Courage our network

Threats

WikiLeaks’ disclosures have earned Julian Assange and WikiLeaks many awards and acclaim around the world, but publishing US secrets has also incurred the wrath and prosecutorial aggression of high-profile public officials. The threats have been ongoing from WikiLeaks’ publication in 2010 of secret US files on Iraq and Afghanistan until the present day – and have increased even further since the March 2017 publication of “Vault 7”.

US charges in place against Julian

In November 2018, US prosecutors inadvertently revealed that Julian has been charged under seal (i.e., confidentially) in the US – something which WikiLeaks and others have long said but which has been denied by some US officials. The document making the admission was written by Assistant US Attorney Kellen S Dwyer. The Wall Street Journal reported that “over the past year, US prosecutors have discussed several types of charges they could potentially bring against Mr. Assange”. It noted that charges against Julian could include violating the US Espionage Act, which criminalises releasing information regarding US national defence.

In response, the New York Times wrote:

“An indictment centering on the publication of information of public interest — even if it was obtained from Russian government hackers — would create a precedent with profound implications for press freedoms.”

The Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, wrote:

“Deeply troubling if the Trump administration, which has shown little regard for media freedom, would charge Assange for receiving from a government official and publishing classified information–exactly what journalists do all the time.”

In more detail, the document stated:

“Another procedure short of sealing will not adequately protect the needs of law enforcement at this time because, due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged…. The complaint, supporting affidavit, and arrest warrant as well as this motion and proposed order, would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.”

Increasing threats since Vault 7

Vault 7 consists of thousands of CIA documents describing sophisticated software tools and techniques used by the CIA to break into smartphones, computers and internet-connected televisions. It has been described as “the largest leak of CIA documents in history”. The leak prompted a range of senior US officials in the Trump Administration to issue threats to Wikileaks:

  • CIA director Mike Pompeo described Wikileaks in April 2017 as a “hostile non-state intelligence service”. A few months later, he termed it an “enormous threat” and stated that the US was “working to take down” the organisation.
  • US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, stated that arresting Julian Assange was a “priority” for the US.
  • Vice-President Mike Pence described the Vault 7 leak as “trafficking in national security information” and said that the administration would “use the full force of the law and resources of the United States to hold all of those to account that were involved”.

Trump’s DOJ charges

In an April 2017 address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CIA Director Mike Pompeo delivered an hysterical tirade of abuse against WikiLeaks, declaring not only that the organisation was a “hostile intelligence service” but also that Julian was “a darling of terrorists” and had aided Al Qaeda, adding: “we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us.”

Pompeo showed his additional hatred of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: “When Snowden absconded to the comfortable clutches of Russian intelligence, his treachery directly harmed a wide range of US intelligence and military operations. Despite what he claims, he is no whistleblower.”

Several media outlets have reported that the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice is considering charges to prosecute Julian and other WikiLeaks staff members. The Washington Post reported that US officials are “taking a second look at a 2010 leak of diplomatic cables and military documents and investigating whether the group bears criminal responsibility for the more recent revelation of sensitive CIA cyber-tools, according to people familiar with the case.” It added that prosecutors have been “drafting a memo possibly including conspiracy, theft of government property or violating the Espionage Act.” CNN reported that one of the key elements for investigators was related to WikiLeaks’ work assisting Edward Snowden.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump praised WikiLeaks for publishing documents from the Democrat party, even saying, “I love WikiLeaks”, encouraging it to leak more documents, and publicising the disclosures. In an interview after the charge announcement, however, Trump said that “it’s OK with” him if Assange is arrested. In 2010, Trump, commenting on WikiLeaks’ document releases, had said about Julian: “I think it’s disgraceful. I think there should be like death penalty or something”.

Similar threats, and US investigations into WikiLeaks, have been ongoing since 2010.

Banking Blockade

In 2010, following WikiLeaks’ publication of the Iraq and Afghan War Logs and State Department diplomatic cables, several major financial institutions, including Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union, refused to process donations to WikiLeaks, cutting off 95% of its revenue. The financial blockade against WikiLeaks is one of a number of strategies to try to take WikiLeaks down.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has openly criticised the extra-legal financial blockade against WikiLeaks, as have the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks since 2010

In November 2010, after Wikileaks released confidential US diplomatic cables on its website, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the US government had initiated an “active, ongoing criminal investigation” into the Wikileaks release. A “multi-subject” investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian has been in place since then. First reported in 2011, a secret “grand jury”, convened in Alexandria, Virginia, has been exploring ways to prosecute WikiLeaks and its staff for their publishing work, and looking at possible violations of the Espionage Act. The Grand Jury investigation remained open throughout Obama’s term, enabling the Trump Administration to take the next step and prepare charges against WikiLeaks members.

