Skip to main content

Kidnapping, assassination and a London shoot-out: Inside the CIA's secret war plans against WikiLeaks

Zach Dorfman, Sean D. Naylor and Michael Isikoff
 
Part 3 - The immediate question facing Pompeo and the CIA was how to hit back against WikiLeaks and Assange
 
On April 13, 2017, wearing a U.S. flag pin on the left lapel of his dark gray suit, Pompeo strode to the podium at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, to deliver to a standing-room-only crowd his first public remarks as Trump’s CIA director.

Rather than use the platform to give an overview of global challenges or to lay out any bureaucratic changes he was planning to make at the agency, Pompeo devoted much of his speech to the threat posed by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service and has encouraged its followers to find jobs at the CIA in order to obtain intelligence,” he said.

It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” he continued.

It had been barely five weeks since WikiLeaks had stunned the CIA when it announced it had obtained a massive tranche of files — which it dubbed “Vault 7” — from the CIA’s ultrasecret hacking division. Despite the CIA’s ramped up collection on WikiLeaks, the announcement came as a complete surprise to the agency, but as soon as the organization posted the first materials on its website, the CIA knew it was facing a catastrophe.

Vault 7 “hurt the agency to its core,” said a former CIA official. Agency officials “used to laugh about WikiLeaks,” mocking the State Department and the Pentagon for allowing so much material to escape their control.

Pompeo, apparently fearful of the president’s wrath, was initially reluctant to even brief the president on Vault 7, according to a former senior Trump administration official. “Don’t tell him, he doesn’t need to know,” Pompeo told one briefer, before being advised that the information was too critical and the president had to be informed, said the former official.

Irate senior FBI and NSA officials repeatedly demanded interagency meetings to determine the scope of the damage caused by Vault 7, according to another former national security official.

The NSA believed that, although the leak revealed only CIA hacking operations, it could also give countries like Russia or China clues about NSA targets and methods, said this former official.

Pompeo’s aggressive tone at CSIS reflected his “brash attitude,” said a former senior intelligence official. “He would want to push the limits as much as he could” during his tenure as CIA director, the former official said.

The Trump administration was sending more signals that it would no longer be bound by the Obama administration’s self-imposed restrictions regarding WikiLeaks. For some U.S. intelligence officials, this was a welcome change. “There was immense hostility to WikiLeaks in the beginning from the intelligence community,” said Litt.

Vault 7 prompted “a brand-new mindset with the administration for rethinking how to look at WikiLeaks as an adversarial actor,” Evanina said. “That was new, and it was refreshing for the intelligence community and the law enforcement community.” Updates on Assange were frequently included in Trump’s President’s Daily Brief, a top-secret document prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies that summarizes the day’s most critical national security issues, according to a former national security official.

The immediate question facing Pompeo and the CIA was how to hit back against WikiLeaks and Assange. Agency officials found the answer in a legal sleight of hand. Usually, for U.S. intelligence to secretly interfere with the activities of any foreign actor, the president must sign a document called a “finding” that authorizes such covert action, which must also be briefed to the House and Senate intelligence committees. In very sensitive cases, notification is limited to Congress’s so-called Gang of Eight — the four leaders of the House and Senate, plus the chairperson and ranking member of the two committees.

But there is an important carveout. Many of the same actions, if taken against another spy service, are considered “offensive counterintelligence” activities, which the CIA is allowed to conduct without getting a presidential finding or having to brief Congress, according to several former intelligence officials.

Often, the CIA makes these decisions internally, based on interpretations of so-called “common law” passed down in secret within the agency’s legal corps. “I don’t think people realize how much [the] CIA can do under offensive [counterintelligence] and how there is minimal oversight of it,” said a former official.

The difficulty in proving that WikiLeaks was operating at the direct behest of the Kremlin was a major factor behind the CIA’s move to designate the group as a hostile intelligence service, according to a former senior counterintelligence official. “There was a lot of legal debate on: Are they operating as a Russian agent?” said the former official. “It wasn’t clear they were, so the question was, can it be reframed on them being a hostile entity.

