Wikileaks: Stop Us? You'll Have to Shut Down the Web

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The arrest and detention of Julian Assange Tuesday on charges of rape and sexual assault was at the least a convenient development for government leaders who've sought ways to contain the leader of the controversial website Wikileaks.

But in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Jim Sciutto, Wikileaks' spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson insisted Assange's arrest won't alter the site's calculated release of thousands of secret government cables, which still continues according to plan. The site published a new slate of cables Wednesday.

"It is not derailing us in any way," said Hrafnsson, adding that a group of five to six people is running Wikileaks' operations in Assange's absence. "This is a turning tide and starting a trend that you can't really stop unless you want to shut down the Internet."

Meanwhile, supporters of Assange are saying the timing and nature of the personal allegations against him are more than coincidence – they're "politically motivated." And the confluence of recent events gives at least the appearance that could be true.

In mid-August, two Swedish women told prosecutors and news outlets they had each had consensual sex with Assange, but that he didn't use a condom against their wishes and subsequently refused to get tested for sexually-transmitted disease. Their complaint led to a warrant on charges of sexual molestation.

But now prosecutors allege Assange forcibly raped at least one of the women and sexually assaulted the other -- significantly more serious allegations than what investigators initially pursued.

Assange, 39, was formally charged and held without bond in London on one count of rape, two of sexual assault, and one of coercion. He has denied the allegations and insists the sex with both women was consensual.

"Fortunately, the international corralling was successful," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said shortly after Assange's arrest. "Assange has hurt international diplomatic relations and I hope he is questioned and tried as established by law."

Assange's brainchild, Wikileaks, is also weathering its most intense attacks to date. The site has been bumped from its servers without notice and mysteriously cut off from key funding sources after PayPal and major credit card companies, Visa and MasterCard, pulled the plug pending "further investigation."

"We are getting seriously close to censorship in the U.S., and that must surely go against the fundamental values the country is based upon," said Hrafnsson.

But State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said via Twitter "the U.S. government did not write to PayPal requesting any action regarding #WikiLeaks. Not true."

Swiss authorities Monday closed a Swiss bank account tied to Assange, freezing tens of thousands of dollars used to fund the Wikileaks operation, his lawyers said.

"It wouldn't be surprising in the least that Wikileaks and political pressure from the U.S. and other affected governments has at least something to do with the current charges in Sweden," said American University law professor Stephen Vladeck, an expert in national security and international criminal law. But "whether it's because of that pressure [that he faces charges] is something I think we can't know."

No Charges Yet for Assange Over Wikileaks

The apparent onslaught against Assange comes in spite of the fact that he has not been formally charged by any government for Wikileaks' activities.

"It may be that what Julian has done is a crime," said Clay Shirky, an Internet and technology consultant and author, referring to Assange's role in the dissemination of a massive cache of classified government files. "In that case, the right answer is to bring the case to a trial."

"The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us 'You went after Wikileaks' domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don't like the site,'" he said. Shirky's comment clearly suggests that governmental pressure may be behind the recent setbacks for Assange.

Attorney General Eric Holder has promised a vigorous investigation and prosecution of those involved with the Wikileaks leak. But Vladeck says the law under which Assange could most likely be tried -- the Espionage Act -- is "politically and legally fraught," explaining why government prosecutors have not yet laid out any charges.

"One of the flaws in the Espionage Act is that it draws no distinction between the leaker or the spy and the recipient of the information, no matter how far downstream the recipient is," Vladeck said. "So there's no difference in the statute between Assange and someone at home who opens up something that Assange has posted on his website knowing that it's classified. It's why this is such a problem."

Army Private Bradley Manning is alleged to have downloaded vast numbers of secret diplomatic cables and military documents while working as an intelligence analyst, committing the greatest security breach in U.S. history using little more than a memory stick and a Lady Gaga CD.

Wikileaks has pledged to release more than 250,000 documents, most, if not all of which, are believed to have been obtained by Manning. Already the site has published classified military records pertaining to the death toll in Iraq, and secret diplomatic cables about relations with foreign governments.

"In the entire history of the Espionage Act there's been exactly one case when the government went after someone other than the thief – and that prosecution fell apart," he said.