When Julian Assange Testified before a Nation-State Investigation of a Suspected Spy…

Back on December 20, 2019, Julian Assange testified in a nation-state’s investigation of someone suspected of spying for another nation-state. He testified pursuant to international legal process that got challenged on jurisdictional grounds, but ultimately upheld. While El País provided a report of his testimony, the testimony itself was not open to the press.

As he testified, Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond sat in jail in Alexandria, VA, being held in contempt for refusing to testify, under a grant of immunity, in their own nation-state’s investigation of someone suspected of working with the intelligence services of another nation-state. Related charges are being challenged on jurisdictional issues. Manning, at least, claims she won’t testify because any hearing — like the one Assange testified in — would not be public. Tomorrow, prosecutors in EDVA will bring Manning before the grand jury again, in a third attempt to get her to testify before a hearing on Friday over her motion to be released based on an assertion the coercion of contempt will never bring her to testify.

This is just one irony about the way WikiLeaks supporters are treating the investigation of David Morales, the owner of a security contractor that provided the security for Ecuador’s embassy until 2018. Morales is accused of spying for the CIA — that is, spying for a third country’s intelligence service.

There are some problems or obvious alternative explanations for the accusations against Morales, but even assuming the allegations are true, there is little that separates what Morales would have done from what Assange did on at least one occasion: work as a willing participant in a third country’s intelligence service operation compromising the privacy of private citizens. Indeed, there are allegations of Russian involvement in two other WikiLeaks-related publications: there were Russians active in Stratfor hack chat rooms, and Joshua Schulte allegedly expressed an interest in Russian help (though the allegations are contradictory and post-date the initial leak to WikiLeaks, which I’ll return to).

You might argue that Morales’ surveillance of Assange — on whoever’s authority — constituted a far more serious privacy violation than those WikiLeaks has committed by publishing the private emails of John Podesta and the private information of Turkish, Saudi, and third party citizens. That might be true in first instance, but since some of the people exposed by WikiLeaks’ publications live in authoritarian countries, the secondary effects of WikiLeaks’ publication of details about private individuals might not be.

(I have heard, directly and indirectly, multiple consistent allegations about WikiLeaks itself engaging in practices that constitute privacy violations of the sort implicated by the surveillance of Assange, but it would take a law enforcement investigation to substantiate such claims, most of the affected parties would never want to involve law enforcement, and some investigations would be barred by privilege protections.)

Ultimately, though, Spain’s investigation into UC Global is the same thing the US investigation into WikiLeaks is: a properly predicated nation-state investigation into someone suspected of engaging in espionage-related activities with a foreign intelligence service. There are legitimate reasons why those who respect privacy might support both investigations.

WikiLeaks supporters might argue that it’s different because it’s the United States. That’s a perfectly justifiable stance, but if it’s the basis of supporting one investigation and another, should be admitted explicitly. WikiLeaks supporters might argue it’s different because Assange is the alleged victim, but that doesn’t change that there are victims (and not just spy agencies) that the US is trying to protect with its investigation.

Manning and Hammond say they are refusing to testify because they object to American grand jury practices. That amounts to civil disobedience, which is certainly their prerogative. They are paying a steep price for that civil disobedience (as both already paid with their decisions not to cooperate after pleading guilty). But when WikiLeaks supporters complain about the treatment Manning is suffering for her stance, they might think about the fact that — when it came to testifying in an equivalent inquiry — Julian Assange had none of the objections to testifying.

35 replies
  1. tvor_22 says:

    I know Assange has said that he wouldn’t have problems publishing materials sourced from foreign spies if it was in people’s/voter’s interests (not sure I even have a problem with it). I’m just interested to know if you know for sure that he knew for sure the source was Russia (assuming he had little confidence, as many did, in CrowdStrike/early IC claims)?

    And what of the other journalists who acted as cutouts (and still do for other suspected fronts) who were some of the first to point the finger at Russia, and who it can be assumed suspected there was that possibility yet still published unreleased tainted docs they received from G2?

    • P J Evans says:

      The catch is that bit about “in the people’s/voters’ interests”.
      Who decides what that is? Because what was released in 2016 wasn’t in the interests of anyone but the Russians and the GOP.

    • emptywheel says:

      When he made that comment, I increasingly suspect, he was signaling that he was sitting on the Vault 7 docs.

      As for his knowledge of Russian ties–it’s a fair question. I suspect he knew. But one way to figure that out is … to cooperate in a grand jury investigation.

      • Bella says:

        Where have the US Government prosecutors claimed Russian involvement in the 2010 Manning leaks (which they are currently trying to extradite Assange for)? Ditto, where/when did US DoJ claim Russian involvement in the Stratfor hack during its prosecution of Jeremy Hammond? Am I missing something?

