Until last week, Julian Assange seemed to be receding from view. As he wrestled with criminal charges and a financial chokehold on donations to his cause, Wikileaks’ data releases slowed to a trickle, and nothing that emerged proved too juicy. Then, all of a sudden, Wikileaks burst open—134,000 diplomatic cables were dumped in just a few days.
This was not the tactical, deliberate approach that served Assange so well in the past. When Wikileaks began, Assange threw data online only to be disappointed by the lack of mainstream news attention. So Assange famously partnered with leading media outlets in 2010, dispersing his revelations under trusted mastheads that reassured the public that the information was authentic. Sensitive information, such as the names of confidential informants and operatives, was redacted by his mainstream media partners. (Some bristled at this characterization, preferring to call Assange a ‘source’. Whatever.) In this manner, Wikileaks dominated the headlines for months, embarrassed governments, and perhaps led to some real political change—Assange’s stated goal.
By contrast, last week’s activity seemed sloppy and frantic. Assange knows from experience that dumping so much information all at once seriously limits the impact any of it will have. No news outlet has exclusivity, so no one wants to dedicate too much space or effort into reporting what is already public. The stories stay hidden in plain sight.
Furthermore, Assange has always bucked against critics who cite him for endangering lives—he claims that he redacts sensitive information on ethical grounds whenever possible. But the new leaks contain the names of activists, reporters and academics in repressive countries who supplied the U.S. government with information. So what gives?
The answer, it seems, is that Assange is trying to scoop himself. According to the German paper Der Freitag, the full archive of diplomatic cables has been leaked away from Assange and dumped in its entirety online (English account in Wired here). It can be opened using a password Der Freitag claims to have figured out. The claim has been confirmed by another German paper, Der Spiegel. In rushing to dump the cables himself, he is likely trying to get ahead of the story: if Der Freitag was able to get the password, then others will too, and Wikileaks’ prized possession, the complete cables, will soon be online, unredacted, everywhere.
If this is the case (Wikileaks tweets that it is not), then Julian Assange has lost control of Wikileaks and is no longer able to provide anything; he can’t give us new information, and he certainly cannot provide security for those who leaked to him in the past or those who are implicated by those leaks.
Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown