Inside WikiLeaks: Who's Running It Now?

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Steve Inskeep talks with New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian about the future of WikiLeaks now that its leader, Julian Assange, is in jail. Khatchadourian was "embedded" with WikiLeaks earlier this year and got to know Assange — and the man believed to be filling in for him, Kristinn Hrafnsson.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, remains in custody in London - not for his recent dump of classified State Department cables, but for alleged sexual assault. His arrest raises questions about how WikiLeaks will continue its campaign of disseminating secret documents. And we're going to talk about that with Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker magazine. He spent weeks embedded, you could say, with WikiLeaks.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RAFFI KHATCHADOURIAN (New Yorker): Hi.

INSKEEP: You write that WikiLeaks is not quite an organization. So what is it?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, it's somewhere between an organization and a social movement. When I was embedded in WikiLeaks, there were about four or five core members who were working on WikiLeaks, basically on a full-time basis. Outside of that, there was a concentric circle of active volunteers who would be pretty regularly involved in large leaks.

And then you had about, you know, several hundred - or hundreds of people who would come in and participate in a very transient way - you know, do one or two things that were key and helpful, and then kind of disappear back into the ether.

INSKEEP: I'm curious that you say you were embedded with WikiLeaks, which is a term that's normally used for people who travel with the U.S. military, say. What does it actually mean to be embedded with WikiLeaks? Where were you?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, I was able to observe Julian and the - sort of WikiLeaks activists that were working with him to produce a video called "Collateral Murder," which was footage of American soldiers killing and wounding about 20 Iraqis in Iraq, in 2007.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is one of their early, famous leaks.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah, this one came out in April.

INSKEEP: And so they were hiding out in a house in Iceland?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: That's right. Well, they called it the Bunker. And they basically got there and, you know, right away, Julian pulled the shades and computers were set up. And a 24-hour operation, for a period of about a week, was set up in this house.

INSKEEP: So we've got this group that, at that moment, was hiding out in Iceland. You describe Julian Assange before his arrest as being a man who seemed to have no home. He seemed to move from place to place, even country to country. He's got this large but somewhat amorphous group of people who may be paid, but are mostly volunteers. And now, Assange is in jail.

Who's running this organization now?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, it's not entirely clear. There have been reports that an Icelandic journalist named Christian Hrafnsson is emerging as a kind of interim leader, or someone to sort of keep the operation managed while Julian is in custody. And I met Christian while I was in Iceland.

INSKEEP: What's he like?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: He's a television journalist who works for the Icelandic National Broadcast Service, the RUV. Christian doesn't have Julian's charisma, perhaps, but there's no question that he's an advocate for government transparency, and a believer in the overall WikiLeaks mission.

INSKEEP: The fact that this is such a decentralized organization, Julian Assange seemed to be most of the heart of the organization, maybe the only guy who knew everything that was going on. That may have given it some strength and some secrecy of its own. But is it going to make it hard for it to continue, now that Assange is in jail?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. So, I mean, in some sense, I don't know that Julian can be replaced. He's the prime mover within WikiLeaks, and he founded the organization and designed some of its foundational infrastructure and shaped the ethos, and all that.

But in another sense, WikiLeaks is an evolving thing, and there are many other people involved. And it is decentralized, as you said. And one of the strengths of that decentralization is that you have many people working in different jurisdictions, on small fragments of a particular project. And it increases the level of security that WikiLeaks has, which is key to what it does and the anonymity that it promises, you know, leakers.

The drawback of this kind of structure is that it reduces efficiency. It becomes, you know, hard to make - coordinate and collaborate on - it can make simple things very difficult. And so it would also make Julian's succession in a more permanent capacity difficult, since he has essentially served as a kind of primary locus, or the bridge between the various, compartmentalized bits of the organization.

INSKEEP: Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker magazine, thanks very much.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: No problem.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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