WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange is in jail in Britain, awaiting trial on Swedish sex crimes charges, but what will happen next is unclear. Deemed a flight risk and denied bail, Assange will stay incarcerated at least until his Dec. 14 hearing. In his absence, WikiLeaks is still "operational," says spokeswoman Kristinn Hrafnsson, but Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and the site's Swiss bank have cut off much of its funding. (Those companies have since faced retaliatory attacks from sympathetic hackers.) Here are seven guesses as to what's in store for Assange and his secrets-spilling site:
Without Assange, WikiLeaks descends into "chaos"
Assange left Hrafnsson, an Icelandic TV journalist, in charge during his absence, but the organization is already reeling, says Kevin Poulsen in Wired. According to a "dispirited" WikiLeaks activist, the group's "secrecy and compartmentalization are apparently hindering its operations," since only Assange knows some key information. Assange has bragged that he is "the heart and soul" of WikiLeaks, and without him, "the organization will most likely start to fall apart now," says the WikiLeaks staffer. "We are experiencing chaos."
Assange roils the world with his top-secret "doomsday file"
According to reports, a particularly damaging WikiLeaks "insurance file... will be released if anything drastic were to happen to the organization" or Assange himself, says Clayton Tarwater in US News Source. No one knows what the heavily encrypted file (also known as the "doomsday file") contains, but hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have it on their computers, ready to receive the encryption key if Assange is killed, or even given a long jail sentence. Rumor has it that the file includes "top secret state information that governments around the world definitely would not want in the public’s hands."
The U.S. extradites him
U.S. officials may have already indicted Assange under seal, says Justin Elliott in Salon. Sweden should have dibs at trying him, but such high-profile extraditions are often decided by politics, and the U.S. could already be "working behind the scenes to secure his extradition." When dealing with the British authorities, "that's easier said than done," says Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein is already talking about charging him with espionage. Let's not get tripped up over "arcane definitions of espionage," says S.E. Cupp in the New York Daily News. Al Capone was nailed on tax charges; given Assange's "insurance" file, "why can't we just get him on blackmail?"
Assange becomes an "albino Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr."... or Solzhenitsyn... or Spartacus
Being jailed in Britain on "trumped up" Swedish sex charges is the best thing that could have happened to Assange, says Jack Shafer in Slate. It "changes the 'conversation.'" Overnight he has gone from being a menace to a martyr, "an albino Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., writing his letter from jail," or a "pint-sized Solzhenitsyn, fighting for freedom from the gulag." And as the leaks continue, the jailed Assange will "become like Spartacus," more inspirational than controversial.
He becomes irrelevant as rivals outflank WikiLeaks
"WikiLeaks is going to be brought down by its competitors, not by governments," says John Young, a founder of WikiLeaks, to The Guardian. And Assange already faces a big challenge from a former key lieutenant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who broke off from the group over Assange's priorities, ego, and lack of transparency, taking several important staffers with him. Domscheit-Berg's rival site has not yet launched.
Assange becomes immortalized as Time's "Man of the Year"
The WikiLeaks frontman "will presumably get Time magazine's 'Person of the Year' nod," says Robert Wright in The New York Times, and Time will "no doubt remind us that the award recognizes impact, not virtue; Hitler and Stalin are past winners." Assange is leading Time's online poll by a wide margin, says Australia's Herald Sun, but "online bookmaker YouWager.com is betting on Time playing it safe" with someone like Lady Gaga. (Watch a Russia Today report about a suggestion Assange get a Nobel Prize)
WikiLeaks is taken down by a Sutxnet-type worm
"In theory, it should be possible" for the U.S., or even a group of sophisticated hackers, to "deploy a computer worm that could burrow into a computer hard drive and look specifically for WikiLeaks files, as the recent Sutxnet worm did" with Iran's nuclear reactors, says Tom Gjelten at NPR. The worm would then destroy the files, rendering Assange's threat moot. But that would be "highly controversial" for the U.S. to pull off. "Does the U.S. government have the right to go into your computer and erase material that you obtained legally," asks cyber expert Herbert Lin. "That's a very, very deep question."