A week ago the notorious whistleblower website Wikileaks released the largest classified military leak in history: The Iraq War Logs, consisting of 391,832 US military field reports from 2004 to 2009. The reports, which were given to a range of media organisations as well as some being published on Wikileaks' site, detail 109,032 deaths in Iraq, compared to Wikileaks' previous release of the Afghan War Diaries, which detailed about 20,000 deaths.
The Afghan War Diaries were made available in advance of their release to three newspapers: the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, all known for their investigative work. The advance access was intended to increase the impact of the data at the time of its release. For the Iraq logs, Wikileaks decided that it was worth including more news organisations in the process, and worked specifically with the UK Bureau of Investigative Journalism to achieve its aims.
"It is unique in journalistic history, I think, to have so many media outlets working on the same material at the same time," said Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson in a video at the Frontline Club (via Journalism.co.uk). "The media outlets are not used to these kinds of projects, they are not used to cooperating on a basis such as this one. We relied pretty much on the expertise and skill that was provided by the news outlets. There were probably 40 or 50 professional journalists working on the material and with researchers and additional people there were probably up to 100 people."
The material was made available to Al Jazeera, Le Monde, Channel 4's Dispatches, OWNI, Iraq Body Count, as well as the three papers who were given the Afghan leaks in advance. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism produced film for Al Jazeera, a programme for Channel 4's Dispatches and stories for Le Monde, and produced a dedicated website.
Journalism.co.uk spoke to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's editor Iain Overton, who said that working with Wikileaks was like working with any other source. The Bureau's development producer James Ball created its own programme to analyse spreadsheets of information.
OWNI.fr, a French nonprofit media innovation company, created a site for Wikileaks to host the Iraq logs. The site allows users to create accounts and then keep track of the logs that they analyse. Users are encouraged to rate each log in terms of how interesting it is, on a scale of one to three. For each entry, the site locates the event on a map, allows comments from account holders and provides links to news articles from the Guardian and the New York Times about the conflict published on the date of the report. It also allows people to gather points based on how many logs they analyse, adding a competitive aspect.
The international reaction to the logs has been huge. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for an investigation into allegations of abuse and murder of Iraqis within detention centres, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the Arab League has urged actions based on Wikileaks revelations, reported the AFP.
The Guardian has provided a summary of the media reaction from around the world, focusing on Iraq, the US, Denmark, Italy, where journalists have all found country-specific revelations on which to focus. Meanwhile, Fox News has suggested that those behind Wikileaks should be declard "enemy combatants" for providing a threat to national security.
There has been much comparison of Wikileaks' releases to the Pentagon Papers, a collection of secret documents released in 1971 discussing the Vietnam war. Death + Taxes magazine writer Alex Moore discussed the differences between now and then and the difference in attitudes towards the journalists, concluding that "Assange may have been born at the wrong time. It's as if he's force-feeding truth to a world that has no stomach for it."
What do these kind of mass leaks - through a third party and allowing for the involvement of an infinite number of members of the public - mean for journalism? What is the best way to give such stories the greatest impact? Is it responsible for all this information to be put into the public domain?