Monthly Archives: April 2019

Behind the Assange Saga: Radicalized by Frustration

Yesterday morning, with news of Julian Assange’s arrest, I wrote the below piece for The Guardian (US), trying to explain that the real reason that the U.S. government was moving on Assange NOW had nothing to do with the 10-year old case of Chelsea Manning nor WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 election. The news people at The Guardian passed on the article, as did the Daily Beast. I didn’t really get a reason from The Guardian, but the editor at the Daily Beast wrote: “We don’t have the bandwidth tonight to sort through your sourcing, or to separate out the parts of this that immediately make sense from the ones that seem, at least here, offputting.” Some others offered to publish, and no disrespect to them, but I decided to just publish the piece here because I wanted to add a little explanation and analysis.

The core of my reporting – and my argument – is that WikiLeaks’ publishing of the so-called “Vault 7” trove of the CIA is what propelled the United States government to feel like it needed to take action against the organization. If you are not familiar with Vault 7, don’t feel bad. Most in the national security field aren’t either.

Up until the Vault 7 leaks, which were published by WikiLeaks in March 2017, the national security lawyers within the U.S. government had been hesitant to take on a journalistic entity, even one like WikiLeaks that looked so very different than The New York Times or NBC News. But then with WikiLeaks seeming cooperation (or at least servitude) to the Russian government in 2016, that very American mainstream media became more hostile to its now separated brethren, and the general view shifted within the intelligence community and the Justice Department that the organization was more vulnerable.

With Vault 7, WikiLeaks published almost 10,000 classified documents from the Center for Cyber Intelligence of the CIA, the covert hacking organization of the U.S. government. For a number of reasons – a new president in office, WikiLeaks’ prominence in the ongoing Trump collusion circus, and the obscureness of the very material WikiLeaks was publishing, Vault 7 received scant attention. But coming on the heels of massive leaks by Edward Snowden and a group called the Shadow Brokers just months earlier, and given the notoriety WikiLeaks had earned, Vault 7 was the straw that broke the governmental back. Not only was it an unprecedented penetration of the CIA, an organization that had evaded any breach of this type since the 1970’s, but it showed that all of the efforts of the U.S. government after Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden had failed to either deter or catch “millennial leakers.”

The thinking of government officials – current and former – that I’ve talked to is that shutting down WikiLeaks once and for all – or at least separating it from the mainstream media to make it less attractive as a recipient of U.S. government secrets, will at least be one step towards greater internal security. Sure there is the bigger question of Russia weaponizing its intercepts and hacking material to do damage to the United States and the West, but in terms of what the U.S. government can do to clean up its own house, or at least to bolt the doors better, was to shut up Assange and fracture WikiLeaks.  Whatever WikiLeaks has done to itself, and whatever the United States (and its allies) have done covertly, that seems to be progressing apace.

Maybe the rejected article below isn’t worthy of publication, but my experience in closely watching the WikiLeaks story – in both its vilification and in its lionization – has made me think about this current era of homogenized news reporting. “Don’t have the bandwidth”, what the Daily Beast said, is code for both don’t have the editorial people and don’t have the headspace to entertain a contrarian thought, particularly in a big news day. By last night, both The Washington Post and The New York Times were both mentioning Vault 7 but no one has yet tied together all of these pieces of why the United States, the U.K., Ecuador, and even Sweden might have common cause in exerting more control, not just against WikiLeaks but also against those who would independently assault their systems.

The thread that ties everyone from Manning to the Vault 7 leaker to Julian Assange together is that they have all in some ways been radicalized by their frustration. Frustration with this very system, with its exclusiveness, with its lies, with its immunity to any accountability. For Manning, radicalization started as the WMD debacle in Iraq became clear and as the war dragged on, the young twenty-something (with a Top Secret clearance conferred by the system) alarmed by the carnage and the seeming inhumanity. Snowden equally conferred as one of them with an even higher “clearance” was similarly driven to take matters into his own hands, radicalized by his perception of post 9/11 abuses that he felt the NSA had taken, and hadn’t been held accountable for.

Put aside WikiLeaks and the Russians. The unsealed indictment yesterday is just the tip of a giant iceberg on the part of the U.S. government (and its allies) to fight back against these (and future) non-conforming crusaders. After Snowden they mounted a multi-pronged (and multi-billion dollar) effort – including more internal surveillance and many administrative and systemic changes to information systems – to thwart “insider threats” from again extracting secrets. But the number of secrets had grown so big, and the number of insiders needed to churn through them equally had become so massive that they were not even able to police themselves. Even here, the government failed to control its own secrets, but is anyone saying (ironically other than Assange and Snowden themselves) that the secret keepers aren’t to be trusted to do their jobs?

