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Syria-gate? WikiLeaks' latest drop of secret files

LONDON - It was another mega-download moment brought to you by WikiLeaks.

On Thursday, at the progressive journalists hub in London called the Frontline Club, the group of whistleblowers officially announced the release of their latest massive “data set” regarding Syria. 

The new release of some 2.5 million emails focuses entirely on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime as seen through the communications of its top ministries and companies. They date from August 2006 to March of this year, when the current crisis in Syria was building up deadly momentum. 


This release by WikiLeaks is said to be so large that it allegedly surpasses by eight times the size of the group's infamous release of U.S. State Department cables known as “Cablegate."

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“The material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria’s opponents,” WikiLeaks official Sarah Harrison said in a statement streamed live.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who faces extradition to Sweden for questioning about allegations of rape and molestation, did not appear at the club because he is currently living inside Ecuador’s Embassy seeking political asylum. He fears he risks arrest by British police if he leaves the embassy building.

A bomb targeting Syria's highest court has exploded in Damascus. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

The so-called Syrian Files, to be released over the next few weeks, reportedly reveal intimate correspondence between top Baath Party officials, as well as records of bank transfers within Syria and abroad, including with Western companies, although Harrison did not go into detail.

Numerous attempts to access the data online by NBC News failed because the WikiLeaks website crashed continuously. But several initial documents we could access refer to the international communications company Selex (based in Genoa, Italy) and the sale of its Tetra technology to Syria this year.  Tetra’s website describes the equipment as a “trunked radio system.” 

WikiLeaks suggested this kind of encrypted communications network could be used, for instance, by the Syrian police to better protect their surveillance of militant activities. Harrison said that Western “training” on the Tetra technology inside Syria continued well after the outbreak of civil war.

After losing his appeal against extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, says he is considering his next step, which could be an appeal to Britain's Supreme Court.

Other downloads from the Syria Files that NBC News was able to access allegedly confirm delivery of  ‘3 complete sets of connectors for 3 choppers’ to Damascus.  It was unclear if “choppers” referred to helicopters used by the Syrian regime or jargon for a communications device. These Selex emails were dated Feb. 2, 2012.

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The goal of the latest release of data is to generate a series of in-depth stories about “the inner workings of the Syrian government and economy” and how the West and Western companies “say one thing and do another,” Harrison added.

However, this release is striking in its broader, more neutral approach, without the trenchant ideology or politics associated with previous data sets.  

From the front line in what looks ever more like a fight for Syria's capital Damascus, members of the Free Syrian Army appear to be closing in on President Assad's stronghold, at a terrible cost to both sides. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

But on Thursday, Harrison denied reporters’ suggestions that WikiLeaks was going “mainstream.”  She said that the group was facing “a difficult time at the moment.” She was referring to WikiLeaks' growing grand jury investigation in the U.S. and the blocking of its accounts by international credit card companies – not to mention Assange’s diplomatic limbo – but said that the organization would continue to “work through that.” 

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She ended by saying she was not aware of any “rebranding” by the world’s most controversial spiller of international secrets.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London. 

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