Intelligence community lawyers decided that it could. When Pompeo declared WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service,” he was neither speaking off the cuff nor repeating a phrase concocted by a CIA speechwriter. “That phrase was chosen advisedly and reflected the view of the administration,” a former Trump administration official said.

But Pompeo’s declaration surprised Litt, who had left his position as general counsel of the Office of the Director for National Intelligence less than three months previously. “Based on the information that I had seen, I thought he was out over his skis on that,” Litt said.

For many senior intelligence officials, however, Pompeo’s designation of WikiLeaks was a positive step. “We all agreed that WikiLeaks was a hostile intelligence organization and should be dealt with accordingly,” said a former senior CIA official.

Soon after the speech, Pompeo asked a small group of senior CIA officers to figure out “the art of the possible” when it came to WikiLeaks, said another former senior CIA official. “He said, ‘Nothing’s off limits, don’t self-censor yourself. I need operational ideas from you. I’ll worry about the lawyers in Washington.’” CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., sent messages directing CIA stations and bases worldwide to prioritize collection on WikiLeaks, according to the former senior agency official.

The CIA’s designation of WikiLeaks as a non-state hostile intelligence service enabled “the doubling down of efforts globally and domestically on collection” against the group, Evanina said. Those efforts included tracking the movements and communications of Assange and other top WikiLeaks figures by “tasking more on the tech side, recruiting more on the human side,” said another former senior counterintelligence official.

This was no easy task. WikiLeaks associates were “super-paranoid people,” and the CIA estimated that only a handful of individuals had access to the Vault 7 materials the agency wanted to retrieve, said a former intelligence official. Those individuals employed security measures that made obtaining the information difficult, including keeping it on encrypted drives that they either carried on their persons or locked in safes, according to former officials.

WikiLeaks claimed it had published only a fraction of the Vault 7 documents in its possession. So, what if U.S. intelligence found a tranche of those unpublished materials online? At the White House, officials began planning for that scenario. Could the United States launch a cyberattack on a server being used by WikiLeaks to house these documents?

Officials weren’t sure if the Defense Department had the authority to do so at the time, absent the president’s signature. Alternatively, they suggested, perhaps the CIA could carry out the same action under the agency’s offensive counterintelligence powers. After all, officials reasoned, the CIA would be erasing its own documents. However, U.S. spies never located a copy of the unpublished Vault 7 materials online, so the discussion was ultimately moot, according to a former national security official.

Nonetheless, the CIA had some successes. By mid-2017, U.S. spies had excellent intelligence on numerous WikiLeaks members and associates, not just on Assange, said former officials. This included what these individuals were saying and who they were saying it to, where they were traveling or going to be at a given date and time, and what platforms these individuals were communicating on, according to former officials.

U.S. spy agencies developed good intelligence on WikiLeaks associates’ “patterns of life,” particularly their travels within Europe, said a former national security official. U.S. intelligence was particularly keen on information documenting travel by WikiLeaks associates to Russia or countries in Russia’s orbit, according to the former official.

At the CIA, the new designation meant Assange and WikiLeaks would go from “a target of collection to a target of disruption,” said a former senior CIA official. Proposals began percolating upward within the CIA and the NSC to undertake various disruptive activities — the core of “offensive counterintelligence” — against WikiLeaks. These included paralyzing its digital infrastructure, disrupting its communications, provoking internal disputes within the organization by planting damaging information, and stealing WikiLeaks members’ electronic devices, according to three former officials.

Infiltrating the group, either with a real person or by inventing a cyber persona to gain the group’s confidence, was quickly dismissed as unlikely to succeed because the senior WikiLeaks figures were so security-conscious, according to former intelligence officials. Sowing discord within the group seemed an easier route to success, in part because “those guys hated each other and fought all the time,” a former intelligence official said.

But many of the other ideas were “not ready for prime time,” said the former intelligence official.

