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Breakaway WikiLeaks staff form new service

Of all the legal, sexual and financial charges levelled against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in recent days, the most damaging - and surprising - may be that he is doing a disservice to whistleblowers.

Yet this is exactly how a group of the document-leaking website's core staff, including the man who until a few weeks ago was its second-in-command, characterize the 39-year-old Australian as they have announced their break from his organization to create a new service, OpenLeaks, which they say will offer three things WikiLeaks has never managed: transparency, a direct link to the media and lack of celebrity.

"One of the main issues we see with WikiLeaks today," said Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the 32-year-old German who had been Mr. Assange's right-hand man and spokesman, "is that it has become too much about self-promoting the project and self-promoting people involved with the project, which is rather distracting from the content of the documents."

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Even as the United States pursues efforts to shut down WikiLeaks and its sources of financing for having negotiated the leak of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables and hundreds of thousands of military communiqués from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, WikiLeaks is collapsing internally under charges from Internet activists and whistleblower advocates that it has become a promotional vehicle for Mr. Assange that no longer helps whistleblowers.

The defection of a handful of core staff - who reportedly include most of the computer-literate people who have assisted Mr. Assange in the past two years - illustrates deep division between those who believe the purpose of WikiLeaks is to make government and other organizations more transparent by exposing their inner communications, and those, such as Mr. Assange, who have a more ideological mission.

Mr. Assange's anti-American predisposition has become a concern to some Internet activists, who see his political prejudices and personal vendettas as having tainted the group's image of neutral transparency.

He recently told a Swedish television documentary that he sees the leaks as "actions that are a corrective to injustice," a claim that annoyed those who prefer to see WikiLeaks as a conduit that can be used to help any disgruntled employee with a cause.

There is concern that the organization's neutrality and its value to future whistleblowers have been tainted by Mr. Assange's recent arrest on sex-crime accusations originating in Sweden - which have yet to result in criminal charges or to be questioned in court - as well as his frequent press releases and speeches denouncing those exposed in the leaks.

In response, OpenLeaks was founded as a completely invisible organization. People will be able to post documents to its confidential site and choose a range of media outlets, unions and other groups who can receive them without knowing the identity of the sender. It will be up to the recipients to judge, filter, publish and publicize the leaks, and OpenLeaks will play no active role.

This, in the view of the dissidents, is what WikiLeaks was meant to be from the beginning, until Mr. Assange's personal motives interfered.

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WikiLeaks began with the intention of publishing leaked documents on the Web itself; this was how it attained some of its earlier successes, such as the 2007 revelation that Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi had embezzled funds or the October, 2009, publication of the full membership list of the far-right British National Party.

But its founders soon discovered that its online audience was too small to reach the sort of mass audience needed for the leaks to have an effect. It also lacked the editing and analysis skills needed to turn raw documents into useful information.

So when it received a huge trove of government documents this year, allegedly from U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks took on a new role as a middleman operation, poised between whistleblowers and the media organizations that publish their leaks. Mr. Assange became a dealmaker rather than a publisher, and his negotiating style came to be dominated by his personal tastes and beliefs.

It was around this time that founding staff began to defect. Mr. Domscheit-Berg, who until late September was the public face of WikiLeaks under the nom de plume Daniel Schmitt, was suspended by Mr. Assange after suggesting that the founder take a lower profile and allow new leaks to be accepted while processing Mr. Manning's trove. (WikiLeaks has not accepted any new documents since the summer.)

Mr. Assange has refused to speak in detail about the defections. "In a tense situation like ours, employees can do bad things and then get suspended by leadership," he said during a discussion at London's Frontline club in October.

The founders say that OpenLeaks can operate on little more than €100,000 a year, as it will require no editors or publicists. It will compete with a number of other new whistleblower sites hoping to take advantage of the demise of WikiLeaks.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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