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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now for some time, our correspondent Tom Gjelten has been reporting on the prospect of cyber war. And the battle over WikiLeaks is beginning to take on some of the characteristics of that kind of war, isnt it?

The U.S. and its allies have been fighting to shutdown WikiLeaks, but as Tom reports, this is a fight in which more than one side is armed and dangerous.

TOM GJELTEN: Julian Assange is now behind bars but his attorney, Mark Stephens, yesterday said the organization Assange founded will not be deterred.

Mr. MARK STEPHENS (Attorney): WikiLeaks will continue. WikiLeaks is many thousands of journalists reporting news around the world.

GJELTEN: Those WikiLeaks supporters are determined to see the release of the many secret documents still under Wikileaks' control. And they're preparing for what could be a fierce battle.

When the original WikiLeaks Web site was shutdown by a denial of service attack - deliberately overloading it with data requests - their engineers went to work. WikiLeaks soon emerged on alternative sites, proving the Internet can be hard to control.

But the anti-WikiLeaks forces are also powerful. U.S. allies are now endorsing a get-tough policy with the organization. Julia Gillard is the prime minister of Australia - Assange's native land.

Ms. JULIA GILLARD (Prime Minister, Australia): Information was taken and that was illegal. So let's not try and put any glosses on this. Information would not be on WikiLeaks if there had not been an illegal act undertaken.

GJELTEN: The tough talk from the United States and other governments may have had an effect on some companies that had provided services to WikiLeaks. Amazon.com stopped hosting its website. A Swiss bank that had been holding Assange's legal defense fund announced it was freezing the account. PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, all said they were no longer processing payments to WikiLeaks. Herbert Lin, a cyber war expert at the National Academy of Sciences, imagines what might have prompted such action.

Mr. HERBERT LIN (Cyber war expert, National Academy of Sciences): Some senior government official calling them up and saying, you know, you really ought to stop supporting payments to this organization, because it's really harming national security and if you help us, we won't forget you.

GJELTEN: For the record, Amazon and the credit card companies do not say they felt any government pressure to cut ties to WikiLeaks. But the company actions still angered WikiLeaks defenders. A hacking group called Anonymous, yesterday, said it was launching its own retaliatory cyber attacks on PayPal, on the credit card companies, and against the Swiss bank. It's called Operation Payback.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man (Announcer): Corrupt governments of the world, we are Anonymous.

GJELTEN: For this hacking group, the issue is information freedom, as they make clear in a YouTube video.

(Soundbite of video

Unidentified Man (Announcer): In these modern times, access to the Internet is fast becoming a basic human right. Just like any other basic human right, we believe that it is wrong to infringe upon it.

GJELTEN: The WikiLeaks war is likely to continue, with tit for tat escalation. Some members of Congress want the U.S. government to declare WikiLeaks a terrorist organization. Newt Gingrich is calling for WikiLeaks to be, quote, "closed down" - decisively. In fact, there are actions that could be taken. Herbert Lin of the National Academy of Sciences says someone could deploy a computer worm that burrows into a computer hard drive and looks specifically for WikiLeaks files.

Mr. LIN: There has certainly been many instances of worms that could create damage. And so all you have to do is hitch yourself to one of those and you put code in that looks for WikiLeaks material on hard drives and then goes off and destroys it. I mean, one could do that. Whether it's a wise thing to do and whether that would serve the government's goals, that's a different question.

GJELTEN: Hackers not accountable for their actions, might try something like that. But as Lin points out, it would be highly controversial as a government move.

Mr. LIN: Does the U.S. government have the right to go into your computer and erase material that you obtained legally? That's a very, very deep question.

GJELTEN: Which may be one reason the United States, for the moment at least, is likely to be more interested in legal action against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, whether it slows the release of secret documents, or not.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: And it looks like the hackers who support Julian Assange may be having some success with their attacks on companies that broke ties with WikiLeaks. The website for MasterCard was, at least temporarily, shut down today and WikiLeaks supporters claim they did it.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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