Beleaguered, pursued, threatened, excoriated and about to be extradited, it's been a tough year for Julian Assange.

Next week, the founder of WikiLeaks heads back to the High Court in London to appeal a British ruling that would extradite him to Sweden to face sex charges.

The stakes are high. If he loses, he'll likely be on a plane to Sweden within days.

Assange maintains his innocence in the Swedish matter, but he's also wary that leaving the U.K., where he has been under house arrest, could make him more vulnerable to an American extradition. Some mainstream American political figures have called for his execution, for leaking classified information.

So everyone was surprised when, on Thursday, WikiLeaks did something it hadn't been doing very much of in 2011. It released documents, outing companies that sold software to governments allowing them to spy.

WikiLeaks was still in business. But is it?

'Pretty much ended'

Publishing secrets and brokering the flow of information were what WikiLeaks was designed to do when it was founded by Assange in 2006.


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, at a press conference in London in October 2011, when he said the organization may soon cease to exist unless it could get around the financial blockage erected by Visa, MasterCard and PayPal. (Reuters)

The group had a spectacular year in 2010, scoring press coups and leaking a staggering amount of secret diplomatic cables, mostly pertaining to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was effectively challenging all the previous notions of public secrecy, security and journalism.

But by 2011, WikiLeaks and Assange had too often become the story themselves.

Internal squabbles picked away at Assange's already embattled character. A vaunted exposé of American banks failed to appear. And, crucially, a cache of unredacted confidential documents went public, potentially endangering lives.

At the same time, a U.S.-influenced payment barricade enacted by Visa, Mastercard and PayPal strangled the organization's cash flow.

Earlier this week, David Leigh, the executive editor of the Guardian newspaper's investigations unit and the author of the book, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy, told CBC Radio's Day 6 that WikiLeaks is essentially finished.

"Julian isn't just the public face of WikiLeaks, he is WikiLeaks," Leigh told me.

Listen here to the Guardian's David Leigh being interviewed by Brent Bambury on Day 6.

"WikiLeaks is Julian and a few other people and many of those people have since fallen out and won't deal with him anymore," Leigh said. "It's him and a few volunteers and a sort of fan base across the globe.

"I think WikiLeaks has pretty much ended already to tell you the truth."

Oysters and cheese

David Leigh was one of the relative handful of international editors who helped prepare for publication in the summer of 2010 a massive trove of U.S. military logs about the Afghanistan war.

 WikiLeaks greatest hits

2008, posts secret Scientology material.

April 2010, posts 'Collateral Damage' video of U.S. Apache helicopter shooting 18 people in Baghdad.

July 25, 2010, the Afghanistan war logs are published in New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel.

October 2010, the IRAQ war logs are published in NYT, Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde.

November 28, 2010, diplomatic cables published in NYT, Guardian, Der Spiegel, le Monde, El Pais.

It was a complex process of verifying, redacting, cross-referencing and excerpting.

Leigh spent months trying to make sense of the vast collection of classified documents, an unprecedented volume of leaked information, perhaps 10 times the size of the leaked Pentagon papers in 1971.

He recalls his first meeting with Assange.

"When I first met him, I thought he was very charismatic but strange.

"I remember he arrived in London and he had nowhere to stay and he had had nothing to eat. So I took him to a restaurant and I said 'What do you want?' and he said 'I want 12 oysters and a piece of cheese.'

"And I thought this is a strange person, he's not like us Earthlings."

Putting others at risk

From the outset, Leigh says he was wary of Assange's more cavalier attitude toward the documents and that it was the cause of much conflict with the media partners during the process.

"We had big rows with Julian," he says, "We think he's pretty irresponsible as a character and the fact that he ended up dumping everything out completely unredacted, putting people in the way of potential reprisals, that's just irresponsible, not something we would ever do."


November 2010: America's secrets laid bare, the world's media trumpeted. ((Sang Tan/Associated Press))

It is a point echoed by Bill Keller, who was executive editor of the New York Times in 2010 when the massive trove of diplomatic cables was released.

"From the beginning," he says, "we agreed that in our articles and in any documents we published from the secret archive, we would excise material that could put lives at risk."

Still, notwithstanding the careful process the leaked documents were subjected to, WikiLeaks suffered a huge setback in September 2011 when it became clear that the full, unredacted diplomatic cables were circulating online.

WikiLeaks blamed the leak on a password published in David Leigh's book. But Leigh rejects the charge and the four other big news organizations (the New York Times, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde) that had partnered with WikiLeaks in the original publication closed ranks with The Guardian.

The rush of the big story

When Bill Keller and David Leigh write about their involvement with WikiLeaks, their prose is full of adrenaline.

Being on the receiving end of the biggest leak in modern journalism, working collaboratively with the world's most powerful news organizations, is the stuff of dreams for anyone who has ever broken a story.

But looking back now, Leigh doesn't think the experience changed the face of journalism or elevated Julian Assange and his ideals of accountability and transparency.

"A lot of what Julian said about the way journalism is being transformed was just a fantasy," Leigh told Day 6.

"Journalism is about the application of intelligence to information. It's not about mass leaking of things and then suddenly it's a Pandora's Box and you open it and everybody knows the truth. The world isn't like that."

Julian Assange appears in court in London on Monday.