Assange is not a scapegoat, not only, but an activated and in some ways very frightened national security establishment, is mounting its first overt salvo against the world of anti-secrecy activists.  Even while Donald Trump lauds WikiLeaks – if he actually does anymore or even understands what is happening – the professionals need to take matters into their own hands. And Assange, so intent on self-aggrandizement and driven crazy in his incarceration, is certainly the perfect villain for the system to rally round.

Is he guilty?  I’ve been asked many times in the last 24 hours. My answer is yes, on these narrow charges, just like any protestor resorting to civil disobedience is guilty. But I say, more important than whether he is guilty and odious as an individual, he is also symbol of a bigger sickness, where we all consume today’s episodes and avoid the deeper issues of secrecy and perpetual warfare. In my mind, the mainstream news media, in not doing its job better, especially on national security, contributes to a lack of basic government accountability. That increases the power of the national security establishment – the bringers of this expulsion, arrest and indictment – a now so powerful and faceless officialdom that they have a greater vote in how, where and when we fight than does the chief executive or the Congress. Or the people.

There will be more Assange’s, more Snowden’s, more Manning’s, more assaults on the system by those radicalized by their frustrations with this state of affairs.  The very people who serve as sources for my article are no different, and I applaud them. So I can’t also at the same time blithely condemn anti-secrecy activists and facilitators, not per se.

Is it possible that the news media itself is thus the key to greater security, not just in better reporting on national security but also in embracing these voices? I don’t think Julian Assange’s arrest is a direct assault on the First Amendment or the freedom of the press. But like the official system that has too many secrets and too much to do, so the news media has become overwhelmed and normalized, and neutered.

Untitled, on Julian Assange’s Arrest, written April 11, 2019

Julian Assange’s expulsion and arrest in London will set off a new set of dramas regarding the WikiLeaks’ founder, one that could eventually land him in an Alexandria, Virginia courthouse and a trial that could surprise even close observers of his now seven year drama.

This comes after the United States unsealed an indictment against Julian Assange on Thursday, alleging Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning.

In the new indictment, the U.S. alleges that in 2010 Assange assisted Manning in cracking a password to gain administrative access to secret networks and thus more documents, assistance that occurred after the Army Private stationed in Iraq had already supplied WikiLeaks with classified material relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“It was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States,” the indictment says.

According to legal and intelligence documents reviewed by the author and over a dozen interviews, including with three U.S. intelligence officials directly involved in WikiLeaks investigations and damage assessments, conspiracy is at the center of what the U.S. Justice Department is trying to prove. The official American government legal argument is that Assange and his colleagues are really running an intelligence operation, one that conspired with U.S. government employees by “suborning” them to break the law, and also clandestinely conspires with foreign governments – including Russia and China – in obtaining and trading classified government materials. This argument, officials say, skirts the difficult question of whether WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization, and is thereby entitled to the protection of press freedoms.

Though Assange is wanted in a British court for jumping bail in 2012, and has become infamous for his role in publishing stolen Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton-related emails in the run-up to the last presidential election, the almost ten-year old Manning case is also not at the center of the American legal effort.

The American case, which shifted completely in March 2017, is based up WikiLeaks’ publications of the so-called “Vault 7” documents, an extensive set of cyber espionage secrets of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Vault 7 was little noticed in the emerging Russian collusion scandal of the new Trump administration, but the nearly 10,000 CIA documents that WikiLeaks started publishing that March constituted an unprecedented breach, far more potentially damaging than anything the anti-secrecy website had ever done, according to numerous U.S. officials.

“There have been serious compromises – Manning and Snowden included – but until 2017, no one had laid a glove on the Agency in decades,” says a senior intelligence official who has been directly involved in the damage assessments.

“Then came Vault 7, almost the entire archive of the CIA’s own hacking group,” the official says. “The CIA went ballistic at the breach.” The official is referring to a little known CIA organization called the Center for Cyber Intelligence, a then unknown counterpart to the National Security Agency, and one that conducts and oversees the covert hacking efforts of the U.S. government.

A month after WikiLeaks released the Vault 7 documents, then CIA director Mike Pompeo blasted WikiLeaks in his first public speech.

“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is… a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” Pompeo said.

Pompeo’s reference to Russia led everyone to assume that the CIA director was referring to claims of collusion between Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks in publishing the Clinton-related material. But the fine print of his speech should have signaled that Pompeo’s ire had nothing to do with election meddling. That is, none of the Clinton materials were classified government secrets.

Pompeo also did not mention the obscure Vault 7 documents directly, nor any new grievance against WikiLeaks.

But he did indirectly refer to the March 2017 documents and the CIA breach.

“As a policy, we at CIA do not comment on the accuracy of purported intelligence documents posted online. In keeping with that policy, I will not specifically comment on the authenticity or provenance of recent disclosures,” he said.

