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Private lives are exposed as WikiLeaks spills its secrets

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When WikiLeaks announced the release of hundreds of Saudi diplomatic documents last year, AP’s Raphael Satter in Paris and Maggie Michael in Cairo provided some of the most aggressive coverage of the leak. They broke news about everything from the secretive kingdom’s checkbook diplomacy to unpaid limousine bills and cheating students.

But as they plowed through the documents, they also noticed medical and identity documents — potentially serious privacy violations. Satter flagged the issue but never got a formal response from WikiLeaks; with other stories on the horizon and only a handful of questionable documents in hand, Satter and Michael shelved the subject.

But they did not forget it. It would become the genesis of an extraordinary story about the failure of the secrecy-baring organization to safeguard the privacy of innocent bystanders — and the winner of this week’s Beat of the Week.

It would become the genesis of an extraordinary story about the failure of the secrecy-baring organization to safeguard the privacy of innocent bystanders

In recent weeks, WikiLeaks has been under fire for uploading hundreds of thousands of files filled with little more than spam or workaday emails from hundreds of ordinary people. Some appeared among released Turkish government files – and their inclusion was widely criticized as a gratuitous intrusion into the lives of Turkish citizens at a time when the country was in the grip of a post-coup purge.

Editorial writers asked whether WikiLeaks really cared about privacy. Satter and Michael knew the answer was back in the Saudi cables.

Both spent a week methodically combing through the cables for private data, coming up with an index of more than 500 private documents, of which 124 were medical files. Michael identified vulnerable people, such as psychiatric patients, sick children and abuse survivors. Most concerning was the outing of rape victims, including two children, and a Saudi man arrested for homosexuality – a potential death sentence in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom.

Most concerning was the outing of rape victims, including two children, and a Saudi man arrested for homosexuality – a potential death sentence in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom.

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In this Feb. 5, 2016, file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stands on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. – AP PHOTO / DOMINIC LIPINSKI

Working by telephone, email, social media and WhatsApp, Michael reached two dozen people in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, two of whom eventually agreed to speak about their horror at being exposed. Satter worked with compliance firm DataGravity to locate credit card and Social Security numbers in the Democratic National Committee documents, speaking to two donors who said they’d been targeted by identity thieves after the leak. Cinar Kiper in Istanbul also pitched in, sifting through the Turkish files to find an Istanbul man who said he couldn’t understand why WikiLeaks had published his number. Both Michael and Satter contacted human rights workers, academics and medical ethicists for reaction.

The reaction was immediate. The Huffington Post said the “damning report” was proof that WikiLeaks didn’t care about rape victims. An editorial in USA Today condemned the “casual cruelty” of WikiLeaks, while The Nation wondered whether the site’s founder Julian Assange was “exposing innocent people to persecution.”

The story was widely picked up and discussed in the foreign press – and in gay publications. The Washington Blade quoted LGBT rights activists across the Middle East as condemning WikiLeaks. Spain’s El Confidencial said WikiLeaks “is bringing about its own downfall.”

The French broadcaster BFMTV summed up the story with a question: “Is WikiLeaks going insane?”

For a story that revealed the hard truth about an organization that prides itself on revealing hard truths, Michael and Satter win this week’s $500 prize.

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