The biggest story about WikiLeaks may not be the contents of the documents it is releasing but its upending of secrecy, whistle-blowing and journalism as we know it.
One indication is the impending launch of OpenLeaks, announced this week by former WikiLeaks staff members. They say OpenLeaks will provide technology to allow whistle-blowers to anonymously leak data not just to news media but also to "NGOs, labor unions and other interested entities," BBC News reported.
"We are trying to build a community of various organizations that need or have use for anonymously submitted information," former WikiLeaks member Herbert Snorrason told the BBC.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was second in command to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, said OpenLeaks "aims to provide the technological means to organizations and other entities around the world to be able to accept anonymous submissions in the forms of documents or other information." Sources' identities would be protected along with the documents themselves.
OpenLeaks will begin testing the project with a group of organizations in early 2011, he said, adding, "We are already drowning in applications."
He said OpenLeaks aims to stay out of the spotlight. Wikileaks "has become too much about self-promoting the project and self-promoting people involved with the project," he told the BBC. "We're not aiming for any front pages."
Domscheit-Berg called his project "the next evolutionary step" from WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks leaped to fame in April this year when it published a videotape of U.S. helicopter gunners shooting down Iraqi civilians. That tape was part of a massive leak of U.S. government documents that include military battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the 250,000 State Department cables that have been grabbing headlines for the past few weeks. The U.S. has jailed a disaffected 23-year-old Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, charging him with leaking the files.
WikiLeaks started by publishing documents on its own website. But it moved in a new direction this summer when it turned over the Iraq and Afghanistan files to top mainstream newspapers in the U.S., UK, France and Germany, allowing them to publish news and analysis of the documents. It followed a similar practice with the State Department files. To date it has only published a tiny fraction of these documents on its own site.
New York Times media reporter David Carr sees the WikiLeaks phenomenon as "a new form of hybrid journalism emerging in the space between so-called hacktivists and mainstream media outlets." He calls it "a fruitful collaboration."
Some commentators are dubbing the diplomatic cables leak "Cablegate" - a reference to the 1970s Watergate scandal that brought Richard Nixon's presidency down. So far it appears these leaked cables have not exposed any "shockers." Much of the information made public thus far has been long known and discussed by serious analysts of international affairs, particularly on the left.
But the establishment media often have failed to report these stories unless, as in the WikiLeaks case, the information is thrust upon them.
A project like OpenLeaks could expand the pool of groups that can use and publicize whistle-blowing revelations, to include organizations not tied to big money interests. OpenLeaks leaders say they plan to establish a foundation in Germany to fund the project.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is in a British jail fighting extradition to Sweden on charges of rape and sexual molestation. He and supporters argue the charges are politically motivated.
At the same time U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is considering whether or not to file criminal charges against Assange for publishing the leaked U.S. documents. The House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing Thursday on the issue.
Legal experts say the U.S. would find it difficult to successfully prosecute Assange under espionage laws or other U.S. statutes. He is an Australian, not a U.S. citizen, never worked for the U.S. government, and has no known links to foreign governments. Moreover, he did not leak the files. He simply published them or gave them to established media outlets.
"Leaks of classified information to the press have only rarely been punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it," Jennifer Elsea, an attorney with the Congressional Research Service, wrote in a Dec. 6, 2010, report posted on the Federation of American Scientists website. She added, "There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship."
Jacques Semmelman, a New York lawyer and authority on extradition law, told the BBC that if Assange is charged with espionage, it would be hard for the U.S. to put him on trial. Espionage is seen as a political crime, which is not subject to extradition under U.S.-UK, U.S.-Sweden and UK-Sweden treaties, Semmelman said.