was it started?

The founders say that WikiLeaks protects people who want to bring government and corporate misconduct into the public domain.

It allows individuals to anonymously publish previously classified, hidden or sensitive documents.

The site, which has won multiple awards, says its aim is to make governments more open to scrutiny.

"We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies."

WikiLeaks says that obtaining this information has traditionally been costly, both in terms of human life and human rights. But technological advances mean that the risks of conveying information can be lowered.

Who runs it?

The website is run by a group of volunteers and is supported through donations. It was originally the project of a company called the Sunshine Press.

The site had trouble securing funding and went through a period of near-bankruptcy. In 2009 it was temporarily shut down, before re-launching in 2010.

Australian Julian Assange is one of the people who founded the website in 2006, and has become the public face of the organization. He describes himself as a member of the board and editor-in-chief of the site. He says he is a volunteer, like the rest of the people who work for the site.

According to the Times newspaper, Assange was one of six people arrested for hacking NASA's computers while the Atlantis shuttle launched in 1989. While he was not implicated in the NASA attack, he was charged with more than 30 counts of computer crime, placed on a "good behaviour bond" and fined more than $2,000.

Assange won an Amnesty International Media Award in 2009, was named by Utne Reader in December 2010 as one of 25 visionaries changing the world and was considered for Time magazine's 2010 Person of the Year.

Assange has been under diplomatic protection in the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain since June 19, 2012, to avoid arrest by Swedish and U.S. authorities. Assange asked Britain's Supreme Court on June 8, 2012, to reopen his extradition case, an unusual legal manoeuvre aimed at blocking his removal to Sweden, but the court announced its refusal on June 15. He had also  lost an earlier appeal on Nov. 2, 2011, against extradition to answer for the sex crime allegations.​ ​He was granted political asylum by the Ecuadorian government on Aug. 16, 2012. ​​

On Aug. 18, 2012, Assange announced he planned to leave the building "soon," but Britain signalled it would arrest him if he tried. "I am leaving the embassy soon ... but perhaps not for the reasons that Murdoch press and Sky news are saying at the moment," Assange told reporters at the embassy in central London. Britain's Sky News, part owned by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox, had earlier reported that Assange was considering leaving the embassy due to deteriorating health.

Assange has faced death threats over his group's release of secret military and other forms of classified information, and is the focus of U.S. and European investigations into his involvement in WikiLeaks as well as for alleged sexual misconduct.

How does it work?

When WikiLeaks was launched, users were invited to submit directly to the site but as more and more documents began to overload its servers, WikiLeaks changed its all-access posting rule. It now requests submissions from leakers.

WikiLeaks volunteers determine whether a document is legitimate and calculate its overall relevance and importance.

The site says it assures protection and anonymity using cryptographic technologies. It also collects material in person and from postal dropoffs.

The site's servers are spread out over several international locations and do not keep logs.

The team also has a network of lawyers to defend published documents and protect sources.

What other notable leaked documents has it published?

  • Aug. 31, 2007: Wikileaks releases a report by the international investigative firm, Kroll Associates, that alleged that former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi and his associates looted billions from the country's treasury. The report, commissioned by the Kenyan government, was submitted in 2004, but never acted upon.
  • Nov. 7, 2007: A copy of standard operating procedures for Camp Delta – the  U.S. Army detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – dated March 2003 reveals some of the restrictions placed over detainees at the camp, including the designation of some prisoners as off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross, something that the U.S. military had previously denied.
  • April 5, 2010: Wikileaks releases classified U.S. military video from a series of attacks on July 12, 2007, in Baghdad by a U.S. helicopter. Twelve civilians were killed including two Reuters news staff.
  • July 2010: Wikileaks releases the Afghanistan war logs.
  • October 2010: Wikileaks releases the Iraq war logs.
  • November 2010: Wikileaks releases the U.S. diplomatic cables.
  • April 25, 2011: Wikileaks releases the the Guantanamo files. The New York Times and the Guardian publish extensive reports about the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, based on more than 700 military documents leaked to WikiLeaks.
  • July 5, 2012: Wikileaks releases the Syria files.


  • An earlier version of this story said more than 92,000 secret U.S. military and intelligence reports were published on the website WikiLeaks on July 25. In fact, WikiLeaks published nearly 77,000 documents on July 25 and planned to later publish about 15,000 more.
    Jul 28, 2012 3:27 PM ET

With files from Denoja Kankesan