The Assange Arrest and WikiLeaks' Survival
By: Stratfor.comDecember 8, 2010
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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange surrendered to authorities in Britain on Dec. 7, following an Interpol Red Notice based on a Swedish arrest warrant. WikiLeaks is a relatively young organization with one leader and has not institutionalized a set of practices and protocols that guarantee its survival even if the personnel changes. Assange's arrest will test the organization's ability to maintain itself, but the use of the Internet to leak documents will continue.

London Metropolitan police arrested Julian Assange, the founder and public spokesman for WikiLeaks, at 9:30 a.m. local time on Dec. 7 after Assange turned himself in. He is due to appear in a court in Westminster soon over sexual assault charges filed against him in Sweden, and faces possible extradition.
There is considerable interest in what his arrest will mean for his organization. WikiLeaks organized a new method for an old practice-leaking confidential government information in an attempt to influence politics. And while Assange's arrest could disrupt the long-term viability of WikiLeaks, it will not stop the release of the current batch of diplomatic cables in the short term, nor will it stop similar future leaks via the Internet.

Leadership is extremely important in nongovernmental organizations that have not institutionalized to the point where their dominant figures are replaceable and members can adapt to changing circumstance. From terrorist groups to charities, new organizations often rise and fall with their founders. Assange created WikiLeaks with himself as the only public face-he leads supporters, drives donations, gives interviews and faces the resulting criticism. There have been reports of internal dissent and tensions, and in one interview with CNN, a discussion of the organization's internal politics seemed to touch a nerve with Assange. If Assange were to face charges in Sweden for sexual assault or new charges in the United Kingdom or the United States and was found guilty, WikiLeaks would still need someone to oversee it. Assange may have someone ready to fill the leadership void, but there has been no evidence of this.

In addition to having its leadership threatened, WikiLeaks has suffered logistically. As national governments put pressure on its infrastructure, its web server has been shut down, and most important, a major source of funding, PayPal, has closed WikiLeaks' account (Visa and Mastercard have also banned payments from their cards to WikiLeaks). It is also possible the events of the past few months will deter other potential leakers from approaching WikiLeaks as opposed to other organizations (especially if they dislike or disagree with Assange). Moreover, this new set of documents has not been greeted with the reaction Assange expected-the U.S. public is not angry at the State Department, but many are angry at Assange and his organization.

Immediately following Assange's arrest, a WikiLeaks spokesman said the arrest would not stop the group's operations. Indeed, whether Assange remains behind bars or not, it most likely will not stop the continued release of the 250,000 U.S. State Department cables, only a fraction of which have been released thus far. It also will not shut down WikiLeaks, which still maintains its website-albeit currently on a Swiss server, after its initial U.S.-hosted servers were deactivated-and the ability to collect information from leakers. So in the short term, WikiLeaks will persist. The question remains if Assange created a truly sustainable institution.

If Assange is extradited to Sweden and tried on one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape, it is not clear to what degree the image of WikiLeaks will be damaged; thus far Assange has cultivated the site as an extension of his persona, and even without the assault charges he is not held in high repute. The extradition process could take months or even years, and he may try to use prison time to develop his image as a martyr for free speech, but this can backfire. If WikiLeaks, however, is not tied to his image, it will be much more sustainable as an organization.

Western governments also fear whatever is contained in his "insurance" file, a 1.4-gigabyte computer file that has already been distributed to many thousands of people over the Internet. Assange has threatened to release the encryption password if something happens to him. As STRATFOR has stated before, WikiLeaks likely led with its most insightful documents, and thus those saved in the insurance file are probably less enlightening than they are damaging. The file may contain no new information at all, but simply the names and information on sources, diplomats, military and intelligence officers not already disclosed. Such a release could put these individuals' jobs or even lives at risk. However, such a release exposing these individuals in a vindictive manner could further tarnish Assange and WikiLeaks in the eyes of the international public, to include potential financial and information contributors. Beyond that, governments will almost certainly take stronger measures against WikiLeaks if it does release identities of classified sources or officers.

WikiLeaks is now facing a conundrum that all new organizations face at some point-the ability to maintain and transition leadership through adverse circumstances. Assange may be released quickly, but if he is not, WikiLeaks' survival will be in question. However, even if WikiLeaks disappears, the organizational concept will continue, and leaks along with it. WikiLeaks has only demonstrated the ability new technology has created to transfer large quantities of documents, and there is no reason other organizations will not make use of the same technology.

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