Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, might soon be extradited to the U.S. after a British judge approved a U.S. government appeal and British Home Secretary Priti Patel seconded it.
The 50-year-old Australian and founder of the website that has been leaking classified U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic material for years, is facing up to 175 years behind bars for his role in the leaks.
The legal ordeal of Julian Assange
The U.S. Department of Justice has charged Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act.
The U.S. Department of Justice claims that Assange played a role in obtaining classified military, intelligence, and diplomatic documents. American prosecutors argue that the WikiLeaks founder assisted Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, in stealing classified military and diplomatic cables and emails that were later published by the website. Assange has steadfastly claimed that his actions were consistent with journalistic norms and that the First Amendment should protect him.
A previous British judge blocked the extradition over concerns about Assange’s mental health. But now another judge ruled that the U.S. government gave enough assurances to accommodate the WikiLeaks founder’s mental state.
The White House has promised their British counterparts that were Assange to be extradited to stand trial in the U.S., he wouldn’t be sent to ADX Florence, the country’s highest-security prison, and would be allowed to serve his sentence in Australia, his home country, if he so chooses.
Assange’s journey has been a colorful one. He sought political asylum and spent seven years confined in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London because he was facing charges of rape and sexual assault in Sweden as extradition loomed. Then, in November 2019, Stockholm dropped the charges, but Assange had already been arrested in April for skipping bail on a separate legal charge after the Ecuadorean government had expelled him.
WikiLeaks and Vault 7
WikiLeaks began by mainly leaking classified material pertaining to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the controversial website then started publishing unrelated material, including the emails of former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The U.S. intelligence community later concluded that the Russian intelligence services had provided WikiLeaks with the emails.
Then, in 2017, WikiLeaks went a step further and leaked thousands of pages of highly classified documents on U.S. cyber operations stolen from the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence. This leak became known as Vault 7.
Vault 7 included approximately 9,000 highly classified documents describing the CIA’s hacking tools and operations, including comprehensive descriptions of 35 such tools. The U.S. intelligence community assessed that between 180 gigabytes to 34 terabytes of information had been stolen. In Microsoft Word, that would translate to 11.6 million to 2.2 billion pages. The CIA called the Vault 7 leaks the largest data loss in its history.
According to an after-action report, the CIA hadn’t been aware of the Vault 7 breach, which occurred one year before WikiLeaks leaked the documents, and if it had been a state actor that had stolen the classified information, the U.S. intelligence community might still not have been aware of it.
The CIA had prioritized its offensive capabilities at the expense of ensuring that its cyber weapons were secure, going as far as to say that “day-to-day security practices had become woefully lax.”
“Most of our sensitive cyber weapons were not compartmented, users shared systems administrator-level passwords, there were no effective removable media controls, and historical data was available to users indefinitely,” the after-action report stated.
Journalist, publisher, or unwitting tool?
Retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, who served as both the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had described WikiLeaks as an agent of Moscow following the release of the now-infamous Vault 7.
“I’m now pretty close to the position that WikiLeaks is acting as an arm, as an agent of the Russian Federation. This is my making assumptions based upon what’s happened over the past year and what WikiLeaks has been doing,” Gen. Hayden had said. “They claim to be a transparency organization. I wish they would emphasize transparency in some of the world’s autocratic nations rather than one of the world’s great democracies.”
At some point, the U.S. intelligence community went as far as to declare WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” paving the way for more aggressive actions against the group. Earlier this year, Yahoo News published a story claiming that the U.S. had contemplated Assange’s kidnapping or even assassination.
“I think every intelligence service on the planet worth its weight is now going through these documents with great care to see what it is they have, they do, that makes them vulnerable to this suite of tactics, techniques procedures and tools that have now been made public,” Gen. Hayden had added.
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks didn’t say how they got access to Vault 7’s highly sensitive material and argued that the U.S. was using it to spy on citizens. The way in which they presented the leaks was that they are trying to work with manufacturers to address any vulnerabilities that might expose citizens to government surveillance—a similar argument to that of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor responsible for one of the biggest leaks of classified information in the U.S. history, 90 percent of which had nothing to do with the government spying on American citizens.
But the U.S. government rebutted stating that these hacking tools were legitimate means to collect foreign intelligence. Several recent instances have shown that China and Russia don’t shy away from using very similar cyber tools to attack public and private targets in the U.S. and abroad. In the case of China, such cyber warfare operations often have a sinister hew — for example, the collection of DNA.
The fact that WikiLeaks hasn’t leaked any Russian or Chinese material suggests that either Moscow and Beijing know how to keep their secrets or that there is a particular WikiLeaks bias against the U.S. and other Western countries. The former suggestion, however, doesn’t really hold when Bellingcat, a private open-source intelligence firm, has exposed Russian malicious activities time and again.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2021. It has been updated to reflect current events.