By designating WikiLeaks a spy outfit, the U.S. government has stacked the deck against Julian Assange and leveled an unprecedented threat against journalism
On April 13, 2017, Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, spoke at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, headquartered in Washington, D.C., in which he displayed his thirst for revenge against WikiLeaks. “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.
“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,” Pompeo jeered.
This was when the CIA first introduced the public to the conspiracy theory that would later make up the core of the Justice Department’s indictment against Assange in 2019.
“[WikiLeaks] directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information. And it overwhelmingly focuses on the United States while seeking support from anti-democratic countries and organizations,” Pompeo asserted.
“Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom. They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.”
Pompeo continued, “Assange is a narcissist who has created nothing of value. He relies on the dirty work of others to make himself famous. He is a fraud—a coward hiding behind a screen. And in Kansas [Pompeo had been a congressman from Kansas], we know something about false wizards.
“We’ve had administrations before that have been squeamish about going after these folks under some concept of this right to publish,” Pompeo said. Assange has “no First Amendment freedoms,” because “he is not a US citizen.”
The speech was emblematic of Pompeo’s zealousness, which stemmed from the embarrassing leak of Vault 7 materials, a cache of documents that described the CIA’s cyber warfare and hacking capabilities. It also foreshadowed the CIA’s “secret war plans” to kidnap or kill the WikiLeaks founder.
Yahoo News reporters Zach Dorfman, Sean Naylor, and Michael Isikoff spoke with more than thirty former US government officials in 2020. Their sources included officials who worked in the Trump administration.
According to their reporting, in 2013 the Obama administration permitted US intelligence agencies to spy on WikiLeaks. This occurred after WikiLeaks helped Snowden. Later, the CIA was granted renewed support for targeting WikiLeaks staff and alleged associates following the media organization’s publication of emails from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The Obama White House was lobbied by US intelligence officials to classify Assange, as well as journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, as “information brokers.” This would help the CIA pursue them as “agents of a foreign power.” (Greenwald and Poitras obtained NSA documents from Snowden.)
“Is WikiLeaks a journalistic outlet? Are Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald truly journalists?” one former official said to Yahoo News. “We tried to change the definition of them, and I preached this to the White House and got rejected.”
Another major revelation in the Yahoo News report involved a “carveout” that Pompeo and other CIA officials seized upon to avoid briefing Congress or the need for a presidential finding, which is typically required if the agency plans to “secretly interfere in the activities of any foreign actor.” By treating WikiLeaks as a rival spy service, they could mount “offensive counterintelligence” operations free of any oversight.
Pompeo allegedly proposed kidnapping Assange in the summer of 2017. He considered authorizing CIA agents to break into the Ecuador embassy in London to drag the WikiLeaks founder out and load him onto a rendition flight.
CIA officials allegedly approved a disruption campaign to attack WikiLeaks’ “digital infrastructure.” Agents had the green light to provoke “internal disputes within the organization by planting damaging information” and even steal the electronic devices of WikiLeaks staff.
“Agency executives requested and received ‘sketches’ of plans for killing Assange and other Europe-based WikiLeaks members who had access to Vault 7 materials, said a former intelligence official. There were discussions ‘on whether killing Assange was possible and whether it was legal,’ the former official said,” according to Yahoo News.
When Yahoo News sought comment from Pompeo, the former CIA director did not respond to requests. However, during an event at Hillsdale College following publication, a student questioned him. “Don’t believe everything you read in Yahoo News,” Pompeo replied, as he scratched his forehead nearly the same way Director of National Intelligence James Clapper did when he lied to senators about NSA warrantless surveillance.
Next, Pompeo appeared on conservative radio host Glenn Beck’s show and attacked Isikoff, who co-authored the report. He claimed the Yahoo News sources didn’t know what the CIA was doing. “I make no apologies,” Pompeo added, because there were “bad actors” who stole “really, really sensitive material.”
“I came to believe that [WikiLeaks was] one of the first non- state hostile intelligence entities. They weren’t engaged in even crappy reporting, like Isikoff does,” Pompeo said, which induced a belly laugh from Beck. “They were engaged in active efforts to steal secrets themselves and pay others to do the same.”
Days later, Pompeo went on the Megyn Kelly Show and contended the report made for “pretty good fiction.” This is “classic Isikoff.”
“I can’t say much about this other than—whoever these thirty people are who allegedly spoke with one of these reporters—they should all be prosecuted for speaking about classified activity inside the Central Intelligence Agency,” Pompeo declared. “Maybe they didn’t. Maybe Isikoff just made it up. But you should know I take seriously my responsibilities to protect that information.” He repeated the agency viewpoint that WikiLeaks was committed to stealing US secrets.
“There’s pieces of it that are true,” Pompeo later conceded. The CIA believed the DOJ had a “valid claim” to extradite Assange for a US trial. He said US law prohibits assassinations and scoffed at the idea that the CIA might have circumvented DOJ lawyers.
