In December 2011, two former members of Lulz Security, or LulzSec — a hacktivist group notorious for penetrating or disrupting a number of corporate and governmental targets like Fox.com, Sony Pictures, gaming websites and the CIA — were discussing a new friend and partner.
That contact, according to Hector Xavier Monsegur, writing under the fictitious name Leon Davidson, was WikiLeaks founder and CEO Julian Assange.
“Between you and me, I’ve been working a lot with the internals of WikiLeaks,” wrote Monsegur, who commonly went by the nickname “Sabu” — and who became infamous for becoming an FBI informant.
“Before lulzsec broke apart, they came to us to hack the entire government of iceland,” he continued, sending a message over encrypted chat service Jabber to fellow hacker Jeremy Hammond, who was later convicted in 2013 for hacking private intelligence firm Stratfor.
The chats appear to reveal a specific instance when Assange may have specifically solicited a crime — the theft of official documents from within the Icelandic government.
While the chat log references an apparent request made by Assange, it does not include any direct communication from the WikiLeaks founder.
Assange, who had gained notoriety for publishing hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables and Army reports revealing classified details about the Iraq War from Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning, has consistently shielded his work behind the First Amendment — while simultaneously selling his brand, on cellphone cases and mugs, as the “first intelligence agency of the people.”
The chat logs, part of a 100,000-page trove of documents currently in the Department of Justice’s possession, were obtained and published by independent national security journalist Emma Best on Thursday. Best tells Yahoo News the chats are part of the Justice Department’s sealed files, and which the department has verified across multiple sources, including Monsegur’s hard drives and WikiLeaks’ own devices.
“They have a fairly good idea of what Julian knew and when,” she told Yahoo News.
Neither the Justice Department, nor Assange’s attorney, Barry Pollack, immediately responded to a request for comment.
Also on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. government had a sealed indictment awaiting Assange — a revelation that was mistakenly revealed in an unrelated court transcript out of the Eastern District of Virginia, first discovered and shared on Twitter by Seamus Hughes, a counterterrorism researcher at George Washington University.
It’s unclear what those charges under seal might include, however, the chat transcripts could provide some clues.
While transparency advocates and First Amendment activists have consistently worried that Assange’s arrest and conviction would set a bad precedent for the media if Assange is charged with espionage for publishing classified documents, it’s possible the charges will have to do with his solicitation of those materials.
“I believe with a degree of confidence that any charges against Julian Assange originating from the EDVA likely include violations of the [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] and possibly allegations related to the soliciting of criminal acts,” wrote Andy Stepanian, a former consultant for WikiLeaks and co-founder of the Sparrow Project, a small public relations firm focused on transparency and freedom of information.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, enacted in 1986, makes it illegal to access or remove information from a digital device without permission.
Stepanian has consistently advocated that Assange be held accountable, particularly for allegations of sexual violence against women and his role in publishing hacked material from the Democratic National Committee, passed along by criminals who the U.S. intelligence community has concluded were agents of the Kremlin. However, the case against Assange for publishing classified documents or for acting as a co-conspirator to hackers may be difficult to prove.
“Journalists everywhere should be concerned” if Assange is accused of espionage for publishing classified documents, behavior many journalists routinely engage in,” Stepanian argued on Twitter.
And even if Assange is not charged as a publisher, but rather for aiding or soliciting hacks, “the sentencing guidelines associated with the law are so broad and draconian the accused can face decades for merely sharing hacked materials,” Stepanian wrote.
Because the reported charges against Assange were disclosed through an inadvertent court filing in the Eastern District of Virginia, there is no information about what conduct the charges relate to or what crimes are alleged. Whatever the content of the charges, however, evidence of collusion between WikiLeaks’ founder and hackers would make it hard for Assange to defend himself on First Amendment grounds.
“You always needed one more thing,” said Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department during the Obama administration, of the First Amendment issues involved with prosecuting figures like Assange, “not just publishing, but somehow working with the leaker in a way that was criminal.”
In 2011, authorities in Iceland launched their own investigation into WikiLeaks and the hackers.
Sabu, or Monsegur, resurfaces his work with WikiLeaks and Assange in a second chat log session in January 2012. “Is it out that we gave emails to WikiLeaks yet?” he asks Hammond, appearing to confirm that WikiLeaks’ request to steal information had been fulfilled.
“No,” replies Hammond, suggesting that they “wait to see what WL/JA think of all this first,” referring to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.
Monsegur continues to say he is waiting to hear from WikiLeaks on the Icelandic hacks they had requested, as he was “able to own islandics governments secretary [SIC].”
However, Assange had not received the material yet because his “assistant” who they refer to as “Q”, Sigurdur Thordarson, had been traveling. (Thordarson also later became an FBI informant.)
According to Best, who is in possession of the remainder of the chats, there “were other targets” of hacks.
There are multiple high-profile thefts of information the government is also interested in, including WikiLeaks’ publication in March 2017 of detailed descriptions of CIA hacking tools, which it titled “Vault 7.” One source familiar with the matter told Yahoo News that both the intelligence agencies and Justice Department, separated by a firewall, were both immediately interested in investigating WikiLeaks and Assange for that particularly painful disclosure, exposing CIA tools and potentially allowing criminals to imitate their techniques.
The theft and publication of secret hacking tools such as Vault 7 would be evaluated on the same legal basis as the publication of any other stolen information. “Classified is classified,” explains Miller, the former Justice Department spokesman.
The inadvertent court filing indicated that the reported charges against Assange were filed in the Eastern District of Virginia by prosecutors associated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in that district. The jurisdiction and the prosecutors involved indicate that it’s unlikely that the charges relate to the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and WikiLeaks’ role in publishing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
A prosecution for those activities would more likely be filed in Washington, D.C., where the affected Democratic National Committee servers were located, and brought by the special counsel’s office itself.
That said, it’s notable that this summer, federal prosecutors with the special counsel’s office included hints in the indictment of a group of Russian intelligence officials that they may also charge WikiLeaks and Assange as part of the underlying conspiracy to steal documents from the hacking victims.
The indictment, which refers to WikiLeaks as “Organization 1,” includes quotations from messages sent by WikiLeaks to the Russian intelligence team’s Guccifer 2.0 persona. “On or about June 22, 2016,” the prosecutors wrote, “Organization 1 sent a private message to Guccifer 2.0 to ‘[s]end any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.’” The bracketed text indicating Assange was asking for stolen material was added by the prosecutors.
The indictment also quotes a message from WikiLeaks that specifically seeks “anything [H]illary related” on an urgent basis “because the [Democratic National Convention] is approaching and she will solidify [B]ernie supporters behind her after.”
None of the messages included in the special counsel’s indictment are smoking gun evidence that Assange was in league with the Russians; however, they suggest federal prosecutors, who have appear to have access to communications between the Russian intelligence officials and WikiLeaks, are operating on that theory.
“I think the Special Counsel may have far more evidence than we’ve seen publicly about Assange’s cooperation with Russia on a number of matters over the years,” former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega said, pointing to a news article from 2017 as evidence for her suspicion. “When you combine that history and the evidence of active Hillary-related info, and view it through the lens of a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in the election, it’s no longer solely an Espionage Act violation that would raise issues of press freedom.”
For any indictment and prosecution of Assange to proceed, he would need to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he’s sought refuge since June 2012, and be brought to the United States. Ecuador’s new President Lenín Moreno has indicated he has become weary of his longtime guest, and may be more open to releasing him to British authorities.
CNN reported in late May that Assange’s status in the embassy was “in jeopardy,” a reality his lawyers have become increasingly worried about, particularly now that a sealed indictment has been revealed.
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