The timing of the recent CIA leaks fits well with Russia’s disinformation campaign aimed at sowing chaos within the United States via its proxy President Donald Trump. As #TrumpRussia heats up and hit the public eye, the logical counter-move within the Russian Intelligence playbook is to add another point of view to the discussion. The aim, as always, is never to definitively disprove direct Russian involvement, but rather to muddy the waters of discourse. At a time when American distrust in its government is at a high, bolstered by their Commander-in-Chief’s disillusion with his own Intelligence Community’s capabilities, casting a harsh light on the darker side of cyber-espionage is an expert level play. Wikileaks and Julian Assange allow the Russians just the right amount of plausible deniability to throw their stones.
A Short History of Assange
Wikileaks was established in 2006 as an international non-profit organization designed as a safe-haven for whistle-blowing and protected document leaking. Its self-described mission is “to bring important news and information to the public… One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth…. an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking. Since its founding, notable leaks include “Afghan War Diary”, “Collateral Murder”, US State department diplomatic cables, and the most recent CIA hacking tools. In 2013, Wikileaks assisted Edward Snowden in leaving Hong Kong after fleeing the United States.
Described as the “heart and soul of the operation”, Julian Assange is the founder and editor-in-chief of Wikileaks. For his work he has been awarded the Sam Adams Award and the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.
After WikiLeaks released the Manning material, US authorities began investigating WikiLeaks and Assange personally with a view to prosecuting them under the Espionage Act of 1917. In November 2010 US Attorney-General Eric Holder said there was “an active, ongoing criminal investigation” into WikiLeaks. It emerged from legal documents leaked over the ensuing months that Assange and others were being investigated by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. An email from an employee of intelligence consultancy Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (Stratfor) leaked in 2012 said, “We have a sealed indictment on Assange.” The US government denies the existence of such an indictment.
Assange visited Sweden in August 2010, where he became the subject of sexual assault allegations from two women with whom he had sex. He was questioned, the case was closed, and he was told he could leave the country. In November 2010, however, the case was re-opened by a special prosecutor who said she wanted to question Assange over two counts of sexual molestation, one count of unlawful coercion and one count of “lesser-degree rape” (mindre grov våldtäkt). Assange denied the allegations and said he was happy to face questions in Britain.
In 2010, the prosecutor said Swedish law prevented her from questioning anyone by video link or in the London embassy. In March 2015, after public criticism from other Swedish law practitioners, she changed her mind and agreed to interrogate Mr Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, with interviews finally beginning on 14 November 2016
On 19 June 2012, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño announced that Assange had applied for political asylum, that his government was considering the request, and that Assange was at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Assange and his supporters state he is concerned not about any proceedings in Sweden as such, but that his deportation to Sweden could lead to politically motivated deportation to the United States, where he could face severe penalties, up to the death sentence, for his activities related to WikiLeaks.
On 16 August 2012, Foreign Minister Patiño announced that Ecuador was granting Assange political asylum because of the threat represented by the United States secret investigation against him and several calls for assassination from many American politicians. He has remained there to this day.
Before we delve into how it is reasonable to assert that Julian Assange is a mouthpiece for Russian Intelligence, it is important to note that from here on is speculative. While we would not put pen-to-paper if there were not a sensible and reasonable narrative to communicate, the reader must know that Julian Assange has been granted political asylum by a sovereign nation, and that nation-states do not grant such a status unless there is a perceived reason to do so.
The Russian Coercion
While it is unclear whether Mr. Assange has always been a tool in Russia’s toolbox, or if he eventually became one, there is a tidy timeline of events that heavily suggest that he was coerced/compromised/bribed into becoming a Russian Intelligence Asset. Starting in 2010, we can follow this thread and conclude that Wikileaks has become a Russian-owned central repository for raw intelligence, as well as a propaganda and disinformation mechanism both via Russia’s control over what leaks and when and leveraging Wikileaks’ reputation as “the voice of the true free press”.
Note: This is not an authoritative timeline. Rather, we are highlighting collaboration with Russia, coercion of Snowden, and repeated examples of an anti-US/NATO focus.
26 October, 2010 – Wikileaks tweets that there is a major dump coming involving Russian information, of which Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson stated, “Russian readers will learn a lot about their country.” Assange told a major Moscow newspaper that “The Kremlin had better brace itself for a coming wave of WikiLeaks disclosures about Russia”.
November 1, 2010 – The FSB responds. While not an official statement, but still one made through Russian state-media: “It’s essential to remember that given the will and the relevant orders, [WikiLeaks] can be made inaccessible forever,” the anonymous official told the independent Russian news website LifeNews.
29 November, 2010 – Assange reneges on his prior statement, clarifying, “we have material on many businesses and governments, including in Russia. It’s not right to say there’s going to be a particular focus on Russia”.
8 December, 2010 – In a bizarre 180° change, a source within the office of then-President Dmitry Medvedev stated “Public and non-governmental organisations should think of how to help him. Maybe, nominate him as a Nobel Prize laureate.”
2011 – Assange/Wikileaks halts all negative press regarding Russia, a fact that has remained consistent to this day.