“Well, we know [the CIA] never acted on it because Julian Assange is still alive. The reporting is that there was a plot, you know, plans and sketches,” Kelly interjected. Pompeo replied with a non-denial answer, “We never conducted planning to violate U.S. laws, not once in my time.”
Pompeo’s dog barked loudly through the last minute of the interview. Even his dog could apparently tell he was being dishonest.
Days after Assange’s arrest, Pompeo infamously said during a Q&A session at Texas A&M University, “I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. We had entire training courses.” Former CIA director Michael Hayden, not WikiLeaks, also professed in Alex Gibney’s 2013 WikiLeaks documentary, “We steal secrets. We steal other nations’ secrets.” The Washington Post gave Assange a platform to respond to Pompeo’s scurrilous attack on WikiLeaks.
“When the director of the CIA, an unelected public servant, publicly demonizes a publisher such as WikiLeaks as a ‘fraud,’ ‘coward,’ and ‘enemy,’ it puts all journalists on notice, or should. Pompeo’s next talking point, unsupported by fact, that WikiLeaks is a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service,’ is a dagger aimed at Americans’ constitutional right to receive honest information about their government. This accusation mirrors attempts throughout history by bureaucrats seeking, and failing, to criminalize speech that reveals their own failings,” Assange declared.
“Pompeo liked WikiLeaks when he perceived it was publishing material revealing the shortcomings of his political rivals. It was only when our publications touched Pompeo’s rice bowl that WikiLeaks became his target. Pompeo subsequently deleted the tweet, but he is learning that in the digital age, the truth is hard to hide. You don’t get to love the truth one day and seek its suppression and the incarceration of its publisher the next.”
Assange continued, “The ‘Pompeo doctrine’ articulated in his speech ensnares all serious news and investigative human rights organizations, from ProPublica to Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch. The logic that WikiLeaks, or these organizations, are somehow ‘intelligence agencies’ would be as absurd as the suggestion that the CIA is a media outlet.
“Both journalists and intelligence agencies cultivate and protect sources, collect information and write reports, but the similarities end there. The world cannot afford, and the Constitution does not permit, a muzzle placed on the work that transparency organizations do to inform the American and global public,” Assange concluded.
In September 2017, Pompeo canceled a speech at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government because the school planned to honor Chelsea Manning as a “visiting fellow.” He called Manning an “American traitor.” Pompeo’s opposition, along with former CIA deputy director Mike Morell’s resignation from the school, pushed the university to rescind the honor.
The Yahoo News report on the CIA’s war against WikiLeaks contained revelations related to the improper pressure prosecutors faced. “Some National Security Council officials” in Trump’s administration “worried that the CIA’s proposals to kidnap Assange would not only be illegal but also might jeopardize the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder,” according to the report. “Concerned the CIA’s plans would derail a potential criminal case, the Justice Department expedited the drafting of charges against Assange to ensure that they were in place if he were brought to the United States.”
Discussions about putting Assange on a rendition flight alarmed senior administration officials like John Eisenberg, who was the top lawyer for the National Security Council, and his deputy, Michael Ellis.
“Pompeo [was] advocating things that are not likely to be legal,” including “rendition-type activity,” one former national security official told Yahoo News.
The DOJ had not indicted Assange, “even under seal.” If the CIA kidnapped Assange from the Ecuador embassy, they would be doing so without any “legal basis to try him in the United States.”
Eisenberg allegedly “urged Justice Department officials to accelerate their drafting of charges against Assange, in case the CIA’s rendition plans moved forward, according to former officials. The White House told Attorney General Jeff Sessions that if prosecutors had grounds to indict Assange they should hurry up and do so, according to a former senior administration official.”
Alarming actions by the CIA amounted to improper pressure on prosecutors to charge Assange.
The Yahoo News report was a rare example of journalism in the US press that brought much-needed attention to the political nature of the case against Assange. It also played a key role in rekindling interest among media outlets throughout the world.
More journalists remotely followed the US government’s appeal at the United Kingdom High Court of Justice, which took place in October 2021, than had followed most days of the extradition trial in September 2020. Media organizations were eager to hear the court’s and the Assange legal team’s reactions to allegations against the CIA.
One of the judges argued it was not “controversial” for the CIA to be “intensely interested” in Assange. Mark Summers QC, an attorney for Assange, believed the court failed to grasp the gravity of the issue. The scandal was not that the CIA took interest in someone who published their leaked documents. Rather, it was what agency officials allegedly plotted to do against Assange and the way that undermined the credibility of US diplomatic assurances related to how they would treat him.
The CIA never carried out any of the agency’s alleged assassination or kidnapping plans. The agency did, however, collaborate with a private Spanish company called Undercover Global that had been contracted by Ecuador to manage the London embassy’s security. The company helped the CIA further a disruption campaign against WikiLeaks, and Assange sued Undercover Global’s director in a Spanish criminal court.
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