Remember WikiLeaks, the initiative led by Julian Assange that shook the world by publishing 1000s of leaked U.S. embassy cables back in 2010? The group that once had the promise to bring transparency? Eight years later and it has been made redundant by Bellingcat, as the latter fulfilled the promise of what WikiLeaks was hoped to achieve for global politics in a digital age.
Bellingcat’s revelations of the true identities of the Russian suspects involved in the chemical attack on former spy Sergei Skripal have enraged the Kremlin. “Bellingcat is linked to special services. It is used to dump information that may have some influence on public opinion”, said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov angrily.
This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black: the irony here of course is that this portrayal of Bellingcat is exactly how the Kremlin used WikiLeaks during various elections meddling campaigns. Hackers linked to Russian military intelligence attacked the server of the U.S. Democratic National Committee and the email account of now French President Macron. After successful hacks the information was released through Julian Assange’s platform in order to give it an air of ‘neutrality’, as such whitewashing campaigns by an authoritarian government to steer the course of election in favour of preferred candidates.
For most outsiders following WikiLeaks in recent years it has become evident that this group is far from neutral. It has no interest to bring transparency to global politics by revealing state secrets, but instead has become a front in the global public opinion arms race. It claims to “open up governments” but only those that Julian Assange disagrees with. But why limit yourself to opening Western governments? Why not work to reveal the inner circles of power in China, Russia, Egypt, Iran or other authoritarian governments.
Some have argued that Assange carries a personal vendetta against Hillary Clinton and, consequently, positioned himself to help Donald Trump during his election campaign with information stolen by the Russians, as well as through promoting conspiracy theories about Clinton. WikiLeaks also repeatedly posted tweets supporting Russian interference in Syria, whilst criticising Western foreign policy in the region.
Meanwhile, Bellingcat has not only been more transparent about its methodology than WikiLeaks, it has also not picked sides in the current information war. Whilst it is being criticised as a front for NATO by pro-Russian sources, its analyst Christiaan Triebert revealed how the U.S. was responsible for bombing a mosque near Aleppo during evening prayer killing up to 49 civilians. Other open source investigations by the group incriminated the Saudi military campaign in Yemen. Bellingcat is by all standards a relatively neutral party.
First and foremost, the collective of open source investigators is interested in conflicts across the globe, working in networks and tracing the Internet for evidence to reveal what truly happened on the ground. Its methodology is replicable and its findings are published, no matter which side the culprit belongs to.
Open source investigations are also used by intelligence agencies. I was lucky to meet the former CIA officer who set up the first Open Source Center at the agency in 2005 as he recognised the potential of publicly available information for intelligence. In more recent years, open source intelligence (OSINT) has become a discipline for agencies such as the CIA, MI6 and others. They too, however, did not expect that a network of individuals that largely communicated via Twitter would become the real masters of this game.
Bellingcat’s methods and practices are best understood as the interstice of intelligence gathering and analysis and online journalism. But they do this not to serve the national interest of a state, like an intelligence officer would, but instead to reveal the actions of states, insurgencies and terrorist groups alike. The group has revealed war crimes and identified states, battalions and individual officers responsible for these acts. Whilst this form of transparency does not guarantee justice for victims of MH17 or the bombed mosque in Allepo province, it does bring transparency to the dirt that governments prefer to keep a secret.
Through its tireless work of often unpaid members Bellingcat has become what liberals once hoped Wikileaks would become. A platform to advance transparency to global politics in a digital age.
Move over Wikileaks, there is a new sheriff in town.