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As Assange awaits ruling, WikiLeaks faces its fate

By Raphael G. Sattter

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 1 2011 8:23 a.m. MDT

LONDON — As Julian Assange awaits a judge's extradition verdict, it could be WikiLeaks' very future that's at stake.

Its finances under pressure and some of its biggest revelations already public, WikiLeaks may not have the strength to survive if Britain's High Court judge decides Wednesday in favor of a Swedish request to extradite Assange to face trial over rape allegations, some experts argue.

Tim Maurer, who has studied the group and its membership, said he wasn't sure whether its remaining staff had the tech savvy to run the site if its founder is absent.

"I don't think that WikiLeaks will exist without Assange," said Maurer, a research associate at the Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Legal analysts were predicting a ruling in favor of extradition.

"Very, very few people defeat a European Arrest Warrant," said Julian Knowles, an extradition lawyer at London's Matrix Chambers who has been following the case. "The courts in England generally lean in favor of extradition."

Assange may have the right to challenge an unfavorable verdict in Britain's Supreme Court. But Knowles said that if he were denied leave to appeal, it could be only days before he were sent to Scandinavia to face allegations of sex crimes.

That result could be devastating for WikiLeaks.

For much of the past year Assange has been running the website from a supporter's country manor in eastern England, where the terms of his bail have confined him to virtual house arrest.

The 40-year-old Australian says he has 20 staff members, but it's unclear who might take over were he jailed. A few years ago two of his closest aides, Joseph Farrell and Sarah Harrison, were working as journalistic interns. WikiLeaks' spokesman, Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson, is rarely reachable.

Even if Assange eventually wins his battle to the stay in the U.K., his fight will be far from over.

A U.S. grand jury is still weighing whether to indict him on espionage charges, WikiLeaks is straining under the weight of an American financial embargo which he says has starved it of nearly all its revenue, and some media organizations that previously worked closely with the website have since turned their backs to the online secret-spiller.

Perhaps most important is the question of whether Assange can still produce explosive leaks with his suspected chief source, Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, in detention.

Purported chat logs between Manning and the man who turned him in, Adrian Lamo, list the State Department cables, the Iraq war logs, and a sheaf of Guantanamo documents among the highlights of the material handed to WikiLeaks.

Except for an Afghanistan air strike video — which has allegedly been destroyed — all the material has since been published.

WikiLeaks' only other publicly announced disclosure since then, the purported hand-over of CDs packed with tax evasion secrets by Swiss banker Rudolf Elmer, turned into a big dud when Elmer's lawyers later claimed that the discs were blank.

Even if the spectacular revelations return — and Assange insists he's still sitting on hundreds of secrets — WikiLeaks may have trouble finding an outlet to publish them.

The WikiLeaks chief said last week that he'd struck deals with some 90 media and human rights groups. But he has long had a prickly relationship with the mainstream press, which he variously describes as corrupt, complicit with powerful governments, or — in a recent speech to demonstrators in London — "war criminals."

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