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WikiLeaks spokesman, leaving group, describes dysfunction behind the scenes

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.org, speaks with The Washington Post's Rocci Fisch and answers reader questions on just released secret Afghan war documents published by the web site.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 10:47 PM

A key member of the team behind the WikiLeaks Web site has said he is leaving the group, dealing another blow to an organization that only months ago was basking in the global spotlight after a series of high-profile disclosures of classified documents and videos that the U.S. military had sought to keep secret.

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In various interviews, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who had used the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt in his capacity as WikiLeaks spokesman, described an organization that has become dysfunctional under the autocratic control of its founder, Julian Assange.

Assange, 39, resisted appeals to help the four-year-old group become more professional and transparent, said Domscheit-Berg, who lives in Berlin. "Four weeks ago, he suspended me - acting as the prosecutor, judge and hangman in one person," Domscheit-Berg told Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, on Monday.

Tuesday evening, WikiLeaks posted a response on Twitter: "WikiLeaks remains strong, financially and in terms of human resources. No resignations have been tendered. One suspension - a month ago."

Domscheit-Berg's announcement comes in the wake of allegations from two Swedish women that Assange raped one and sexually harassed the other. Since then, Assange, who has said the sexual relations he had with the women were consensual, has retreated from public view. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

His relative silence, except to proclaim his innocence and assert that the accusations are part of a U.S.-orchestrated smear campaign, contrasts with his volubility in recent months, especially after the WikiLeaks release in July of more than 70,000 classified U.S. military field reports from Afghanistan. Assange equated their release online to Daniel Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, an analogy others have challenged. He brushed off demands by the Pentagon to return the documents, which have been copied and shared around the globe.

In some ways, WikiLeaks was not ready for the torrent of media and public interest that followed, Domscheit-Berg said. More documents flowed in, but the team was struggling to deal with earlier submissions that still needed to be prepared for release.

The dispute with the United States over the release of the Afghan war records created a "siege mentality" within the group and helped to concentrate power in Assange's hands, Domscheit-Berg said, according to the Times of London.

"That has reinforced the hierarchical nature of this organization," said Domscheit-Berg, 32, who, like Assange, is a former hacker. "It has stifled the necessary discussion about roles and responsibilities. Our raison d'etre is transparency, yet we were not transparent ourselves."

Especially troubling to Domscheit-Berg was that Assange seemed to have lost sight of the original premise of the site, to be free of discrimination and publish all submissions, including documents of only local importance as well as those that had global impact.

"I have tried again and again to push for that," he told Der Spiegel. "But Julian Assange reacted to any criticism with the allegation that I was disobedient to him and disloyal to the project."

For weeks, Domscheit-Berg's access to e-mail was blocked. A lot of work "is just sitting," he said.

"Wikileaks has a structural problem," he said. "That's why I'm leaving the project.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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