Pompeo then went on to stress that the Agency did not break any American laws in its intelligence collection. According to the senior official, the Agency was still waiting for WikiLeaks to drop the other shoe, the actual “source code” behind hundreds of CIA cyber “exploits,” capabilities and actual penetrations of computer systems and the internet of things that allowed it to carry out its extensive covert spying on foreign governments but could also be used in domestic spying.

“Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom,” Pompeo went on to say. “They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.”

Pompeo was alluding to the new criminal case and theory that the U.S. government wants to prove that WikiLeaks isn’t a journalistic entity. And, according to the senior official and numerous Justice Department documents reviewed by the author, the U.S. government has been aggressively building this specific case by trying to establish that WikiLeaks solicited classified information from numerous government employees, which prosecutors believe should disqualify the organization from being afforded any journalistic privileges and immunities.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” former director Pompeo said. “It has encouraged its followers to find jobs at CIA in order to obtain intelligence. It directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information.”

Alexa O’Brien, the leading expert on the case, says that during Chelsea Manning’s Court Martial in 2013, prosecutors suggested indeed that Julian Assange had instructed the Army Private on how to crack the administrator password on her computer that connected to the SIPRNet, the secret-level internet protocol network of the U.S. government.

Manning was ultimately acquitted of espionage in the release of the Garani airstrike video, a May 4, 2009 airstrike in a village in Afghanistan that may have killed as many as 147 civilians. According to O’Brien’s meticulous reporting on the trial, that espionage charge was directly tied to U.S. Army prosecutors’ theory at trial that Manning was involved in a criminal conspiracy with WikiLeaks.

“Prosecutors in the Manning Court Martial made it clear that they were not prosecuting WikiLeaks,” O’Brien says. “But they also had chat logs between Manning and an anonymous WikiLeaks interlocutor that they said was Assange. In other words, they knew in 2010 all of what Assange was indicted for Thursday.”

According to a second senior official, now retired, but one who was also directly involved in damage assessments of Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks of highly classified material from the National Security Agency, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement have also been looking into whether the Hawaii-based contractor received coaching or assistance from a WikiLeaks employee in downloading his documents and in spiriting him to Hong Kong. WikiLeaks subsequently assisted Snowden in leaving China and flying to Moscow, dispatching one of its officers to accompany him. WikiLeaks, U.S. intelligence believes, negotiated with both the Chinese and Russian governments in moving Snowden, and some analysts believe that there was an exchange of information.

The senior intelligence official who was involved in the Vault 7 case says that prosecutors are also trying to establish whether Joshua Adam Schulte, a former CIA employee who has been indicted for transmitting the Vault 7 documents to WikiLeaks, negotiated or coordinated with the organization or received coaching on how to obtain and move the materials he purportedly stole.  Schulte was arrested in August 2017 and is awaiting trial.

Writing in The Washington Post in response to the Pompeo speech, Assange characterized the Vault 7 disclosures as “evidence of remarkable CIA incompetence and other shortcomings,” focusing on the CIA’s loss of control of the documents.  WikiLeaks had previously taken the CIA to task for losing control of its secrets, which it said “circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner.” Assange’s argument was that the documents could result in infection of “the public’s ubiquitous consumer products and automobiles with computer viruses.” Ignored was how WikiLeaks itself had obtained the material.

One aspect of the Vault 7 documents further obscured the scandal and muddied the waters in explaining the U.S. government’s accelerating case against WikiLeaks. After announcing “the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency” and referring to “several hundred million lines of [computer] code”, WikiLeaks never posted the full documents or the damaging codes. According to two U.S. intelligence officials, that certainly lessened the damage that might have been caused, even if U.S. intelligence at the same time sees some evidence that the source code leaked out in other ways, causing some U.S. adversaries to change their practices.

According to two government officials who have been involved in the now almost decade-old WikiLeaks case, a multinational investigation into potential illegality on the part of the organization goes back to early 2010. A Grand Jury began its work and the FBI, supported by the intelligence community and the governments of Australia and the UK (and then by Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands) began intensive collection of evidence. In 2015, the investigation took a turn towards Conspiracy and WikiLeaks as a potential intelligence agency when U.S. intelligence obtained information that WikiLeaks had obtained a collection of documents on Saudi Arabia from Russian intelligence. That was a year before WikiLeaks published any Clinton-related emails.

On Thursday, the UK Home Office said in a statement that Assange “was arrested in relation to a provisional extradition request from the United States.”

The ultimate fate of Julian Assange depends upon London’s agreement to extradite the Australian on Conspiracy charges. But looming behind the 2010 case is a far broader case, one that will ultimately touch upon the fate not just of Assange, but also that of Edward Snowden and the WikiLeaks organization itself.

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