        Also, didn’t DoJ confirm at some point that they are not going to prosecute Wikileaks for the DNC and Podesta ‘hacks’? I thought a US judge threw out the DNC’s case against Wikileaks, saying it was First Amendment-protected activity on Wikileaks’ part and there was no evidence whatsoever of anything illegal or connected to Russia on its part.

        [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please use the same username each time you comment so that community members get to know you. This is your second user name; your previous username was “Arbed.” Thanks. /~Rayne]

        • tvor_22 says:

          As far as Manning goes, I’m not sure they have, but there is a possibility. Assange was given a hash to crack by Manning. Assange mentions giving it to their ‘lm guy’ to have a go at (someone on his staff/one of his hacker friends with resources to crack ntlm passwords). If the hash ended up in the hands of Sigurdur Thordarson for instance, it might have been shared with the Anon hackers via him, or maybe even directly via Assange. Assange also mentioned having rainbow tables, and when Thordason flipped he gave the feds 8 hard drives. If there’s logs on those drives containing rainbow tables/logs Assange could really be up shit creek. If they shared the hash with the Anon hackers then there is a chance it ended up in the hands of state backed hackers. This is all speculation, and I’m hazy on who was involved at the time the hash was handed over in that period. But it is very possible.

  2. JonKnowsNothing says:

    Spying is a two way street with video on each end. If you run to the wrong cul de sac you will be snatched. Even if you run to what you think is the right one, it can still be the wrong one, because loyalties and allegiances change. What doesn’t change much are the claims about it.

    If Mr Assange is brought to the US for trial here, he will face the rules here or whatever rules we decide to use. We have a lot of them to chose from. It appears we will be getting a few more soon.

    • skua says:

      I find it hard to look past the torture of political prisoners, and the illegal assaults on detainees, by the US when considering Assange’s situation.

      Releasing him into the custody of a nation that has repeatedly demonstrated lawless and brutal treatment of detainees would seem irresponsible.

      • emptywheel says:

        Wouldn’t IDing people who will therefore be subject to much more violent torture also be irresponsible?

        • skua says:

          Yes it would.
          Is British justice ok with balancing irresponsibilities or does it have other more objective groundings?

          We’ll see.

          Having followed the case of the Aussie who was tortured and raped as part of Cheney’s performance of retribution, I don’t see the USA, especially with the current leadership, as being reliable in the administration of justice to Assange.

  3. Mathias the Younger says:

    “I’m just interested to know if you know for sure that he knew for sure the source was Russia’

    “Knowing for sure” is a high bar. ‘Should have known’, while still giving some wiggle room for Assange and Co., seems like a better question, and one with an obvious answer.

    And this is all assuming that Assange has even tried to keep up assemblance of plausible deniability on a personal/close friends-level, The latter of which I have heard no testimonials from.

    I suppose my question to you would be that how many hacks and info drops with suspect Russian connections have to happen before WikiLeaks and its defenders need to explain themselves?

    • Mathias the Younger says:

      Apologies, this was intended as a response to tvor_22 above, but apparently I occasionally forget how to use the internets

      • tvor_22 says:

        “I suppose my question to you would be that how many hacks and info drops with suspect Russian connections have to happen before WikiLeaks and its defenders need to explain themselves?”

        People are forever accusing others of being Russian stooges, yet numerous journalists have the same, if not more knowing and intense connections with Russian state sources. Numerous journalists continue to give voice to Phineas Fisher. One of the most vocal critics of Wikileaks-as-cutout-for-RU, Emma Best of ddosecrets, willingly acted as a cutout for G2’s NGP-VAN disinformation bomb, which went on to fuel the VIPS memo, and continues to act as a potential cutout, publishing info from Phineas Fisher (AKP hack attributed to Russians, NKWT2.0 took credit for hacking team, alluded to state APT knowledge and ‘dayjob’ in Fin’s hacking tutorial, used a pro Putin Avatar for a short period of time, etc). Does that make them pro Russian state, or a Russian stooges? Not IMHO.

        If we use the same ‘cutout’ lingo to imply pro-russian state asset where does the FBI come into things, who were controlling Hector, who was collaborating with hackers linked to NKWT2.0/etc (Russian State), and Redhack. What of Hammond, who collaborated with both Redhack and RU? And on and on.

        In each of these cases the people involved would have suspected (and continue to suspect) there is a good probability they were/are interacting with Russian state actors, but they did it anyway because for a brief moment in time a symbiotic relationship was established.

