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Is There A Civil War Within WikiLeaks?

What the heck is going on inside WikiLeaks? On the one side, the organization’s founder, architect, and editor, Julian Assange, is being investigated for, well, some kind of sexual misconduct in Sweden. On the other side, an important political ally of the organization, Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, has told "The Daily Beast" that Assange should “step aside” as the organization’s public spokesperson until the criminal case is resolved:

"I am not angry with Julian, but this is a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand. These personal matters should have nothing to do with WikiLeaks. I have strongly urged him to focus on the legalities that he’s dealing with and let some other people carry the torch... There should not be one person speaking for WikiLeaks. There should be many people."

Jonsdottir’s remarks have provoked an angry online debate between partisans for and against WikiLeaks as to whether there is now a “civil war” within the organization. Stoking the fury have been a number of pseudonymous individuals -- let’s call them voices, since that’s about all they amount to at the moment -- claiming to be WikiLeaks “volunteers” and even “insiders.” Their message is remarkably consistent and divisive: either Jonsdottir is a traitor or Assange is a totalitarian.

So, what do Jonsdottir and Assange themselves think? In communications with me over Facebook and e-mail, there is indeed a disagreement between them, one that has bearing on WikiLeaks’ internal organizational and managerial future, but it is neither a coup d’etat nor repression of dissent.

Note: as far as I know, this is the first time Assange has publicly responded to Jonsdottir since the controversy erupted over the weekend (please let me know if I’m wrong in the comments section).

“Things are being very seriously taken out of context,” Jonsdottir writes on her Facebook fan page, which she’s been using as way to communicate with the press and general public.

“I think it is important to note that I am not suggesting that Julian steps aside except as a spokesperson for WikiLeaks while this case is ongoing -- it is important the messenger won’t become the message -- as it seems then it is obvious that weaving together personal matters of this nature with WikiLeaks is not justifiable.”

I asked her whether Assange has been making use of WikiLeaks’ financial and legal resources for the criminal case. In her response, she made an even sharper distinction between the two:

“The money donated to WikiLeaks was donated to the [organization]. I don’t think people donated money to be used for personal court cases of this nature. If [Assange] or anyone else from the [organization] was on trial in relation to WikiLeaks, then I think that is a different matter.”

Assange, meanwhile, highlights an important point: although Jonsdottir has been a key contributor and ally, she has no formal position within the organization. Consequently, her authority on such matters has been inflated.

“WikiLeaks has thousands of volunteers and we accept a diversity of opinions. However, that does not give individuals the right to misrepresent themselves,” Assange begins.

“I have not spoken to Birgitta Jonsdottir in months and she is not an organizer. Nor has she done any work that I am aware of during that time. Nor did she have any contact with this organization prior to late 2009.”

“However, within her limitations of being a full-time politician and mother, she has made significant contributions to our Icelandic work, and to one film project, for which she deserves much credit,” he adds.

All of this was corroborated by Jonsdottir herself, who tweeted on September 7, “I am not a spokesperson for WikiLeaks, nor do I wish to take on that role. I did act as a spokesperson for [WikiLeaks’ "Collateral Murder" video] because I co-produced that.”

The crux here is the question of how much Assange as an individual and WikiLeaks as an organization are co-extensive. This is debatable. "The New Yorker’s" Raffi Khatchadourian has written, “He is the operation’s prime mover, and it is fair to say that WikiLeaks exists wherever he does,” but I wouldn't conflate them too much. In the end, to use Katchadourian’s other remark, WikiLeaks is a “media insurgency” -- Assange is just the match that lit the fire.

I see the merit in Jonsdottir’s position: it’s just good business sense not to have any organization, most of all one dealing with such sensitive matters as WikiLeaks, too dependent upon or too identified with any one person.

Yet, even if Assange does get thrown into jail tomorrow, and even if that means WikiLeaks does indeed vanish with him, it wouldn’t be long before another whistleblower entity emerged to replace them. And perhaps a post-Assange WikiLeaks or a post-WikiLeaks organization would be even more inscrutable and very likely reckless than the WikiLeaks we have now.

-- Christopher Schwartz

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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