WASHINGTON — Nearly two months after it made public its entire unredacted file of purloined U.S. State Department cables, WikiLeaks announced Monday that it was suspending "publishing operations" to concentrate on raising money to keep the website in business.
The announcement left in doubt the future not just of WikiLeaks, but of what had been thought of as a new style of journalism that would allow would-be whistleblowers to leak documents electronically, without the risk of having to reveal their identity to anyone. WikiLeaks' success engendered at least two copycat efforts, but to date neither of those has produced newsworthy releases of information.
"This is an existential threat to WikiLeaks," WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange declared at a news conference in London. He blamed WikiLeaks' dismal financial situation on U.S.-based banking institutions, including Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union, for refusing since December to process donations destined for the website.
The refusal had robbed WikiLeaks of 95 percent of its income, Assange said, in charging that the institutions had acted at the behest of the U.S. government. He said the group needed to raise $3.5 million in the next year to continue its operations at its current levels. He said the website currently has 20 staff members and about 800 volunteers.
The immediate practical impact of WikiLeaks' announcement Monday was unclear. The last of the State Department cables was made public Sept. 2, and WikiLeaks' spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told McClatchy last week that the website had not been able to accept new submissions for much of the past year. Statements from WikiLeaks over the summer indicated that much of its unpublished material had been destroyed by a disgruntled volunteer.
Assange said WikiLeaks would unveil a new system for submitting material anonymously on Nov. 28 _ the anniversary of the first publication of the State Department cables.
The credit card companies cut off donations to WikiLeaks in December, just as the organization reached the height of public awareness with the publication of the State Department cables after three controversial releases of formerly secret U.S. documents in the previous seven months.
In the final month before the financial blockade, the website received more than $1.1 million in donations, according to a chart WikiLeaks distributed to journalists.
"The blockade has cost the organizations tens of millions ... in lost donations at a time of unprecedented operational costs resulting from publishing alliances in over 50 countries," WikiLeaks said in a news release. "Our scarce resources now must focus on fighting the unlawful banking blockade."
The credit card companies declined to offer fresh comment on their dealings with WikiLeaks. Previously, the organizations have denied they'd canceled WikiLeaks accounts at the instigation of the Obama administration, but they said that WikiLeaks had violated its service agreements by engaging or encouraging illegal activities _ the leaking of classified government documents.
Assange noted that while the credit card companies had cut off donations to WikiLeaks, they had not cut off donations to the fund that raises money to pay lawyers for his defense against Sweden's efforts to extradite him from Britain for questioning in a sexual misconduct case. He said the difference showed that the financial companies were concerned with WikiLeaks' publication of documents, not with criminal activities.
He warned that the same kind of donations blockage would be used against other controversial organizations, including newspapers that published stories based on WikiLeaks' documents.
"If publishing the truth about war is enough to warrant such aggressive action by Washington insiders, all newspapers that have published WikiLeaks' materials are on the verge of having their readers and advertisers blocked from paying for their subscriptions," the website said in its news release.
That assertion touched on one of the central questions of the WikiLeaks drama, whether the organization is a journalistic one, doing nothing more than what newspapers have done for decades, or something else.
Traditional journalists in the United States have been split on the issue. While many have criticized Obama administration investigations into whether WikiLeaks or Assange can be charged with a crime as an affront to First Amendment freedom of the press, there has been less commentary about the canceling of its accounts that receive credit card donations over the Internet.
There was no such debate in February 2008, when 12 journalism organizations, including the Associated Press and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, filed a brief on behalf of WikiLeaks and its domain register, Dynadot, in a case brought by a Swiss bank, Bank Julius Baer.
The bank filed the suit after WikiLeaks published hundreds of private documents on a land deal that suggested money laundering and tax evasion. It asked a U.S. district judge in California to enjoin WikiLeaks from publishing the documents and order Dynadot to stop hosting its website.
The judge agreed, but he quickly reversed his order after the U.S. journalism organizations weighed in, calling the decision a violation of the First Amendment and WikiLeaks' right to publish.
WikiLeaks' site, wikileaks.org, remained available on the Internet Monday. When WikiLeaks last ran out of money, its website was taken down for more than five months.
In announcing the suspension, WikiLeaks called on its supporters to volunteer to accept donations on WikiLeaks' behalf. It also publicized the two European bank accounts that accept donations for WikiLeaks.
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