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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - What started out as a small group of activists operating a clearing house for leaked secret documents, WikiLeaks looks like turning into an international grass roots movement that needs no central figure to fight a "data war" in the name of Internet freedom.
It could be a long war, no matter whether Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, remains the world's most prominent anti-secrecy figure or not.
Since November 28, when WikiLeaks began releasing a quarter of a million classified U.S. State Department cables from embassies around the world, there have been several attempts to drive the organization off the Internet and cut its channels for receiving donations. A day after Assange was arrested in London, Internet activists struck back.
While he was in prison, cut off from contact with his organization, computer hackers attacked the websites of MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal which had stopped processing donations for WikiLeaks; Amazon.com, which had banished WikiLeaks from using its rented servers; a Swiss bank and the website of the Swedish prosecutor who had issued an arrest warrant for Assange on charges of sexual misconduct.
"This movement is bigger than Assange," said a comment in one of the dozens of passionate Internet debates on Operation Payback, as the counter-attack was called. Peter LaVenia, a leader of the New York State Green Party, described WikiLeaks as "the most important thing to happen to the cause of democratic rule" since the student revolts of 1968 in the U.S. and Europe. The mood and tone of pro-WikiLeak activists indeed evoke memories of the anti-establishment sentiment of 1968.
Since 2007, when Assange, a 39-year-old ex-hacker, set up WikiLeaks, his organization has been closely identified with him as the indispensable leader. He has described himself as "the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest." But the last few days of "hacktivism" show that even without him, the genie he uncorked could not be stuffed back into the bottle.
"This is cyber guerrilla warfare," said Charles Dodd, a consultant to U.S. government agencies on cyber security. "They attack from the shadows and they have no fear of retaliation. There are no rules of engagement in this kind of emerging warfare."
In the Kalashnikov-carrying kind of guerrilla war, one of the aims is to provoke the government into harsh reactions that generate sympathy for the cause and attract new followers. The American reaction to WikiLeaks' dump of embassy cables seems to have achieved just that.
Politicians from both sides of the spectrum have portrayed him as an arch-villain. Right-wing pundits have called for his assassination. Mike Huckabee, a presidential contender in 2008, says he should be executed. The companies that cut off ties with WikiLeaks denied having caved to pressure from the U.S. government, but that was not the perception abroad.
In Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed "concern about reports" of pressure on private companies to close down credit lines for WikiLeak donations. "If WikiLeaks has committed any recognizable illegal act, then this should be handled through the legal system," she said, "and not through pressure and intimidation including on third parties."
Particularly not, she might have added, in a country whose Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had waxed lyrical in a speech in January about an Internet free of government interference and the need for American companies not to buckle to any form of censorship. "American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand."
Nice words, well delivered. But the before-and-after WikiLeaks comparison of Clinton statements is stark. The leaks of the cables, many with brutally frank assessments of foreign leaders, were not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests but "an attack on the international community," she said. Clinton did not return to the subject of principled American companies or the national brand.
President Barack Obama has stayed away from the WikiLeaks controversy entirely. But his attorney general, Eric Holder, is trying to put together a legal case that would allow Assange's extradition from Sweden to the United States. It's a hard case to make because officials have yet to answer convincingly the question why WikiLeaks' boss should be tried and not executives of the New York Times, the U.S. newspaper that printed some of the most sensitive leaked correspondence.
Getting Assange, an Australian, into an American court would also be a serious tactical mistake. It would turn him into a free speech martyr at a time disaffected former WikiLeaks staffers are preparing to launch a rival anti-secrecy site. Why? They left because of his high-handed management style and the organization's lack of transparency.
The respected Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter quoted one of the prospective founders of the new group as saying they wanted an organization that was "democratically governed, rather than limited to one group or individual." That doesn't mean letting up on making official secrets public.
"Our long-term goal is to build a strong, transparent platform to support whistleblowers, while at the same time encouraging others to start similar projects."
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com