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09.03.10

Civil War at WikiLeaks

The rape charges are the last straw for some organizers of WikiLeaks, who are demanding that Julian Assange, the website’s controversial point man, step aside. Philip Shenon reports.

Julian Assange is facing an insurrection, with WikiLeaks supporters outraged that Assange has insisted on remaining in charge of the whistleblowing website despite the rape allegations he faces in Sweden.

A prominent WikiLeaks organizer, Birgitta Jonsdottir, a parliamentarian in Iceland, tells The Daily Beast that she has encouraged Assange to step aside as WikiLeaks’ public spokesman and give up his other management responsibilities, at least until after the criminal investigation is over.

She said she did not believe repeated suggestions by Assange, the Australian-born founder and chief editor of WikiLeaks, that the assault allegations made by two Swedish women were part of an American-organized smear campaign.

"I have strongly urged him to focus on the legalities that he’s dealing with and let some other people carry the torch,” says WikiLeaks organizer Birgitta Jonsdottir.

“I am not angry with Julian, but this is a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand,” she said in a telephone interview. “These personal matters should have nothing to do with WikiLeaks. I have strongly urged him to focus on the legalities that he’s dealing with and let some other people carry the torch.”

“Somebody needs to say this,” she continued. “If it means I get banned, I don’t care. I really care very much for WikiLeaks and I do consider myself to be Julian’s friend. But good friends are the people who tell you if your face is dirty. There should not be one person speaking for WikiLeaks. There should be many people.”

Another WikiLeaks organizer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Assange had been resisting efforts over the last two weeks to push him off the public stage as a result of the criminal investigation in Sweden, and that his insistence on “staying in charge of everything” was creating “a mess for everyone” as the website prepares to release an additional library of 13,000 classified American military reports from the war in Afghanistan. The website outraged the Pentagon in July when it released more than 70,000 other classified reports from the war.

This WikiLeaks organizer said that internal protests directed at Assange resulted in a temporarily shutdown of the WikiLeaks website several days ago, nominally for mechanical reasons. “It was really meant to be a sign to Julian that he needs to rethink his situation,” the organizer. “Our technical people were sending a message.”

Assange has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The Daily Beast in recent weeks. And it is unclear who might take his place should he in fact step aside. In a video interview Thursday with a Swedish newspaper, Assange said the sexual-assault charges made against him were “baseless and disturbing” and said he was “losing confidence in the Swedish justice system.”

He acknowledges that the allegations might complicate his plans to obtain a residency permit to remain in Sweden, which has broad press freedom laws that could be used to shield WikiLeaks from American prosecutors.

He repeated his claim that the allegations were the result of a smear campaign. “Who was behind this, we do not know,” he said. “Whether that turns out to be a smear campaign done by a couple of people for personal motives or ideological motives, or whether that is larger and involves geopolitical concerns or whether it is a mixture of all those, we do not know.”

His comments came after a Swedish prosecutor reopened the rape investigation of Assange on Wednesday and said that there was “reason to believe that a crime was committed.” A lower-ranking prosecutor closed the initial investigation in August, suggesting that the two women accusers had provided insufficient evidence to back up their charges of assault against Assange.

Jonsdottir said she had read through the police records in Sweden and local news reports—she once lived in Sweden and understands the language—and quickly determined that the case against Assange was not part of any sort of western conspiracy against WikiLeaks.

“I have never seen this as a conspiracy,” she said, adding that she has no reason to doubt—or affirm—the honesty of the two women making the charges against Assange. “I want to be neutral on this, because I don’t have the full story. I don’t want to diminish the seriousness of what they are saying.”

She suggested that the allegations may represent a cultural misunderstanding between Assange and the two women and that this may be a “classic romantic triangle.”

“Julian is brilliant in many ways, but he doesn’t have very good social skills,” she said. “And he’s a classic Aussie in the sense that he’s a bit of a male chauvinist.”

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter and bestselling author, based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He left the paper in May 2008, a few weeks after his first book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, hit the bestsellers lists of both The New York Times and The Washington Post. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.