Assange Tried to Help Mitigate Damage From State Department Cable Leaks, Recording Suggests

Assange Tried to Help Mitigate Damage From State Department Cable Leaks, Recording Suggests
WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain, on Jan. 13, 2020. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)
Petr Svab

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange reached out to the U.S. Department of State in 2011 to help contain the release of the unredacted secret diplomatic cables. He urged the department to take steps to stop or at least slow the impending public release of the information, providing several possible ways to do so, according to his recently released phone call.

“We believe that within the next few days it will become public. … There may be some possibility to stop it,” he said in a call with a State Department lawyer released on Dec. 16 by Project Veritas, an undercover journalism nonprofit.

Wikileaks was releasing the cables itself at the time, working with journalists to first redact some sensitive information. A rogue Wikileaks employee, however, took the unredacted files and started spreading them on his own to journalists and possibly others, Assange said.

The danger was that some individuals mentioned by name in the cables could be endangered by the release.

"In case there are any individuals who haven't been warned ... they should be warned,” Assange advised.

Veritas said the 72-minute call took place on Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. The caller was identified by the operator as then-State Department attorney Cliff Johnson.

Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald reported at the time that Wikileaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg had a falling out with Assange in 2010 and was suspended. He took a collection of Wikileaks' data files with him when he left, including files that hadn’t yet been released at the time. Domscheit-Berg then founded his own disclosure organization, OpenLeaks, which has failed to produce original releases.

Assange told Johnson that the former employee, most likely referring to Domscheit-Berg, was trying to release the unredacted cables to show that Wikileaks can’t protect information in its possession and thus can’t be trusted by potential sources.

The person didn’t want to send the files to people directly but instead, only provided location of the files online and passwords for their decryption. The person was susceptible to reputational pressure and likely didn’t want to be directly held responsible for releasing the files and any potential harm the disclosure may have caused, Assange said.

The State Department thus had two courses of action, Assange suggested: Try to remove the encrypted files from the internet and try to dissuade the person from proceeding by publicly blaming him for putting people in harm’s way by facilitating the unredacted release.

Assange said he was willing to "encourage" an intermediary to give the State Department both the decryption password as well as the online locations of the files known to him. He said the department should call Wikileaks, make an appointment, and send somebody to pick up the information.

Johnson asked if it was fine to send someone the following week but Assange advised the department to send somebody immediately.

It’s not clear if the department took any of the steps Assange suggested. As the files became more and more broadly available, Wikileaks responded by releasing all 251,287 of the cables, unedited, on Sept. 1, 2011.

The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment and confirmation of the call’s authenticity.

Assange told Johnson that Wikileaks tried to delay the rogue release by publishing all the unclassified cables in one drop and thus diminishing the attractiveness of the rogue release.

Assange is currently fighting in a United Kingdom court an extradition request by American authorities, who have charged him with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and one of conspiracy to hack government computers. Prosecutors allege that Assange encouraged the stealing of national defense information, including classified information, and unlawfully obtained such information from Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, who leaked 750,000 classified or sensitive military and diplomatic documents, including the diplomatic cables.

Assange has argued he won’t get a fair trial in the United States.

Former congressman Dana Rohrabacher said in February that he tried to pitch to the White House a deal in which President Donald Trump would pardon Assange in exchange for Assange’s revealing who provided to Wikileaks in 2016 the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Rohrabacher said he spoke to Assange to whom he conveyed his willingness to make such a deal to then-Trump’s Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly in 2017. But he never heard back.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was appointed as special counsel to probe Russian interference in the 2016 election, alleged Russian intelligence officers hacked the email server.

Assange has repeatedly denied that Russia provided the emails. In one interview, he made a cryptic reference to DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was gunned down in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2016, in what police described as a robbery during which his valuables weren’t stolen.
Assange’s remark fueled speculation that Rich was the source of the DNC emails but Assange has never confirmed it. The FBI recently confirmed possession of tens of thousands of files from Rich’s computer.
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.