2011-Present – Wikileaks continues to focus on US and NATO countries with its leaks and negative press.
25 January, 2012 – A year after receiving his Russian visa, Julian Assange gets his own TV show on state-owned RT.
March 2012 – Edward Snowden, then working as a Dell contractor, is reassigned to an NSA information-sharing facility in Hawaii.
May 2012 – Ecuadorian President Correa appears on Assange’s TV show on RT.
July 2012 – Russian hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin compromises Formspring and Dropbox, harvesting user credentials using tools/techniques later found in Snowden’s stolen NSA data trove.
16 August 2012 – Assange is granted political asylum. Part of his accommodation requests involve a request for a security detail entirely consisting of Russian nationals. (link is in Spanish).
March 2013 – Edward Snowden gains employment with Booz Allen Hamilton supporting the same NSA facility in Hawaii.
4 April 2013 – The Chief and deputy of the FSB’s Cuba office meets with Ecuadorian Intelligence (SENAIN) in Quito, Ecuador. The leaked classified letter of credentials by the Russian Ambassador to Ecuador is held in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London among files marked “Assange”, where Assange resides.
5 April 2013 – Edward Snowden emails NSA Legal Counsel asking about legal authority.
April 2013 – Edward Snowden, through his own admission, steals classified NSA data, though this contradicts the fact that Nikulin used NSA TTPs a year earlier.
20 May, 2013 – Mr. Snowden flies to Hong Kong.
21 June, 2013 – The United States charges Snowden with espionage.
21 June, 2013 – After pressure from the US, President Correa revokes Snowden’s temporary travel document amid concerns Julian Assange is ‘running the show’
22 June, 2013 – Using an Ecuadorean travel document arranged by Julian Assange and London’s Ecuadorean consul, Snowden flies to Moscow. Wikileaks advises Snowden to stay in Russia.
24 June, 2013 – Reporters are told to expect Snowden on an Aeroflot flight to Cuba. He is expected to fly from Cuba to Ecuador where he will receive asylum. He remains in Moscow.
September, 2013 – Wikileaks publishes “Spy Files 3”, consisting of “the whereabouts of 20 chiefs of European surveillance technology companies, during the last year”
13 November, 2013 – Wikileaks publishes a complete draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Intellectual Property Rights chapter. Russia generally opposed the TPP.
10 June, 2015 – WikiLeaks published the complete draft on the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Transparency for Healthcare Annex, along with each country’s negotiating position.
23 June, 2015 – WikiLeaks published documents under the name of “Espionnage Élysée”, which showed that NSA spied on French government, including but not limited to the current President Francois Hollande and his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac
July, 2015 – WikiLeaks published documents which showed that the NSA had tapped the telephones of many German federal ministries, including that of the Chancellor Angela Merkel, for years since the 1990s
4 July, 2015 – WikiLeaks published documents which showed that 29 Brazilian government numbers were selected for secret espionage by the NSA. Among the targets there were also the President Dilma Rousseff, many assistants and advisors, her presidential jet and other key figures in the Brazilian government.
31 July, 2015 – WikiLeaks published secret intercepts and the related target list showing that the NSA spied on Japanese government, including the Cabinet and Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui. The documents revealed that US espionage against Japan concerned broad sections of communications about the US-Japan diplomatic relationship and Japan’s position on climate change issues, other than an extensive monitoring of the Japanese economy
29 July 2015 – WikiLeaks published a top secret letter from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) Ministerial Meeting in December 2013 which illustrated the position of negotiating countries on “state-owned enterprises” (SOEs), and the set of restrictions and regulations against them, aiming to favour the transnational corporations.
6 April, 2016 – Wikileaks accuses US of being behind Panama Papers, a leak that includes Vladimir Putin’s and other Russian oligarchs’ offshore accounts.
4 July, 2016 – WikiLeaks tweeted a link to a trove of emails sent or received by then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and released under the Freedom of Information Act.The link contained 1258 emails sent from Clinton’s personal mail server which were selected in terms of their relevance to the Iraq War and were apparently timed to precede the release of the UK government’s Iraq Inquiry report.
22 July 2016 – WikiLeaks released approximately 20,000 emails and 8,000 files sent from or received by Democratic National Committee (DNC) personnel. Some of the emails contained personal information of donors, including home addresses and Social Security numbers. Other emails appeared to criticize Bernie Sanders and showed apparent favouritism towards Clinton.
30 July, 2016 – Donald Trump goes after Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a Muslim Gold Star family whose son died in Iraq, after the couple gives a primetime address at the Democratic convention. “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” Mr Trump says in an interview with ABC News.
30 July, 2016 – Hours later, Wikileaks tweets that they have more content on the Clinton Campaign.
7 October, 2016 – Donald Trump’s infamous “grab her by the pussy” recording hits the news.
7 October, 2016 – Hours later, WikiLeaks started releasing series of emails and documents sent from or received by Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, including Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to banks. According to a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, “By dribbling these out every day WikiLeaks is proving they are nothing but a propaganda arm of the Kremlin with a political agenda doing Vladimir Putin‘s dirty work to help elect Donald Trump.”
