The CIA contends WikiLeaks is not a media organization but rather a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.” Response by the U.S. press to a report from The Atlantic on correspondence between WikiLeaks and Donald Trump Jr. wholly adopted the CIA’s narrative, even though the public still lacks proof of such cooperation.
Moreover, although The Atlantic report merely shows communications between a Trump campaign official and WikiLeaks, it was treated as significant confirmation of Russian collusion.
Former CIA director Leon Panetta appeared on CNN and said the correspondence was “another additional piece of evidence related to the activities of either [Trump] family members or members of his campaign working with the Russians in one way or another.” Panetta maintained there was no question WikiLeaks was a cutout for the Russian government.
“The basic message that should have gone out to all campaign individuals is do not interact with the Russians,” Panetta added, when asked what the Trump campaign should have done when contacted by WikiLeaks. “Do not interact with a foreign adversary that could very well come in and try to influence this election.”
“This is yet another level interest by the campaign in foreign assistance and not just any foreign assistance but foreign assistance tied to the Kremlin,” Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN.
When host Wolf Blitzer asked Schiff to be precise on the relationship between the Kremlin and WikiLeaks, Schiff answered, “Well, the Kremlin, well, was certainly using WikiLeaks to publish these documents. I think it gave them a certain level of deniability that the more direct cutouts like Guccifer 2.0 or DCLeaks that could be traced right back to the Kremlin would ultimately not provide them. But nonetheless, WikiLeaks is a sophisticated actor.”
“I fully believe that they knew exactly where they were getting this information about and were more than happy to coordinate with the Russians. I don’t think that this is an issue so much of they’re being useful idiots as opposed to witting participants. There is a division of opinion, I think, among members about just how witting or useful they were. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter was this was clearly one of the outlets the Russians were using for publication.”
Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, also appeared on CNN and stated, “WikiLeaks was basically a cutout. That is, everything that was exfiltrated from the DNC to the Clinton campaign was apparently passed on to WikiLeaks and WikiLeaks put it out. So this is pretty close to a direct connection.”
He conceded it is not publicly known “exactly what the cooperation/coordination was between Russia and WikiLeaks,” but argued this correspondence fit into a pattern of WikiLeaks aiding and abetting Russia’s attempts to favor one candidate over another in the election.
During “Anderson Cooper 360,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reminded viewers that he was not certain if WikiLeaks had wittingly collaborated with Russia, but later said, “It certainly has the appearance and smell and feel of a developing conspiracy” and the Trump campaign should have viewed WikiLeaks the same as CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Former deputy of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center Philip Mudd took a slightly different tack. “Let’s be clear: WikiLeaks published thousands of stolen U.S. government documents that were classified by the U.S. government.”
“Regardless of whether this is illegal, for the son of a U.S. candidate to willingly cooperate in a conversation with an organization that publishes stolen U.S. classified information is an ethical breach. He should never have done this regardless of whether it’s illegal,” Mudd suggested.
A day after the report, Samantha Vinograd, who was part of the National Security Council under Obama, took a massive leap on CNN. “This is a really good day for Vladimir Putin.”
She was responding to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony, but she also contended all the conversation about when Trump Jr. was or was not in contact with WikiLeaks “accomplishes Vladimir Putin’s goal of undermining confidence in our institutions.”
“It’s clear that Donald Trump Jr., for example, was in touch with an organization that Mike Pompeo has called a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service.’ That organization, the intelligence community agrees, received information from the Russian government. So it’s clear to me that Donald Trump Jr. was an intelligence target of the Russian services, and he fell for it.”
The incorporation of the CIA narrative into coverage was not unique to CNN. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow insisted this was an admission that Trump Jr. helped Russia’s allies distribute their stolen materials.
David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for the liberal Mother Jones, reacted, “More Trump-Russia collusion!”
Ed Krassenstein, an entrepreneur and journalist with over a half million followers on Twitter (who has “#ImpeachTrump” in his bio), wrote, “The Wikileaks Correspondence with Don Jr. confirms that Julian Assange & Wikileaks are agents of the Russian government & that they are not the ‘neutral’ party that many people make them out to be. This changes everything & reinforces the allegations that Trump colluded w/ Russia.”
But what The Atlantic report by Julia Ioffe shows is WikiLeaks recognized the Trump campaign could be useful to their goal of pushing out the release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Likewise, the Trump campaign recognized WikiLeaks may have some value because it was capable of being such a thorn in the side of Clinton and Democrats, which it had been since it published disclosures from Chelsea Manning in 2010.
