Federal prosecutors are weighing whether to bring criminal charges against members of the WikiLeaks organization, 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.
The Justice Department under President Barack Obama had decided not to charge WikiLeaks for revealing some of the government’s most sensitive secrets — concluding that doing so would be akin to prosecuting a news organization for publishing classified information. Justice Department leadership under President Trump, though, has indicated to prosecutors that it is open to taking another look at the case, which the Obama administration did not formally close.
It is not clear whether prosecutors are also looking at WikiLeaks’ role last year in publishing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which U.S. officials have said were hacked by the Russian government. Officials have said individuals “one step” removed from the Kremlin passed the stolen messages to WikiLeaks as part of a broader Russian plot to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Prosecutors in recent weeks have been drafting a memo that contemplates charges against members of the WikiLeaks organization, possibly including conspiracy, theft of government property or violating the Espionage Act, officials said. The memo, though, is not complete, and any charges against members of WikiLeaks, including founder Julian Assange, would need approval from the highest levels of the Justice Department.
The plan was always clear that in case of a Trump win, WikiLeaks would be formally outed as a Russian intel laundering operation, its usefulness over. That happened a week after the election.
Despite all the news being generated by the change of power under way in Washington, there is one story this week that deserves top priority: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. On Tuesday, the director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael Rogers, was asked about the WikiLeaks release of hacked information during the campaign, and he said, "This was a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect." He added, "This was not something that was done casually. This was not something that was done by chance. This was not a target that was selected purely arbitrarily."
Everything since then has been theater. The news that this turn of events was coming soon was foreshadowed last week when Trump's CIA Director openly called WikiLeaks a "hostile intelligence service."
Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo on Thursday denounced WikiLeaks as a "non-state hostile intelligence service," and he singled out Russia as one of the anti-secrecy organization's top collaborators. Pompeo is the latest top official in the Trump administration to note that Russia hacked into the emails of Democratic staffers with the intention of influencing the 2016 presidential election. Thousands of those emails were subsequently released by WikiLeaks. The intelligence community has concluded this operation was mounted with Vladimir Putin's approval and was done to benefit Donald Trump.
Pompeo's remarks were particularly striking because Trump praised WikiLeaks during the campaign and repeatedly referenced the emails it made public. In other words, Pompeo was saying that his boss encouraged an entity he now considers "hostile" to the United States. Trump has repeatedly referred to the Russia scandal as a hoax, yet Pompeo's comments are predicated on the assumption there is nothing hoax-y about the Russian attack on the 2016 campaign.
The very public plan now for Trump to go after Assange and company is all part of the game as well. After all, he can't be helping Trump if Trump wants him arrested, right?
The obvious play by WikiLeaks and Assange is to now drop everything they have on Trump and Russia and burn Trump to the ground. Maybe that actually happens, maybe Assange has a final card to play. But my guess is that when that magically doesn't happen, and Assange ends up in Moscow sharing a flat with Ed Snowden, don't be surprised.