29 December, 2016 – Department of Homeland Security releases declassified GRIZZLY STEPPE report, citing Russian compromise of DNC and Clinton systems.
29-30 December 2016 – Wikileaks deflects.
January 2017 – Wikileaks continues anti-Clinton campaign after the election.
16 February, 2017 – WikiLeaks released a purported report on CIA espionage orders (marked as NOFORN) for the 2012 French presidential election. The order called for details of party funding, internal rivalries and future attitudes toward the United States. The Associated Press noted that “the orders seemed to represent standard intelligence-gathering.”
7 March, 2017 – WikiLeaks published content code-named “Vault7” Year Zero . In a series of tweets and a Facebook Live + Periscope press conference, WikiLeaks announced these documents contain CIA internal documentation of their “massive arsenal” of hacking tools including malware, viruses trojects, weaponized “zero day” exploits and remote control systems to name a few.
The events surrounding Assange and Wikileaks between 2010 and culminating in Snowden’s arrival in Russia heavily suggest RIS coercion and Assange compliance at that time. Between 2013 and now, the seemingly focused targeting of US and NATO countries by Wikileaks and the absence of any coverage of well-known corruption within Russia is suspicious at best. One might surmise that Wikileaks as a platform was being heavily leveraged by Russian Intelligence to influence foreign opinion and push Russian interests. The fact that the CIA breach was known in late 2016 but not released until the heat of #TrumpRussia was at a high suggests Wikileaks’ claim of clear and unfiltered information dissemination is a false one. The timing heavily suggests curation and warrants deeper analysis.
Vault 7 is a series of documents that WikiLeaks began to release on 7 March 2017, that detail activities of the United States Central Intelligence Agency to perform electronic surveillance and cyber warfare. The files, dated from 2013–2016, include details on the agency’s software capabilities, such as the ability to compromise smart TVs, web browsers (including Firefox, Google Chrome, and Microsoft Edge), and the operating systems of most smartphones (including Apple‘s iOS and Google‘s Android), as well as other operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, macOS, and Linux.
On its face, this seems to align with Wikileaks’ usual MO. Receive documents, leak documents, and let the chips fall where they may. However, when viewed through the lens of a Russian dezinformatsiya campaign, the timing is again curious, especially when aligned with how Russian media immediately began covering the leaks.
The same day as the announcement of the Vault 7 leaks, Russian government news agency Sputnik published an article about CIA methodologies regarding mirroring the known TTPs of other nation-states, with the intent of misattributing attacks and obfuscating their true source.
The same day, “crowdfunded citizen journalism” (though widely criticized for its Pro-Russia reporting) Russia-Insider published a nearly identical article, focusing on the assertion that “digital fingerprints are meaningless”.
The same day, Russian state-owned media giant RT publishes the same narrative.
While the arguable majority of these leaks focus on CIA hacking tools and techniques, this focus on the CIA’s ability to misattribute attacks is notable. Of course, anyone with half a brain can draw a conclusion from this information:
Looks coordinated, no?
This parallels the narrative pushed by Trump and his Russian handlers that sows distrust in the US Intelligence Community, pushes the conspiracy of “The Deep State”, and the insistence that Donny’s hands are clean and the swamp is out to get him.
The allegation that the CIA would have framed Russia for the DNC hacks with the eventual intent of taking down Trump for his collusion with the Kremlin is hardly based in fact. However, that will not matter to those still dedicated to the Trump Regime. Essentially, the assertion is one of two things:
1. The CIA hacked the DNC, posing as Russia, and did not tell any other agency within the IC, assuming that Trump would win the election so they could have leverage over him later. DHS, FBI, DOJ, and others are later embarrassed that they falsely pinned everything on Russia.
2. The CIA hacked the DNC, posing as Russia, and the other 16 agencies within the IC knew about it, because they were all in it together to take down Trump. Because they had a feeling he would win. Or something.
As always, the end goal of Russian dezinformatsiya is pure game theory. Any outcome from this move is still favorable to Russian interests. Considering sanctions are already in place and Russia has regained the title of “international villain” among the US/EU community, there is not much less to lose. Even when Trump is impeached, perhaps arrested and charged, Russia has still achieved its goal of igniting chaos in the American homeland.
Perhaps what is most fascinating is how much the Right now sounds like the Left did during the Snowden leaks:
At this point, it is a safe assumption that Wikileaks and Julian Assange are most likely under the control of the Kremlin. It is now a tool in Russia’s arsenal in its current campaign to undermine and sow discord within the United States under the cover of a self-described freedom fighter dedicated to open and honest transparency in government. Irony.
While Russia was building its disinformation and cyber-operations infrastructure for this particular campaign against the US and NATO, it was actively grooming Trump for his run at the 2016 Presidency. As the smoke of the #TrumpRussia conspiracy gradually evolves into fire, Russia, through Wikileaks/Assange, could still sow discontent and distrust in the US Intelligence Community; an institution that has been and will continue to be pivotal in the investigation of Trump into his Russian ties.
We are witnessing history. This will be studied for years.