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DOJ’s Ex Parte Classified Plans for Joshua Schulte — and Maybe, Julian Assange

Update: The High Court has overturned Baraitser’s ruling, finding that the US should have had an opportunity to give the assurances it has since given that Assange will not be subjected to solitary confinement. I expect Assange will appeal immediately.

Per a tweet from Stella Morris, the decision in the appeal of a Vanessa Baraitser’s decision denying the US extradition request for Julian Assange on humanitarian grounds will be announced Friday at 10:15 GMT. Because of something that happened in the High Court extradition hearing, I want to point to some things that happened in the Joshua Schulte docket in recent months.

On August 5, DOJ filed notice of an ex parte classified status letter in the Schulte case.

The Government respectfully submits this letter to provide notice of an ex parte, classified status letter submitted yesterday.

By filing an ex parte classified status letter, the government would have informed the judge (then Paul Crotty but the case has since been reassigned to Judge Jesse Furman) something about the case, without sharing it with Schulte or the public. The letter would have been filed five years to the day after the start date, August 4, 2016, for searches DOJ has described that Schulte did on WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and (as described elsewhere) Shadow Brokers.

In addition to the numerous searches for “wikileaks” which commenced on August 4, 2016, SCHULTE also conducted multiple related Searches, including: prior to the March 7, 2017 release of the Classified Information, “assange” (Julian Assange is the founder and “editor-in-chief’ of WikiLeaks.org), “snowden its time,” “wikileaks code,” and “wikileaks 2017”-and after the March 7, 2017 release of the Classified Information, “wikileaks public opinion,” and “officials were aware before the WikiLeaks release of a loss of sensitive information.”

On September 23, the government wrote a letter to Judge Crotty, voicing its support for adjourning Schulte’s trial date — which at that point was scheduled for October 25, two days before Assange’s extradition hearing — and revisiting the schedule after November 1, several days after the extradition hearing.

The Government respectfully submits this letter in response to the defendant’s request to adjourn the trial date, currently scheduled for October 25, 2021. (D.E. 495). As discussed at the pretrial conference held on September 15, 2021, the Government consents to the defendant’s request for an adjournment. We respectfully suggest that the Court enter an order adjourning the trial sine die, and the Government will provide an update with respect to our views on an appropriate trial date by November 1, 2021.

On September 26, Yahoo published a story that made claims about assassination discussions that, the story itself revealed, were overblown. The story debunked WikiLeaks’ claims that the charges against Assange were political retaliation pertaining to the Russian investigation from Trump. It corroborated the obvious temporal link between the initial charge against Assange and a Russian exfiltration attempt. And it provided details of CIA’s clandestine plans to limit the damage of the still (then, and now) unreleased Vault 8 source code of CIA’s hacking tools. There’s reason to believe WikiLeaks has known aspects of those damage mitigation plans for at least two years, via means they do not want to disclose.

Since its publication, WikiLeaks has used the story to try to suggest that the DOJ extradition should not go forward, but the British judges who heard the appeal seemed unimpressed by tales of CIA outrage about WikiLeaks’ hoarding CIA’s hacking tools.

As part of the extradition hearing on October 28, according to the WikiLeaks’ Twitter account, the lawyer representing the US in Assange’s extradition hearing, James Lewis, asserted that if this effort to extradite Assange fails, they can just start again with another extradition request.

Note: I looked for a more credible source for this quotation than WikiLeaks, which has been sowing more propaganda than usual in recent months, but did not find it quoted by other credible journalists. For the purposes of this post, though, I will accept this as accurate. A representative for US DOJ said that if this extradition attempt fails, Lewis seemed to suggest, DOJ can ask the UK to extradite on a different indictment.

Shortly after the extradition hearing, on November 5, in response to an order from Judge Furman, DOJ proposed March 21, 2022 as the earliest feasible trial date, largely because of expected CIPA proceedings, but in part because of whatever DOJ discussed in that August 4 ex parte classified status letter.

Although the Government is available for trial at any time in the first or second quarters of 2022, the Government does not believe it would be practical to schedule the trial prior to March 2022.

[snip]

The proposed trial date also takes into consideration matters discussed in the Government’s ex parte letter submitted on August 4, 2021. Accordingly, in order to afford sufficient time both for the likely upcoming CIPA litigation and for the parties to prepare for trial with the benefit of any supplemental CIPA rulings, the Government believes that the earliest practical trial date for this matter would be March 21, 2022.