Various court submissions and official US statements have confirmed the investigation is ongoing. The documents published by WikiLeaks on the private intelligence firm, Stratfor, and allegedly provided by Courage beneficiary Jeremy Hammond, revealed the belief of the firm’s Vice President Fred Burton that the US has a “sealed indictment on Assange.” In December 2015, a court submission in the case of alleged WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning referenced a “sensitive, ongoing law enforcement proceeding into the WikiLeaks matter.”

In August 2016, WikiLeaks lawyers sent a letter to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch requesting that the investigation be closed. They wrote:

“The pending criminal investigation of Mr.Assange is plainly based on his newsgathering and reporting activities. WikiLeaks has published information out of a single overriding motivation: its belief that the information being published is newsworthy.… Under the circumstances, there is no legitimate basis for continuing the Department’s lengthy criminal investigation”.

Chelsea Manning case, 2013

When Chelsea (then, Bradley) Manning was revealed as the imprisoned source of the 2010 WikiLeaks releases, the issue of whistleblowers and leaking became a major focus of public debate. Manning was in 2013 convicted of several counts under the US Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was sentenced to 35 years in military prison, the longest ever penalty for a US leaker. At Manning’s trial, prosecutors attempted to portray Julian Assange as a conspirator who encouraged Chelsea to leak to WikiLeaks. Chelsea Manning’s sentence was commuted by President Obama in January 2017 and she was released.

Google Warrants

In January 2015, WikiLeaks revealed that three of its staff – Investigations editor Sarah Harrison, Section Editor Joseph Farrell and senior journalist and spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson – had received notice that Google had handed over all their emails and metadata to the US government on the back of alleged “conspiracy” and “espionage” warrants carrying up to 45 years in prison. Google had handed over the material to the government nearly three years before, in March 2012, without disclosing this to Wikileaks, in a secret search warrant issued by a federal judge.

The warrants revealed for the first time a clear list of the alleged offences the US government is trying to apply in its attempts to build a prosecution against Julian and other WikiLeaks staff. The crimes listed in the search warrant are:

  • Espionage: 18 U.S.C. § 793(d) – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • Conspiracy to commit espionage: 18 U.S.C. § 793(g) – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • The theft or conversion of property belonging to the United States government: 18 U.S.C. § 641 – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • Violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: 18 U.S.C. § 1030 – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • (general) Conspiracy: 18 U.S.C. § 371 – imprisonment up to 5 years

The US government is claiming universal jurisdiction to apply the Espionage Act, a general Conspiracy statute and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to journalists and publishers – a horrifying precedent for press freedom around the world. Once an offence is alleged in relation to a journalist or their source, the whole media organisation, by the nature of its work flow, can be targeted as an alleged “conspiracy”.

In response, then WikiLeaks lawyer, the late Michael Ratner, wrote to Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, demanding information about all materials Google provided to law enforcement, as well as an explanation for Google taking over two years to notify WikiLeaks of the search warrants or disclosure. It was reported that: “When it notified the WikiLeaks employees last month, Google said it had been unable to say anything about the warrants earlier as a gag order had been imposed. Google said the non-disclosure orders had subsequently been lifted, though it did not specify when.”

More Accusatory Public Statements Against Julian and WikiLeaks

Numerous prominent US public figures and officials have made comments against Julian and WikiLeaks, suggesting a climate open to prosecution — or worse.

Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden referred to Julian in 2010 as a “high-tech terrorist”. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell agreed with Biden, adding that Julian Assange “needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and if that becomes a problem, we need to change the law.” Similarly, after calling Julian a “terrorist”, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Julian “should be treated as an enemy combatant. WikiLeaks should be closed down permanently and decisively.”

US Senator Joe Lieberman has suggested that the New York Times should be potentially investigated for working with WikiLeaks in publishing the leaked documents. “To me the New York Times has committed at least an act of, at best, bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime is a matter of discussion for the Justice Department”.

On Fox News, commentator Bob Beckel suggested the United States assassinate Assange: “A dead man can’t leak stuff. This guy’s a traitor, he’s treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. And I’m not for the death penalty, so … there’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch”.