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Column: Burst of leaks getting slippery

Lately, the world is springing a lot of leaks.

Ask Julius Baer Bank of Zurich, or the Church of Scientology. Ask the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ask any agency or entity listed on Wikileaks.org’s “Analysis Requested” page, a long list of “fresh” documents the site has received from leakers and whistleblowers around the globe.

Baer Bank -- or its lawyers -- might tell you that in February sheaves of the bank’s internal documents ended up on Wikileaks, along with allegations by the site that the information suggested Baer was “supporting [the] ultra-rich’s offshore tax avoidance.” Guantanamo commanders might admit that the site got ahold of restricted documents detailing the base’s operational details and guidelines for the treatment of prisoners. Scientology members would pass along that more than 600 pages of their most sacred (and secret) religious documents had been posted there too.

Baer sought an injunction against Wikileaks but quickly learned how hard it is to sue what you can’t see. (In the court papers, Wikileaks is listed as “an entity of unknown form.”)

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Jeffrey S. White, the California judge who’d initially ordered the site dismantled, reversed himself two weeks later when he realized that, in the wake of his widely publicized first ruling, the Baer documents had spread all over the Internet, rendering his injunction pointless. He also acknowledged that an order to bury the documents could amount to an infringement of the 1st Amendment, which, the court noted, affords the public “the right to receive information and ideas.”

Wikileaks calls itself a “transparency group” and is just one member of an emerging movement of self-styled justice seekers who are harnessing the Internet to douse sensitive information in sunlight.

But all is not transparent. Wikileaks’ founders have kept their identites a secret to protect themselves, they say, and to avoid being barred from the countries in which they operate, clouding the moral equation slightly. For what do you say of a group that exposes the dirty secrets of others but can’t be held accountable themselves? It’s just one of the slippery questions that the leaking game raises.

In its newer digital context, leaking is less a cloak-and-dagger affair than a form of file-sharing. For a decade now, music and videos have been freely exchanged on peer-to-peer networks -- often violating copyright laws and frustrating the entertainment industry. But when it comes to info-insecurity, governments, religious organizations and the larger corporate world are now in the same leaky boat.

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If you buy that Wikileaks is the leaker culture’s Napster or KaZaa, then LiveLeak.com is its YouTube. Since it launched in late 2006, LiveLeak has become a leading site for uncensored footage of warfare and politically charged happenings. The site was among the first to host the controversial video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, and CNN featured the site’s footage of a frightened, bedridden Pvt. Jessica Lynch being rescued by U.S. troops from a hospital in Nasiriyah.

More recently, an extraordinary video this month appeared to show a helmet-cam of U.S. Marines being engaged in a surprise firefight. “Marines were been [sic] told to keep engaging the enemy until close air support arrived,” the video’s description reads. “Only one marine got shot in his left leg in the firefight while he was reloading his weapon.”

The video shows that, like their stateside peers, U.S. forces are recording more of their lives, because they can. LiveLeak abounds with handheld video of car-bomb detonations, machine-gun strafing and airstrikes -- some showing the resulting casualties, others merely hinting at them.

Hayden Hewitt, the co-founder of LiveLeak, said the site arose when its creators asked themselves, “What can we do that we will enjoy, that will be subversive on our terms,” and that could “annoy a lot of people -- which is never a bad idea.” Especially, Hewitt said, if the people being annoyed are “politicians and . . . the mainstream media.” (Hewitt, who decided not to hide his identity, had to go into hiding once when his family received threats over a video portraying Islam in a negative light.)

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LiveLeak videos frequently draw tens or hundreds of thousands of viewers, enough so the small number of ads on the site pay for LiveLeak’s overhead, including its bandwidth.

According to Hewitt, LiveLeak has a simple editorial philosophy: Anyone can post anything that does not violate the site’s rules. Essentially, no pornography and nothing overtly criminal. On the other hand, the site has hosted several videos of beheadings. Hewitt conceded that although he was in favor of footage that shocked or disturbed people out of complacency, the value of this most horrific spectacle is limited: “You really don’t need to keep seeing it over and over again,” he said.

Wikileaks, which already prides itself on a “history [of] breaking major stories” and “protecting sources,” goes out of its way to make sure the documents it posts are authentic, saying fewer than 1% of its newly posted documents “fail verification.”

However, the more stringent selection criteria also mean a larger element of subjectivity -- Wikileaks decides which materials it thinks ought to be leaked. The gray area here becomes more obvious with military information that could have ramifications for troop safety or weapon design (they recently posted a schematic of the first A-bomb). Even the case of posting Scientology’s private information is a clear judgment call: Does the public stand to benefit from the outing of the organization’s most closely guarded secrets? Who says?

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And then there’s a question of what happens when you have too many leaks. Will some important leaks slip through the cracks? Or, as University of Illinois media scholar Robert McChesney put it, “What if there’s a leak and there’s no journalist there to pursue it?”

These sites have appeared just as worries about shrinking news organizations are becoming a familiar cri de couer. Nice timing.

The “number of journalists who are going to take up an interesting leak and pursue it,” said McChesney, “probably isn’t where it was 25 years ago.”

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david.sarno@latimes.com


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