By Raphael G. Satter and Peter Svensson
WikiLeaks struggled to stay online Friday as governments and hackers hounded the organization across the Internet, trying to deprive it of a direct line to the public.
Like a fugitive moving from house to house, WikiLeaks was forced to change the name of its website after a U.S. company stopped directing traffic to wikileaks.org. French officials then moved to oust it from its new home.
“The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops,” tweeted John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the online free-speech advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation. His message was reposted by WikiLeaks to its 300,000-odd followers.
Legal pressure increased on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange after Swedish authorities cleared an obstacle to his arrest by revising an arrest warrant in response to procedural questions from British officials.
Assange’s lawyer said that he is in the U.K. but she hadn’t received a warrant by Friday afternoon.
He is sought over allegations of rape and other sex crimes that emerged after a trip to Sweden in August. Swedish officials issued a Europe-wide arrest warrant for Assange this week but British officials put any action against him on hold and asked the Swedes to revise it, adding fuller information on the penalties Assange could face.
Assange said that his arrest would do nothing to halt the flow of American diplomatic cables being released by his group and newspapers in several countries, and threatened to escalate the rush of information if he was taken into custody.
Hundreds of cables have been published in redacted form this week by Wikileaks and several newspaper in recent days. Assange said that all of the cables had already been distributed in a heavily encrypted form to tens of thousands of people.
If something happened to him, he suggested, then the password needed to decrypt the data would be released and all the secrets would go out at once.
“History will win,” Assange said in a web chat with readers of The Guardian newspaper, one of the media organizations helping to coordinate the documents’ publication. “The world will be elevated to a better place. Will we survive? That depends on you.”
WikiLeaks doesn’t depend entirely on its website for disseminating secret documents — the nationless organization could still communicate directly with media outlets, as it had been doing before the release of cables on Sunday. But the site provides a direct line to the public, fulfilling the organization’s stated goal of maximum distribution for the secret documents it receives from mainly anonymous contributors.
In an online chat with readers of The Guardian, Assange on Friday promised to improve the availability of the website as soon as possible.
“Rest assured I am deeply unhappy that the three-and-a-half years of my work and others is not easily available or searchable by the general public,” Assange said.
Manchester, New Hampshire-based company EveryDNS, which had been directing traffic to the website wikileaks.org — stopped doing so late Thursday after cyber attacks threatened the rest of its network. WikiLeaks responded by moving to a Swiss domain name, wikileaks.ch — and calling on activists for support.
The loss of support from EveryDNS just a minor annoyance because the site can leap from one name to the next, said Fraser Howard, a researcher with Internet security firm Sophos.
“The whack-a-mole analogy is fairly good,” he said.
The Swiss address directs traffic to servers in France, where Industry Minister Eric Besson called it unacceptable to host a site that “violates the secret of diplomatic relations and puts people protected by diplomatic secret in danger.”
The general manager of French web hosting company OVH, Octave Klaba, confirmed that it had been hosting WikiLeaks since early Thursday, after a client asked for a “dedicated server with ... protection against attacks.”
He said the company has asked a judge to decide on legality of hosting the site on French soil.
“It is not up to the political realm or to OVH to request or decide the closure of a site, but rather up to the courts,” Klaba said.
By late Friday, WikiLeaks was up in three new websites.
Wikileaks has been brought down numerous times this week by what appear to be denial-of-service attacks. In a typical such attack, remote computers commandeered by rogue programs bombard a website with so many data packets that it becomes overwhelmed and unavailable to visitors. Pinpointing the culprits is difficult. The attacks are relatively easy to mount, and can be performed by amateurs.
The attacks started Sunday, just before WikiLeaks released the diplomatic cables. To deal with the flood of traffic, WikiLeaks moved to Amazon.com Inc.’s Web hosting facility, which has vast numbers of servers that can be rented at need to meet surges.
Amazon booted the site on Wednesday after U.S. Congressional staffers started asking the company about its relationship to WikiLeaks. The company later said it ousted WikiLeaks because WikiLeaks doesn’t own its content and Amazon claimed it could be endangering innocent people by publishing unredacted material.
The United States has what Attorney General Eric Holder calls “an active, ongoing, criminal investigation” into WikiLeaks’ release of the diplomatic cables. Holder said this week that the release jeopardized national security, diplomatic efforts and U.S. relationships around the world.
In Washington, the lawmaker expected to take over the House Judiciary Committee in January, Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, said he plans to conduct oversight hearings in the matter.
Sen. John Ensign of Nevada introduced a bill to amend the U.S. Espionage Act that would give government prosecutors more flexibility to pursue a criminal case against Assange and his organization, but there was little chance of passing a new law in the remaining weeks of the congressional session.
Assange also risks legal action in his homeland, where Australia says it would detain Assange if possible in response to the warrant filed in the Swedish case by Interpol.
British authorities delayed acting on that warrant after the Swedes specified the maximum possible sentence for only one the most serious charge.
Wikileaks.ch, is owned by the Swiss Pirate Party, formed two years ago to campaign for freedom of information. Its officials said they had met with WikiLeaks Assange and provided him with information about how to seek asylum in Switzerland.
Svensson reported from New York. Louise Nordstrom reported from Stockholm, Jenny Barchfield from Paris, Holly Ramer from Manchester, New Hampshire, John Heilprin from Geneva and Larry Margasak from Washington D.C.