March 21 would be two weeks after the five year anniversary of the first publication of Vault 7, the less harmful development notes stolen from the CIA, but with them, the names or pseudos of several colleagues that Schulte allegedly scapegoated. That would be the likely date for any statutes of limitation on another CFAA conspiracy to toll.

That is, this timing would provide DOJ an opportunity to learn the fate of Assange’s first, declassified charges through 2015, in case DOJ wanted to ask for extradition on a second case charging actions since 2015.

Admittedly, one explanation for that August 4 filing could be that DOJ obtained new evidence (though if it is evidence Schulte will ultimately get, it should not be ex parte). But given Lewis’ comment and the timing of DOJ’s various updates about trial schedule, one explanation is that DOJ would ask to extradite Assange for the Vault 7 publications (and related actions that have nothing to do with journalism) if the current extradition effort fails.

Ultimately, Schulte’s decisions have created a further delay than the one the government proposed. Because Schulte’s expert, Steve Bellovin, has limited availability due to his teaching schedule, the trial is scheduled to start on June 13, 2022, more than six years after Schulte allegedly stole the files in question.

Depends on what happens tomorrow, though, we may learn sooner what that ex parte filing was.

The Julian Assange Question: True Claims about Prison Conditions or Lies in Service of Martyrdom?

Today and tomorrow, the United States will appeal Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision in the Julian Assange case that American prisons are too inhumane to house someone with suicidal tendencies safely. The US will argue several things about the decision, including that Baraitser had wrongly credited testimony of an expert that, like that of several others presented in Julian Assange’s extradition defense, was obviously misleading.

On Wednesday, judges said the weight given to a misleading report from Assange’s psychiatric expert that was submitted at the original hearing in January could form part of Washington’s full appeal in October.

Sitting in London, Lord Justice Holroyde said he believed it was arguable that Judge Vanessa Baraitser had attached too much weight to the evidence of Prof Michael Kopelman when deciding not to allow the US’s appeal.

[snip]

Delivering the latest decision, Holroyde said it was “very unusual” for an appeal court to have to consider evidence from an expert that had been accepted by a lower court, but also found to have been misleading – even if the expert’s actions had been deemed an “understandable human response” designed to protect the privacy of Assange’s partner and children.

The judge said that, in those circumstances, it was “at least arguable” that Baraitser erred in basing her conclusions on the professor’s evidence.

“Given the importance to the administration of justice of a court being able to reply on the impartiality of an expert witness, it is in my view arguable that more detailed and critical consideration should have been given to why [the professor’s] ‘understandable human response’ gave rise to a misleading report.”

The US government had previously been allowed to appeal against Baraitser’s decision on three grounds – including that it was wrong in law. Assange’s legal team had described the grounds as “narrow” and “technical”. The two allowed on Wednesday were additional.

One key issue is whether assurances the US offered to the UK that Assange won’t be held under Special Administrative Measures are worth the paper they were written on (they’re probably not).

The summary of the decision to accept the appeal said that the United States had “provided the United Kingdom with a package of assurances which are responsive to the district judge’s specific findings in this case.”

Specifically, it said, Mr. Assange would not be subjected to measures that curtail a prisoner’s contact with the outside world and can amount to solitary confinement, and would not be imprisoned at the supermax prison in Florence, Colo., unless he later did something “that meets the test” for imposing such harsh steps.

“The United States has also provided an assurance that the United States will consent to Mr. Assange being transferred to Australia to serve any custodial sentence imposed on him,” the summary said.

While the basis for refusing extradition — expanding on a precedent established with Lauri Love, whose Aspergers was far more severe and better established than Assange’s depression — may be controversial, the severe conditions in American prisons are not.

And that’s why the focus of Assange’s team over the past nine months and in the next few days will be so telling.

Assange’s team would need to look no further than Joshua Schulte — the accused source for the stolen CIA hacking tools who has been held under draconian Special Administrative Measures (which sharply curtail Schulte’s ability to communicate with anyone besides his lawyers and immediate family) for over three years — to demonstrate how WikiLeaks associates have been treated in US jails. Judge Paul Crotty recently rejected Schulte’s latest bid to end the SAMs before the case got reassigned — with no public explanation — to Judge Jesse Furman (Crotty must be getting close to going senior status, but Schulte also asked Crotty to recuse). In his order affirming the SAMs on Schulte, Crotty noted that the former CIA developer, “intentionally disclosed information he knows to be classified–including in a recently filed motion seeking declassification of that very information,” and prosecutors just warned that Schulte may face additional consequences for doing so.

