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WikiLeaks 101: Five questions about who did what and when

The WikiLeaks controversy pits one hallowed purpose of US government – preventing security threats from abroad – against another, that of protecting constitutional rights of expression by the media and individuals. Striking that balance has become difficult in an age of the Internet hackers, bloggers, self-appointed public policy watchdogs, and thousands of online “publications” marked by ideology and attitude.

So far, WikiLeaks has released more than 700,000 sensitive or classified documents about US military and diplomatic activity – 92,000 on the war in Afghanistan, 392,000 on the Iraq war, and now nearly 250,000 diplomatic cables that US officials say are damaging to foreign relations and intelligence operations. Within weeks, WikiLeaks says, it’ll release inside information on business interests – starting with a major American bank.

WikiLeaks 101 is your guide to understanding what happened. Here are answers to five key questions.

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, shown here during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 4.
Valentin Flauraud/Reuters/File
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1. Who is responsible for the leaks?

WikiLeaks describes itself as a “not-for-profit media organization” whose goal is to “bring important news and information to the public.” Launched in 2006, it is a loose network of individual leakers and advisers with a post office box at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. A shadowy, mostly volunteer organization, WikiLeaks operates on many servers and under domain names around the world. Much of its work is conducted from a rented house in Iceland.

Australian Julian Paul Assange is WikiLeaks' editor in chief and only spokesman. He is in his late 30s, studied physics, math, and computer programming, all of which made him an expert computer hacker. Mr. Assange seems to travel constantly, although not to the United States, sometimes altering his appearance to avoid being recognized or possibly arrested.

The other prominent name connected to WikiLeaks is US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning was a military analyst in Iraq, where, despite his low rank, he had wide access to sensitive and classified information. Among other things, he allegedly downloaded and leaked video footage of an attack by a US Apache helicopter gunship that killed Iraqi civilians, including two employees of the Reuters news agency.

Manning was arrested in May and later charged with violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in conjunction with “transferring classified data onto his personal computer and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system,” as well as “communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source.

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