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Trouble in the Land of Wikileaks

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 28 2010

Wired.com's Kevin Poulsen, who has been on the Wikileaks story like white on rice, joins up with his colleague Kim Zetter to report on the apparent internal complications inside the ad hoc Wikileaks organization:

A domino chain of resignations at the secret-spilling site WikiLeaks followed a unilateral decision by autocratic founder Julian Assange to schedule an October release of 392,000 classified U.S. documents from the war in Iraq, according to former WikiLeaks staffers.

Key members of WikiLeaks were angered to learn last month that Assange had secretly provided media outlets with embargoed access to the vast database, under an arrangement similar to the one WikiLeaks made with three newspapers that released documents from the Afghanistan war in July. WikiLeaks is set to release the Iraq trove on Oct. 18, according to ex-staffers -- far too early, in the view of some of them, to properly redact the names of U.S. collaborators and informants in Iraq.

“The release date which was established was completely unrealistic,” says 25-year-old Herbert Snorrason, an Icelandic university student who until recently helped manage WikiLeaks’ secure chat room. “We found out that the level of redactions performed on the Afghanistan documents was not sufficient. I announced that if the next batch did not receive full attention, I would not be willing to cooperate.”

Assange did not respond to e-mail queries from Wired.com.

According to Wired.com, citing an online chat transcript, Assange told Daniel Schmitt, who had, it seems, been serving as Wikileaks spokesperson in Germany until recent resignation, "I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest... If you have a problem with me, piss off."

Now, internal dissension isn't, of course, completely missing from your more established, traditional, corporate environments. But it's a little interesting to think about Assange and Wikileaks as a case study in the sort of Shirky-esque "organizing without organizations" mold, and the problems that might pop up when you set out to take on the world without the sort of institutionalized structue of even, say, (since this is let's-recall-the-sixties-week) something like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a.k.a. SNCC, from the civil rights movement or the Students for a Democratic Society from that same era -- organizations that put a premium on thinking through not only the social problems they set out to tackle, but the backbone and practices of how they were going to come together to do it. Wikileaks here seems like something of a reminder that the Web might erase geographic boundaries, but it doesn't erase human behavior. Or, for that matter, some more practical questions; who holds the keys to the Wikileaks Twitter account?

How collectives that have the Web as their native environment handle that human element seems like a thesis in waiting for a forward-thinking sociology student somewhere.

Note: I edited this post post-publishing to clarify that one of the participants in the mentioned online chat had at the time been an active participant in Wikileaks.

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