The War on WikiLeaks: what next for the USA?

With 'Cablegate', the leak of some 251,287 diplomatic wires between the US State Department and American embassies and consulates around the world, WikiLeaks has pulled off its biggest coup to date.

At 261,276,536 words - seven times the size of WikiLeaks' previous outing of military secrets about US operations in Iraq - the haul represents the largest leak of government data in history.

The question is: what can the US government do to stop WikiLeaks - or sites like it - from publishing such information? And what can the whistle-blowing site do to outwit them?

The distributed nature both of WikiLeaks' network, and of the internet as a whole, swiftly brought US authorities to the realisation it couldn't simply 'gag' the site.

In the UK, the government issued 'Defence Advisory' (DA) notices - a polite but firm request to media outlets not to release details of the leak, but a recognition that the information would nevertheless soon be in the public domain.

One look at the day's papers will tell you how effective that request has been.

So what comes next in the war on WikiLeaks?

One interesting effect of the latest leak is that it widens the circle of countries with a vested interest in the site's demise.

Criticism of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange within the organisation itself has centred on the site's tendency to pursue US government targets at the expense of lower-profile, but still important, work worldwide.

With newspapers including The Guardian reporting the leaked comments made by oil-rich Saudi Arabia about its near-neighbour Iran, as well personally embarrassing the heads of a number of US-friendly European states, the list of WikiLeaks' direct enemies has grown.

The most obvious knee-jerk reaction on the part of those states - at least, those whose political culture finds it palatable - will be to block access to the site using filtering technology.

But filtering will only mask the problem. It doesn't deal with it. Many governments doubtless already harbour a desire to directly 'ban' the site - a danger that WikiLeaks counters by being hosted in a distributed manner across several European countries. If needed, the site could simply up sticks and move its hosting elsewhere if things become uncomfortable.

The problem for WikiLeaks is that as the number of its enemies grows, so does the likelihood of international cooperation. The recently concluded ACTA negotiations over anti-piracy legislation have shown that governments are willing to enter into an unparalleled level of co-operation to combat Internet-based threats - often avoiding democratic oversight.

The latest leak has increased the chances that future collective action may be used to tackle political, as well as economic, threats.

Political co-operation is a longer-term goal, though. A quicker fix is simply to take the site down using illegal means. And that is exactly what was attempted yesterday, in the run-up to the leak, when a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack was launched against the site's servers - albeit purportedly the work of a lone hacker.

Another option that may be being employed at present is - to use Saudi Arabia's somewhat undiplomatic language over its near-neighbour Iran - "cutting off the head of the snake".

As the only member of WikiLeaks' senior executive to have a major public profile - other key figures are known only by code letters - Australian hacker-turned-journalist Julian Assange has placed himself in a uniquely vulnerable position. It's unclear to what extent the rape charges he currently faces in Sweden are politically motivated, as Assange claims, but it is another front on which the site is vulnerable to attack.

The danger for the US in discrediting Assange personally and exploiting rifts in the WikiLeaks line-up is that by chopping off WikiLeaks' head, the US may find several more growing back in its place. Former German WikiLeaker Daniel Domscheit-Berg recently announced plans to launch a new whistle-blowing site of his own, providing world governments with another thorn in their sides.

The ultimate weapon wielded by US authorities is the so-called 'nuclear option' - to pull the site's domain registration. By denying the site access to the site's memorable www.wikileaks.org URL, US authorities would make it more difficult (but not impossible) for users to find the whistle-blowing site, using a numeric IP address.

The possibility also remains that WikiLeaks organisers could find a safe haven with a domain registered in a territory less friendly to the US government - though quite what compromises the site might have to make to gain such a registration remain to be seen.

It seems unlikely that Assange and co would feel comfortable being the guests of, say, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Whatever the Pentagon's game plan, there's no doubt that the site is a slippery target - but there's equally no doubt we'll see the war on WikiLeaks intensify over the coming weeks and months.