WikiLeaks turns on Julian Assange

WikiLeaks staff call for its founder to step aside in view of rape allegations he faces.

Julian Assange could be facing a rebellion from within his own organisation over the rape charges laid against him in Sweden.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament and previously an influential supporter of WikiLeaks, has gone on the record on the Daily Beast website to say that she has encouraged Assange to give up his responsibilities with WikiLeaks until after the criminal investigation is over.

I am not angry with Julian, but this is a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand. These personal matters should have nothing to do with WikiLeaks. I have strongly urged him to focus on the legalities that he's dealing with and let some other people carry the torch.

Jónsdóttir went on to say that she didn't believe Assange's assertions that the rape allegations were part of "an American-organised smear campaign". She also criticised the way he has previously run the organisation, saying that "there should not be one person speaking for WikiLeaks. There should be many people."

For someone like Jónsdóttir, who has previously lobbied hard on behalf of WikiLeaks, to be so openly critical of its founder is indicative of serious internal differences within the organisation.

Another source, who refused to be named, said there is a strong feeling among WikiLeaks volunteers that Assange should step aside for the good of the organisation. Apparently, technical staff protested against his refusal to go by taking the WikiLeaks site offline temporarily, ostensibly because of technical difficulties. However, the source said:

It was really meant to be a sign to Julian that he needs to rethink his situation. Our technical people were sending a message.

The investigation into the rape allegations against Assange was reopened last week after a Swedish prosecutor stated that he had "reason to believe that a crime was committed".

These signs of internal rebellion cannot be good news for WikiLeaks. The organisation relies heavily on thousands of volunteers and donors to keep it afloat, and if there is indeed discontent in the ranks, the whistleblowing website's future could be in danger.

But most of all, this raises questions about Assange himself. Mysterious and elusive, he personally attracts a disproportionate amount of the coverage surrounding his organisation purely because of his enigmatic persona and reportedly unorthodox lifestyle.

As I observed at the press conference on the day WikiLeaks released the Afganistan war logs, journalists are fascinated by Assange, and kept asking him questions long after he had any new answers to give purely because of the novelty of having him standing before them in the flesh.

The statements from within the organisation seem to show that he runs the operation in a very egotistical way, refusing to share power or responsibility with those who give up their time to assist him.

There is no doubt that the oddness of his personality has enhanced WikiLeaks's traction with the media. But now that he is under criminal investigation, that technique is turning sour, contaminating the ideals under which WikiLeaks purports to operate with Assange's own egotistical style of leadership. To continue to front the organisation under such circumstances would do long-term harm to its credibility.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.