PARIS – As WikiLeaks thrust itself into the heart of America's electoral contest last year, the group's chief spokesman tiptoed out of spotlight, stepping down from his job in a little-noticed move that leaves Julian Assange as the only public face of the radical transparency organization.
So discreet was journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson's departure as WikiLeaks' official representative that even in his native Iceland some fellow reporters didn't know his role had changed. Hrafnsson's Wikipedia page still describes the 54-year-old as WikiLeaks' spokesman, and some news outlets still try to reach him for comment when Assange is in the headlines.
"I'm not the WikiLeaks spokesman anymore," Hrafnsson confirmed in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Iceland on Tuesday. He said he was still doing work for WikiLeaks — and had chatted with Assange only a few days ago — but had relinquished the role of chief media representative for personal reasons.
"Being on the road for six years gets pretty tiring," he added.
Hrafnsson's move comes as Assange's public profile is changing. His publication of Democratic Party emails in the heat of the American presidential election made Assange a hero for many on the right who had previously reviled the ex-hacker for revealing U.S. military and diplomatic secrets.
WikiLeaks is also changing, partially reinstating the Wikipedia-style user-driven editing that marked its early years and crowdsourcing some of its online public relations work with the help of a group called the WikiLeaks Task Force .
Hrafnsson acknowledged that his move was kept quiet, but said that had to be seen in the context of the ongoing U.S. investigation into WikiLeaks.
"In general, we try to protect our people," he said.
Hrafnsson first met Assange after the latter's 2009 exposure of a major Icelandic banking scandal turned him into an overnight hero in the tiny north Atlantic nation.
Hrafnsson traveled to Iraq in April 2010 to interview the children of the civilians gunned down by laughing American helicopter pilots — an act captured by the infamous video later published by WikiLeaks under the title "Collateral Murder" — and took up the role as WikiLeaks' press representative after Assange was arrested in late 2010 over sex crimes allegations in Sweden.
The group's previous spokesman, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, had earlier split with the group amid a bitter feud with Assange.
Hrafnsson became one of Assange's senior lieutenants and the tall, silver-haired journalist was often seen at Assange's side during his winding legal battle against extradition to Sweden. Hrafnsson was the only person other than Assange authorized to receive sensitive information on WikiLeaks' behalf and was one of only two other board members at Assange's Icelandic media company, Sunshine Press Productions, when it was registered in 2010.
People paying close attention to WikiLeaks' site may have caught a hint about Hrafnsson's changing role. In August, a new contact page described Hrafnsson as an "advocate" instead of "official WikiLeaks representative."
The same page says that now only Assange can receive sensitive information on WikiLeaks' behalf.
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphaelsatter.com