Getting 'Wiki' With It?

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." - Orwell

As popular a reference tool as Wikipedia has become, our newsroom policy doesn't allow reporters to use it as an official source for any story. And for good reason: Anyone with access to a computer can edit entries.

Through the various industry grapevines, I've learned my home paper isn't the only news organization that considers Wikipedia to be a potentially polluted source.

Wikileaks, however, is a different animal -- despite the similar interface the fledgling whistle-blower site shares with Wikipedia.

Since Wikileaks debuted last year, the international network behind the site has forced governments and news media to take notice.

Two weeks ago, Wikileaks posted the 219-page U.S. military counterinsurgency manual, Foreign Internal Defense Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Special Forces (1994, 2004).

Wikileaks investigative editor Julian Assange writes that the manual can be "critically described as 'what we learned about running death squads and propping up corrupt governments in Latin America and how to apply it to other places.' Its contents are both history defining for Latin America and, given the continued role of U.S. Special Forces in the suppression of insurgencies, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, history making."

Students of U.S. foreign policy history, particularly guerrilla warfare, will find no real surprises in the counterinsurgency manual, as eye-popping as it may be to some.

In February, Wikileaks posted the secret rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Iraq, which was followed by The New York Times and prompted the Iranian government to hold a press conference, warning U.S. military planners about border crossings. The Washington Post reported on leaked Guantanamo detainee policy documents first posted on Wikileaks that forced the Pentagon to respond.

Wikileaks describes itself as a site that's "developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis." It aims to "be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations."

Besides having been briefly banned by a judge in the U.S. (the site appears to be based in Sweden), the anonymous founders are international computer geeks who know how to hide in cyberspace and get around things like the Great Firewall of the government in China.

What makes Wikileaks a unique "news" site is that instead of "breaking stories," it publishes leaked documents, now boasting "over 1.2 million documents...from dissident communities and anonymous sources."

An early criticism of Wikileaks was its posting of anonymously leaked documents without running it through an editing process and without providing any context.

While Wikileaks web masters seem immune from government and press criticism, they're not unresponsive, having changed the site a bit since it first hit the net. The home page now features analysis of recently leaked documents, as well as "fresh leaks requiring analysis."

The site also notes: "Wikileaks is not like Wikipedia. Every submitted article and change is reviewed by our editorial team of professional journalists and anti-corruption analysts. Articles that are not of high standard are rejected and non-editorial articles are fully attributed."

As for the possibility of someone, including spy agencies, posting forged documents, Wikileaks has an answer for that, too.

"Wikileaks believes that the best way to determine if a document is authentic is to open it up for analysis to the broader community -- and particularly the community of interest around the document."

While journalists should view Wikileaks with a healthy dose of skepticism, its short track record has proven that it cannot be ignored. Welcome to the brave new world of investigative journalism.

In 1788 Patrick Henry wrote: "The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."

In 2008 Wikileaks is poised to test just how much we believe in the idealistic rhetoric celebrated over the Fourth of July weekend.

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