WikiLeaks — whose spectacular publication of classified data shook world capitals and exposed the inner workings of international diplomacy — may be weeks away from collapse, the organization's leader warned Monday.
Although its attention-grabbing leaks spread outrage and embarrassment across military and diplomatic circles, WikiLeaks' inability to shake the restrictions imposed by American financial companies may prove its undoing.
"If WikiLeaks does not find a way to remove this blockade we will simply not be able to continue by the turn of the new year," founder Julian Assange told journalists at London's Frontline Club. "If we don't knock down the blockade we simply will not be able to continue."
As an emergency measure, Assange said his group would cease what he called "publication operations" to focus its energy on fundraising. He added that WikiLeaks — which he said had about 20 employees — needs an additional $3.5 million to keep it going into 2013.
WikiLeaks, launched as an online repository for confidential information, shot to notoriety with the April 2010 disclosure of footage of two Reuters journalists killed by a U.S. military strike in Baghdad.
The Pentagon had claimed that the journalists were likely "intermixed among the insurgents," but the helicopter footage, which captured U.S. airmen firing on prone figures and joking about "dead bastards," unsettled many across the world.
The video was just a foretaste. In the following months, WikiLeaks published nearly half a million secret military documents from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a whole the documents provided an unprecedented level of detail into the grueling, bloody conflicts. Individually, many raised concerns about the actions of the U.S. and its local allies, for example by detailing evidence of abuse, torture and worse by Iraqi security forces.
Although U.S. officials railed against the disclosures, claiming that they were putting lives at risk, it wasn't until WikiLeaks began publishing a massive trove of 250,000 U.S. State Department cables late last year that the financial screws began to tighten.
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One after the other, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and Western Union stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks, starving the organization of cash as it was coming under intense political, financial and legal pressure.
Assange said Monday that the restrictions — imposed in early December — had cut off some 95 per cent of the money he thinks his organization could have received.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnson defended the estimate as "conservative," noting that in 2010 the average monthly donation to WikiLeaks had been more than €100,000 euros ($140,000), while in 2011 the amount had fallen to between €6,000 and €7,000 euros.
WikiLeaks recently organized a series of auctions aimed at shoring up its finances. Among the items put for sale: Lunch with the 40-year-old WikiLeaks founder, and the laptop computer he used to organize the U.S. cables release.
Looking for financial backers
Assange said Monday that until now his group had relied on small-time donations — he put the average figure at $25. But with the financial embargo in place, he said he would be looking to a "constellation of wealthy individuals" to help keep his organization going.
Assange has several wealthy backers, including Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith, whose mansion in eastern England has been put at Assange's disposal while he fights extradition to Sweden on sex crime allegations.
A decision on whether to extradite him is expected in the next few weeks. Speaking to journalists after Monday's Frontline Club appearance, Assange put his chances of being extradited without the possibility of appeal at "30 per cent."
Also looming in the background is a U.S. grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks' disclosures. Earlier this month a small California-based Internet provider became the second company to confirm it was fighting a court order demanding customer account information as part of the American WikiLeaks inquiry.
WikiLeaks' suspected source, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, remains in custody at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas.