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The Sydney Morning Herald

Wanted by the US: WikiLeaks Founder Keeps His Head Down

Dylan Welch

Setting knowledge free ... Julian Assange, the only self-identified employee of the Wikileaks website. (Photo: Mark Chew)

It reads like a James Bond novel: an enigmatic white-haired computer hacker; a soldier turned whistleblower; secret government correspondence; and the world's most powerful country desperate to contain the situation.

Julian Assange, the Australian-born face of the web iconoclast WikiLeaks, is in hiding overseas after the US military arrested one of its own soldiers, Bradley Manning, and accused him of leaking a a secret video of a US Army helicopter gunning down civilians in Iraq in 2007.

The video was released on Wikileaks this year, and the US is now desperate to find Mr Assange before he leaks thousands of hugely embarrassing state diplomatic cables, which are believed to discuss the Middle East, its governments and leaders.

Mr Assange, 38, is an enigmatic figure who moves frequently between countries and has bases in Iceland, Kenya, Australia and elsewhere.

He was due to speak at a conference in Las Vegas on Friday but cancelled shortly before he was due to appear.

At the same time a US gossip website published an article claiming that Pentagon investigators were engaged in a ''manhunt'' for Mr Assange.

WikiLeaks, set up in 2007, is a clandestine international organisation that relies on anonymous leaks of confidential documents from government and industry.

Although it has a history of funding difficulties and opposition from governments - Australia's Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, threatened to call in the Federal Police when the site published a confidential internet blacklist - it has continued to operate sporadically and garnered worldwide attention when it released the helicopter attack video.

But it appears that the latest leak may have pushed the US too far, and there have even been suggestions that Mr Assange may be in physical danger.

Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked a top secret US history of the Vietnam War dubbed the Pentagon Papers at the height of that war, told US television he had spoken to Mr Assange last week.

''He ... understood that it was not safe for him to come to this country,'' Mr Ellsberg said.

The arrest of US Army Specialist Manning was proof that Mr Assange was at risk of prosecution or worse in the US, he said.

''When the Bradley Manning arrest was announced, he said 'now you understand why I didn't come' ... I think he would not be safe, even physically, entirely, wherever he is.''

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