Wikileaks: Is Julian Assange interfering in US election?

By Tom Spender
BBC News

Image source, EPA
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Mr Assange has "opened Pandora's box"

When Ecuador cut Julian Assange's internet at its London embassy, something unexpected happened.

The Wikileaks Twitter account, which had previously been commenting on its release of internal US Democrat party emails, instead began tweeting what appeared to be computer code.

The three tweets - accompanied by the words John Kerry, UK FCO (Foreign Office) and Ecuador - led to speculation they could be part of a "dead man's switch": an automated release of information triggered if someone did not regularly "check in" to prove they were alive.

Of course nothing had happened to Mr Assange, he had just been disconnected.

Image source, @wikileaks
Image source, @wikileaks
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There is speculation these could have been an automated "dead man's switch" tweets

Ecuador said it took the temporary step because it did not wish to interfere in the race for the White House, implying that Mr Assange had been doing just that.

'Insurance file'

It took several hours before the Wikileaks Twitter account was running again. By that time someone else in another location - it isn't known who - had taken over, says Dr Einar Thorsen from Bournemouth University.

He believes the automated Twitter messages could relate to Mr Assange's "insurance file" - said to contain information more damaging than anything yet released and automatically made public were anything to happen to him.

It follows the release during the summer of a large 88-gigabyte file "seeded" onto "torrent" download sites, where it is rapidly duplicated, meaning it cannot be removed by government authorities, Dr Thorsen says.

"You or I could download the file but without the code it would just be a lot of data that we couldn't access," he said.

Putin's pawn?

Mr Assange fears for his future.

He sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex assault allegations that he says are a US plot to jail him for leaking US military and diplomatic files.

Image source, AFP/Getty
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Mr Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012

But the war of words has escalated dramatically this month.

US authorities say the Clinton emails were stolen by Russian hackers, leading to accusations that Wikileaks was being used by the Kremlin.

Wikileaks has since found itself denying allegations that Mr Assange received money from the Russian government and attempted to groom a child online. The latter claim appeared on the US blog the Daily Kos.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has found herself denying claims that appeared on a right-wing blog that she once said of Mr Assange: "Can't we just drone this guy?"

"It would have been a joke, if it had been said, but I don't recall that," Mrs Clinton said, Politico reported.

Image source, Reuters
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Did Hillary Clinton make a remark about assassinating Mr Assange?

"Does Wikileaks have a beef with Clinton? Yes they probably do," says Dr Thorsen, referring to the drone comment. "Is there a concerted effort to smear Assange? Yes absolutely."

Pandora's box

But he and other observers say it is still unlikely Mr Assange is deliberately trying to skew the US election.

"Julian said that choosing between Trump and Clinton is like choosing between gonorrhoea and syphilis," his former colleague and partner Sarah Harrison told London's Evening Standard newspaper last month.

"He has always said that Wikileaks is just a tool, it's neutral, Assange is anti-power. He's an anarchist in the pure sense, someone who wants self-determination for everybody," says Sean Dodson from Leeds Beckett University.

Image source, Getty Images
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Have Wikileaks releases indirectly led to Mr Trump's rise?

"It's Pandora's box, that's what makes it so powerful. There are dangerous forces in that box and Assange couldn't leave it alone."

The resulting impact has been felt far and wide, from the Arab Spring to Brexit and the rise of Mr Trump, Mr Dodson says.

Wikileaks revelations of corruption contributed to the overthrow of Tunisia's dictator, sparking a wave of unrest in the Middle East, and the atmosphere of cynicism has since only grown, he says - particularly among the young.

"People are seeing geopolitics as a series of back door deals," he says. "They have become dissatisfied and see the whole system as somehow corrupt."