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In this Nov. 4, 2010 file photo, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks during a news conference at the Geneva press club, in Geneva, Switzerland. Assange is a former computer hacker who has embarrassed the U.S. government and foreign leaders with his online release of a huge trove of secret American diplomatic cables. (Martial Trezzini/AP/Martial Trezzini/AP)
In this Nov. 4, 2010 file photo, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks during a news conference at the Geneva press club, in Geneva, Switzerland. Assange is a former computer hacker who has embarrassed the U.S. government and foreign leaders with his online release of a huge trove of secret American diplomatic cables. (Martial Trezzini/AP/Martial Trezzini/AP)

WikiLeaks founder threatens to release entire cache of unfiltered files Add to ...

At the centre of a tightening web of death threats, sex-crime accusations and high-level demands for a treason trial, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threatened to unleash a "thermonuclear device" of completely unexpurgated government files if he is forced to appear before authorities.

Mr. Assange, the 39-year-old Australian Internet activist whose online document-leaking service has embarrassed the United States and other countries by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic and military documents, has referred to the huge, unfiltered document as his "insurance policy."

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The 1.3-gigabyte file, distributed through file-sharing services this summer and protected with an unbreakable 256-bit encryption key, contains full versions of all the U.S. documents received by WikiLeaks to date - including those that have been withheld from publication or have had names and details removed in order to protect the lives of spies, sources and soldiers.

Silent for the better part of a week as WikiLeaks made daily headlines around the globe, Mr. Assange has been increasingly vocal in recent days, defending his actions, decrying his critics and defying world leaders.

Mr. Assange's lawyer Mark Stephens warned that if Mr. Assange were to be brought to trial on rape accusations he faces in Sweden, or for treason charges that have been suggested by U.S. politicians, he would release the encryption key. The tens of thousands of people who have downloaded the file would instantly have access to the names, addresses and details contained in the file.

WikiLeaks, Mr. Stephens said, has "been subject to cyberattacks and censorship around the world and they need to protect themselves ... This is what they believe to be a thermonuclear device in the information age."

He uttered that threat as his client was believed to be in hiding in Britain, with prominent U.S. and Saudi officials calling for Mr. Assange's arrest or death, justice officials attempting to shut down his websites in many countries, and the Swedish justice system seeking him for questioning on the sexual-crime allegations.

Mr. Assange has denied the accusation, made by two women who hosted a party for him in Stockholm in August. He has acknowledged having had consensual sex with the complainants. Reports say the sex became non-consensual over disagreements about condom use.

This weekend he refused to respond to a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden, and an Interpol alert related to the accusation. His lawyers argued that the accusations amount to a smear campaign and suggested that U.S. officials might be behind them.

The Swedish prosecutor took the unusual step of going before the news media to say she has received no pressure or communication of any sort from international or political authorities and that the charges are unrelated to the leaks scandal.

"This investigation has proceeded perfectly normally without any political pressure of any kind," prosecutor Marianne Ny told the Agence France-Presse wire service. "It is completely independent."

A number of high-profile U.S. figures, including Republicans Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, have called for the prosecution of Mr. Assange.

"Julian Assange is engaged in warfare," Mr. Gingrich said, echoing similar words spoken by Ms. Palin and others last week. "Information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed, is terrorism. And Julian Assange is engaged in terrorism. He should be treated as an enemy combatant and WikiLeaks should be closed down permanently and decisively."

However, U.S. charges against Mr. Assange are unlikely: He is not a U.S. citizen and, because he did not steal the documents himself, but only participated in their publication, he would likely be protected under the U.S. Constitution's free-speech provisions.

The documents were reportedly stolen from a U.S. military installation by Bradley Manning, a former private in the U.S. Army who copied years of secret Pentagon and State Department communiqués and passed them to Mr. Assange, who in turn brokered deals with worldwide media outlets to publish details from them. Those details, despite some censorship by Mr. Assange and the publishers, have shaken relations between the United States and Gulf countries, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Manning is already being held in solitary confinement, and will likely face treason and espionage charges. This has not stopped a growing chorus of U.S. and foreign figures from pushing for punishment for Mr. Assange.

U.S. newspapers reported that a team of Justice Department and Pentagon investigators is looking into the possibility of charges against Mr. Assange under the Espionage Act. Attorney-General Eric Holder said "this is not sabre-rattling" when asked by reporters about the possibility of charges. Justice officials in Australia, where Mr. Assange was born, are reportedly also looking into a prosecution.

That did not stop more figures from suggesting that Mr. Assange should be harmed or killed - a circle that includes Canadian Tom Flanagan, a former campaign manager to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who told a TV interviewer last week that Mr. Assange should be assassinated (he later apologized for the remark).

In an online interview with the Guardian newspaper, Mr. Assange said Mr. Flanagan "should be charged with incitement to commit murder."

He also told reporters Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, should resign if they are shown to have authorized an operation to spy on United Nations top officials - one of the many secrets revealed in the leaked State Department cables.

"Obama must answer what he knew about this illegal order and when. If he refuses to answer or there is evidence he approved of these actions, he must resign," the WikiLeaks founder told the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

He suggested, not for the first time, that he believes his document service has had a profound effect on world history: "I believe geopolitics will be separated into pre- and post-Cablegate phases."

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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