Julian Assange's lawyer has warned that supporters of the WikiLeaks founder will unleash a "thermonuclear device" of government files containing the names of spies, sources and informants if he's killed or brought to trial.
Assange, the 39-year-old Australian who has most recently embarrassed the U.S. by leaking hundreds of previously secret diplomatic dispatches over the past week, has dubbed the unfiltered cache of documents his "insurance" policy. The 1.5-gigabyte file, which has been distributed to tens of thousands of fellow hackers and open-government campaigners around the world, is encrypted with a 256-digit key, reports The Sunday Times. Experts interviewed by the paper said that even powerful military computers can't crack the encryption without the key.
Contained inside that file -- named insurance.aes256 -- are believed to be all of the documents that WikiLeaks has received to date, including unpublished papers on the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and papers belonging to BP and the Bank of America. Assange has previously suggested that the documents are unredacted, meaning they contain names that normally would be removed before publication to protect the lives of soldiers, spies and sources.
"We have over a long period of time distributed encrypted backups of material we have yet to release," he told the BBC in August. "All we have to do is release the password to that material, and it is instantly available."
Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, told the BBC news program "The Andrew Marr Show" on Sunday that if the WikiLeaks website was taken down -- or if anything ill happened to his client -- the key to that damaging file would be released. "[WikiLeaks founders] need to protect themselves," Stephens said, "and this is I think what they believe to be a thermonuclear device, effectively, in the electronic age."
Stephens added that the insurance policy was vital because Assange had received numerous death threats from around the world, including one from Canadian Tom Flanagan, a former campaign manager to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Flanagan told a TV interviewer last week that Assange "should be assassinated" and taken out "with a drone or something." He later apologized for the remark.
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Assange is believed to be hiding in Britain, where he is fighting attempts by Sweden to extradite him on sex-crime charges. His lawyer told the BBC that the legal moves against Assange were a "political stunt" and that Sweden's chief prosecutor had dropped the case against his client in September. He said it was only "after the intervention of a Swedish politician" that another prosecutor opened a new case.
The head of the whistle-blowing website has always denied the allegations, made by two women who hosted a party for him in Stockholm in August. He has admitted having consensual sex with the women, and according to an AOL News investigation, the charges relate to disagreements over condom use.
Stephens said he was worried the attempt to extradite Assange to Sweden could be a precursor to moving him to the U.S. "It doesn't escape my attention that Sweden was one of those lickspittle states which used its resources and its facilities for rendition flights" by the U.S. to transport terrorism suspects around the world for interrogation, he said.
Although Sarah Palin has called for Assange to be prosecuted for treason and Newt Gingrich has labeled him an "enemy combatant" who is "engaged in terrorism," U.S. charges against the hacker are unlikely. He is not a U.S. citizen and so can't commit treason against America. And because he didn't steal the documents but simply released them, he would likely be protected by the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech.