Former WikiLeaks volunteers are planning to launch a rival whistle-blowing website next week amid growing indications that the US government is on the verge of filing its own charges against Julian Assange.
Lawyers for the 39-year-old Australian said yesterday that they believed American prosecutors are planning to charge the WikiLeaks founder using either espionage or computer misuse legislation.
Any US charges would create the prospect of Mr Assange having to fight two extradition battles, one to stop an attempted prosecution in Sweden over alleged sex offences, and a second to halt his extradition across the Atlantic.
Now former WikiLeaks members who fell out with Mr Assange over his leadership style and personal politics said they were days away from launching OpenLeaks, an alternative whistle-blowing site which will forgo having a strong editorial figurehead deciding what to publish.
Herbert Snorrasson, a former WikiLeaks volunteer from Iceland who defected to OpenLeaks, said: "The major difference between us and Wiki-Leaks is that we do not intend to accept or publish documents directly ourselves. We will function as a mere conduit between a source and the media.
If a source leaks direct to the media there is always the risk that the publication will be forced to find, identify and reveal the whistleblower. With OpenLeaks it will be impossible even for us to know where a source is."
The new website will use an encrypted submissions system to allow whistleblowers to leak material in confidence but will not publish the materials on their own website. Instead, OpenLeaks will allow the source itself to chose which media or non-governmental organisations it wants to leak to for fact-checking, redaction and publication. The intention is to protect both the source and OpenLeaks from any political fall-out from publication.
The founder of OpenLeaks Dominic Domscheit-Berg used to be the WikiLeaks chief spokesperson until he defected in the late summer after disagreements with Mr Assange. The German transparency campaigner accused the WikiLeaks' founder of acting like "some kind of emperor or slave trader", and expressed concerns that the large-scale leaks of US government data distracted the whistle-blowing platform from publishing leaks from other sources.
In an interview with the Swedish broadcaster SVT, to be aired tomorrow, Mr Domscheit-Berg will say that he felt WikiLeaks grew too fast.
"I think the wisest thing to do would have been to do this slowly, step by step," he said. "What happened was to pick out the biggest releases, to put all effort, resources, everything we had into producing these releases."
He also criticised the secrecy surrounding the WikiLeaks website and its volunteers. "If you preach transparency to everyone else you have to be transparent yourself," he said.