Senior Trump administration and CIA officials in 2017 conspired to carry out a kidnapping against Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of the famous WikiLeaks website, according to an extensive Yahoo News investigation published last Sunday, September 26.
“This Yahoo News investigation, based on conversations with more than 30 former U.S. officials — eight of whom described details of the CIA’s proposals to abduct Assange — reveals for the first time one of the most contentious intelligence debates of the Trump presidency and exposes new details about the U.S. government’s war on WikiLeaks,” the investigative report reads. “It was a campaign spearheaded by Pompeo that bent important legal strictures, potentially jeopardized the Justice Department’s work toward prosecuting Assange, and risked a damaging episode in the United Kingdom, the United States’ closest ally.”
According to one of the sources consulted by Yahoo, the fury against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange by the CIA began when the website exposed the vault seven documents, some “extraordinarily sensitive CIA hacking tools”. The portal’s revelations were described by the Senate as “the largest data loss in CIA history.”
It was there when President Trump’s “newly installed CIA director, Mike Pompeo, was seeking revenge on WikiLeaks and Assange,” who at the time had been in the Ecuadorian embassy since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over denied rape allegations against him. A former Trump administration national security official said Pompeo and other senior CIA leaders “were completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7” and that’s why they wanted to hit back at the website no matter what the consequences.
That same fury by Pompeo and the CIA against WikiLeaks led the agency’s former director and also the former secretary of state to charge the website in public calling it a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” Those words were not simply a communications attack, but “opened the door for agency operatives to take far more aggressive actions, treating the organization as it does adversary spy services,” former intelligence officials told Yahoo.
Julian Assange, a delicately uncomfortable actor
The conspiracy between the CIA and some senior Trump administration officials to kidnap or assassinate Julian Assange did not happen overnight. The investigation explains the whole context and the discomfort that WikiLeaks generated for the American government from 2010 onwards, when the website published images coming from a gun camera showing an American military operation in Baghdad that killed twelve people, including journalists.
“Later that year, WikiLeaks also published several caches of classified and sensitive U.S. government documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Assange was hailed in some circles as a hero and in others as a villain. For U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the question was how to deal with the group, which operated differently than typical news outlets,” Yahoo explained.
“The problem posed by WikiLeaks was, there wasn’t anything like it,” a former intelligence official told the outlet.
The Obama administration, rather constrained by the notoriety of its “hunts” against leaks suffered by his administration, decided to curtail “investigations into Assange and WikiLeaks,” according to William Evanina, who does not consider WikiLeaks a journalistic organization and was the top U.S. counterintelligence official until he retired in early 2021.
Evanina spoke with Yahoo News and said that under the Democratic administration they were “stalled for years” in their efforts to gather information from WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. According to the former official, “There was a reticence in the Obama administration at a high level to allow agencies to engage” in intelligence work and data collection against WikiLeaks, “including signals and cyber operations,” the investigation reads.
That approach, according to Evanina himself, changed in 2013 “when Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor, fled to Hong Kong with a massive trove of classified materials, some of which revealed that the US government was illegally spying on Americans.”
The investigation reads that “WikiLeaks helped arrange Snowden’s escape to Russia from Hong Kong” and that was how “the Obama administration allowed the intelligence community to prioritize collection on WikiLeaks.”
As the CIA began gathering information against WikiLeaks, Evanina explained that the intelligence complex joined with like-minded spy agencies to build a picture of WikiLeaks’ network of contacts “and link it to hostile state intelligence services.”
That was a first step toward then proposing something even bolder. As former officials told Yahoo, while they were still “chafing at the limits in place, top intelligence officials lobbied the White House to redefine WikiLeaks — and some high-profile journalists — as “information brokers,” which would have opened up the use of more investigative tools against them, potentially paving the way for their prosecution.”
Among the communicators who would have been defined as “information brokers” by senior CIA officials under the Obama era were Glenn Greenwald, a well-known journalist and columnist in various media, and Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker. Both were very important at the time of releasing the documents provided by Snowden. The Obama administration, despite giving the green light to investigate WikiLeaks, did not want to go that far in what would be considered a violation of freedom of the press and a violation of the First Amendment.
“Then, in the summer of 2016, at the height of the presidential election season, came a seismic episode in the US government’s evolving approach to WikiLeaks, when the website began publishing Democratic Party emails. The US intelligence community later concluded the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU had hacked the emails,” the investigation reads.
From that email revelation, the Obama administration and Democrats began to take a much more troubling look at WikiLeaks, but Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 would push them away from the mainstream political stage.
