WikiLeaks, whose founder and spokesperson dramatically and indignantly defends the its right to do what it wants with the secret information of other organizations, is so defensive about controlling its own information that staffers have to agree to gag orders with penalties as high as $20 million for talking out of turn.
British newsmag the NewStatesman reported earlier this week that WikiLeaks requires staffers to sign a confidentiality agreement (PDF) that not only forbids them from revealing information leaked to WikiLeaks, but to never reveal anything "newsworthy" about the organization, either.
The penalty for violating the secrecy agreement – which NewStatesman describes as unenforceable even under British laws that are much more friendly toward such restrictions than those in the U.S. – is 12 million pounds ($19.5 million).
It would be a conceptual and moral reach, but it might be possible to justify rules forbidding staff from revealing leaked information in a group like WikiLeaks – if only to help it stick to careful schedules for release of secret documents that help demonstrate that they're accurate.
Faced with criticism about the accuracy and impact of revelations about the treatment of prisoners, killing of civilians and other scandals in U.S.-occupied Iraq, for example Assange made deals with major newspapers to release documents to them early, so they could verify information in them before it was published.
That would never be acceptable for any journalism organization or, in most cases, any organization whose primary interest is in revealing dirty secrets as quickly as possible.
Given the chancy environment of international law, diplomacy and espionage, it's possible to assemble some defense of part of the gag order, though only if it's clear the information is coming out anyway, not being hoarded for reasons unknown, as was the case with Bank of America documents leaked to WikiLeaks and eventually published by Anonymous.
Trying to prevent staffers from talking about anything newsworthy – meaning anything interesting about the organization, from what Julian Assange is really like to work with to whether he's as big a jerk as he seems to be – is flat out censorship.
It demonstrates a lack of respect for the judgment and ethics of staffers and, worse, a Steve-Jobs-like obsession with control over information and with making not the mission of the organization, but the boss himself the focus of all the coverage about it.
My first reaction to the announcement that Assange was being hunted by Interpol for sexual-assault charges lodged in Sweden was to assume most of the prosecution was driven by pressure from the U.S. to shut down the source of embarrassing leaks of secret cables among its own staffers talking trash about leaders of other countries who are still in power.
I still believe that's true, but the more that came out about the charges and Assange's relationships with those around him, the more it became clear that his organization may be making important contributions to the global political discussion, but that it was being run by a guy who didn't mind hurting those around him for his own aggrandizement and abandoning them to pay the consequences.
The confidentiality agreement just makes that more clear.
So does Assange's habit of threatening newspapers and book authors with malicious libel for writing things about him he doesn't like, and to claim ownership of leaked information as a commercial asset from which he has the right to profit, rather than public information it is his responsibility to reveal.
It also makes it more clear that the announcement in December that former WikiLeaks staffers were breaking off to form a competing site called OpenLeaks was not simply an overreaction to restrictions caused by the Assange witch hunt.
It was a reasonable decision to create an alternative group that can focus on living out the core principals espoused by WikiLeaks but subverted by Assange's ego and desire for control.
In the U.S. the hactivist group Anonymous has taken over some of the role Assange claimed to be playing in support of open records and revealing the dirty secrets of governments and corporations.
So far OpenLeak hasn't played much of a role in either the WikiLeaks controversy, or made much progress on creating an alternative channel for important leaks.
Here's hoping it changes that and becomes what WikiLeaks was once thought to be. Anonymous has too many other projects to be a primary leak source; WikiLeaks may face too much opposition from government law enforcement and counter-espionage groups to be effective anymore, and commercial alternatives such as the WSJ's SafeHouse are suspect simply because they are owned by commercial organizations. In WSJ's case that owner is Rupert Murdoch, whose tendency to use his media properties to meddle in politics according to his private agenda is well documented.
OpenLeaks may be the only alternative, assuming it doesn't spend as much effort keeping its own secrets as it does getting documents revealing those of others.