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Wikileaks editor skips NYC hacker event

Julian Assange, public face of a Web site that posted a video embarrassing to the U.S. military, doesn't seem to want to get too friendly with inquisitive Homeland Security agents.

Jacob Appelbaum, Tor Project programmer and Wikileaks contributor, speaking at The Next HOPE hacker conference in Manhattan on Saturday.
Jacob Appelbaum, Wikileaks contributor and Tor Project programmer, speaking at HOPE hacker conference in Manhattan on Saturday. Declan McCullagh/CNET

NEW YORK CITY--A Wikileaks editor, deciding not to risk a confrontation with federal agents, skipped a high-profile speaking engagement at a hacker conference here on Saturday.

Instead, Jacob Appelbaum, a Seattle-based programmer for the Tor Project, who's involved in the Wikileaks Web site, took over the 1 p.m. ET keynote slot on behalf of co-founder Julian Assange.

Appelbaum used the opportunity to exhort a largely sympathetic audience to support Wikileaks by volunteering or by donating money, to address recent criticisms of the document-publishing Web site, and to boast that Wikileaks remains uncensorable. "You can try to take us down... but you can't stop us," he said.

"The whole idea of hunting" for Assange is misguided, Appelbaum said. "You can cut off the head, but there will be more."

CNET previously reported that organizers of The Next HOPE conference said that six Homeland Security agents showed up on Friday morning looking for Assange, who's at the center of a storm of publicity involving a video that a U.S. serviceman may have provided to document-sharing site Wikileaks.

Appelbaum wasn't taking any chances: after his speech ended, he indicated he'd be back after the leaked video finished playing. But he ducked behind a curtain and left the conference hotel through a rear door, while a doppelganger wearing the same style of black hoodie (with his head covered) made a very public exit through the front.

In a phone conversation at about 5:30 p.m. ET, Appelbaum said he was on board a flight to Europe from Newark airport. No federal police appeared during, or interfered with, Appelbaum's talk.

One of the videos that ignited a firestorm of publicity and controversy, which Wikileaks titled "Collateral Murder," shows a U.S. military helicopter in Iraq destroying a vehicle that was preparing to rush a wounded journalist to a hospital. The Apache pilots appeared to mistake a news crew, who were holding cameras, for armed insurgents.

Army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning, the serviceman who allegedly provided the videos to Wikileaks, has been charged with unlawfully divulging classified information and could face a significant prison sentence. Adrian Lamo, a hacker who lives in the Sacramento, Calif., area, says he turned Manning in to Army intelligence for fear that sensitive information would be leaked and endanger U.S. national security.

Appelbaum used the keynote to single out Lamo for criticism and ostracism, albeit not by name, and twice urged the audience to raise their voices to denounce his onetime friend's decision to report Manning. "Just forget them," he said of Lamo. "They are irrelevant."

Adrian Lamo holds Wanted: Dead or Alive poster with his face on it that anonymously appeared at HOPE Declan McCullagh/CNET

"I think it's hilarious," Lamo, who was in the room during the Wikileaks talk, said afterward. "And I don't think that the hacker community is really going to rise to it. I've been very well-treated by almost everybody I met."

Lamo said Appelbaum's talk didn't address allegations that Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables, which raises different questions than the so-called Collateral Murder video. "What would the audience say? Who approves of leaking over a quarter million diplomatic cables?" Lamo said. "The response would probably have been silence, confusion, and scattered laughter."

The Next HOPE conference announced on April 19 that Assange would be a keynote speaker. But by June 14, after news of Manning's arrest leaked, the conference was warning that Assange might remain outside the U.S. for fear of being arrested on related charges.

One of the first slides Appelbaum showed Saturday says that, even though he's significantly involved in Wikileaks, he has no access to classified U.S. data that may have been sent to the site.

Appelbaum's exhortations to his audience went beyond supporting Wikileaks, though: he questioned the underpinnings of modern U.S. foreign policy and called for civil disobedience in the form of information liberation. "The most heavily guarded secrets, if revealed, have the most potential for reform," he said.

Without confirming or denying that Manning was the source of the video, Appelbaum said Wikileaks needed to raise $200,000 to pay for private-sector attorneys. Some reports have indicated that the organization has already raised at least $500,000 this year while spending virtually none of it. (The document-leaking site Cryptome.org, run by architect John Young, has asked for financial records, which are expected to become public in about a month.)

Appelbaum is a hacker and security researcher who co-founded the Noisebridge hacker space in San Francisco's Mission district. He's also worked to bypass the security of "smart" parking meters, unearth flaws in Web security certificates, and discover a novel way to bypass hard drive encryption.

Last updated at 4:45 p.m. PT