Did Uncle Sam try to kill Wikileaks?

A leaked document reveals a strategy by the U.S. Army to hack the Web site and take it down. Read on for the chilling details

I just received an email from Wikileaks editor Julian Assange that's pretty wild. It accuses the U.S. government of deliberately trying to take down the whistle-blower site PDF two years ago.

As proof, Wikileaks has posted a 32-page classified document PDF from the Department of Defense Intelligence Analysis program, dated March 2008, which details "the counterintelligence threat posed to the US Army by the Wikileaks.org Web site." It reads:

The possibility that a current employee or mole within DoD or elsewhere in the US government is providing sensitive information or classified information to Wikileaks.org cannot be ruled out. Wikileaks.org claims that the "leakers" or "whistleblowers" of sensitive or classified DoD documents are former US government employees. These claims are highly suspect, however, since Wikileaks.org states that the anonymity and protection of the leakers or whistleblowers is one of its primary goals.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Read up on Cringely's long-standing coverage of Wikileaks' ups and downs, from its economic struggles to its fights with Swiss banks and the Church of Scientology | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

If I'm parsing the bureaucratese in this document correctly, the DoD believed the "former" employees who provide documents to Wikileaks are actually current employees whom, one assumes, could be hunted down and squelched. Or that they are agents working for foreign adversaries. Or both.

The DoD also seems to be worried that the information posted on Wikileaks isn't true. To wit:

... the Wikileaks.org web site could be used to post fabricated information; to post misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda; or to conduct perception management and influence operations designed to convey a negative message to those who view or retrieve information from the Web site....

Of course, the U.S. military is among the many organizations whose secrets Wikileaks has exposed; this list also includes money-laundering Swiss banks, the Church of Scientology, and repressive governments around the globe.

The document goes on to detail some of the documents that Wikileaks leaked:

* Secretive U.S. document exploitation centers

* Detainee operations and alleged human rights violations

* Information on the U.S. State Department, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines units, Iraqi police, and coalition forces from Poland, Denmark, Ukraine, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and El Salvador serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

* Nearly the entire order of battle for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as of April 2007.

* Alleged revelations that the U.S. government violated the Chemical Weapons Convention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, Wikileaks produced a 238-page torture manual used by the U.S. Army at Guantanamo Bay, a map of the Abu Ghraib secret prison in Iraq, and evidence that the United States was violating international treaties by using toxic weapons, all of which proved to be highly embarrassing (not to mention accurate) to the U.S. government, but unlikely to compromise U.S. soldiers in the field.

The DoD's proposed solution? Hack Wikileaks to find out who's spilling the beans:

The obscurification technology used by Wikileaks.org has exploitable vulnerabilities. Organizations with properly trained cyber technicians, the proper equipment, and the proper technical software could most likely conduct computer network exploitation (CNE) operations or use cyber tradecraft to obtain access to Wikileaks.org's Web site, information systems, or networks that may assist in identifying those persons supplying the data and the means by which they transmitted the data to Wikileaks.org....

Successful identification, prosecution, termination of employment, and exposure of persons leaking the information by the governments and businesses affected by information posted to Wikileaks.org would damage and potentially destroy [its] center of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions.

This intelligence program has been brought to you by Big Brother. Please do not attempt to adjust your computer screen. We are watching.

The big caveat: We don't know what, if anything, came as a result of this memo. Wikileaks is still around, but just barely. No major exposures of its sources have come to light. Maybe somebody in the DoD saw this report and put it in the circular file (or, probably, shared it with Wikileaks).

Still, this is the kind of document that makes you believe all your paranoid conspiracy theories are true.

Wikileaks has many flaws, as I've noted several times in this space over the years. The staff doesn't always exercise sound editorial judgment, in my opinion. And it could very well be gamed by people with an agenda posting false information -- though it seems most of the complaints about the site are about the opposite.

The sad truth is that sites like Wikileaks and Cryptome exist because the mainstream media can no longer be trusted to assume its role as the "fourth estate." Just one example: The New York Times sat on the NSA warrantless wiretapping story for a full year before running it, and nobody in the mainstream media wanted to touch AT&T whistle-blower Mark Klein before he handed his documents over to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Imperfect as it is, we need sites like Wikileaks. If they present information that's misleading, there will always be plenty of folks out there willing to correct the record. The fact that our government wanted to turn off its lights -- as China, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe have attempted to do -- is chilling to me. I hope it's chilling to you too.

So what do you think, Cringesters? Is it chilly enough out there for you? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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Robert X. Cringely

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