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A case for a weakened WikiLeaks
Anti-secrecy website may founder with founder in jail
Question of the Day
LONDON — WikiLeaks’ very future could be at stake, as founder Julian Assange decides his next step to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sex crime charges.
Mr. Assange lost an appeal before Britain’s High Court last week and is considering whether to take his case to the country’s Supreme Court to stop an extradition order.
With WikiLeaks’ finances under pressure and some of its biggest revelations already public, the famous anti-secrecy website may not have the strength to survive without Mr. Assange, some analysts say.
Tim Maurer, who has studied the group and its membership, said he doubts whether WikiLeaks’ remaining staff has the technical savvy to run the site if its founder is absent.
“I don’t think that WikiLeaks will exist without Assange,” said Mr. Maurer, a research associate at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
For much of the past year, Mr. Assange has been running the website from a supporter’s country manor in eastern England, where he has been confined while awaiting the outcome of his extradition case. Mr. Assange has denied any wrongdoing.
The 40-year-old Australian says he has 20 staff members, but it is unclear who might take over if he is in detention in Sweden. A few years ago, two of his closest aides, Joseph Farrell and Sarah Harrison, were working as journalist interns. WikiLeaks’ spokesman, Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson, is rarely reachable.
Even if Mr. Assange eventually wins his battle to the stay in Britain, his fight will be far from over.
A U.S. grand jury is weighing whether to indict him on espionage charges. WikiLeaks is straining under the weight of an American financial embargo that Mr. Assange says has starved it of nearly all its revenue. Some media organizations that have worked closely with the website have since turned their backs to the online secret-spiller.
Perhaps most important is the question of whether Mr. Assange still can produce explosive leaks with his suspected chief source, Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, in detention.
Purported chat logs between Pvt. Manning and the man who turned him in to authorities, Adrian Lamo, list the State Department cables, the Iraq war logs and a sheaf of Guantanamo documents among the highlights of the material handed to WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks’ most recent disclosed scope - the purported transfer of compact discs packed with tax-evasion secrets by Swiss banker Rudolf Elmer - turned into a big dud when Mr. Elmer’s attorneys later claimed that the CDs were blank.
Even if the spectacular revelations return - and Mr. Assange insists he is still sitting on hundreds of secrets - WikiLeaks may have trouble finding an outlet to publish them.
The WikiLeaks chief said last week that he has struck deals with some 90 media and human rights groups. But he has long had a prickly relationship with the mainstream press, which he variously describes as corrupt, complicit with powerful governments, or - in a recent speech to demonstrators in London - “war criminals.”
Many journalists return Mr. Assange’s disdain.
“I don’t think we’d ever work with him again,” said Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, whose newspaper played a key role in last year’s WikiLeaks disclosures.
Mr. Assange’s conflicts with the London-based Guardian are long-running, but reservations about WikiLeaks extend beyond the English-language press.
Concerns became especially acute after WikiLeaks published 250,000 diplomatic cables on the Web in their raw, uncensored form in a move that many feared would lead to the persecutions of sensitive diplomatic sources.
Other problems are looming.
WikiLeaks is starved for cash, something Mr. Assange said is the result of a decision by MasterCard Inc., Visa and other financial companies to block donations to his site late last year.
He warned last week that his site could shut as soon as January if funding didn’t pick up. Attorneys for his payment processor have lodged a complaint in Brussels.
In the United States, the grand jury investigation into Mr. Assange’s activities continues, with government attorneys trawling through the Internet records of WikiLeaks’ volunteers and supporters looking for evidence of criminal activity under U.S. laws.
Although international levels of support for the site are strong, Mr. Assange has received little sympathy on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans have urged U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to prosecute him for espionage.
“No one in political power defends WikiLeaks,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
Governments also have become more wary of the threat of WikiLeaks-style releases.
In early October, the White House announced a series of measures to guard U.S. government computer networks and classified material against leaks. The measures include the creation of a special committee to coordinate information-sharing and to ensure confidentiality.
Dave Winer, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, said that the spirit of WikiLeaks would live on whatever happened to the group or to Mr. Assange.
“The technology that made WikiLeaks possible is not going away,” he said.
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