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Hackers Strike Back to Support WikiLeaks Founder

WikiLeaks supporters struck back Wednesday at perceived enemies of founder Julian Assange, attacking the websites of Swedish prosecutors, the Swedish lawyer whose clients have accused Assange of sexual crimes, credit card companies and the Swiss authority that froze Assange's bank account.

Julian Assange
Getty Images
Julian Assange

Mastercard says it is having severe technical problem, possibly a target by supporters of Assange. Mastercard pulled the plug on its relationship with WikiLeaks on Tuesday. The company said Wednesday that cardholders can still use their cards for secure transactions.

The online vengeance campaign appeared to be taking the form of denial of service attacks in which computers across the Internet are harnessed—sometimes surreptitiously—to jam target sites with mountains of requests for data, knocking them out of commission.

The online attacks are part of a wave of online support for WikiLeaks that is sweeping the Internet. Twitter was choked with messages of solidarity Wednesday, while the site's Facebook page hit 1 million fans.

Offline, the organization is under pressure on many fronts. Assange, its founder, is in a U.K. prison fighting extradition to Sweden over the sex crimes case, while moves by Swiss Postfinance, MasterCard, PayPal and others have impaired the secret-spilling group's ability to raise money. The U.S. government is also investigating whether Assange can be prosecuted for espionage or other offenses.

Per Hellqvist, a security specialist with the firm Symantec, said a loose network of web activists called "Anonymous" appeared to be behind the attacks. The group, which has previously focused on the Church of Scientology and the music industry, has promised to come to Assange's aid by knocking offline websites seen as hostile to WikiLeaks.

"While we don't have much of an affiliation with WikiLeaks, we fight for the same reasons," the group said in a statement on its website. "We want transparency and we counter censorship. ... This is why we intend to utilize our resources to raise awareness, attack those against and support those who are helping lead our world to freedom and democracy."

It was not immediately clear which attacks the group was responsible for, although activists on Twitter and other forums cheered the news of each one in turn.

The website for Swedish lawyer Claes Borgstrom, who represents the two women at the center of Assange's sex crimes case, was unreachable Wednesday.

The Swiss postal system's financial arm, Postfinance, which shut down Assange's new bank account on Monday, was also having trouble. Spokesman Alex Josty said the website buckled under a barrage of traffic Tuesday but the onslaught seems to have eased off.

"Yesterday it was very, very difficult, then things improved overnight," he told The Associated Press. "But it's still not entirely back to normal."

While one Internet company after another has cut its ties to the websites amid intense U.S. government pressure—Amazon.com, PayPal, EveryDNS—the French government's effort to stop a company there from hosting WikiLeaks has failed—at least for now.

"WikiLeaks evoked the ire of the U.S. government last spring when it posted a gritty war video taken by Army helicopters showing troops gunning down two unarmed Reuters journalists."

The Web services company OVH, which is among those hosting the current site—wikileaks.ch—sought a ruling by two courts about the legality of hosting WikiLeaks in France. The judges said this week they couldn't decide on the highly technical case right away.

WikiLeaks evoked the ire of the U.S. government last spring when it posted a gritty war video taken by Army helicopters showing troops gunning down two unarmed Reuters journalists. Since then, the organization has leaked some 400,000 classified U.S. war files from Iraq and 76,000 from Afghanistan that U.S. military officials say included names of U.S. informants and other information that could put people's lives at risk.

The latest leaks have involved private U.S. diplomatic cables that included frank U.S. assessments of foreign nations and their leaders.

Those cables have had serious repercussions for the United States, embarrassing allies, angering rivals, and reopening old wounds across the world. Foreign powers have been pulling back from their dealings with the U.S. government since the documents hit the Internet, State and Defense department officials said Tuesday, while the Israeli government complained that the crisis over the leaked files was distracting Washington from efforts to restart Mideast peace talks—something Washington has denied.

Although U.S. officials have directed their ire at Assange—Defense Secretary Robert Gates cheered the news of his arrest Tuesday—even its allies have begun to question whether Washington is ultimately to blame.

"The core of all this lies with the failure of the government of the United States to properly protect its own diplomatic communications," Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said Wednesday—noting that the secret cables were widely available to hundreds of thousands of U.S. government employees.

"To have several million people on their distribution list for a quarter of a million cables—that's where the problem lies," Rudd added.

The latest U.S. cables released Wednesday showed that the British government feared a furious Libyan reaction if the convicted Lockerbie bomber wasn't set free and expressed relief when they learned that he would be released in 2009 on compassionate grounds.

Meanwhile, Assange faces a new extradition hearing in the U.K. next week, in which his lawyers say they will reapply for bail. The 39-year-old Australian denies two women's allegations of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion. He has not been charged with any crime in Sweden and is fighting his extradition there.

In a Twitter message Wednesday, WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson shrugged off all the challenges and noted that the site is mirrored in over 500 locations by supporters.

"The latest batch of cables were released (Tuesday evening), and our media partners released their next batch of stories," Hrafnsson said. "We will not be gagged, either by judicial action or corporate censorship ... WikiLeaks is still online."