LONDON – The founder of WikiLeaks, the controversial online organization set up to reveal government secrets, will address the public for the first time Thursday since Swedish prosecutors began investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
The rape and molestation allegations against Julian Assange have cast a shadow over WikiLeaks at a time when the website is already under pressure for publishing a huge cache of leaked documents about U.S. military activity in Afghanistan.
Assange's appearance at London's City University later Thursday also comes amid reports that WikiLeaks is unraveling from internal turmoil and power struggles. Key staffers at the website have reportedly deserted the organization out of anger that Assange unilaterally decided to publish tens of thousands of classified documents before enough work was done to protect the names of informants.
Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, founded WikiLeaks in 2006 for people wishing to anonymously publish material that companies and governments want kept secret. The site had exposed details of the dumping of toxic material off the Ivory Coast in Africa and the U.S. army's operations at the prison in Guantanamo Bay. But it did not gain worldwide fame until it published the Afghan war reports, which Assange said gave a complete picture of the war efforts and a more accurate account of civilian deaths.
But WikiLeaks' newfound status has been clouded by condemnation from the Pentagon, questions about its ethics, and allegations about Assange's management style.
The U.S. government has threatened to prosecute the group for espionage, saying the leaks jeopardized national security and endanger American soldiers and their Afghan helpers. Informants have been charged with leaking classified material and interrogated by the FBI.
Assange faces separate troubles in Sweden. Prosecutors are probing complaints against Assange filed by two women in August. Assange has denied the allegations and said they are part of a smear campaign.
The organization has also appeared to be in trouble internally. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German who recently quit as Wikileaks' spokesman, has been quoted in several interviews this week describing his falling-out with Assange. Domscheit-Berg told Der Spiegel magazine that Wikileaks was plagued by structural problems, including Assange's management style.
"Julian Assange reacted to any criticism with the allegation that I was disobedient to him and disloyal to the project," he was quoted as saying. "We grew insanely fast in recent months and we urgently need to become more professional and transparent in all areas. This development is being blocked internally."
Domscheit-Berg said Assange became so obsessed with uncovering top-level U.S. documents that he began to neglect a back log of lesser material.
"This one-dimensional confrontation with the USA is not what we set out to do," Domscheit-Berg was quoted as saying. "For us it is always about uncovering corruption and abuse of power, wherever it happens."
Assange has not responded to the comments and did not immediately return e-mails from The Associated Press.
Wikileaks' site is currently down, citing maintenance issues. The organization had said it was preparing to releasing a fresh batch of 15,000 secret U.S. army documents, but the release date has been pushed back.