A Web Site for Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers have a new venue to anonymously release government and corporate documents. Adam Liptak, national correspondent for The New York Times, wrote about the Web site wikileaks.org.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

It is the wild wiki west online these days. A site called Wiki Leaks asks on its site: Do you have documents the world needs to see? Now it claims to provide a forum for whistleblowers to post evidence of corporate and government wrongdoing.

One of those alleged wrongdoers got all legal on Wiki Leaks, went to court, and a federal judge has effectively shut down the site, at least one version of it. And the way he did has first amendment advocates outraged. Calling the whole kafuffle, the pentagon papers 2.0, the New York Times, famous for its role in that case, is watching this one. So we decided to rip their story...

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STEWART: ...from the headlines. Adam Liptak is the national legal correspondent for the New York Times, who worked on this story. Hey, Adam.

Mr. ADAM LIPTAK (National Legal Correspondent, New York Times): Good morning.

STEWART: Thanks for coming on to share your reporting with us. We appreciate it.

LIPTAK: Sure.

STEWART: All right. Let's just give people a baseline on Wiki Leaks, it's sort of designed to resemble Wikipedia, user-generated, user-edited, online encyclopedia. But tell us the difference. It's tracking what appears to be proprietary information. Can you give us a couple of examples?

LIPTAK: Yeah, they've actually posted - they claim to have posted a million documents. Some of them, for sure, are quite interesting. They posted a manual to the Guantanamo Bay prison that everyone seems to think is authentic. They posted the rules of engagement for American troops in Iraq about when they can cross the border into Syria and Iran in hot pursuit of terrorist suspects. So these are real news items that the mainstream media, including the times, have followed-up on.

They probably posted a lot of stuff that's more questionable, and some of it may not be authentic. They ask people to help them analyze it, and it looks a lot like Wikipedia. And so they are at least, in part, performing an important service.

STEWART: When you say they, who's they?

LIPTAK: Very hard to say. They describe themselves as an informal coalition of dissidents in China and techies in Europe and Taiwan and around the world. And they have servers all over the world. They don't identify themselves by name.

STEWART: But there is an advisory board. If you click on through...

LIPTAK: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: ...there are actual pictures of people, with names, who've done things.

LIPTAK: Right.

STEWART: And what's their function?

LIPTAK: I guess to give advice and guidance and sort of to think about what the function of such a site would be. And how it differs, if at all, from the press, and what such of protections it should get. And it's posing some real interesting questions for the legal system.

STEWART: Absolutely. Let's get to that lawsuit that you wrote about in the Times. A bank in the Cayman Islands pretty much just got mad about something that was posted on Wiki Leaks, tell us who it was and who put it there.

LIPTAK: The bank is called Bank Julius Baer. It's a Cayman Island subsidiary of a Swiss bank. They seem to have a disgruntled employee; the guy who used to run the Cayman Island subsidiary. And according to the bank, that guy, violating his employment agreement, violating banking laws, has posted various documents which Wiki Leaks characterizes has allegedly showing money laundering and other wrongdoing.

So, you know, these are complicated banking documents, they're a little hard to make sense of, but both sides seem to think that they matter.

STEWART: Now the bank - the judge not only ordered the documents in question be removed from the site, the judge went a step further and effectively shut down the Web site. What was the argument for shutting down the site?

LIPTAK: The best I can make of it is that because Wiki Leaks is sort of beyond the jurisdiction of the court, you know, impossible to control, in fact, did not send a lawyer to the hearing, the judge must have thought the only way to get at it is through its domain registrar, which is a company called Dynadot. And ordered Dynadot to stop - to sort of shut down the Web address. You can still get at it through the Internet protocol address, but the wikileaks.com address has come down. And I guess it's because Dynadot is in the San Francisco area and would pay attention to a court order, and Wiki Leaks is beyond it.

But the effect of it really is to shut down an entire site. It's like they shut down a whole newspaper because they don't like one article in the newspaper.

STEWART: And that's what brings first amendment right advocates out of the woodwork. I mean, can a judge just remove an entire Web site from the Internet because of one document - or attempt to?

LIPTAK: Most legal experts seem to think the judge is going much too far. And most legal experts seem to think that if this - he's scheduled a hearing for February 29th, and if he doesn't change his mind, I think, on appeal, the thing is quite likely to be overturned. I misspoke a second ago.

I called it wikileaks.com; it's wikileaks.org.

STEWART: Got you. Thank you for correcting that. Is there a political angle at all with this judge, in terms of who appointed him to what bench, when and why?

LIPTAK: Well, Wiki Leaks is quick to find the political motive, and the judge is a recent appointee of the current President Bush. I'm not quite so quick to assume that the judge was politically motivated, as opposed to naïve about the Internet and naïve about the first amendment.

STEWART: Well, James, I don't know if I'll give a judge a pass on the latter, but many the former.

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STEWART: I mean, it is kind of interesting that the judge shut down the first way in, but as you point out in your article, there are back ways into the Web sites all the time.

LIPTAK: Yeah, no, he's - it's quite ineffective. On the one hand, it's a radical idea, because he's trying to do everything he can to shut down the site. But the reality of the Internet is, for good or bad, is that it is kind of a wild west. And the Internet community is deeply devoted to free speech, which means they're going to find ways to get this information out. And I am sure that this lawsuit has drawn much more attention to these documents than simply sitting quietly and letting them sit on the site that has many, many documents on it.

STEWART: It's interesting you bring up free speech, because with free speech comes responsibility. And it's also been one of the big issues with Wikipedia, is how do you know what's on Wiki Leaks actually is accurate and true and is actually intended to uphold the stated purpose of the site of Wiki Leaks, to give people a safe haven to expose bad behavior?

LIPTAK: That's the new Internet question. I mean, it used to be, in the Pentagon Papers era, that people might have trusted the New York Times to make a judgment about what ought and ought not be posted and published and what parts of things might be withheld. And, in fact, it did withhold some small parts of the pentagon papers because they involved current national security issues. Wiki Leaks probably doesn't have that kind of thinking.

On the other hand, it does have what Wikipedia has, which is a community of people who are ready to criticize and analyze and put in context...and that's the question for us now, is whether that kind of mass community of people trying to make sense of something is an adequate, or perhaps even better, substitute than for a bunch of editors sitting around to decide what to publish.

STEWART: Adam Liptak is the national legal correspondent for the New York Times. Hey, Adam, thanks for sharing your reporting on this story. We'll link to it on our blog. We really appreciate you taking the time.

LIPTAK: It was my pleasure, yeah.

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