Rudolf Elmer and WikiLeaks’ source anonymity

As far as we can ascertain, WikiLeaks has never revealed any of its sources.

– WikiLeaks (About)

As former Swiss bank official Rudolf Elmer handed two CDs which he claimed were full of information on unethical and illegal banking practices to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ philosophy expanded.

While there is no doubt that it was entirely Elmer’s choice to publicly reveal himself as one of WikiLeaks’ sources, this choice gave WikiLeaks a new status in the news world. Before this, the organization’s selling point was not the information it had to offer (though this was key in bringing it into the public eye), but the secrecy and protection it offered its sources.

Through various technological safeguards, WikiLeaks has maintained an excellent reputation of source protection. Thus far, the only sources to have been revealed are those who revealed themselves. While PFC Bradley Manning did so privately and was later exposed, Elmer is WikiLeaks’ first source to hand over the information publicly.

Whistleblowers are nothing new. For as long as there has been news, there have been whistleblowers. Previously, though, whistleblowers who aren’t concerned with secrecy – such as Erin Brockovich – have gone through traditional channels (mainstream media or the legal system) to get their messages out.

With Rudolf Elmer’s public passage of banking documents to WikiLeaks, the organization is being used as a journalistic venue, not just a place for people to pass off secrets without being held accountable.

A fellow journalism student, Melissa Caskey, brings up the issue of source accountability in a great post on the ethics of WikiLeaks.

However, in cases where anonymous users provide a majority of a site’s content, delegating the validity of sourcing creates issues of trust and accountability.

In the case of Rudolf Elmer’s information (which Assange said could be released within weeks), trust and accountability are no issue because the public has seen exactly where the information came from. This is a very important development for WikiLeaks as they will now be a medium for distribution of publicly sourced information – something they have never done before.


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