5 big takeaways from an investigation into the CIA's war on WikiLeaks

·6 min read

A Yahoo News story this past weekend disclosing details of the CIA’s war on WikiLeaks — including plans to abduct the group’s leader, Julian Assange, and discussions about possibly even assassinating him — has gotten lots of attention, including demands for investigations and a quashing of the Justice Department’s indictment of him.

On the latest episode of Yahoo News’ "Skullduggery" podcast, two authors of the story — reporter Zach Dorfman and "Skullduggery" co-host Michael Isikoff — discuss the CIA’s campaign against WikiLeaks, why it so animated the agency’s then director, Mike Pompeo, and what the possible fallout could be.

Here are five big questions about the Assange case and the U.S. government’s targeting of WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at court in London on May 1, 2019 to be sentenced for bail violation. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at court in London on May 1, 2019, to be sentenced for bail violation. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

1. What exactly are the criminal charges against Assange?

Julian Assange got international attention in 2016 when WikiLeaks began publishing thousands of emails stolen from Democratic National Committee computers and the Gmail account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. As U.S. intelligence officials later concluded, these emails were stolen by hackers from the GRU, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who then provided them to WikiLeaks as part of an effort to help elect Donald Trump president. But the criminal case against Assange has nothing to do with that. Instead, it charges him with attempting to help one of his sources, former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, crack into a classified computer network and with violating the Espionage Act by publishing classified government cables and other U.S. military reports, including some that revealed the names of sensitive sources for the U.S. government.

2. What impact will the disclosure of the CIA’s plans to use extreme measures against Assange have on the U.S. government’s efforts to extradite him from the U.K. and bring him to the United States to face trial?

That may be the biggest and most immediate fallout from the Yahoo News story. A British judge earlier this year blocked the U.S. Justice Department’s request to extradite Assange to the United States, concluding that he was at risk to commit suicide in a U.S. prison. The Biden Justice Department, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, is appealing that ruling, and there is a hearing before a British court on the matter next month. But pro-Assange groups are arguing that the revelations in the Yahoo News story are grounds to scrap the whole case. The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has had a close relationship with WikiLeaks and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, on Sunday said the disclosures about the CIA’s plans were “beyond the pale” and called on the Biden administration to drop its efforts to bring Assange to trial. Assange’s lawyers are actively considering a court filing or letter arguing that the Yahoo News story bolsters the case for government misconduct and grounds for the British courts to reject the U.S. government’s request.

This February 27, 2012 photo shows a screen from the Internet site Wikileaks. Wikileaks, which triggered an earthquake in 2010 in world diplomacy, said Monday it has begun the publication of more than five million emails to the American private intelligence and Stratfor strategic Analysis. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)
A page from WikiLeaks' website in 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

3. The Yahoo News story has many details about what the CIA was planning to do to Assange and WikiLeaks. But what steps were actually taken?

There are still many questions about what the CIA and the Trump administration were up to. But the Yahoo News story fills in many of the blanks. It reports that the assassination plans were sufficiently serious that Trump administration and senior CIA officials asked for “options” or “sketches” on killing Assange, but former officials said the assassination discussions ultimately did not go anywhere. And the plans to abduct Assange prompted objections from White House lawyers and other national security officials and were never approved. But the CIA did institute other aggressive measures to conduct surveillance and disrupt the activities of Assange and his associates. A Spanish security firm that had been hired by the Ecuadorian government was, according to testimony in a Spanish court case, “turned” by the CIA and used to provide live video and audio feeds of Assange from inside its embassy in London. The agency also launched operations to monitor the communications and track the travel of Assange confederates throughout Europe, and engaged in other actions to disrupt WikiLeaks from functioning.

4. Why was Pompeo infuriated by WikiLeaks?

Pompeo had barely taken up the position of CIA director in early 2017 when he was confronted with a massive security breach: WikiLeaks had obtained a huge tranche of ultrasecret materials from the CIA’s hacking division, which it began publishing serially in March 2017 under the name “Vault 7.”

According to former U.S. national security officials, Pompeo was both deeply embarrassed and enraged by the leak. At the CIA, he was not alone: Former officials described institutional shock at the fact that WikiLeaks could ever obtain something from deep within the agency. There was also long-standing antagonism within the U.S. intelligence community to WikiLeaks going back to the Manning leaks, which were intensely exacerbated by the organization’s publication of the Russia-hacked Democratic Party emails in 2016. By the time of the Vault 7 publications, WikiLeaks was viewed broadly within the intelligence community as a malignant force that needed to be stopped.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attends a Republican Study Committee news conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

But Pompeo, according to former officials, was willing to advocate for options — like rendering Assange — that others would not have seriously considered, let alone brought to the White House.

5. Will Congress get into the act?

There are many unanswered questions about what Congress — particularly the House and Senate intelligence committees — knew about the Pompeo-era proposals regarding Assange and WikiLeaks.

After Pompeo gave a speech on WikiLeaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April 2017, Congress coalesced around a new definition of the organization. The Intelligence Authorization Act for 2018 contained a “sense of Congress” resolution stating that “WikiLeaks and its senior leadership resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors, and should be treated as such.”

Only two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee opposed the resolution. One was then-Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who wrote that “the ambiguity in the bill is dangerous because it fails to draw a bright line between WikiLeaks and legitimate journalistic organizations that play a vital role in our democracy.”

The other dissenting Intelligence Committee member was Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, often a critic of what he sees as intelligence overreach. “The novel phrase ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets,” he wrote. “The language in the bill suggesting that the U.S. government has some unstated course of action against ‘non-state hostile intelligence services’ is equally troubling.”

Vice President Kamala Harris leads a session at the Presidents virtual COVID Summit on building back better and preparing and preventing future pandemics  at the White House in Washington, DC on Wednesday, September 22, 2021. (Ken Cedeno/UPI via Getty Images)
Vice President Kamala Harris on Sept. 22. (Ken Cedeno/UPI via Getty Images)

But it is unclear precisely how much CIA briefers told Congress about the agency's plans regarding Assange, such as potentially rendering the WikiLeaks founder. A former national security official told Yahoo News that White House officials were so worried about Pompeo’s proposals that they quietly, and unofficially, reached out to select lawmakers and their staffers on the intelligence committees to alert them to what was being discussed.

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