December 17, 2010

Assange Free On Bail, “˜Anonymous’ Alters Tactics

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was released on bail from a British jail on Thursday, following an anxious scramble to obtain the money and signatures needed to set him free.

The 39-year-old Australian, who had surrendered to British authorities on Dec. 7, proclaimed his innocence and vowed to continue his work in exposing official secrets.

Assange will now be confined to a supporter's 600-acre estate, and will have to observe a curfew, wear an electronic tag and report in person to police every day. However, there will be no restrictions on his Internet use, meaning he will be free to resume running Wikileaks as he fights extradition attempts by Sweden. 

Wikileaks has released 1,621 of the more than 250,000 State Department cables it claims to hold, many of which include critical and embarrassing U.S. assessments of foreign nations and their leaders. 

However, Assange was not arrested over the leaked cables, but rather as a result of Swedish officials seeking him for questioning over allegations stemming from separate encounters with two women in Sweden over the summer.

The women have accused Assange of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion -- allegations that Assange vehemently denies.

His lawyers say the allegations amount to a dispute over "consensual but unprotected sex."

Swedish officials have said the extradition efforts have nothing to do with Wikileaks' release of the classified documents, but Assange's supporters say the timing of the allegations suggest the case has been corrupted by politics.

Authorities in the U.S. are also considering charges related to the release of the classified documents.  The issue could ultimately end up pitting the federal government's efforts to protect sensitive data against the freedoms of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Dressed in a dark gray suit, Assange emerged from London's neo-Gothic High Court building late Thursday to a barrage of flash bulbs from scores of reporters.

"It's great to smell the fresh air of London again," said Assange, who had been out of the public eye for more than a month.

"I hope to continue my work," he told cheering supporters.

A BBC News report included video of Assange in a white armored four-by-four vehicle outside the Frontline Club, a venue for journalists owned by his friend Vaughan Smith.  The British broadcaster said that Assange went upstairs for a celebratory cocktail at the bar, before going outside for a brief engagement with journalists over the merits of one of the leaked cables. 

A few hours later, he arrived at Ellingham Hall, Smith's 10-bedroom mansion 120 miles northeast of London, where Assange told journalists that his time in jail had strengthened him and allowed him to reflect on his personal philosophy.

It provided "enough anger about the situation to last me 100 years," Assange said.

Assange was granted conditional bail on Tuesday, a move that prosecutors had appealed on grounds that he might abscond.  However, British High Court Justice Duncan Ouseley rejected the appeal on Thursday, saying Assange "would diminish himself in the eyes of many of his supporters" if he were to flee.

"I don't accept that Mr. Assange has an incentive not to attend (court)," BBC News quoted the judge as saying.

"He clearly does have some desire to clear his name."

Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson had said Assange might have to remain in jail another night because of difficulties in gathering the $316,000 (200,000 pounds) bail pledged by several wealthy supporters, including filmmaker Michael Moore. But lawyers were ultimately able to collect the money quickly.

The restrictions imposed on Assange to remain confined at Smith's estate amount to "virtual house arrest," Hrafnsson said.

Nevertheless, "there is a good Internet connection there," he said, adding that Assange could still use the home as a base for coordinating the publication of the leaked documents.

Wikileaks continued publishing cables during Assange's time in prison, including a new batch published two hours before his release.

"We have seen in the week I have been away that my team is robust," Assange told BBC News outside the Frontline Club.

"It does show the resilience of the organization, that it can withstand decapitation attacks."

The Swedish move to extradite Assange could complicate any potential U.S. effort to bring him to trial for revealing classified information.   In fact, a U.S. extradition request would compete with the Swedish one, resulting in a legal battle that could last months or years.

Assange said he would "continue to protest my innocence in this matter and to reveal, as we get it, which we have not yet, the evidence from these allegations."

Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny said the bail decision would not alter the ongoing investigation in Sweden, and that British authorities would handle the extradition case.

The next hearing for Assange is set for January 11.

Meanwhile, the online activist group "ËœAnonymous' has altered its tactics once again in its efforts to support Wikileaks.  The group has apparently moved from Web-based strikes to urging supporters to cover the streets with pro-Wikileaks material this Saturday in a campaign they call "Operation Paperstorm".

The group had previously attacked Web sites of companies such as PayPal, Mastercard and Amazon, that they say colluded with governments to censor Wikileaks. 

Operation Paperstorm seeks to have volunteers plaster pro-Wikileaks posters across towns and cities worldwide on Saturday, when many people will be out finishing their holiday shopping.  Supporters have been busy translating the posters to different languages.

Phill Midwinter, a self-described active member of the "ËœAnonymous' collective, said there has been a growing consensus within the group to change tactics.

"We don't want to annoy or make life difficult for Internet users," he told BBC News.

Operation Paperstorm is one of several of the group's initiatives to publicize the leaked cables and the case of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private being held in conjunction with the leaks, said Midwinter.

"They're examples of how we can use crowd-sourcing to get our message across, without doing anything illegal."

However, while Midwinter and others connected with Anonymous seek less offensive tactics to express their views, others may be about to launch new Web-based campaigns. 

Several programmers have posted updated versions of the LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Cannon) tool Anonymous used to launch the initial denial-of-service attacks that bombarded Web sites with page requests until the servers effectively shutdown.   One of the new tools, the "Hive Mind LOIC", has been altered in a way to allow it to be controlled from a centralized source.

Metropolitan Police in Britain have confirmed they are investigating a series of attacks that Anonymous claimed to have conducted.

"The Metropolitan Police Service is monitoring the situation relating to recent and ongoing denial of service attacks and will investigate where appropriate," the Police Service said.


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