        As for Assange, due to his genuine victim complex combined by his ego+being a closet-megalomaniac, I personally think he sees himself in the same position as the Kurds–willing to use Russian help that can cause harm to his enemies. That does not make him ‘pro-Russian state’. Unfortunately for Assange, most sane people would view that justification by analogy [to the Kurds] as obscene and absurd.

        • tvor_22 says:

          Yet Assange and Wikileaks have chosen, not only disavow the Russian possibility, but to create and feed conspiracy theories. That is where the true vile nature of what Assange and Wikileaks supporters have done and continue to do. (Also, coordinating with Tump/Stone/Prince, etc, to drown out a Trump sexual assault confession tapes… I think everyone can agree life-long shaming for that little chapter.)

        • emptywheel says:

          Again, I think the nature of those contacts is the question. The govt will drag Manning before the grand jury today in an effort to find out that and other things.

  4. Rapier says:

    Manning’s release of Collateral Murder exhibited the futility of most whistle blowing. The inevitable denouement of the tale, leaving Manning tried and jailed, is the tale. A grand principled gesture meant to elicit questions of moral philosophy reduced in actuality to a minor melodrama. And archetype of a grand and futile gesture. Nobody gave a shit about Collateral Murders for more than a few minutes.
    At least that grand and futile gesture was about grand principals but this one isn’t. Now it’s certainly her right to engage in civil disobedience on behalf, in theory, of a jerk and spend long stretches of time in jail and so live a life that is dramatic but it isn’t going to do anyone else any good. Let me suggest it would be better to devote oneself to Quixotic ventures out here in the world. (God, do I sound like Scooter LIbby?)

    • bmaz says:

      Naw, you don’t sound like Scooter, but do make a very fair argument. And a correct one to my eye. It not only won’t do anybody else any good, the grand and futile gesture is antithetical to the entire justice system. I wish Manning a long and safe life at home and doing something useful. This is not it.

  5. unimportant says:

    >But when WikiLeaks supporters complain about the treatment Manning is suffering for her stance, they might think about the fact that — when it came to testifying in an equivalent inquiry — Julian Assange had none of the objections to testifying.

    I am neither a “Wikileaks supporter” or other mindless Assange apologist of any kind, but I can’t say I agree with the subtext of the article, which is that Assange is somehow a fraud or less principled than his peers because he gave testimony in court when Chelsea Manning is in prison for grand jury resistance. The problem with this comparison is that it does not take Manning’s reasoning for rejecting grand juries into consideration.

    >“I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been historically used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.” [1]

    Chelsea’s objections to providing grand jury testimony have two components: lack of transparency and, more importantly, the danger that it poses to other political dissidents. Chelsea Manning is not saying that she will never give testimony in court ever; she’s talking specifically about grand juries. Once could hardly argue that by providing testimony against UC Global, a mercenary surveillance firm that will spy on anybody for the right price and will apparently break the law to do so, Assange is risking the hides of political activists. Presumably, since we’re reading about the details of this testimony in El País, you can’t say that the testimony was given in secret, either. In other words, it is not at all comparable with grand jury testimony, and to call both hearings “equivalent” is problematic.

    [1] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/06/chelsea-manning-grand-jury-truth-democracy

    • bmaz says:

      “… when Chelsea Manning is in prison for grand jury resistance. The problem with this comparison is that it does not take Manning’s reasoning for rejecting grand juries into consideration.”

      First off, Manning is NOT in “prison”, she is in civil detention for contempt.

      Secondly, Manning’s “reasoning for rejecting grand juries” does not deserve “consideration”. Manning’s reasoning is asinine and ludicrous. Any other person that blithely blew off such a subpoena would be, and should be, detained for contempt, as should Manning. Her position is antithetical to one of the very pillars of law, both criminal and civil, i.e. compulsory process. If citizens can blithely blow off compulsory process, the entire legal system fails. Manning’s position is childish, ridiculous and in extreme bad faith.

    • emptywheel says:

      You’re asserting UC Global “will apparently break the law [to] spy on anybody for the right price.” That is, indeed, what is being investigated by an inquiry being conducted largely through secret depositions. But that has not been proven, in the same way that it has not been proven that WikiLeaks knowingly worked with Russia to violate the privacy of people who were convenient targets in a great game of power.
      Furthermore, grand jury sessions, like the deposition Assange gave, often get disclosed by those being questioned, just like happened with Assange.

      Grand juries in the US also expose people who are fairly awful criminals.

  6. JonKnowsNothing says:

    @Mr Bmaz


    First off, Manning is NOT in “prison”, she is in civil detention for contempt

    Would you be kind enough to explain the physical and functional difference between “prison” and “civil detention”?

