The FBI’s Role In the War on WikiLeaks

Defending Rights and Dissent project director Chip Gibbons catalogs the FBI's history of investigating Julian Assange and targeting WikiLeaks

The FBI’s Role In the War on WikiLeaks
Image from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and in the public domain.

The following was originally published as part of the Defending Rights & Dissent newsletter.

From shady Icelandic informants to bogus hacking investigations, the FBI has been targeting WikiLeaks for well over a decade.

On June 6, I reported on the FBI’s denial of Defending Rights and Dissent's request for all files mentioning and referencing WikiLeaks, one of several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests related to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange that we have filed.

Although the denial was not surprising, its timing was intriguing. The request had been open for years, and the FBI is certainly capable of stringing FOIA requestors along for even longer. Yet it came days after there was heightened scrutiny of the FBI’s investigation of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

After the FBI attempted to interview a former Assange ghostwriter, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the FBI had “reopened” its investigation. This characterization received pushback on the grounds that it was unlikely the FBI ever closed its investigation.

Given the speculation about the FBI, it feels like a good time to review what we do know about the FBI’s role in the war on WikiLeaks. It’s also important to remember that the FBI is not only a law enforcement agency. It is also a national security agency and intelligence agency.

Officially, the FBI describes itself as an “intelligence-driven and threat-focused national security organization with both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities. In addition to investigating violations of criminal law, the FBI can investigate threats to national security and collect foreign intelligence pursuant to an executive order.”

While it’s possible WikiLeaks could have come on the FBI’s radar earlier, we know that the FBI at the very least started looking at WikiLeaks after WikiLeaks published information about United States foreign policy that was given to them by whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

A Plane Full Of FBI Agents And Prosecutors Lands In Iceland

Manning was an active member of the US military and tried according to military law. While the Department of Defense (DOD) had jurisdiction over her, they did not have jurisdiction over any civilians.

In July 2010, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller announced the FBI was assisting the DOD in its investigation of the disclosures. A few days later an anonymous official told CNN that the FBI was probing whether any civilians assisted Manning, but declined to say whether Assange or WikiLeaks were targets. A later New York Times report on the FBI's investigation indicated they started gathering information on Assange and WikiLeaks in October 2010.

By December 2010, it was more than clear Assange and WikiLeaks were in the crosshairs of the FBI. The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice was trying to build a case against Assange by looking for evidence he aided Manning.

That same month the FBI sought access to the Twitter accounts of Manning, Assange, and Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic member of parliament who had been a supporter of WikiLeaks. The FBI’s subpoena indicated they were possibly looking for evidence that Jonsdottir had aided Manning.

The FBI’s investigation into Assange and WikiLeaks took a bizarre turn in 2011 when a plane full of FBI agents, as well as prosecutors from both New York and Virginia, landed in Iceland. The FBI agents entered Iceland under false pretenses, saying they were concerned about an imminent hacking threat to Iceland.

When Iceland’s Minister of Interior Ögmundur Jónasson learned the true reason for their presence was to investigate WikiLeaks, he expelled them from the country. (Jónasson has since explained his actions further, saying he believed the FBI was trying to “frame” Assange and WikiLeaks.)

It was during the FBI’s misadventures in Iceland that they began cultivating Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson as an informant. Thordarson has been convicted in Iceland of sex crimes involving minors, as well as financial fraud. Thordarson embezzled money from WikiLeaks, and an Icelandic court labeled him a sociopath.

In 2011, Thordarson apparently reached out to the US Embassy in Iceland offering to assist in the criminal case against WikiLeaks. It was this request that prompted the FBI to travel to Iceland under false pretenses. Following this meeting, Thordarson became a paid FBI informant within WikiLeaks. In 2019, Thordarson reached an immunity deal with the Justice Department (DOJ) in which he would provide evidence against Assange.

Various reporters, including Kevin Gosztola in his book Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange, indicate that this deal covered not just immunity from prosecution in the U.S., but that the U.S. would not share information about Thordarson’s crimes with Icelandic law enforcement.  In 2021, Thordarson told Icelandic newspaper Stundin that he had made up the allegations against Assange as part of this deal.

