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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 2 - After the publication of the Democratic Party emails, there was “zero debate” on the issue of whether the CIA would increase its spying on WikiLeaks
 
When WikiLeaks launched its website in December 2006, it was a nearly unprecedented model: Anyone anywhere could submit materials anonymously for publication. And they did, on topics ranging from secret fraternity rites to details of the U.S. government’s Guantánamo Bay detainee operations.

Yet Assange, the lanky Australian activist who led the organization, didn’t get much attention until 2010, when WikiLeaks released gun camera footage of a 2007 airstrike by U.S. Army helicopters in Baghdad that killed at least a dozen people, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two young children. The Pentagon had refused to release the dramatic video, but someone had provided it to WikiLeaks.

Later that year, WikiLeaks also published several caches of classified and sensitive U.S. government documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Assange was hailed in some circles as a hero and in others as a villain. For U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the question was how to deal with the group, which operated differently than typical news outlets. “The problem posed by WikiLeaks was, there wasn’t anything like it,” said a former intelligence official.

How to define WikiLeaks has long confounded everyone from government officials to press advocates. Some view it as an independent journalistic institution, while others have asserted it is a handmaiden to foreign spy services.

“They’re not a journalistic organization, they’re nowhere near it,” William Evanina, who retired as the U.S.’s top counterintelligence official in early 2021, told Yahoo News in an interview. Evanina declined to discuss specific U.S. proposals regarding Assange or WikiLeaks.

But the Obama administration, fearful of the consequences for press freedom — and chastened by the blowback from its own aggressive leak hunts — restricted investigations into Assange and WikiLeaks. “We were stagnated for years,” said Evanina. “There was a reticence in the Obama administration at a high level to allow agencies to engage in” certain kinds of intelligence collection against WikiLeaks, including signals and cyber operations, he said.

That began to change in 2013, when Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor, fled to Hong Kong with a massive trove of classified materials, some of which revealed that the U.S. government was illegally spying on Americans. WikiLeaks helped arrange Snowden’s escape to Russia from Hong Kong. A WikiLeaks editor also accompanied Snowden to Russia, staying with him during his 39-day enforced stay at a Moscow airport and living with him for three months after Russia granted Snowden asylum.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, the Obama administration allowed the intelligence community to prioritize collection on WikiLeaks, according to Evanina, now the CEO of the Evanina Group. Previously, if the FBI needed a search warrant to go into the group’s databases in the United States or wanted to use subpoena power or a national security letter to gain access to WikiLeaks-related financial records, “that wasn’t going to happen,” another former senior counterintelligence official said. “That changed after 2013.”

From that point onward, U.S. intelligence worked closely with friendly spy agencies to build a picture of WikiLeaks’ network of contacts “and tie it back to hostile state intelligence services,” Evanina said. The CIA assembled a group of analysts known unofficially as “the WikiLeaks team” in its Office of Transnational Issues, with a mission to examine the organization, according to a former agency official.

Still chafing at the limits in place, top intelligence officials lobbied the White House to redefine WikiLeaks — and some high-profile journalists — as “information brokers,” which would have opened up the use of more investigative tools against them, potentially paving the way for their prosecution, according to former officials. It “was a step in the direction of showing a court, if we got that far, that we were dealing with agents of a foreign power,” a former senior counterintelligence official said.

Among the journalists some U.S. officials wanted to designate as “information brokers” were Glenn Greenwald, then a columnist for the Guardian, and Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, who had both been instrumental in publishing documents provided by Snowden.

“Is WikiLeaks a journalistic outlet? Are Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald truly journalists?” the former official said. “We tried to change the definition of them, and I preached this to the White House, and got rejected.”

The Obama administration’s policy was, “If there’s published works out there, doesn’t matter the venue, then we have to treat them as First-Amendment-protected individuals,” the former senior counterintelligence official said. “There were some exceptions to that rule, but they were very, very, very few and far between.” WikiLeaks, the administration decided, did not fit that exception.

In a statement to Yahoo News, Poitras said reported attempts to classify herself, Greenwald and Assange as “information brokers” rather than journalists are “bone-chilling and a threat to journalists worldwide.”

“That the CIA also conspired to seek the rendition and extrajudicial assassination of Julian Assange is a state-sponsored crime against the press,” she added.

“I am not the least bit surprised that the CIA, a longtime authoritarian and antidemocratic institution, plotted to find a way to criminalize journalism and spy on and commit other acts of aggression against journalists,” Greenwald told Yahoo News.

By 2015, WikiLeaks was the subject of an intense debate over whether the organization should be targeted by law enforcement or spy agencies. Some argued that the FBI should have sole responsibility for investigating WikiLeaks, with no role for the CIA or the NSA. The Justice Department, in particular, was “very protective” of its authorities over whether to charge Assange and whether to treat WikiLeaks “like a media outlet,” said Robert Litt, the intelligence community’s senior lawyer during the Obama administration.

Then, in the summer of 2016, at the height of the presidential election season, came a seismic episode in the U.S. government’s evolving approach to WikiLeaks, when the website began publishing Democratic Party emails. The U.S. intelligence community later concluded the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU had hacked the emails.

In response to the leak, the NSA began surveilling the Twitter accounts of the suspected Russian intelligence operatives who were disseminating the leaked Democratic Party emails, according to a former CIA official. This collection revealed direct messages between the operatives, who went by the moniker Guccifer 2.0, and WikiLeaks’ Twitter account. Assange at the time steadfastly denied that the Russian government was the source for the emails, which were also published by mainstream news organizations.

Even so, Assange’s communication with the suspected operatives settled the matter for some U.S. officials. The events of 2016 “really crystallized” U.S. intelligence officials’ belief that the WikiLeaks founder “was acting in collusion with people who were using him to hurt the interests of the United States,” said Litt.

After the publication of the Democratic Party emails, there was “zero debate” on the issue of whether the CIA would increase its spying on WikiLeaks, said a former intelligence official. But there was still “sensitivity on how we would collect on them,” the former official added.

The CIA now considered people affiliated with WikiLeaks valid targets for various types of spying, including close-in technical collection — such as bugs — sometimes enabled by in-person espionage, and “remote operations,” meaning, among other things, the hacking of WikiLeaks members’ devices from afar, according to former intelligence officials.

The Obama administration’s view of WikiLeaks underwent what Evanina described as a “sea change” shortly before Donald Trump, helped in part by WikiLeaks’ release of Democratic campaign emails, won a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

As Trump’s national security team took their positions at the Justice Department and the CIA, officials wondered whether, despite his campaign trail declaration of “love” for WikiLeaks, Trump’s appointees would take a more hard-line view of the organization. They were not to be disappointed.

“There was a fundamental change on how [WikiLeaks was] viewed,” said a former senior counterintelligence official. When it came to prosecuting Assange — something the Obama administration had declined to do — the Trump White House had a different approach, said a former Justice Department official. “Nobody in that crew was going to be too broken up about the First Amendment issues.”

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