Who could have guessed that a group made infamous by its exposure of state secrets and its tumultuous, unstable internal dynamic would end up doing something incredibly, recklessly dangerous?

Not our media betters, as it turns out:

The five media outlets that had previously partnered with the organization — The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde — issued a joint statement denouncing the move.

“We deplore the decision of WikiLeaks to publish the unredacted State Department cables, which may put sources at risk,” the organizations said. “Our previous dealings with WikiLeaks were on the clear basis that we would only publish cables which had been subjected to a thorough joint editing and clearance process. We will continue to defend our previous collaborative publishing endeavor. We cannot defend the needless publication of the complete data — indeed, we are united in condemning it.”

Among the unredacted names in more than 250,000 cables are several thousand designated by the State Department as being at risk for retribution if their identities are discovered, not to mention the usual details about formerly secret U.S. assets and installations. People are going to suffer because of this and Wikileaks knows it — as does NYT editor Bill Keller, who made sure to tell Reuters that he’s always held the group at “arm’s length” even as the paper was running massive splashy “new Wikileaks cables released!” features. Simple question: Why did Wikileaks release the new documents without redacting them? The answer’s … not so simple:

The move by the controversial organization, originally set up by Julian Assange to “crack the world open and let it flower into something new,” follows a week of cables showing up in mainstream media after the compromise of a secret cache.

In a sense, WikiLeaks itself was starting to leak.

How the cables began appearing is a bumbling narrative starting with the creation of the secret cache, moving to the split of Mr. Assange and his main confidant, the publishing of a password in a book by British reporters, and an article last week in Berlin newspaper Der Freitag that drew a connection between the cache and the password – all leading by twists and turns to the cables being accessible.

Assange is seen now by analysts as simply deciding in the midst of his own leak crisis, to take the lead.

Confused? The best quickie primer on what happened is this nifty Spiegel summary, which you may want to read now to prepare for this story blowing up as vulnerable informants across the world are suddenly targeted by cretinous regimes. In a nutshell, the file of unredacted cables has been online for ages, but its precise location initially was known only to a select few and you needed the password to the file in order to decrypt it. As Wikileaks initially came under public fire last year, the file was spread via torrents to ensure that it couldn’t be suppressed in case the group and its assets were somehow shut down. The password, meanwhile, was given by Assange himself to a journalist at the Guardian, who then revealed it in a book he wrote about the group. (Assange, er, never changed the password.) Eventually Wikileaks started to fracture internally and disgruntled former members began whispering about the existence of the hidden file, and then a few people put two and two together via the password from the book, and voila — the unredacted cables were suddenly public. Faced with the fact of their unauthorized disclosure, Wikileaks apparently decided to go ahead and release the entire file itself. And now here we are, with every potential whistleblower on Earth internalizing the following lesson: Never, ever tell the United States anything.

Read the Spiegel piece, which isn’t long, and read this short but gripping account from the inside by former Wikileaks staffer James Ball, who explains how the group’s recklessness has already led to dissidents being rounded up by oppressive governments. The grand irony of this little experiment in total transparency, of course, is that Wikileaks has become the authoritarian’s best friend, not only leading state police straight to the doorsteps of informants but giving potential informants every reason to keep their mouths shut when it comes to exposing their government’s crimes. Fantastic work for a “human-rights organization.” Exit question: Doesn’t willingly releasing the unredacted files expose Wikileaks to greater criminal culpability? Can’t figure out why they wouldn’t take that into account given that the cables had already leaked against their wishes.