Some dude affiliated with WikiLeaks was moving around the world, and they wanted to go steal his computer because they thought he might have” Vault 7 files, said the former official.

The official was unable to identify that individual. But some of these proposals may have been eventually approved. In December 2020, a German hacker closely affiliated with WikiLeaks who assisted with the Vault 7 publications claimed that there had been an attempt to break into his apartment, which he had secured with an elaborate locking system. The hacker, Andy Müller-Maguhn, also said he had been tailed by mysterious figures and that his encrypted telephone had been bugged.

Asked whether the CIA had broken into WikiLeaks’ associates’ homes and stolen or wiped their hard drives, a former intelligence official declined to go into detail but said that “some actions were taken.”

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It has started: Big corporations institutionalize land-grab to control the global food production

globinfo freexchange   As we were writing back in 2014:                        Having secured the new labor force through fully automated machines, what has left for the dominant elite now, is to take all the resources. Big corporations are grabbing huge cultivable areas especially in the developing countries in order to control food production.  We have come now to the point where big corporations literally institutionalize land-grab to control the global food production.   As The Grayzone recently revealed [emphasis added]:  In June 2019, the office of UN General Secretary António Guterres, without previous discussion in the General Assembly or any other intergovernmental process, signed a strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum. [...] The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit was initiated through a partnership with the World Economic Forum, with limited participation of other UN bodies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization or the Committee on World Food Secu

Fifty years from Nixon's shock: The moment the gates of hell opened to release neoliberalism and financial capitalism

globinfo freexchange   Half century passed from Richard Nixon's economic reform. The "Nixon shock" included " the unilateral cancellation of the direct international convertibility of the United States dollar to gold. Although Nixon's actions did not formally abolish the existing Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange, the suspension of one of its key components effectively rendered the Bretton Woods system inoperative. While Nixon publicly stated his intention to resume direct convertibility of the dollar after reforms to the Bretton Woods system had been implemented, all attempts at reform proved unsuccessful. By 1973, the Bretton Woods system was replaced de facto by the current regime based on freely floating fiat currencies. "   And so, one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States opened the door to the domination of financial capitalism and the correlated destructive neoliberalism.    Two years after Nixon's s

Corruption in Britain - ‘City of London at Forefront of Tax Evasion & Money Laundering Industry’

Going Underground   Lord Prem Sikka discusses the neoliberal structural problems in the economy that neither the Labour or Conservative Party are willing to address, the privatisation by stealth of the National Health Service (NHS) and the subsequent decline of the NHS’ standard of healthcare provision, the government’s main priority being to provide tax cuts to corporations and the rich as the poor lose out, corporate and super-rich tax avoidance in Britain as the #PandoraPapers are leaked, the auditing industry and the government’s refusal to crack down on malpractice, the refusal of both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson to address income inequality and call for redistribution, ties between elected MPs and the financial sector, and how London is at the forefront of tax evasion and money laundering. 

US drone killed 10 Afghans including aid worker & 7 kids after water jugs were mistaken as bombs

Democracy Now!   Reporter Matthieu Aikins on how his investigation for The New York Times found an August 29 U.S. drone strike, which the Pentagon claimed targeted a facilitator with the militant group ISIS-K, actually killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children and Zemari Ahmadi, an Afghan engineer who had worked since 2006 for an American aid group.  A review of video evidence by the Times shows Zemari loading canisters of water at the charity’s office, after the Pentagon claimed surveillance video showed Zemari loading what they thought were explosives into a car at an unknown compound earlier in the day. “ We put together evidence that showed that what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves from the sky was, according to his co-workers and colleagues and video evidence, just an ordinary day for this aid worker, ” says Aikins.

