The list of targets is expanding daily as Washington, smarting over the damage caused by the release of secret diplomatic cables, mounts a revenge operation against WikiLeaks, its founder Julian Assange, and anyone associated with them.

The New York Times and Visa joined the hit list yesterday, while anonymous cyber-attacks continued against sites hosting the whistleblower site.

The U.S., which takes pride in being a bastion for freedom of speech and champions internet freedom, has been accused of hypocrisy in its reprisals against Wikileaks, said to be being co-ordinated by the Obama administration. Analysts said yesterday (7DEC) there were parallels to recent cyber-attacks on Estonia and Google in China - both condemned by the U.S. - and the American response to WikiLeaks, both publicly and covertly.

Cutting the supply lines

The public face of the reprisals is Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, who has put pressure on companies to end their association, called for Mr. Assange to be prosecuted in the U.S., and yesterday added the New York Times to the list of those who should be facing investigation.

Barack Obama has not yet said a word about WikiLeaks, the state department and the Pentagon is to shrug it off as damaging but containable. But Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who also worked with special operations in the state department’s counter-terrorism section, believes the campaign against WikiLeaks is being run from the top. “It is being directed by the White House,” he said. “This is not just each individual department doing its own thing.” The campaign began quietly last Tuesday with a call by staff at the Senate homeland security committee to Amazon, then hosting the WikiLeaks site. Twenty—four hours later Amazon booted WikiLeaks out. Another U.S. software company also ended ties with WikiLeaks, the French government issued a warning to web servers in its own country, and the bank accounts of WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange were frozen.

Mr. Lieberman, asked by Fox News about the legal position of news organisations such as the New York Times distributing the leaked cables, said WikiLeaks had violated the Espionage Act.

“The New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship. Whether they have committed a crime I think bears a very intensive inquiry by the justice department,” said Mr. Lieberman, a former Democrat, now an independent with close relations with the Republicans.

Leslie Phillips, a spokesman for Lieberman, said the senator is “encouraged that businesses around the world - most recently Visa and PayPal - have followed the lead of Amazon and dropped Wikileaks as a customer of their services”. She added that he encourages other firms that have a business relationship with Wikileaks to sever their ties.

Asked if he was working on his own or in co-ordination with the state department and Pentagon, she said: “Senator Lieberman has made no demands on any business regarding Wikileaks.

“His belief is that once it became known that Wikileaks was disseminating stolen classified information these businesses understood that in order to adhere to their own terms of use, and to be good corporate citizens, they would have to sever their relationships with Wikileaks.” Visa got the message. It said it had suspended all payments to WikiLeaks pending an investigation of the organisation’s business.

The state department and especially the Treasury have had enormous experience over the last few years on how to put the squeeze on financial institutions that have, or had, dealings with Iran.

Counter cyber-attacks against WikiLeaks likely

The Pentagon has said publicly it has the capability to mount cyber—attacks but denied it intended targeting WikiLeaks. Adam Segal, a national security specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was unlikely the Pentagon would do this, given there would be enormous collateral damage, with all sorts of organisations that had nothing to do with WikiLeaks potentially being hit as servers went down.

“Given the information that comes from the state department about internet freedom, it would be hard to justify,” Segal said. A parallel could be drawn with the 2007 attack on Estonia, he added. It had not been conducted by the Russian government, but “patriotic hackers”.

Crucially, the attacks aimed at bringing WikiLeaks and its cache of diplomatic cables offline are being countered by a mass effort of technological support for the whistleblowers’ site. Around 800 websites are currently “mirroring” WikiLeaks by adding a subdomain to their site, which points users to WikiLeaks even if its domain name is removed.

Counterattacks have been mounted against companies that have dropped WikiLeaks. Each of the six companies, including Amazon and eBay, that have severed ties with Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks have quickly become the subject of sustained online assaults. It took just hours for the Swiss bank, Post Finance, to be brought offline after announcing it was closing Assange’s account.

The ephemeral Anonymous group has claimed responsibility for the attacks as part of what it calls “Operation Payback”. Anonymous has gained notoriety for attacks on copyright-enforcement agencies and large record labels.

The U.S. justice department has declined to specify what actions attorney general Eric Holder was referring to in relation to Mr. Assange on Monday. He said: “I personally authorised a number of things last week and that’s an indication of the seriousness with which we take this matter and the highest level of involvement at the department of justice.”

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

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