    It appears that Ms Manning is held in a barred and walled area. That she has limited autonomy of movement, such as she cannot walk in the park, go to the zoo, or even a cinema. She gets her meals provided but cannot go to a restaurant or prepare her own food. If Hollywood movies are any indication, it’s also Lights Out* whenever that time is officially set. At this time, I believe she still has blankets and is not stripped naked for the morning roll call which may be a “prison” activity.

    Please enlighten us as to the difference? I didn’t know there was one. But then, as my handle indicates, I know nothing…

    *Lights Out meaning turning off the lights so that it is dark, generally done for sleeping. Not the game.
    ht tps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lights_Out_(game)
    (url fractured to prevent autorun)

  7. bmaz says:

    Prisons are actual prisons. It is where people who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison are sent. Manning has not been convicted of a crime. In fact, she has been given full immunity in both the civilian criminal justice system and military. She has no right whatsoever to refuse to testify upon subpoena. None.

    She has been found in civil contempt by the court for that refusal. The remedy is detention on the civil contempt until it is remedied or the grand jury term expires. Such people are detained in a jail. Yes, there are bars and all the lovely accoutrements that come with it. And that is exactly what she deserves. If she testifies, as she should, she will be released today. But that has been true every day she has been detained. It is all up to her. If she continues to refuse, the court could still terminate the detention and release her. But I hope not, if she refuses yet again, she should go right back to jail.

  8. JonKnowsNothing says:

    Thank you Mr Bmaz. A good explanation about the difference. Interesting to be sure.

    So, if Mz Manning testifies to “anything”, like “Did X Happen?”, why would anyone accept the answer? Of course if she answered false deliberately, that would be perjury(?) but why would any jury pay any attention at all? Would the prosecution be able to conceal her “lodging” or it’s “duration” and present her evidence as if “it fell from heaven, like manna”?

    I’m not sure that anything she would say, even if it were a cannon shot statement like: “The Prez knew. The Prez knew all along.”, to paraphrase the movie Page 8 (a bit dated now but still has great lines), would tick off any boxes for the prosecution.

    What do you think is their strategy?

    ht tps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Page_Eight
    (url fractured to prevent autorun)

    • bmaz says:

      I have some fairly reasoned supposition as to the EDVA strategy, but will leave that go for now. Whether or not the government wants to seek admissibility of whatever Manning would testify to in front of the grand jury is their problem. Whether they do, or not, and whether a trial jury (technical term is petit jury) would find it credible, or not, is irrelevant. Her duty is to go testify to the grand jury. The second she does she goes home, which would be a good thing.

  9. doug s says:

    “Prisons are actual prisons.” Unless you’re writing from personal experience you’d like to share, this statement is sanctimonious, farcical, way beyond absurd & not deserving of space on this site (as I remember it)..

    • bmaz says:

      Yes, I have been in an awful lot of them, in numerous state and federal jurisdictions and facilities. I practice criminal law for a living. So, unless you have better experience, or some factual argument to counter what I said, and there is zero chance you do, it is you that is farcical and absurd. Thanks for chiming in first time caller!

      Also, too, if prisons are not prisons, what exactly are they….widgets??

      • doug s says:

        You think a lawyer visiting prisons constitutes his knowing what it is to be in prison? And then you defensively ask how my actual experience might explain the silliness of that statement?
        For years & years EW’s been out front of so many stories, sharing research, analytics & perspective not easily found ANYWHERE. She’s among the Internet’s very best. I can’t recall one story I thought she “mailed in”. And, I was so upset by the Intercept experience I stopped visiting its site for months. She deserves better from you, that’s my opinion.

        • bmaz says:

          I explained the difference between prisons and jails, and civil detention in jails in response to someone who asked. And, yes, I think my time in criminal law and knowledge from having been inside of many different facilities gives me excellent experience to make such an explanation. And there is, indeed, such a distinction.

          I never at any time delved into “what it is to be in prison”. You disingenuously shifted the subject. And I call bullshit on you for doing so. If you want to gripe about quality of commentary, you should take a good long look in a mirror first. You have parachuted in here for exactly two comments, both to attack and demean me on this subject. It is almost like you have an agenda or something.

              • doug s says:

                WOW, so much power – to threaten a commenter for pointing out just one ridiculous comment you made? Did you learn about bullying from all your time in prisons? Grow up, maybe you’ll be happier for it.

                [doug: As a relative newcomer with only (4) comments under your belt, let me explain that we frown upon certain behaviors by commenters like ad hominem attacks on contributors, moderators, and/or commenters as well as behavior denying other commenters’ use of comment thread. More at this link. /~Rayne]

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