Piles of Pivotal WikiLeaks Data May Have Been Obliterated

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Ever have one of those days, where you accidentally expunge half your hard drive’s contents, then realize, shattered, that you don’t have a backup? Me too, and we can add WikiLeaks—the nonprofit private industry and state secret bean-spiller—to the brotherhood of the crushed and traumatized.

Or at least add in part. It depends where you’re standing, and I don’t mean from without, but within, where it seems WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the site’s ex-spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg have been squabbling over critical WikiLeaks data that’s now suddenly been eliminated from the leak site’s info-repository, possibly for good.

(PHOTOS: Inside WikiLeaks’ Bunker)

That’s the story from Der Spiegel this morning, where former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg says he just rubbed out upwards of 3,500 files he was hanging onto. His rationale: WikiLeaks couldn’t ensure the documents’ sources would remain anonymous.

WikiLeaks had held the documents on its servers until about this time last year, but when Domscheit-Berg left (he claims because WikiLeaks had critical structural deficiencies), he took the documents with him—or to hear WikiLeaks tell it, he “stole” them. The documents reportedly included data on the U.S. “no-fly” list, several “far-right” organizations and perhaps even the ostensibly momentous files relating to Bank of America (Assange has said WikiLeaks’ unreleased U.S. bank data “could take down a bank or two”).

And now, after sitting on the files for a year, they’re apparently gone. According to Domscheit-Berg, the documents were “shredded over the past few days in order to ensure that the sources are not compromised.”

The whole thing gets uglier. Both Assange and Domscheit-Berg have hurled accusations at each other for months. Assange says Domscheit-Berg’s been trying to sabotage WikiLeaks, while Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks is a razor-tongued indictment of both WikiLeaks and Assange. Confusing the matter is Domscheit-Berg’s subsequent launch and promotion of a WikiLeaks alternative, OpenLeaks, described as “a project that aims at making whistleblowing safer and more widespread.” Don’t forget Domscheit-Berg’s expulsion from the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) for allegedly using the hacking club to publicize his new website.

So just as it sounds, a pretty mess, a tangled web and a confederacy of rivals. Did we need to see those documents? That’s a debate for another piece, but either way, it sounds like one that’ll only ever be theoretical, since the answer’s now likely “couldn’t even if we wanted to.”

MORE: WikiLeaks Alums Hope to Dodge Legal Trouble with ‘OpenLeaks’

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.