Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

An Idea is Born

By December 2010, it was nearly impossible to look at a newspaper without seeing a mention of WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

But in the beginning, there wasn't so much fanfare. According to a report in the New Yorker, WikiLeaks sprung from an idea Assange had after a conference. Bored and frustrated, he embarked on a new way to share information that was, in a way, modeled and inspired by an earlier experiment that he and his mother had used to get custody of his child during a contentious divorce and custody proceeding in his native Australia. Called Parent Inquiry Into Child Protection, his mother described the system to the New Yorker, thus: "We used full-on activist methods," she said, "we would go in and tape-record them secretly." There was even a central databank where people in similar situations could disseminate information.

At its inception, WikiLeaks was a place for people to post sensitive documents. It was modeled after a "wiki," a type of Internet technology built for multiple contributors, much in the same way Wikipedia is an open-source compilation of information, with registered users who had sent over a million documents.

And, though the name was confusing because of its similarity to the online, user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia (from which WikiLeaks has since gone to great lengths distance themselves), WikiLeaks' purpose has been to shed light on the secretive aspects of organizations, corporations, and governments: WikiLeaks mission statement reads: "WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organization...The broader principles on which our work is based are the defense of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history." In the beginning, the organization was faceless. It was published by an organization called The Sunshine Press, a heretofore unknown group of "accredited journalists, software programmers, network engineers, mathematicians and others." Though there were rumors and conspiracy theories that WikiLeaks was the work of a government or intelligence agency, it would soon become clear this was almost certainly not the case.

On its website, (and mirrored on over 500 other sites), WikiLeaks maintained that their main goal was transparency. "Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people," reads their mission statement. "Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions, including government, corporations, and other organizations."

The organization's "primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations," its website declares.

Though there was apparently no formal staff, the website was fueled by donations from readers, another aspect of the site which would later become ensnared in international controversy. The site's mode of operation was ironic—its operators needed their own shroud of secrecy, they maintained, in order to reveal the secrets of others.