August 23, 2010; Source: Wall Street Journal | WikiLeaks, the website that routinely makes headlines with disclosures of documents public officials would like to keep secret, apparently doesn’t feel that same ethos of openness and transparency should apply to information about how the organization is funded. According to the Wall Street Journal, WikiLeaks “has established a complex system for collecting and disbursing its donations to obscure their origin and use.”
This complex system includes Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation, where donors can make contributions to WikiLeaks without fear of disclosure. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told the Journal in an interview that German law can’t force the foundation to release the names of donors and because it “is not an operational concern, it can’t be sued for doing anything. So the donors’ money is protected, in other words, from lawsuits.”
Despite wanting to maintain secrecy about its funding, Assange was actually quite open about the methods WikiLeaks employs to keep all of it secret. He says it’s essential that prying eyes are kept in the dark out of fear that governments and others will sue or take additional means to stop the flow of money. “It’s very hard work to run an organization, let alone one that’s constantly being spied upon and sued. Judicial decisions can have an effect on an organization’s operation . . . We can’t have our cash flow constrained entirely,” he said.
Other ways WikiLeaks cloaks its funding include being registered as a library in Australia, a foundation in France, and a newspaper in Sweden. In addition, Assange says the group has two tax-exempt 501(c)3s in the United States, which he adds serve “as a front for the website.” Assange says he won’t give out their names out of fear they could “lose some of their grant money because of political sensitivities.”
WikiLeaks even goes to great lengths to hide transactions involving the Wau Holland Foundation. The group sends it receipts to cover operating costs and the foundation issues grants in return. While German law does require the foundation to make public its expenditures, Assange says bills are often aggregated and submitted to Wau Holland from other foundations for reimbursement to make it difficult to trace which organizations WikiLeaks relies on for its web severs and other infrastructure support.
Clearly WIkiLeaks’ methods of financing raises serious questions about disclosure requirements and one wonders about how these arguments would play for organizations whose interest are not meant to be in the public’s interest.—Bruce Trachtenberg