Pompeo enters the game
Since former President Donald Trump had been sympathetic in his election campaign to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, some intelligence officials were worried that the “breakthrough” achieved internally by positioning the website and its founder as enemies of hostile intelligence services would collapse. But they didn’t have to worry about much, because CIA Director and later Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saw to it that the approach against WikiLeaks was further hardened.
In his first words as director of the agency, Pompeo said that “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service and has encouraged its followers to find jobs at the CIA in order to obtain intelligence” and that it should be treated that way. Only 5 weeks had passed since the publication of the Vault 7 files. The crisis within the CIA was gigantic, so much so that “FBI and NSA officials repeatedly demanded interagency meetings to determine the scope of the damage caused by Vault 7, according to another former national security official,” a former national security official told Yahoo.
In fact, “the NSA believed that, although the leak revealed only CIA hacking operations, it could also give countries like Russia or China clues about NSA targets and methods.”
Then, both intelligence officials and some senior Trump administration officials began working to operate against WikiLeaks, its members, and Julian Assange. But the intelligence operations, such as investigating potential members of the organization who might have copies of vault 7 that the CIA wanted to retrieve, began to look like a revenge obsession rather than a genuine concern for U.S. national security, sources consulted by Yahoo said.
“By the summer of 2017, the CIA’s proposals were setting off alarm bells at the National Security Council” the report read. “WikiLeaks was a complete obsession of Pompeo’s,” said a former Trump administration national security official. “After Vault 7, Pompeo and [Deputy CIA Director Gina] Haspel wanted vengeance on Assange.”
As many as four sources connected to the matter revealed to Yahoo that “at meetings between senior Trump administration officials after WikiLeaks started publishing the Vault 7 materials, Pompeo began discussing kidnapping Assange.” According to other former officials, “while the notion of kidnapping Assange preceded Pompeo’s arrival at Langley, the new director championed the proposals.”
According to the report, there were two kidnapping proposals, the first was to “proposed abducting Assange from the embassy and surreptitiously bringing him back to the United States via a third country — a process known as rendition.” The second was “a less extreme version” that implied “snatching Assange from the embassy and turning him over to British authorities.”
The action of kidnapping Julian Assange caused much concern within the Trump administration itself because it could generate serious diplomatic consequences – Assange is an Australian citizen, a US ally, and was in an embassy in the UK, Washington’s main ally – and because some National Security Council (NSC) officials considered such an operation to be illegal.
According to three sources in the report, “Some discussions even went beyond kidnapping. U.S. officials had also considered killing Assange. One of those officials said he was briefed on a spring 2017 meeting in which the president asked whether the CIA could assassinate Assange and provide him ‘options’ for how to do so.”
However, other sources in the story, who confirmed the kidnapping plan, said they had no knowledge of the assassination proposal. Yahoo itself said it could not confirm whether the assassination proposals reached the White House.
Donald Trump, unlike Mike Pompeo and the CIA who declined to comment, told Yahoo that the rumor that he asked for options to kill Assange “is totally false, it never happened.” In addition, he had words of solidarity with the founder of WikiLeaks: “In fact, I think he’s been treated very badly.”
While senior members of his administration conspired with the CIA to plan a kidnapping against Julian Assange, his own NSC lawyers were critical in keeping the CIA’s potentially illegal proposals from going forward.
“While people think the Trump administration didn’t believe in the rule of law, they had good lawyers who were paying attention to it,” said a former top intelligence official.
Harsh reactions against CIA and Trump administration officials
While the report reveals other relevant issues – such as a conflict between Russian and American-British intelligence over an alleged plan for Assange’s escape to Moscow, or a system of espionage by the CIA against important members of WikiLeaks – the most important reactions revolved around how the CIA planned to label journalists as “information brokers” and illegally kidnap in an allied country a critical and dangerous voice for the United States. The first in a Democratic administration, the second in a Republican one.
“You really have to read this entire, well-reported investigation to believe it. Truly appalling behavior by the CIA involving illegal kidnapping and assassination plans. The Biden admin needs to drop its charges against Assange immediately,” Trevor Timm, executive director of Freedom of the Press, tweeted.
“Great and very important report by three @YahooNews journalist on how CIA spent years plotting against WikiLeaks, including with plans to kidnap or even kill Assange. Mike Pompeo was the key driver. He has snowed many MAGA people: he’s pure Deep State,” reacted Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists involved in the CIA’s questionable plans, on Twitter.
“The reporting also uncovers a CIA plot under Obama —during the height of the Snowden reporting— to classify myself, Laura Poitras and Assange as “information brokers” rather than journalists to justify surveillance of us and even imprisonment, rejected by the Obama DOJ,” Greenwald added in another tweet.