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WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange dismisses reports of internal strife

From Atika Shubert, CNN Correspondent
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Julian Assange on war documents and WikiLeaks
  • Editor-in-chief Julian Assange says he is WikiLeaks' "lightning rod"
  • He says internal disputes have involved a few disgruntled individuals
  • Assange refuses to address rape and molestation allegations he is facing in Sweden

(CNN) -- Julian Assange considers himself the "lightning rod" for WikiLeaks, which has been beset by internal strife over the past several months.

And while Friday he wanted to talk about the release of Iraq War documents he said showed "compelling evidence of war crimes" committed by U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi government forces, Assange faces both professional and personal challenges.

In an exclusive interview Friday with CNN, the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief dismissed reports of internal disputes within the organization, chalking them up to a small handful of disgruntled employees who had been suspended. Assange, who is being investigated by Swedish authorities in two separate cases of rape and molestation, would not discuss its potential impact on the organization.

Since the July publication of the Afghan War Diary, a massive, searchable database containing more than 70,000 classified documents about the Afghanistan War, some in the mostly secretive group of volunteers have quit, citing disagreements with the way the group conducts business and Assange's personality and style.

Video: WikiLeaks founder leaves interview
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"This organization does not let anyone hang out to dry," Assange said Friday. "We always expect tremendous criticism. It is my role to be the lightning rod ... to attract the attacks against the organization for our work, and that is a difficult role."

"On the other hand," he said, "I get undue credit."

Some of the attacks have come from within WikiLeaks.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a longtime volunteer and spokesman for WikiLeaks, quit last month. He told CNN that Assange's personality was distracting from the group's original mission: to publish small leaks, not just huge, splashy ones like the Afghan War Diary.

WiiLeaks' new spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said the material WikiLeaks publishes is far more important than the organization or Assange, and it has tried to convey that. "In the history of Wikileaks, nobody has claimed that the material being put out is not authentic," he said.

When he left WikiLeaks, Domscheit-Berg said the site was flooded with new submissions from several countries that have not been published.

"There is now more information than can be handled," Domscheit-Berg said.

In the past few weeks, a large number of new volunteers have joined WikiLeaks to replace volunteers who have left, he said. WikiLeaks may be down, he said, but it's far from out.

Money has also been an issue. Last week, a British company that had been collecting donations for WikiLeaks ended its relationship with the organization.

Examining leaks is "a very expensive process," Assange said in August.

Shortly after the Afghan War Diary leak, prosecutors in Sweden announced that they are investigating Assange in two separate cases of rape and molestation.

"There is reason to believe that a crime has been committed," Marianne Ny, Sweden's director of public prosecutions, said in a statement last month. "Considering information available at present, my judgment is that the classification of the crime is rape."

She said more investigation is necessary before she can make a final decision.

Assange has maintained he's innocent and told the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera the accusations were a "smear campaign."

This week, his application for residency in Sweden was rejected because it failed to fulfill all the requirements. A Swedish immigration official declined to elaborate.

Assange, who is mercurial in interviews, answered CNN's questions Friday about strife within WikiLeaks, but repeatedly declined to answer questions about the rape and molestation investigation and what the allegations may mean to the organization.

"This interview is about something else. I will have to walk if you are," Assange said. "If you are going to contaminate this extremely serious interview with questions about my personal life."

Moments later, Assange walked off the set in London. "OK, sorry," he said.

CNN's Ashley Fantz contributed to this report.