In recent weeks, the defendant has, through standby counsel, attempted to file several documents on ECF that appear to contain classified information. Section 5 notices are particularly likely to contain classified information, since the statute requires the defendant to “include a brief description of the classified information” at issue, and prohibits the defendant from “disclos[ing] any information known or believed to be classified in connection with a trial or pretrial proceeding until notice has been given under this subsection” and the United States has had an opportunity to seek a CIPA § 6 hearing and, if applicable, an appeal from the Court’s determination under § 7. Should the defendant knowingly and intentionally publicly file or attempt to publicly file information “known or believed to be classified,” including as part of a § 5 notice, he could be subject to penalties.

Likewise Assange’s team could point to the case of Daniel Hale, who was jailed prior to sentencing because it was feared he would harm himself, but then was placed in the Marion Communications Management Unit, a less harsh regime restricting prisoners’ communications than SAMs, but nevertheless not something known to be justified by anything Hale did during pre-trial release, and something that exacerbates Hale’s isolation in prison.

Rather than focusing on these very uncontroversial issues, Assange’s team has spent the last nine months spinning wildly about topics other than US prison conditions. They did so, first, by falsely claiming that an article in which Siggi Thordarson reaffirmed one of the most damning things he said about Assange would doom the case against Assange, even though as a co-conspirator, Siggi is unlikely to be called as a witness. More recently, Assange’s team has embraced an article showing that CIA Director Mike Pompeo was unable to pursue a variety of measures to attempt to thwart the release of (still substantially unreleased) stolen hacking tools, even though the article proves that Assange lied wildly in his extradition hearing about when and why the US government changed its understanding of his actions and further shows that the US didn’t charge Assange in the face of Pompeo’s pressure, but only did so when Russia attempted to exfiltrate Assange.

Assange has a really good case to make about US jail and prison conditions.

Instead, Assange has spent the last nine months telling wild stories in an effort to make a man credibly accused of conspiring to hack US targets a martyr of journalism.

On the Missing Inspector General Report[s] about Wilbur Ross’ Lies

There was a big news blitz yesterday on the news that the Commerce Department’s Inspector General had concluded Wilbur Ross twice misled Congress about the rationale for including a citizenship question in last year’s census.

The claim was based off a letter from Inspector General Peggy Gustafsonwho was nominated under President Obama — explaining what had become of a 2019 request to investigate whether Ross had lied. In her letter, which was publicly released, Gustafson revealed the outcome of her investigation.

Our investigation established that the then-Secretary misrepresented the full rationale for the reinstatement of the citizenship question during his March 20, 2018, testimony before the House Committee on Appropriations and again in his March 22, 2018, testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means. During Congressional testimony, the then-Secretary stated his decision to reinstate the citizenship question was based solely on a DOJ request. That request memorandum was signed by the DOJ on December 12, 2017. However, evidence shows there were significant communications related to the citizenship question among the then-Secretary, his staff, and other government officials between March 2017 and September 2017, which was well before the DOJ request memorandum. Evidence also suggests the Department requested and played a part in drafting the DOJ memorandum. Further, the then-Secretary sent a memorandum to the Department on June 21, 2018, clarifying his deliberations regarding adding a citizenship question to the Decennial Census. In this memorandum, the then-Secretary stated he began considering the content of the 2020 Census, to include reinstating the citizenship question, soon after his appointment to Secretary.

This investigation was presented to and declined for prosecution by the Public Integrity Section of the DOJ’s Criminal Division.

She sent the report to Congress along with her letter. But the report itself has not been released publicly or, best as I can tell, even leaked with those who wrote stories on the letter.

Reports on DOJ’s declination created a great deal of outrage that Merrick Garland had declined to prosecute the case. Only, as an AP correction revealed, Garland’s DOJ hadn’t declined prosecution. Barr’s DOJ did.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the decision not to prosecute Ross was made by the Department of Justice during the Trump administration, not the Biden administration.

