Call it "the empire strikes back" – against WikiLeaks.
The self-described anticensorship website announced Monday that it is calling a halt to releasing secrets until it can raise enough money to keep its operation going. On the WikiLeaks website, its operators declared it to be the victim of a "blockade" by financial institutions that refuse to process online donations to the organization.
"We are forced to temporarily suspend publishing whilst we secure our economic survival," the website said. "For almost a year we have been fighting an unlawful financial blockade. We cannot allow giant US finance companies to decide how the whole world votes with its pocket. Our battles are costly. We need your support to fight back. Please donate now."
While the website lists a half-dozen ways to donate, including bank transfers and even "via good old fashion postal mail," most people have used credit cards such as MasterCard and Visa – and that method no longer works. Neither does PayPal. Those companies ended their business relationships with WikiLeaks after it began leaking official US secrets, saying the site risked involving them in activity the US government might deem illegal. A PayPal official in Paris last year acknowledged that PayPal felt pressure to cut its WikiLeaks ties after a State Department letter to WikiLeaks warned the group it was holding documents illegally.
WikiLeaks has given the US government fits by releasing hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other secret documents on its many "mirror" websites all over the world.
Blocking or shutting down WikiLeaks itself was never a realistic option for US authorities, say experts who have studied the issue. But government might not need to bother – if banks choked off the flow of funds to WikiLeaks simply by not doing business with it, observers say.
"If you close down the avenues where people can contribute easily ..., by requiring them to use a different system or different means, then only the diehards will find a way to contribute," says Jez Littlewood, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies in the International Affairs Department at Carleton University, who has studied WikiLeaks. "It should be no surprise that part of the national-security response would likely focus on the finances of WikiLeaks."
WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange gained both applause and condemnation after releasing a trove of secret US documents, from diplomatic cables to military gun-camera video showing helicopter attacks that killed two unarmed Iraqi civilians.
But WikiLeaks may have also undercut its reputation by going public with information that seemed likely to cause harm, with little broad benefit. Last December, the group released a secret list of critical infrastructure worldwide that US officials said could easily be used by terrorists to pick targets.
It also released 91,000 documents WikiLeaks dubbed the "Afghan War Diary," leaked to newspapers worldwide. The documents contained names of dozens of Afghans who tried to help US forces – including their home villages and family names, according to a report by the Times of London. A Taliban spokesman later said it would target those people.
Even news organizations known for publishing anything blanched over that. While WikiLeaks said it withheld 15,000 documents in the Afghan War Diary case, and it got a flood of donations after the release, critics such as Reporters without Borders declared the naming of names to be "incredibly irresponsible," writes Joel Brenner, former national counterintelligence executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in his new book "America the Vulnerable."
"Lives were undoubtedly put in jeopardy by those [identities] that got out," Mr. Brenner writes. "Far more significant is whether WikiLeaks is, as Assange claims, 'an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis,' beyond the reach of public authorities everywhere, democratic or otherwise."
Squeezing the financial spigots on data-dumping organizations such as WikiLeaks may be the way of the future, say observers.
"It may be technically possible to block access to one or even a few sites on the Internet, but it's not easy," says Steven Bellovin, professor of computer science and expert on Internet security and privacy at Columbia University. "Even China has trouble. [Therefore,] it's the old line of 'follow the money,' because it's so hard in a democratic society to block content. The idea is to choke the money flow instead."
Moreover, banks are wary that doing business with the likes of WikiLeaks may threaten their relationships with Uncle Sam. "Financial institutions have so much at stake in their relationship with the government," writes Zachary O'Leary, an Internet governance researcher at the University of Edinburgh, in an e-mail. "Private institutions are being forced to think in terms of their own well-being when they should actually be deciding whether or not they support a certain level of freedom of information."
Even so, WikiLeaks has undeniably poisoned its reputation among those who might ordinarily be sympathetic to it – such as free-speech groups and media outlets.
In one of the first independent reviews of WikiLeaks, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation evaluated, and then rejected, a grant application by WikiLeaks, the Federation of American Scientists reported last year in its newsletter Secrecy News.
The Knight Foundation was "actively looking for grantees who could promote innovative uses of digital technology in support of the future development of journalism," wrote Steven Aftergood, who heads the federation's project on government secrecy. In the end, the Knight Foundation awarded some $2.7 million to 12 recipients, but WikiLeaks was not among them, he wrote.
Besides publishing names of people the Taliban would be likely to target, WikiLeaks has published the "secret ritual" of a college sorority called Alpha Sigma Tau. Like several other sororities "exposed" by WikiLeaks, Apha Sigma Tau is "not known to have engaged in any form of misconduct, and WikiLeaks does not allege that it has," Mr. Aftergood's Secrecy News reported.
WikiLeaks published the group's confidential ritual "just because it could." It was not whistleblowing or journalism, but "a kind of information vandalism."
And the Knight Foundation?
"Every year some applications that are popular among advisers don't make the cut after Knight staff conducts due diligence," Knight Foundation spokesman Marc Fest, told Yahoo News at the time. "WikiLeaks was not recommended by Knight staff to the board."