Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… following a bombshell report this week that disclosed how far the CIA considered going to halt the efforts of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, we will be analyzing 1) the CIA’s covert “war” against Assange and WikiLeaks, 2) what put WikiLeaks in the crosshairs of the intelligence community in the first place, and 3) the story behind the Justice Department’s effort to bargain with Julian Assange, and how that ultimately led the CIA to consider drastic measures against the WikiLeaks founder.
With that behind us, it’s time to shift our attention over to the recent revelations about Julian Assange, and how far the CIA almost went to prevent future concerns about some of its most damaging information being published by WikiLeaks.
The Covert War Against Wikileaks
After what it determined to be “the largest data loss in CIA history,” the intelligence agency tasked with coordination of foreign intelligence for the United States was planning for war against Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange.
This, according to a bombshell Yahoo News report this week, which alleges that America’s top spy agency had weighed options that included kidnapping Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he spent five years in hiding, and even the possibility of assassination.
“Discussions over kidnapping or killing Assange occurred at the highest levels of the Trump administration,” the lengthy article by Zach Dorfman, Sean D. Naylor, and Michael Isikoff states, based on statements from a former senior official in counterintelligence who spoke on background. The unnamed official added that “There seemed to be no boundaries” as far as options weighed by the CIA to alleviate its problems with Wikileaks.
It wouldn’t have been the first time such cloak and dagger activities had been carried out by the CIA, had any of this actually transpired. However, what got the agency to the point of considering whether to take out Assange, how it might be done, and thereby potentially overstepping international legal boundaries is another story.
Collateral Murder, and Other Unfortunate Truths
Founded in 2006, Wikileaks received its most significant attention beginning in early 2010 following the release of a classified video depicting a U.S. airstrike in Bagdad on July 12, 2007, in which a pair of Reuters employees whose cameras were mistaken for weapons were shot at and killed. The video, released by Wikileaks under the title Collateral Murder, was followed the same year by the leak of internal U.S. military logs known as the Afghan War Diary, as well as a similar cache of documents called the Iraq War Logs, and a series of classified cables delivered to the U.S. State Department.
Much of the material in the early 2010 leaks had been received by Wikileaks from Chelsea Manning, at the time a United States Army Private known as Bradley Manning, as part of a trove of 750,000 documents related to military and diplomatic affairs, many of which were classified. Among these documents had been a secret Counterintelligence Analysis Report produced by the Department of Defense in 2008, which addressed the new problem Wikileaks represented, and how those problems could be mitigated.
However, it had been Wikileaks’ release of documents related to CIA hacking resources, grouped under the name “Vault 7”, that pushed the American spy agency over the edge. Beginning in March 2017, Wikileaks began publishing documents detailing the CIA’s electronic surveillance and cyber warfare capabilities. Everything from the most popular web browsers, to “smart” devices like phones and televisions, and even vehicles could be compromised. An internal audit performed by the CIA revealed that 91 malware tools were also among those compromised by the release.
As is usually the case though, there is the story, and then the storybehind the story.
How the Department of Justice Almost Reached a Compromise with Assange
Prior to Wikileaks initiating the release of Vault 7 documentation, Assange attorney Adam Waldman had been in negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice to attempt to secure immunity and safe passage to the United States, thereby enabling Assange to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, to engage in negotiations over reducing risk from future releases by his organization. This, in addition to testifying that Russia had not been the source of releases made by Wikileaks in 2016.
It appeared, for a time, that the negotiations were going smoothly. That is until Waldman received word from Senator Mark Warner, who after expressing appreciation for his efforts to help mediate between the Department of Justice and Assange, was told his “instructions were to stand down” and to “end the discussions with Assange.”
Perhaps it didn’t help that while negotiations were underway, Assange and Wikileaks had already begun to release files in the Vault 7 collection during the early months of 2017. For a time, it might have seemed advantageous for negotiations to continue, considering what the Department of Justice had its sights on: limiting the impact of future releases by WikiLeaks. With little doubt, Assange had been aware of this too and may have initiated the gradual leaks as part of his bargaining game.
However, that all ended on April 7, 2017, when a batch of documents released by WikiLeaks divulged several of the less desirable details about malware the CIA used in its cyber-attacks. Almost immediately following the publication of the documents, all negotiations with the Assange camp were ended, culminating with a furious then-CIA director Mike Pompeo denouncing Wikileaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”
“President Trump’s newly installed CIA director, Mike Pompeo, was seeking revenge on WikiLeaks and Assange,” wrote the authors of the recent Yahoo News expose, who were told by a former national security official that the agency had been “completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7… They were seeing blood.”
The CIA followed with increased surveillance of activities and communication by Wikileaks, which included “audio and visual surveillance of Assange himself,” whose isolation within the small Ecuadorian Embassy would no doubt have made the job simply riveting. After speaking with more than 30 former intelligence officials with knowledge of the matter, the Yahoo News article calls the CIA’s effort to abduct or otherwise silence Assange “one of the most contentious intelligence debates of the Trump presidency,” and one that “bent important legal strictures,” in addition to compromising efforts by the Justice Department to prosecute Assange and potentially fomenting mistrust—or worse—between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
Where can the blame really be placed in all of this? While the revelations about the CIA’s activities showcase a situation involving actions by the agency that were questionable, at very least, they had been in response to leaks of highly sensitive information about some of the spy agency’s most secretive operations; leaks which had been ongoing even as the Justice Department worked toward reaching a deal with Assange.
Whatever the results might have been if things had gone in a more fruitful direction, and what it might have revealed about lingering questions involving the highly contentious 2016 U.S. election and a host of other things, are left to the imagination now as Assange remains in prison, awaiting a court decision on whether London will allow him to be extradited to the United States.