No Prosecutions, But Obama Still Allowed Investigations Into WikiLeaks

In 2011, the FBI also obtained court orders to access the Gmail accounts of WikiLeaks activists in Iceland. It would appear that the Icelandic investigative activity was centered out of the FBI’s New York field office. It pertained not to charges for publishing secret information, but alleged hacking.

According to the Washington Post, anonymous officials claimed prosecutors and FBI agents in Manhattan were close to bringing charges related to hacking, but senior officials put an end to their efforts in order to focus on the Espionage Act case centered in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Given the Obama administration's hostility to WikiLeaks (though officials were uneasy about pursuing a publisher under the Espionage Act), it seems odd that they would have shut down the investigation if it truly was likely to produce serious charges in order to focus on the Espionage Act investigation. After all, the Obama administration encouraged other countries to pursue criminal actions against Assange.

The fruits of this investigation resurfaced in the narrative section of the second superseding (or the third) indictment that the U.S. brought against Assange. This further indicated a lack of confidence in the Icelandic hacking narrative.

In 2013, the FBI confirmed to the New York Times that it had an ongoing investigation into Assange and WikiLeaks.  A 2015 court ruling pertaining to a FOIA request filed by Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) also revealed that the FBI and DOJ had an open multi-faceted investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks that involved the criminal and national security divisions at both the FBI and DOJ.

The FBI and other intelligence agencies ramped up their efforts against Assange and WikiLeaks in 2013 after WikiLeaks assisted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in his attempts to seek asylum. Snowden was not a WikiLeaks source, but WikiLeaks believed it was important to protect journalists' sources.

This incensed U.S. intelligence agencies. In 2014, both the FBI and the CIA demanded a meeting with President Barack Obama to argue that WikiLeaks and Assange should be treated as “information brokers” and not journalists, and thus exempt from stricter protections governing surveillance of media outlets.

At some point during the Obama administration, the FBI sent over a list of possible charges to Department of Justice officials. According to the New York Times, FBI counterintelligence agents believed charges were necessary to deter future publications.

The Obama administration decided against charging Assange. They believed it was simply impossible to prosecute WikiLeaks without setting a precedent that could be used against press freedom broadly. However, it appears that even after a decision was made not to prosecute there were “prosecutors in Northern Virginia [who] continued to explore ways to crack down on WikiLeaks.”

Prosecuting Assange Singled Out As A 'Top Priority'

The 2016 election ushered in a number of escalations in the war against WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks' role in publishing DNC emails made them a target of both Hillary Clinton supporters and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Nonetheless, Mueller declined to prosecute Assange as the First Amendment protected publishing the documents and the investigation was unable to turn up any evidence that WikiLeaks had participated in hacking or even knew thefts of the documents in question were ongoing.

Jeff Sessions, attorney general under President Donald Trump, was deeply hostile to Assange and WikiLeaks. The Trump administration also lacked the Obama administration's concern about setting a precedent against press freedom.

When in early 2017, WikiLeaks published new revelations about the CIA (known as "Vault 7"), Assange further incensed the intelligence community. The CIA pursued a number of disturbing and illegal plots against Assange.

Sessions also announced prosecuting Assange was a top priority. Individuals were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia. Media speculation during this time, especially after a sealed but unknown charge against Assange was accidentally revealed, focused on the potential that Assange could be indicted for something to do with the Mueller investigation or the Vault 7 publications.

Yet those called before the grand jury reported that they were asked questions about WikiLeaks publications in 2010. Ultimately, the charges brought against Assange stemmed from these publications, even though they had been rejected by Department of Justice officials in the past.

It is unclear why the FBI is now interested in talking to Assange’s ghostwriter. But since 2010, the FBI has continuously pursued Assange and WikiLeaks.

Like the rest of the US intelligence community, they have pursued this journalist with utter vindictiveness. Repeatedly, they pushed for charges against Assange. The latest actions are in line with known FBI conduct since October 2010.