In a post today on Lawfare, A Hard Transparency Choice: What is WikiLeaks?, Carrie Cordero raises important questions about the approach of the US government to Wikileaks. Cordero points to the specific links that the Intelligence Community has drawn between the Russian government and Wikileaks, which are telling in themselves. However, she notes that IC officials have openly and publicly “called out” Wikileaks as “a non state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors, like Russia.”
As further revelations have been made about contacts between Julian Assange and individuals (such as Roger Stone) affiliated with the Trump campaign regarding the hacked Clinton campaign-related emails, the basis for the IC assessment of Wikileaks role remains largely hidden. As Cordero notes, the U.S. government has not ever confirmed publicly whether it has an open counterintelligence investigation of WikiLeaks, although the Washington Post reported last spring that “the FBI has spent years investigating WikiLeaks…” and continued to do so in the context of the exfiltration of sensitive CIA hacking tools. Cordero points out that
As a result, the U.S. intelligence community has made specific statements about WikiLeaks—without really saying what it is, who funds it, who controls it and how it obtains information it releases. This makes it difficult for the public to accurately understand how to interpret WikiLeaks’ activities and releases. The current approach also makes it difficult for consumers of information released by WikiLeaks, including but not limited to professional journalists, to understand whether they are reviewing information that has been released as a public service, or as an orchestrated effort intended to manipulate, which activities may be supported, conducted or encouraged by a foreign intelligence service.
If we assume that WikiLeaks is subject to a longstanding investigation, and that there is a possibility that it or its officials have exposure to criminal charges, it may be that the FBI, Justice Department, special counsel, or all three would strongly oppose any further public disclosure by the intelligence community regarding what WikiLeaks is or how it operates. Yet, if WikiLeaks is, as director Pompeo has said, a “nonstate, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors, like Russia,” then there is a competing interest favoring a release of meaningful information that supports the assessment, by the intelligence community through appropriate transparency processes that have been developed in recent years. If such a public disclosure can be made, consistent with the need to protect classified information and accommodating ongoing investigative prerogatives, this seems like the right time to make it.