WASHINGTON, (AP) – The U.S. government, apparently aided by freelance computer hackers, chased WikiLeaks from an American commercial computer network and temporarily stopped the leak of embarrassing diplomatic documents. But within hours, the website was back online, publishing from a fortified bunker in Sweden.
The virtual chase Wednesday was mirrored by a real-life pursuit as European authorities hunted for the site’s fugitive founder, Julian Assange, who is wanted in Sweden on rape charges.
Undeterred, Assange continued releasing confidential government documents. Some showed how the Obama administration and Congress helped persuade Spain not to pursue charges against members of George W. Bush’s administration for allowing torture of terrorism suspects.
Amazon.com Inc. prevented WikiLeaks from using the U.S. company’s computers to distribute State Department communications and other documents, WikiLeaks said Wednesday. The WikiLeaks site was inaccessible for several hours before it returned to servers owned by its previous Swedish host, Bahnhof, which are housed in a protective Cold-War era bunker. Tech blogs have compared it to a lair from a James Bond movie.
“We have been under attack and we have had to move to different servers,” WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson said. “But we have ways and means to bypass any closure in our services.”
Amazon’s move to evict WikiLeaks from its servers came after congressional staff called the company to inquire about its relationship with WikiLeaks, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, said Wednesday.
“The company’s decision to cut off WikiLeaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies WikiLeaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material,” Lieberman said in a statement. He added that he would have further questions for Amazon about its dealings with WikiLeaks.
The White House said it was taking new steps to protect government secrets after WikiLeaks released thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables. Officials said national security adviser Tom Donilon has appointed a senior aide to identify and develop changes needed in light of the document dump.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents “an illegal thing to do” on Thursday.
But Gillard did not indicate Australia was about to take legal action against Australian-born Assange. The country’s attorney general reiterated that authorities are investigating whether Assange has broken any Australian laws, but have not yet reached a conclusion.
The White House on Wednesday spurned a call from Assange for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to step down if she had any role in directing U.S. diplomats’ spying on other foreign leaders. “Mr. Assange’s suggestion is ridiculous and absurd, and why anyone would find his opinion here relevant is baffling,” said spokesman Tommy Vietor, adding Clinton was doing an “extraordinary” job. The White House said U.S. diplomats do not engage in spying.
Clinton was in Astana, Kazakhstan, enduring repeated comments about the WikiLeaks disclosures as she met with foreign officials at a conference of international leaders.
Among those she met with was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had been described in newly released U.S. diplomatic cables as “feckless” and a party animal.
“We have no better friend, we have no one who supports the American policies as consistently as Prime Minister Berlusconi has, starting in the Clinton administration, through the Bush administration and now the Obama administration,” she said during a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The WikiLeaks matter was discussed in virtually all of Clinton’s private one-on-one meetings with European leaders and foreign ministers during the summit meeting Wednesday.
Assange remained a fugitive Wednesday, shadowed by the Europe-wide arrest warrant. A German security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because no authorization was given to discuss the legal steps, confirmed that a warrant for Assange had been issued in that country.
Hrafnsson noted the “interesting timing” of the warrant but said Assange had gone into hiding for another reason: “If you think about the threats we’ve heard about our people, and against Julian, it’s very natural and understandable that his location is kept secret.”
Assange’s London-based lawyer, Mark Stephens, complained his client had yet to receive formal notice of the allegations he faces — something Stephens described as a legal requirement under European law. The lawyer added that Assange had repeatedly offered to answer questions about the investigation, to no avail.
The exact nature of the allegations facing Assange isn’t completely clear. Stephens has in the past described them as part of “a post-facto dispute over consensual, but unprotected sex.” Even Swedish prosecutors have disagreed about whether to label the most serious charge as rape.
Formal charges have not been filed, but a detention order issued Nov. 18 at the request of Marianne Ny, Sweden’s Director of Public Prosecution, remains in force pending an appeal by Assange. The case is now before Sweden’s Supreme Court.