As Julian Assange entered Wandsworth prison tonight, WikiLeaks faced the greatest challenge in its four-year history. Already stretched as it wrestles with the release of the US embassy cables – the biggest leak of government documents in recent history – the organisation must now find a way to operate without its founder.
WikiLeaks is so reliant on his leadership that there is no natural replacement. Tonightplans were even being drawn up to allow him to manage the organisation from a prison cell if his incarceration proves prolonged.
Critics say Assange’s imprisonment has highlighted a key weakness of WikiLeaks – its over-reliance on one person.
“I am the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier and all the rest,” Assange reportedly told a colleague who questioned his judgment in September. “If you have a problem with me, piss off.”
There was a damaging schism in the organisation in September and now WikiLeaks faces a rival start-up group.
In the shorter term the threats to the organisation are coming into clear focus. With about 250,000 US embassy cables still to release, WikiLeaks’s network of volunteers, interns, activists and paid staff face intensifying assault from financial institutions. The embassy cables are due to be published well into the new year and WikiLeaks is sitting on several document caches, including files about the Bank of America, which it has to clear before accepting any new information. Meanwhile WikiLeaks is facing a widening shutdown by internet service providers.
Its inability to accept new material is already drawing criticism from others in the wider global transparency movement who believe that represents an abdication of the original aims.
At least the material it has published on the US embassy cables looks safe. Under the slogan “Keep us strong – help WikiLeaks keep governments open”, the site’s homepage said its contents were mirrored around the world on 748 servers registered in the Netherlands, Lithuania, New Zealand, Germany, America, Switzerland, Czech Republic, France and beyond. The bullish implication was that to attack WikiLeaks was futile. A spokesman last week said WikiLeaks had €1m in the bank though sources said accessing cash was getting difficult. About €100,000 was said to be in a Swiss account and in PayPal following sanctions against WikiLeaks.
In the longer term, WikiLeaks’s pre-eminence is set to be challenged. After an internal row in September over the handling of the publication of the war logs, one of Assange’s key lieutenants, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, quit to set up a rival group taking key staff with him.
Domscheit-Berg’s rival, yet to be launched, aims to tackle what he sees as some of the weaknesses of WikiLeaks decision to focus on publishing only big parcels of headline-grabbing information. He said there had been “a lack of transparency about how decisions had been reached”, “a lot of resentment” in the organisation, and that not all of the work was “being done correctly”.
John Young, 74, an architect, who helped found WikiLeaks and has run his own leaks website, Krytome, for 14 years, said: “WikiLeaks is going to be brought down by its competitors, not by governments … Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are providing the same service but most people haven’t heard of them.Some do it for money, some do it for more principled reasons.”
He published a list of more than 100 groups releasing sensitive data.
Young suggested that WikiLeaks was effectively a commercial organisation competing in an open market, alongside others who sell sensitive information, such as former spies and the media. He claimed it glamourised the significance of the information it had to generate cash from donations. “The transparency market has been monetised,” he said. “And it has caught on.” WikiLeaks’s financial ambitions have been strong. On an internal mailing list in January 2007 for the founders of WikiLeaks.org, the group stated: “It is our goal to raise pledges of $5m by July.”
However, WikiLeaks appears publicly confident it can ride out the storm over Assange. James Ball, a journalist working with WikiLeaks, said: “There has been a lot of effort by the US government and others to target Julian Assange. But the technical assaults on us have only resulted in more than 500 mirrors [of WikiLeaks] being made around the world. It shows that if you take WikiLeaks down there will be 10 more similar sites the next day. Putting genies back in bottles rarely works.”
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.