Not long after the Afghan documents were published, Assange gave the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel advance access to the second of what he told associates was four tranches of secret U.S. documents acquired by WikiLeaks. This time the leak involved a set of almost 400,000 incident reports generated by U.S. military units in Iraq.
The plan was for both the media outlets and WikiLeaks to take a bit more time going through the material and redacting it if necessary to avoid accusations that lives were being put in jeopardy.
By then, however, associates say that Assange's personal problems became a distraction. After two Swedish women went to the police in August following separate sexual encounters with Assange, some longtime supporters and even close associates began to turn on him.
One erstwhile WikiLeaks collaborator who became so irked by Assange's antics that she felt compelled to speak out was Birgitta Jonsdottir, a political activist in Iceland who won election to parliament in the wake of that country's financial meltdown. She had been so intrigued by the idea behind WikiLeaks that she helped Assange put together WikiLeaks "Collateral Murder" video package.
But Jonsdottir was appalled at events unfolding in Sweden and proposed Assange step down as WikiLeaks leader at least until the Swedish sex inquiry was resolved. She even talked about convening an extraordinary meeting of WikiLeaks activists to oust Assange as leader in the event he did not step down voluntarily.
Not long afterward, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the German programmer who had been Assange's closest WikiLeaks collaborator, broke with Assange in even more spectacular fashion.
Already distressed by what he viewed as WikiLeaks' careless editing of the Afghan War documents, Domscheit-Berg and Assange got into the online equivalent of a shouting match when Assange accused Domscheit-Berg of leaking information to a journalist about internal WikiLeaks criticism of Assange over the sex case.
According to Threat Level, a Wired Magazine blog, Assange did not respond well to insurgency in the ranks of WikiLeaks. "I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest," Assange wrote to another disillusioned WikiLeaks volunteer from Iceland, Herbert Snorrason, according to Threat Level. "If you have a problem with me, piss off."
Domscheit-Berg is now writing a book about his WikiLeaks experience, and in a copy of a three-page blurb about the book which is being circulated by his German publisher, Domscheit-Berg says about Assange: "It is not for nothing that many who have quit refer to him as a 'dictator.' He thinks of himself as the autocratic ruler of the project and believes himself accountable to no-one."
In a conversation with Reuters a few weeks ago, Domscheit-Berg, who is also creating a disclosure website called Open Leaks as a rival to WikiLeaks, said: "I have been working with him for three years. I didn't feel until the beginning of this year that this is where we were going. Maybe it's the fame that went to his head, or feeling that he could get away with it... The moment you start to say that (the allegations against Assange) are a smear campaign, you are using the power of your organization to protect an individual."
Key journalists who worked with Assange on stories dug out of WikiLeaks cache of secret U.S. government files - including its latest dump of around 250,000 State Department cables, which has been roiling international diplomacy for more than a week - also became disillusioned by Assange's imperial manner. They lambasted his penchant for making deals with additional media organizations behind the backs of outlets which thought he had promised them relative exclusivity.
With Assange in jail, WikiLeaks has continued rolling out the State Department cables, though the site appears more cautious than it had been when releasing the Pentagon's Afghan and Iraq documents. For example, in the latest batch of secret diplomatic exchanges, potentially sensitive information, including the names of foreigners with whom American officials were in contact, was redacted from cables posted by WikiLeaks itself.
To his most ardent admirers - and there still are many, including the hackers who have launched repeated cyber attacks on his perceived enemies - even if Assange's activities and personality is flawed, his achievements and brilliance should earn him forbearance.
Suelette Dreyfus, the Australian author whose book on hackers Assange helped to research, put it this way: "It does take a certain type of strength and backbone to do (what Assange does), and these are pretty rare qualities because the risks are pretty high."
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