The War on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

WikiLeaks homepage

WikiLeaks homepage, seen here, has come under repeated cyberattack in the last week, forcing it to move to new hosts several times.

Last Updated: Dec. 4, 7:45 PM ET

Since the first mentions of a leak of potentially embarrassing U.S. diplomatic cables, a quiet war has blossomed between those who claim they support openness and free speech and those who claim they are protecting lives, international cooperation and the rights of the Swedish court system.

The war has opened on two fronts: The first front is an attempt to stop the public from getting access to WikiLeaks' trove of diplomatic cables and war documents. The second front is an attempt to get WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange either behind bars or, if Assange's claims are to be believed, assassinated.

The attacks have come from several sides, not just the government. Assange's and WikiLeaks' supporters are many though, and thus far they have proven adept at avoiding permanent damage from powerful digital attacks. How Assange the person survives the attacks is yet to be seen.

"The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks," Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow tweeted Friday.

The attempt to stop access to WikiLeaks' trove of documents

-In October, 2010, after WikiLeaks releases hundreds of thousands of documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls go out to begin cyberattacks on WikiLeaks to protect American interests.

-On Nov. 28, 2010, the day that five major news organizations around the world decided to first publish stories about the 250,000 leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks' website experiences technical difficulties in sharing that information themselves. A jingoistic American "hacktivist," who calls himself "th3j35t3r" (The Jester) and said he normally targets radical Islamic sites takes claim for disrupting WikiLeaks' site for a few hours that day, saying that he targeted WikiLeaks "for attempting to endanger the lives of our troops, 'other assets' & foreign relations."

-On Nov. 30, 2010, WikiLeaks writes on its website that it came under a "powerful cyberattack" and that it was leaving its primary Swedish host to take refuge on Amazon.com's servers. The Associated Press reports that the denial of service attack on WikiLeaks was 28 times larger than other similar attacks. Despite having a laundry list of potential enemies from U.S. banks to Russia to the U.S. Military, no culprits for the attacks are found or step forward to take responsibility.

-On Dec. 1, 2010, Amazon Web Services dumps WikiLeaks from its servers after staffers from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's office call the California Internet company to inquire about its relationship with WikiLeaks. Assange claims WikiLeaks has been "deliberately placing some of our servers in jurisdictions that we suspected suffered a free speech deficit in order to separate rhetoric from reality. Amazon was one of these cases." In response, Amazon said that government pressure and cyberattacks had nothing to do with it. Instead, they claim Wikipedia violated their terms of service.

-Also on Dec. 1, 2010, news comes out that China blocked WikiLeaks' website from behind its firewall; a military spokesman told Fox News that the Pentagon could have destroyed WikiLeaks' website, but chose not to because the impact of the leaks did not warrant it.

-On Dec. 2, 2010, WikiLeaks' supporters reveal they have a backup plan. If anything untoward happens to the website or to Assange, countless thousands of encrypted zip files containing the uncensored version of the cables are in their possession. At that time, WikiLeaks will release the encryption key and the files will once again be public, only more so.

-On Dec. 3, 2010, the American domain name provider for WikiLeaks, EveryDNS, announces it has dropped WikiLeaks because it too came under aggressive denial of service attack. Wikileaks reopened its website on a server in Switzerland and lists via Twitter three new websites in three countries hosting its mainpage.

-Also on Dec. 3, 2010, some in France's government began trying to find ways to deny French servers the right to host Wikileaks. The Guardian, one of the original five news outlets to distribute the cables, has trouble hosting an online Q&A with Assange after its site received too much traffic. The U.S. Library of Congress and Department of Education reportedly blocks access to WikiLeaks on their computers. The departments of State and Commerce reportedly asked employees not to look at it.

The fight for and against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

-In August, 2010, shortly after Wikileaks announced it would be releasing thousands of documents about the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, Swedish prosecutors open an investigation into charges of rape and sexual molestation of two women in Sweden against Assange. Charges against him are promptly dropped.

-One week after the initial charges are dropped, Swedish prosecutors reopen the case against Assange and seek an International Arrest warrant for the Australian national because, prosecutors said, he refused to come in for questioning. Assange and his lawyers claims the case is politically motivated and fights the order; his lawyers call it part of a larger "smear campaign."

-On Nov. 29, 2010, the day after the diplomatic cables release, the U.S. Department of Justice and Australian police each open an investigation into whether they can charge Assange with anything. As of Friday, they had not.

-Also on Nov. 29, 2010, U.S. Rep. Peter King (D-NY) asked the Obama administration to declare WikiLeaks a terrorist organization, and therefore by extension declared Assange himself to be a terrorist.

-On Dec. 1, 2010, Assange winds up getting a "red notice" from Interpol, meaning he's being sought in connection with a sex crime, after the Swedish high court upholds a lower court's right to call him in for questioning. In response, Assange's lawyers open their own investigation into whether the Swedish case was linked to U.S. promises to prosecute those behind the leaks. The lawyers say that Assange has yet to receive formal notice of the allegations he faces - a legal requirement under European law.

-On Dec. 2, 2010, some conservative Americans issue calls to assassinate Assange. In a later interview, Assange claims the calls for assassination are not just from crazy extremists, saying, "the threats against our lives are a matter of public record, however, we are taking the appropriate precautions to the degree that we are able when dealing with a super power."

-Also on Dec. 2, 2010, three senators, including Senator Lieberman, introduced legislation making it illegal to publish the names of military or intelligence community informants, a bill written up with WikiLeaks squarely in its sights. However, with this year's Congress rapidly approaching an end, it is very doubtful the legislation will pass.

-On Dec. 3, 2010, reports surface that Assange is in London, after being in hiding for much of the last several months. Although he had given a few press interviews, they were online and Assange is rumored to rarely spend much time in the same place (or country.) London police have delayed executing Interpol's arrest warrant as of late Friday, even though Swedish authorities have issued a new call to bring him in.

-On Dec. 4, 2010, PayPal revealed that it had restricted the WikiLeaks account "due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. We've notified the account holder of this action." WikiLeaks' PayPal account now redirects users to a German foundation that provides money for the organization. In a tweet, WikiLeaks blamed "US government pressure'' for the PayPal ban.

What's Next

WikiLeaks' archive appears safe for now. The encryption key is still out there, and they continue to move their homepage from server to server, never avoiding attacks but certainly preventing a total shutdown.

Assange the founder is still a free man as of Friday afternoon. It is worth noting that Swedish authorities are only bringing him in for questioning, not an actual arrest. Even though British authorities said Thursday they know where he is, they had not yet arrested him. Whether he avoids incarceration, or worse, is anyone's guess.

Read CBS News' Special Section on WikiLeaks

  • Joshua Norman

    Joshua Norman is a Senior Editor at CBSNews.com.

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