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The who, what and why of WikiLeaks

Frequently asked questions about WikiLeaks and the leak of some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables.
Image: Wikileaks release 250,000 secret messages more
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange shows an issue of the British daily newspaper The Guardian during a press conference at the Frontline Club in London, Britain, July 26, 2010 after the website released thousands of documents referred to as "Afghan War Diary." Str / EPA file
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What is WikiLeaks?
WikiLeaks is a website that publishes documents that are otherwise unavailable to the general public. The not-for-profit media organization – often referred to as an online whistle blower — receives documents from anonymous sources, reviews them to determine authenticity and publishes the material largely untouched.

WikiLeaks, which has a stated mission of exposing information that the public needs to know, has published thousands of documents. Its disclosures have included abuses, corruption or censorship by governments, religious organizations, and corporations.  WikiLeaks published nearly 500,000 U.S. military incident reports from 2004 to 2009, which the organization argued shed light on abuses in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

What is the current WikiLeaks controversy about?
This week, WikiLeaks began publishing some of more than 250,000 confidential cables they obtained—correspondence between American embassies around the globe and the U.S. State Department. The internal communication, mostly from the last three years, disclosed backroom details of U.S. diplomacy, including frank assessments of foreign leaders, and conflicts and crises among allies and adversaries.

The Obama administration argued that the disclosures could endanger lives, damage trust among U.S. allies, impinge on anti-proliferation efforts and undermine U.S. military and counterterrorism efforts.

But some analysts say that while documents are in some cases embarrassing — unflattering statements about foreign leaders, for instance -- they don’t appear to include major disclosures that would damage national security. 

How did WikiLeaks obtain the documents?
The source of the recent document leaks is uncertain, but the chief suspect is PFC Bradley Manning. Manning is an Army intelligence analyst who is facing court martial charges over the disclosure last year of a video from the Iraq war showing a U.S. helicopter crew attacking both insurgents and civilians -- including children -- in July 2007.

WikiLeaks says it receives materials in person or via postal drops, but it recommends that it be submitted through its anonymous electronic drop box, emphasizing its commitment to security and anonymity for its sources.

Who is behind WikiLeaks?
The public face and founder of WikiLeaks is Australian hacker, journalist and Internet activist Julian Assange.  The WikiLeaks website says it was created by a group of “journalists, software programmers, network engineers, mathematicians and others” from around the world, and also has a international network of volunteers.

Is the publication of these documents legal and is there nothing the U.S. can do to stop their release? The Obama administration tried to persuade WikiLeaks not to publish the documents, arguing in a letter to Assange that publication of the documents would be illegal.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal investigation into the leak, pledging to prosecute those behind the publication of the confidential documents.

Australian Federal Police also reportedly also investigating whether any of that country’s criminal laws had been breached by WikiLeaks. Assange is an Australian national.

For more on the most recent WikiLeaks release, click here to view an archived chat with NBC News national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff.