Debunking ‘Russiagate’ smears against WikiLeaks

 Part 1

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have been the subject of numerous false, unfounded smears of connection to the Russian government, particularly in relation to WikiLeaks’ 2016 publication of DNC emails. In this brief we recount some of the most pervasive claims and correct the record. 

1. False Claim: Julian Assange’s source is the Russian government 

Julian Assange has a long-standing policy never to reveal his sources. However, in this case, he has stated that his source of the 2016 releases was not a state party. Regardless of the source, WikiLeaks will publish what it receives provided the material is verifiable and newsworthy. 

2. False Claim: WikiLeaks knowingly worked with Russian agents to publish the Democratic Party files in 2016 

This is not true, and it follows that no evidence has ever been presented in support of this claim. While this claim has appeared in certain media, it has not been made by senior US officials, who have often made key admissions concerning the lack of evidence about the alleged role of WikiLeaks. The Mueller indictment of 2018 accuses “organization 1” (widely believed to refer to WikiLeaks) of receiving from Guccifer 2.0 (which Mueller claims was a Russian front) and then publishing the Democratic Party documents.2 WikiLeaks itself has made no such claim. Moreover, WikiLeaks was not the initial publisher of materials obtained from the DNC and was one of numerous US and other media organisations which published material allegedly from Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks

  • Leaks allegedly provided by Guccifer 2.0 were published in at least 11 different media outlets, including the Washington Post, Politico, Buzzfeed and The Intercept.
  • Leaks allegedly provided by DCLeaks were published in at least 17 different media outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN and Forbes. (List) (Full filing)
  • The materials published by WikiLeaks were reprinted and/or covered in at least 23 different media outlets, including the BBC, NBC, ABC, The Guardian, Fox News and USA Today. (List) (Full filing)

Yet only WikiLeaks has been singled out for publishing truthful information that is of public interest. 

It is important to realize that the DNC case against WikiLeaks does not allege that Wikileaks had any advance knowledge of the hacking of servers or participated in any way in this or made any use of the materials beyond publishing them. Wikileaks has simply published available materials, like many other media outlets. 

To give some more examples, Guccifer 2.0 was in contact with various US media outlets which acknowledge it as the source of its material: 

  • The Intercept, for example, published an article on 9 October 2016 based on emails provided by Guccifer 2.0. 
  • The Smoking Gun published material directly provided to it by Guccifer 2.0 in an article published on 15 June 2016.
  • Gawker published a document in June 2016 forwarded to it by Guccifer 2.0 – an anti-Trump playbook compiled by the Democratic National Committee.

The Telegraph published a report on 17 June 2016 with a link to a disclosure of a 231-page report on Donald Trump; the article stated that Russian intelligence was being blamed for this hack from Guccifer 2.0. Similarly, Politico reported on Guccifer 2.0, linking to an article on 4 October 2016 in which Guccifer 2.0 reveals the results of its hacking into the Clinton Foundation. The Politico article noted, “Some cybersecurity experts believe Guccifer 2.0 is an invented identity that the Russian government is using to release files it obtains through hacking.”

One of the most notable conduits for Guccifer 2.0 material was The Hill (see below). Neither The Hill nor any other media organisations have been accused by Mueller or the US government even though the evidence against those organisations is far stronger in terms of contacts with, and publishing material from, Guccifer 2.0. 

The Hill’s direct sourcing from Guccifer 2.0 

The Hill is a top US political website operating out of Washington DC and is widely read among insiders in US policy-making circles. It was in contact with Guccifer 2.0 in 2016 and covered and cited its document releases, sometimes in exclusive leaks, while simultaneously suggesting that it was likely to be run by Russian intelligence. 

On 13 July, Guccifer 2.0 released a cache of DNC documents to The Hill. Its article noted

“The files provided by Guccifer 2.0 to The Hill includes [sic] a folder with a list of objectionable quotes from Palin and an archive of the former Alaska governor’s Twitter account assembled in 2011 — before Palin decided against running for president.”

The article stated that Guccifer 2.0’s “techniques bare the fingerprints of known Russian intelligence hacker groups.”

On 23 August 2016, The Hill cited documents “obtained by Guccifer 2.0 and exclusively leaked to The Hill.” These documents highlighted efforts by Democrats to prevent Mike Parrish from winning the party’s primary for a contested House seat in Pennsylvania. The same article stated, “Guccifer 2.0 is widely believed to be a cover identity for Russian intelligence, which many posit is trying to bolster Donald Trump’s bid for the White House.” The Hill tweeted a link to this article 10 times on 24 August 2016.

On 31August 2016, The Hill reported that Guccifer 2.0 had publicly released documents on the WordPress blog from Democratic Senator Nancy Pelosi which, it said, “were a small subset of a larger batch given exclusive to The Hill.” The article stated that US intelligence officials say that “Guccifer 2.0 is a cover identity for previously identified Russian hackers affiliated with the Kremlin.”

On 15 September 2016, an article in The Hill cited “documents from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leaked to The Hill by the hacker or hackers Guccifer 2.0” The Hill tweeted a link to this article 10 times on 15 and 16 September 2016, stating “Guccifer 2.0 leaks new documents on Dems in key battleground state.”

The Hill published this information after it reported that “Guccifer 2.0, who has claimed credit for the DNC hack, is widely thought to be a front for Russian intelligence agencies.”

There are numerous claims about Guccifer 2.0 in the Mueller indictment and US media which have been questioned or debunked by independent analysts. (E.g.)

3. False Claim: By publishing the 2016 files on the Democrats, Assange and WikiLeaks consciously manipulated the election to help Trump win 

WikiLeaks publishes material given to it, regardless of the source. It cannot publish material not given to it. Had it received material on the Trump campaign, it would have published this. Since publishing is what WikiLeaks does, to withhold the publication of information until after the election would have been to have favored one of the candidates above the public’s right to know. (More)

New York Times editor Dean Baquet said in an interview with the BBC in December 2016 that he would have published the DNC and Podesta emails had his paper obtained them. Even the Mueller indictment does not make any accusations that Russian efforts succeeded in influencing the election results.

4. False Claim: Assange and WikiLeaks colluded with Trump adviser Roger Stone to help Trump win the election 

WikiLeaks has had no contacts with Roger Stone (other than to publicly and privately refute the claim) and has issued several tweets highlighting that Stone was falsely claiming “contacts” or a “backchannel” to WikiLeaks.

5. False Claim: Assange and WikiLeaks do not criticise Putin or Russia 

WikiLeaks has published over 600,000 documented related to Russia and nearly 80,000 files mentioning Putin. In 2017, WikiLeaks released “Spy Files Russia”, a collection of documents on surveillance contractors in Russia, concerning domestic Russian spying. Edward Snowden responded to the publication by tweeting: “@WikiLeaks publishes details on Russia’s increasingly oppressive internet surveillance industry.” WikiLeaks would publish even more material on Russia if whistleblowers provided it with such material. 

WikiLeaks also published, in 2012, over two million documents from Syria, a close Russian ally, including on President Bashar al-Assad personally. That data set derives from 680 Syria-related entities or domain names, including those of the Ministries of Presidential Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Information, Transport and Culture. It includes 68,000 emails in Russian.

6. False Claim: A Russian plan to help Assange escape the embassy 

A Guardian story that was published in September 2018 is a fabrication. It headlined: “Russia’s secret plan to help Julian Assange escape from UK”, claiming that “Russian diplomats held secret talks in London last year with people close to Julian Assange to assess whether they could help him flee the UK.”

There was no secret plot involving Russia and no desire whatsoever on Julian Assange’s part to go to Moscow. Claims that Julian Assange or his legal team or anyone else acting on his behalf entered into negotiations with Russia, directly or indirectly, are false. As far as they are aware, no one at the Ecuadorian mission in London engaged in such discussions either, at any time. 

7. False Claim: Seeking a diplomatic post in Moscow 

In October 2018, the Associated Press published a report claiming to show that Julian Assange was being named by Ecuador as a political counsellor in the Ecuadorian embassy in Moscow. The strong implication in the report was that Assange wanted to go to Moscow. 

At no stage has Julian Assange ever sought or wanted to go to Moscow. He was appointed to the UK. Ecuador had unilaterally sought out states which might potentially accept Assange as a diplomat – up to 13 countries were approached. The negotiations and arrangements were undertaken unilaterally, without informing Assange. After Ecuador informed Assange’s lawyers of the possibilities, Assange requested that he be appointed to the UK and was appointed to the UK. Assange did not consider Russia as a possible destination.

8. False Claim: Assange applied for a Russian visa 

In September 2018, another Associated Press article, authored by the same person and widely reproduced in other media, also sought to link Assange to Russia. It published a document claiming to show that Assange applied for a Russian visa in November 2010.

Assange did not apply for such a visa at any time or author the document. The source is convicted document fabricator Sigurdur Thordarson who was sentenced to prison for fabricating documents impersonating Assange, multiple frauds and pedophilia. Thordarson distributed these documents to Scandinavian media outlets years ago and they found them to be untrustworthy. Thordarson volunteered to become an FBI informant for the purpose of conducting entrapment operations on Assange and WikiLeaks. 

The British government is in possession of Julian Assange’s passport, which Assange provided upon his arrest in December 2010. There is no Russian visa in his passport: if there had been, the UK authorities would have used this to argue against his bail. 

There is a further false claim: that Julian Assange actually obtained a Russian visa in 2011, which was reported by, for example, the New York Times. As noted, Julian Assange’s passport was seized in December 2010. Given that Assange never applied for a visa and the fact that the passport was already in UK custody, the claim is clearly bogus. 

9. False Claim: Assange has ties with the Kremlin 

Numerous mainstream media reports refer to Julian Assange’s “ties” or “links” to the “Kremlin.” In fact, Julian Assange has no ties or links to the Russian government. Some media have imputed a connection to Moscow simply because Assange has received at the Ecuadorian embassy a handful of Russian or non-Russian journalists who work in Russian media. These visitors have been among hundreds of people of all political persuasions who visited Assange at the embassy which have often involved giving interviews, and which have included Russian dissidents.

10. False Claim: Assange received Trump documents but did not publish them 

This is false. At the verification stage, preparations to publish Trump-related documents were halted when it became clear the documents had already been made public. This is independently confirmed by the “New York Times of Italy”, La Repubblica, which worked with WikiLeaks on the documents.    

What is really going on? 

A hostile environment is taking shape to make it easier to secure Assange’s extradition to the US. The false assertions about Assange and Russia have noticeably increased since early 2017. In March 2017, WikiLeaks published the biggest leak in CIA history, Vault 7, 42 after which an intensified multi-layered propaganda and diplomatic effort has been waged against Assange and WikiLeaks.