But corners of the media blitz left out a lot more details about the context of the original request. It came after a Republican strategist, Thomas Hofeller, died, leaving his Democratic daughter to go through his papers, only to discover he, and very racist plans for gerrymandering, were behind the census question. After that smoking gun was discovered, House Oversight (starting under Elijah Cummings before he died) did more investigation and then a bunch of Senators asked for an investigation.

And after DOJ kept appealing a District Court ruling on the question in NY, even the Supreme Court found that Commerce had misrepresented the reason for the question.

Finally, we have recognized a narrow exception to the general rule against inquiring into “the mental processes of administrative decision-makers.” Overton Park, 401 U. S., at 420.

On a “strong showing of bad faith or improper behavior,” such an inquiry may be warranted and may justify extra-record discovery. Ibid. The District Court invoked that exception in ordering extra-record discovery here. Although that order was premature, we think it was ultimately justified in light of the expanded administrative record. Recall that shortly after this litigation began, the Secretary, prodded by DOJ, filed a supplemental memo that added new, pertinent information to the administrative record. The memo disclosed that the Secretary had been considering the citizenship question for some time and that Commerce had inquired whether DOJ would formally request reinstatement of the question. That supplemental memo prompted respondents to move for both completion of the administrative record and extra-record discovery. The District Court granted both requests at the same hearing, agreeing with respondents that the Government had submitted an incomplete administrative record and that the existing evidence supported a prima facie showing that the VRA rationale was pretextual.

[snip]

That evidence showed that the Secretary was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office; instructed his staff to make it happen; waited while Commerce officials explored whether another agency would request census-based citizenship data; subsequently contacted the Attorney General himself to ask if DOJ would make the request; and adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process. In the District Court’s view, this evidence established that the Secretary had made up his mind to reinstate a citizenship question “well before” receiving DOJ’s request, and did so for reasons unknown but unrelated to the VRA. 351 F. Supp. 3d, at 660.

John Roberts laid out the evidence that Commerce’s IG must also have relied on.

[I]t was not until the Secretary contacted the Attorney General directly that DOJ’s Civil Rights Division expressed interest in acquiring census-based citizenship data to better enforce the VRA. And even then, the record suggests that DOJ’s interest was directed more to helping the Commerce Department than to securing the data. The December 2017 letter from DOJ drew heavily on contributions from Commerce staff and advisors. Their influence may explain why the letter went beyond a simple entreaty for better citizenship data—what one might expect of a typical request from another agency—to a specific request that Commerce collect the data by means of reinstating a citizenship question on the census. Finally, after sending the letter, DOJ declined the Census Bureau’s offer to discuss alternative ways to meet DOJ’s stated need for improved citizenship data, further suggesting a lack of interest on DOJ’s part.

Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision. In the Secretary’s telling, Commerce was simply acting on a routine data request from another agency. Yet the materials before us indicate that Commerce went to great lengths to elicit the request from DOJ (or any other willing agency). And unlike a typical case in which an agency may have both stated and unstated reasons for a decision, here the VRA enforcement rationale—the sole stated reason—seems to have been contrived.

After SCOTUS ruled Commerce could not include a citizenship question in the census, the plaintiffs asked the judge to sanction DOJ and Commerce officials who made misrepresentations to the court. Judge Jesse Furman made the government pay fees but did not further sanction the government witnesses in question.

That is, the underlying record has been known for some time. The only thing new in the record, as far as we know, is that — after a bunch of Senators asked for an investigation into this — the Commerce IG agreed with John Roberts and referred Ross for prosecution, only to have Barr’s hyper-politicized DOJ — a DOJ that was itself caught making untrue statements to the District Judge in the NY case — decline prosecution.

Which makes it all the more curious that Commerce didn’t publicly release the report along with the letter. The report is done. Why not release it publicly, as past derogatory reports about Ross were released?

One more detail that may explain DOJ’s silence in response to this news. The original letter from a bunch of Senators requesting the investigation wasn’t addressed just to Commerce. It was also addressed to Michael Horowitz, DOJ’s Inspector General. There’s no sign of such an investigation on their site (and I have thus far gotten no response to a question about this from them) — but they don’t include all their investigations.

But these stories are only about what the result of the Commerce Inspector General investigation was, and how Bill Barr’s DOJ responded. They’re not about whether there was an investigation at DOJ, and what happened if that investigation ended under Merrick Garland. They’re not about what a DOJ that has put great emphasis on voting rights has done with all this.