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EXCLUSIVE: WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange Fights Calls to Step Down

Sweden Wikileaks Assange

FILE: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (AP Photo/SCANPIX, Bertil Ericson)

The embattled head of WikiLeaks says he won't be stepping down -- not without a fight, anyway. And the very public infighting among the secretive site's administrators reveals just how crazy the issue is making people.

Julian Assange, the subject of a rape investigation in Sweden, has come under attack in the last week both from a prominent WikiLeaks spokeswoman, who is a member of Iceland's parliament, and an anonymous but vocal group that calls themselves "the WikiLeaks Insiders." They argue that Assange's public persona overshadows the site's mission, and they suggest that he step down.

Assange, in an exclusive interview with FoxNews.com, swung back at his critics on Wednesday and said he has no intention of resigning.

For one thing, he said, the Icelandic woman's connection to WikiLeaks may be overblown.

"Birgitta Jonsdottir is not a WikiLeaks organizer," Assange said. "I haven't spoken to her for months, and first spoke to her in late 2009. She is a full-time politician and single mother in Iceland."

Jonsdottir, described by Wikipedia as a spokeswoman for WikiLeaks, told The Daily Beast last week that Assange -- who has been the public face of WikiLeaks following its recent release of thousands of pages of confidential Afghan war documents -- had become a lightning rod for controversy even before the rape accusations.

"This is a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand," she told the site. "These personal matters should have nothing to do with WikiLeaks. I have strongly urged him to focus on the legalities that he’s dealing with and let some other people carry the torch." 

Jonsdottir agreed that she is not a WikiLeaks staff member, despite how news reports have characterized her. But she countered Assange's claim that the two have had little contact. 

"That is not really true," she told FoxNews.com. "Last time I spoke to him was in the morning of the rape allegations going public, and I urged him at that point to step aside as a spokesman while this case was unfolding."

The WikiLeaks Insiders, meanwhile, have been equally strident in their attacks on Assange. They have been posting messages since June to Cryptome, another document-leaking site that is arguably in competition with WikiLeaks. On Monday, the group voiced their support for Jonsdottir's comments -- and endorsed her as a new leader of WikiLeaks.

"The 'WikiLeaks Insiders' would support you taking over as the front person of WikiLeaks. We need new direction, and a more open structure," the group wrote in a public statement.

On Wednesday, Assange cried foul, assailing the Insiders' anonymous assaults, which have led to numerous articles describing infighting at WikiLeaks.

"A provable outside smear campaign, a fraud from top to bottom, designed to destroy our effectiveness, by discrediting our leadership, splitting us off from our supporters and donation base -- the central pillars of any effective organization," he told FoxNews.com.

Assange then picked off, one by one, the accusations he says are false. And he questioned whether the Insiders are who they say they are -- and whether they actually exist at all.

"I have never been to South Africa, but according to the smears, I live a life of luxury in South Africa -- on our donors' money," he said. "According to the foundation which does our accounts, I fly economy, but according to the smears, I squander our donors' money on first class tickets and expensive hotels. 

"Hundreds of completely fabricated claims and figures over 15 wholly fabricated articles," Assange told FoxNews.com..

But Alan Taylor of the encryption service PGPBoard, the source of the WikiLeaks Insiders' e-mails, disagrees. He told FoxNews.com that he thinks the group is legitimate.

"As far as I am concerned, the 'WikiLeaks Insiders' are real," he told FoxNews.com, "and appear to be a group of core activists in several locations." As proof that the anonymous group is what it claims to be, he cited some of their older messages that "highlighted issues at WikiLeaks which are only now being examined by the mainstream media."

Anonymity is a double-edged sword for the Insiders, Taylor said, as it leaves them open to criticism concerning their motives, identity, and approach in voicing their grievances. 

"The irony of this is that the Insiders' desire to remain anonymous is criticized by WikiLeaks supporters, when WikiLeaks was configured to protect the anonymity of the whistle-blower," he told FoxNews.com.

John Young disagrees. The 74-year-old architect publishes Cryptome -- the site that has published the Insiders' messages -- and is confident the WikiLeaks Insiders are a fraud, though he has no idea who is behind the messages.

"The 'Insiders' who have sent messages to Cryptome via PGPBoard are not real," he told FoxNews.com. And though Assange has said he thinks an massive conspiracy is behind the messages, Young said he believes it could be as simple as an ultrasavvy PR team within WikiLeaks itself.  

"There's quite a bit about WikiLeaks which is also not real. It may be that the insiders are another WikiLeaks promotional gimmick to fake [a] threat.? 

Young noted that the PR team there is quite savvy, embracing numerous strategies: "to wit, the loose-lipped Iceland parliamentarian gambit. Every day or so, another juicy leak."

"Consumers are agog, the media delirious, the U.S. government pleased. A perfect storm," he said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.