In late October, a deflated Julian Assange called a press conference in London to announce he may have to mothball WikiLeaks. The reason, he said, was money. Visa, MasterCard, Western Union and Paypal were preventing supporters from donating to the organization, Assange explained. He warned that unless the bankers’ blockade was lifted at once, the cash-strapped organization would soon die.
By then, however, the biggest problem WikiLeaks faced wasn’t financial. After all, the group had always operated on a shoestring, its leader famously sleeping somewhere other than at home or in a hotel most nights. The main concern was productivity: WikiLeaks and Assange, its 40-year-old provocateur, were out of scoops.
And oh, what a string of scoops it had run off in the previous 18 months. WikiLeaks’ 2010 posting of a classified video showing civilian casualties during an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, which Assange titled “Collateral Murder,” drew debate and viewers around the world. Then came its distribution of classified documents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Guantánamo Bay prison camp files, and the classified U.S. State Department diplomatic cables to the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and other news outlets.
But after the diplomatic cable stories petered out in September, so too did WikiLeaks. Its slide into irrelevance after months of dominating the headlines should have been enough to humble even Assange. His five-year-old supranational group, with its hardened computer infrastructure and sophisticated encryption algorithms, was supposedly immune to government crackdowns and corporate retaliation. But instead of flourishing, as Assange had predicted, WikiLeaks all but vaporized in its 16th minute of fame: Its auteur was shackled with a security bracelet, fighting extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to question him regarding charges of sexual assault; WikiLeaks members and allies, alienated by the dictatorial Assange, had abandoned him; and leakers were no longer making their substantial deposits in WikiLeaks computers.