How the Americans created the al-Qaeda myth prior to 9/11 attacks in order to invade Afghanistan and Iraq

globinfo freexchange   In his documentary The Power Of Nightmares , Adam Curtis gives the details of how the Americans essentially invented al-Qaeda and how the neocons re-emerged after the 9/11 attacks to exploit this myth.   The result was the devastating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:   For beyond his own small group, Bin Laden had no formal organization. Until the Americans invented one for him. In January 2001, a trial began in a Manhattan courtroom of four men accused of the embassy bombings in east Africa. But the Americans had also decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence. But to do this under American law, the prosecutors needed evidence of a criminal organization because, as with the Mafia, that would allow them to prosecute the head of the organization, even if he could not be linked directly to the crime. And the evidence for that organization was provided for them by an ex-associate of Bin Laden's called Jamal Al-Fadl.   The picture Al-Fadl drew for the Americans

Kidnapping, assassination and a London shoot-out: Inside the CIA's secret war plans against WikiLeaks

Zach Dorfman, Sean D. Naylor and Michael Isikoff   Part 1 - Some in the White House worried that the campaign against WikiLeaks would end up “weakening America”   In 2017, as Julian Assange began his fifth year holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, the CIA plotted to kidnap the WikiLeaks founder, spurring heated debate among Trump administration officials over the legality and practicality of such an operation. Some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration even discussed killing Assange, going so far as to request “sketches” or “options” for how to assassinate him. Discussions over kidnapping or killing Assange occurred “at the highest levels” of the Trump administration, said a former senior counterintelligence official. “There seemed to be no boundaries.” The conversations were part of an unprecedented CIA campaign directed against WikiLeaks and its founder. The agency’s multipronged plans also included extensive spying on WikiLeaks associates, sowing discord a

Iran at UN: ISIS would be Europe's neighbor if not for Iran, Syria, Iraq

Moderate Rebels   At the United Nations, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called US intervention " the biggest hindrance " to peace and stability, denouncing murderous American sanctions and the new cold war.  https://benjaminnorton.substack.com/p/iran-at-un-isis-would-be-europes  

BBC admits fake news, Syria did not gas its people

by New Worlds   Part 1   It was a lethal lie that killed thousands. BBC News last month was forced to admit the lies it spread and stood behind for three years: a BBC documentary video used all over the world, made in April 2018, showed children and civilians gasping and being chaotically hosed down, with an announcer narrating breathlessly that these were the horrors perpetrated by Syria's Assad government. It reported opposition witnesses alleging aerial drops of chemical weapons barrels that killed more than 40 people and injured hundreds more.  This video and narrative was quickly used by the United States, the United Kingdom and France to justify launching over a hundred missiles into Syria a week later without any evidence, just one day before an investigation by the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Why the hurry? In 2013, the UN inspector Carla del Ponte already came out in news video clips to say that investigation showed that it wasn't th

How US media misrepresent the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s laboratories and safety protocols

Even if we were to accept all the accusations against the WIV regarding their alleged subpar safety standards, none of it has any relevance to the Covid-19 pandemic unless it can be shown the WIV possessed SARS-CoV-2 in its lab before the outbreak, and there is no evidence of that.   by Joshua Cho    Part 2 - State Department cable a ‘nothing burger’   The claim that the WIV was conducting its experiments in substandard or unsafe working conditions started gaining mainstream acceptance when Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published an op-ed based on redacted State Department cables from 2018. Rogin claimed that the redacted cables were evidence of “safety issues” at the WIV:                                    Two years before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended the world, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky s

The dominant elite ready to break the "social contract"

Hyper-automation will allow the super-rich to “get rid” of the rest by system failure Since the French revolution and the new form of the urban states-democracies, the ruling class had to make the so-called "social contract" with the majority. From the moment that the dominant urban class took the power from feudalism and monarchy, should had to find a way to protect the means of production and the labor force. Therefore, the ethnic consciousness in each state served to bound the majority in order to shape national armies to protect the ruling class interests. In exchange, the ruling urban class had given the so-called social state, labor rights, etc., through the nation-state as a carrier and guarantor for all these benefits for the middle and lower classes. Since then, there have been a lot of battles and the majority managed to conquer some benefits. At the start of 20th century, the technology progress had brought the mass production. Western s