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Spotlight on WikiLeaks

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A year on since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought political asylum, a new documentary on his contentious website puts the scandal back in the public eye. Confused by the controversy? Here’s our WikiLeaks crib sheet

What is WikiLeaks?

A not-for-profit whistleblowing website set up in 2006 by Australian computer hacker and internet activist Julian Assange, which publishes secret, sensitive and classified information provided by anonymous sources.

Why is it important?

WikiLeaks has exposed various worldwide scandals and cover-ups, including an order to assassinate Somalian government officials from Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the former leader of Somali’s Islamic Courts Union; operating procedures at Guantanamo Bay; money laundering via Swiss banking group Julius Baer; a list of BNP members; Scientology’s “secret bibles”; and 9/11 pager messages. But it wasn’t until 2010, when the site published footage of a 2007 US military helicopter strike on Baghdad – where soldiers accidentally gunned down civilians and journalists – and leaked more information about the US government and Army that widespread opposition to the site escalated.

What triggered the main controversy?

In July 2010 WikiLeaks released more than 91,000 secret documents from 2004-2010 relating to the Afghanistan war to international newspapers. Then, in October 2010, 400,000 war logs (which revealed that almost 80% of those killed by the US military in Iraq were civilians) were released. The US government feared the site could expose further secrets and endanger military operations. When WikiLeaks then published 220 classified American government diplomatic cables in November 2010, and promised to publish more (“seven times the size of the Iraq war logs”), Mastercard, Visa and PayPal stopped processing payments to the donation-based site due to pressure from US politicians. A ‘denial of service’ attack (when a website is overwhelmed by bogus traffic) saw WikiLeaks go down, with international servers refusing to host it.

What happened to Julian Assange?

After the site went down in November 2010, Assange was subjected to a European Arrest Warrant issued by Sweden, following months of accusations that he sexually assaulted two women on a trip to Enköping, near Stockholm, in August 2010. Released on bail, Assange denied the claims and appealed against the warrant, saying the allegations were politically motivated and that the US government wanted him in Sweden to extradite him more easily and try him for espionage. In June 2012, the UK Supreme Court dismissed Assange’s final appeal, after which he jumped his £240,000 bail and sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Where is he now?

Assange is still holed up in the embassy – if he leaves, he’ll be extradited to Sweden. He has accused new film We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks (directed by Alex Gibney) of lacking objectivity. We might never know the truth – which only makes the subject even more fascinating.

We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks is out in cinemas on 12 July

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