The United States struck its first blow against WikiLeaks on Wednesday after Amazon.com pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in an apparent reaction to heavy political pressure.
The main website and a sub-site devoted to the diplomatic documents were unavailable from the U.S. and Europe on Wednesday, as Amazon servers refused to acknowledge requests for data.
The plug was pulled as the influential senator and chairman of the homeland security committee, Joe Lieberman, called for a boycott of the site by U.S. companies.
"[Amazon's] decision to cut off WikiLeaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies WikiLeaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material," he said. "I call on any other company or organisation that is hosting WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them."
The department of homeland security effectively confirmed it was behind the move, referring journalists to Mr. Lieberman's statement.
WikiLeaks tweeted in response: "WikiLeaks servers at Amazon ousted. Free speech the land of the free - fine our $ are now spent to employ people in Europe."
The development came amid increasingly angry and polarised political opinion in America over WikiLeaks, with some conservatives calling for the organisation's founder, Julian Assange, to be executed as a spy.
Availability of his website has been patchy since Sunday, when it started to come under a series of internet-based attacks by unknown hackers.
WikiLeaks dealt with the attacks in part by moving to servers run by Amazon Web Services, which is self-service.
Amazon.com would not comment on its relationship with WikiLeaks or whether it forced the site to leave. Messages seeking comment from WikiLeaks were not immediately returned.
The fury building up among rightwingers in the U.S., ranging from the potential Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to conservative blogsites such as Red State, contrasted with a measured response from the Obama administration.
The White House, the state department and the Pentagon on Wednesday continued to denounce the leaks, describing them as "despicable". But senior administration officials, with a sense of weary resignation, also called on people to put the leaks into context and insisted they had not done serious damage to U.S. relations.
The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, shrugged aside as "ridiculous" a call by Assange, interviewed by Time magazine, via Skype from an undisclosed location, for the resignation of the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, over an order to spy on the United Nations. "I'm not entirely sure why we care about the opinion of one guy with one website," Mr. Gibbs said. "Our foreign policy and the interests of this country are far stronger than his one website."
John Kerry, the Democratic head of the Senate foreign relations committee, on Sunday denounced the leaks but he sounded more sanguine at an event in Washington on Tuesday night. He said there was a "silver lining" in that it was now clear where everyone stood on Iran. "Things that I have heard from the mouths of King Abdullah [of Saudi Arabia] and Hosni Mubarak [Egyptian president] and others are now quite public," Mr. Kerry said.
But others, particularly rightwingers, are seeking retribution, with Mr. Assange as the prime target. Legal experts in the US were divided over whether the U.S. could successfully prosecute Mr. Assange under the 1917 espionage act. Sceptics said the U.S. protections for journalists would make such a prosecution difficult and also cited pragmatic issues, such as the difficulty of extraditing Mr. Assange, an Australian.
Mr. Huckabee, who was among the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and is likely to stand again in 2012, told the Politico website: "Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty."
His later comments suggest he had in mind Bradley Manning, the U.S. private in Iraq who is suspected of leaking the information and is under arrest in Virginia, rather than Mr. Assange. Another potential Republican candidate for the presidency, Sarah Palin, had earlier called for Mr. Assange to be hunted down. Conservative blogs and commentators are full of ire directed at Mr. Assange, and criticism of the Obama administration for its seeming inability to do anything about it.
Typical is a blog by lexington_concord on Red State, a popular rightwing site, in which the writers says Mr. Assange is a spy.
"Under the traditional rules of engagement he is thus subject to summary execution and my preferred course of action would [be] for Assange to find a small calibre round in the back of his head."
The attorney general, Eric Holder, this week hinted at legal action but did not clarify whether he had in mind Manning or Mr. Assange. A department of justice spokeswoman failed to clarify this on Wednesday: "He [Holder] said the department would pursue those to be found violating the law."
The Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, interviewed on Fox, suggested Holder's reference had been to Assange. Asked why the U.S. was not mounting a cyberattack on WikiLeaks, Mr. Morrell said the disclosures were awkward and embarrassing but these were not sufficient grounds for offensive action. — © Guardian News & Media 2010