At worst, it shows Trump Jr. ignored a warning on October 7 from U.S. security agencies because he continued to reply to WikiLeaks messages. However, the warning only said the disclosures were “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.” It was not an official report that rested upon conclusive evidence like the U.S. intelligence community report released in January.
That report did not prove WikiLeaks was wholly compromised by the Russian government. New York Times reporter Scott Shane wrote, “What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack. That is a significant omission.”
It claimed with “high confidence” the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU, which is Russian military intelligence, used the “Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release U.S. victim data” to WikiLeaks. Yet, it did not prove that WikiLeaks had any idea this material was coming from hackers tied to the Russians.
When Assange commented on the intelligence community’s assessment and called it “embarrassing,” he accused agencies of deliberately obscuring the timeline. He said they do not know when the Democratic National Committee was hacked.
“The U.S. intelligence community is not aware of when WikiLeaks obtained its material or when the sequencing of our material was done or how we obtained our material directly. So there seems to be a great fog in the connection to WikiLeaks,” Assange maintained.
There are several former intelligence professionals, a few with whistleblowing pasts, who have questioned the veracity of the report. Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector and ground intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, disputes the “theology” around the alleged Russian hacking.
Challenging officials like Schiff, Ritter contends, “There simply isn’t any hard data in the public domain to back up these statements of fact. What is known is that a persona using the name Guccifer 2.0 published documents said to be sourced from the DNC on several occasions starting from June 15, 2016. Guccifer 2.0 claims to have stolen these documents by perpetrating a cyber-penetration of the DNC server.
“However, the hacking methodology Guccifer 2.0 claims to have employed does not match the tools and techniques allegedly uncovered by the cybersecurity professionals from CrowdStrike when they investigated the DNC intrusion.”
Ritter also points out that malware at the center of allegations was “available on the open market, making it virtually impossible to make any attribution at all simply by looking at similarities in “tools and techniques.” Virtually anyone could have acquired these tools and used them” in the way they were deployed against the DNC. Plus, Russia would not have used an open source tool in its professional hacking, or “offensive intelligence,” operations.
The Nation Magazine was hammered for publishing a report based on conclusions by these former U.S. intelligence professionals that questioned the dominant narrative pushed aggressively by agencies, such as the CIA. To its credit, it stood by the publication saying it was “troubled by the paucity of serious public scrutiny of the January 2017 intelligence community assessment.”
“This official intelligence assessment has since led to what some call “Russiagate,” with charges and investigations of alleged collusion with the Kremlin, and, in turn, to what is now a major American domestic political crisis and an increasingly perilous state of US-Russia relations,” editor-in-chief Katrina Vanden Heuvel wrote. “To this day, however, the intelligence agencies that released this assessment have failed to provide the American people with any actual evidence substantiating their claims about how the DNC material was obtained or by whom. Astonishingly and often overlooked, the authors of the declassified ICA themselves admit that their ‘judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.'”
The narrative around WikiLeaks collaborating with Russia as an agent of the Kremlin remains one that lacks concrete evidence. Even officials, current and former, who comment on television, find themselves saying, “I believe,” not “I know,” or, “We know.”
There is so much hysteria around the Trump administration and the investigation into its connections with Russians or Russian intermediaries that there is little space for sober examinations of evidence to demonstrate what could be true and what could not possibly be the case no matter how much Americans want to believe Trump is a puppet of Putin so impeachment proceedings can start immediately.
The focus on an alleged Trump-Russia conspiracy that so far lacks the facts necessary to connect dots distracts attention from pressing issues of social, economic, racial, and environmental justice. It does as much if not more to embolden Putin because he can be pleased U.S. officials are still chasing trails of smoke in every which way imaginable. And to the extent that it demonizes an outfit that has published documents which reveal key truths about the inner workings of the U.S. government, this is a gift that keeps on giving to the national security state.
After all, WikiLeaks published a 2010 Red Cell memorandum from the CIA that analyzed the wide perception that the U.S. exports terrorism. It released a CIA report from 2009 that examined the effects of strikes against “high value targets.” In publishing over a half million U.S. diplomatic cables, it brought attention to the CIA’s use of diplomats to spy on officials from the United Nations.
There is a reason why the CIA sees WikiLeaks as “hostile.” WikiLeaks is largely opposed to the agency and consistently has exposed the organization to greater scrutiny. But that does not make it a Kremlin-backed outfit. It simply makes it an adversarial press operation that unlike many news organizations has no interest in protecting the interests of spy agencies.