WikiLeaks, the secret-killing online repository for leaked documents and video, was passed over yesterday in the awarding of the Knight Foundation's News Challenge grants, and it's not exactly being gracious in defeat. Each year, the Knight Foundation hands out millions of dollars to support organizations that "use digital technology to inform specific geographic communities." A $500,000 proposal from WikiLeaks was reportedly one of about 50 finalists — winnowed from a field of 2,400 applications — for this year's grants. To judge by founder Julian Assange's increasingly desperate appeals for donations, the site could use the money.
But it wasn't to be, and this morning WikiLeaks suggested via Twitter that something was amiss: "WikiLeaks was highest rated project in the Knight challenge, strongly recommended to the board but gets no funding. Go figure." The implication is that the Knight Foundation backed away from a popular proposal in the face of the recent controversy surrounding the site's collection of sensitive military and diplomatic data. Army investigators are reportedly seeking founder Julian Assange as part of their inquiry into Spc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who's been accused of providing Assange with a massive cache of classified data. The material Manning released includes more than 200,000 State Department cables and a video of a 2009 NATO airstrike in Afghanistan that killed more than 150 civilians.
Knight Foundation spokesman Marc Fest disputed part of WikiLeaks' claim, saying "WikiLeaks was not recommended by Knight staff to the board." Fest said the contest employs an advisory panel of outside experts to winnow applications down to a manageable group. After that, staffers take over and conduct "due diligence" on the finalists. Those staffers, he said, make final recommendations to the board, and WikiLeaks "didn't make the cut."
But Fest did confirm that the advisory panel uses a Web-based system to rate applicants, and he declined to say whether WikiLeaks was indeed the highest-rated project. "In terms of how popular certain applications were among advisers, we don't comment," he said. "Every year some applications that are popular among advisors don't make the cut after Knight staff conducts due diligence. That's not unusual."
One of those advisers, former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee, has recently been assisting the site in dealing with the press and social-networking sites. She declined to say whether WikiLeaks was highly rated by her fellow advisers. Assange did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
It's not entirely a surprise that WikiLeaks was passed over — the Knight Foundation's chairman of the board, Robert Briggs, is a former staff judge advocate for the U.S. Air Force who may not think too highly of the site's recent massive acquisitions of highly classified data. But to judge by its public appeals for cash, WikiLeaks appears to be in desperate financial straits. In a recent email to supporters, Assange wrote that "[we are] a small organization going through enormous growth and operating in an adverserial [sic], high-security environment" and that "any financial contributions will be of IMMEDIATE assistance." He cited "significant unexpected legal costs" — including flying a legal team to Kuwait, presumably to meet with Manning. He also claimed that production costs on the release last April of a video showing two Reuters staffers being killed by U.S. gunships in Baghdad reached $50,000.
WikiLeaks has denied in the past that it received the 260,000 cables that Manning reportedly leaked. In his recent fundraising letter, Assange acknowledged having the video of the Afghanistan attack and said he was "still working on" it.
— John Cook is a senior national reporter/blogger for Yahoo! News.