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Despite latest coup, WikiLeaks facing challenges

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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 Writers
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 6:00 AM

"WikiLeaks," said the godfather of whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, "has become the future of unauthorized disclosure."

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Speaking Saturday in London, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers and their damning history of American involvement in Vietnam a generation ago, expressed what is partly hope and partly a reflection of reality: the Internet makes it harder to keep secrets.

But still to be determined is whether WikiLeaks itself is that future, or some other Web site or collection of online organizations. WikiLeaks is evolving, working through challenges posed by the new media model, such as to what degree can a site devoted to holding the powerful accountable hold itself beyond reach? And can a site dedicated to combating secrecy continue to be so secret?

Indeed, as WikiLeaks is trumpeting its latest coup, a number of former WikiLeaks activists are painting another picture of an organization that is out of control, still too driven by the personality and ego of its mercurial founder, Julian Assange.

"I'm too busy ending two wars," is the response one reporter got in an e-mail from Assange after asking for clarity on an issue, according to a source who saw the e-mail, and thought it captured Assange's crusading and peremptory nature.

On Saturday, the tall, thin Assange got up on a platform and, wearing a navy suit and gray-stripe tie, proclaimed that the group's latest disclosure - about 392,000 documents from the Iraq battlefront - was about revealing "the truth."

Certainly the release Friday was a milestone, the result of the largest leak of classified military documents in history and what the editor of the British newspaper the Guardian called "an extraordinary moment in journalism."

A half-dozen or so journalistic heavyweights, including the New York Times, Qatar-based al-Jazeera and the Guardian, released stories Friday based on advance, privileged access to the documents.

The stories revealed that the U.S. military, despite its denials, did keep a body count of Iraqi casualties - at least 109,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2009, the vast majority civilians. They also gave fresh attention to the grisly abuses of Iraqi detainees, largely by Iraqi security forces, prompting human rights advocates to call for probes into how much U.S. officials knew about the torture. And it added new information about the apparent role of Iran in supporting Shiite militias.

Assange, 39, whose close-cropped blond hair frames an impish face, struck a defiant note against his critics, particularly those in the U.S. government.

Even before the documents and stories were published, the Pentagon issued a statement accusing WikiLeaks of putting at risk "the lives of our troops, their coalitions partners" and Iraqis who collaborated with coalition forces. The statement also said WikiLeaks induced "individuals to break the law" by leaking the material.

Said Assange of the Pentagon: "They are trying to issue deceptive statements to fool the world press into reporting something that is not true."


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