Julian Bond

Senators Try to Force Trump Admin to Declare WikiLeaks a ‘Hostile’ Spy Service

It’s one of a number of ways the Senate Intelligence Committee is trying to box the White House in on Russia.

If the Senate intelligence committee gets its way, America’s spy agencies will have to release a flood of information about Russian threats to the U.S.—the kind of threats that Donald Trump may not want made public.

The committee also wants Congress to declare WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” which would open Julian Assange and the pro-transparency organization – which most of the U.S. government considers a handmaiden of Russian intelligence – to new levels of surveillance.

On Friday, the committee quietly published its annual intelligence authorization, a bill that blesses the next year’s worth of intelligence operations. The bill passed the committee late last month on a 14-1 vote, with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon as the lone dissenter, owing to what he calls the “legal, constitutional and policy implications” that the WikiLeaks provision may entail.

Among the bill’s major provisions are requirements for the intelligence community to release major public reports into Russian threats to U.S. elections, Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, Moscow’s influence operations, Russian money laundering in the U.S., and more. In short, the Senate committee intends to do a lot more about Russia than investigate its involvement in the 2016 presidential race – namely, box the Trump administration into a more assertive response to Russian aggression.

All the proposed Russia-related disclosures show that the committee, “on a bipartisan basis,” will “pry out of the intelligence community any assessment of the Russian threat,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former House intelligence committee senior staffer, and will prevent “the White House from blocking the intelligence community from telling the committee and the American public what the true Russia threat is.”

Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, would have to develop and disclose a strategy to prevent “Russian cyber threats to United States elections,” including “federal, state and local election systems, voter registration databases, voting tabulation equipment, and equipment and processes for the secure transmission of election results.” Such a strategy, the committee seeks to mandate, should include security measures like “auditable paper trails for voting machines, securing wireless and Internet connections, and other technical safeguards.”

Other requirements of the bill include a ban on a “cybersecurity unit or other cyber agreement that is jointly established or otherwise implemented by the Government of the United States and the Government of Russia” unless Coats essentially vouches for it. Trump floated the idea in July after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin and then walked it back when a political backlash ensued. Wyden proposed the measure banning the cyber-collaboration.

Another possible Trump act the bill would complicate is the return of two diplomatic compounds, in New York and Maryland, used by Russian intelligence operatives and seized by the U.S. in the waning days of the Obama administration. Coats would have six months to issue a report on the “intelligence risks of returning the covered compounds to Russian control,” a step the White House is considering. Relatedly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would have to keep much closer track of Russian diplomatic and consular officials’ travel within the U.S., telling Coats and new FBI director Christopher Wray “within 1 hour” what he knows about such travel.

Coats would also have to detail for the House and Senate committees the extent of illicit Russian cash flow, including “the entry points of money laundering by Russian and associated entities into the United States” and any vulnerabilities in the U.S. financial and legal systems that “Russian money laundering has exploited.” Unlike the other Russia-centric provisions of the bill, the Senate committee isn’t explicitly requiring a public version of the money laundering report.

The House intelligence committee’s complementary bill would authorize similar but less extensive public reporting on “Russian influence campaigns” aimed at U.S. and other nations’ elections. Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, declined comment. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the office of the director of national intelligence, Timothy Barrett, did not say whether Coats supports or opposes the Senate bill. “As with previous intelligence authorization bills, the ODNI will provide Congress with a views letter addressing specific provisions in the legislation,” Barrett said. Coats in May told the Senate panel that Russia was likely to be “more unpredictable in its approach to the United States.”

The White House did not respond to an inquiry about whether it backs the bill.

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The bill also contains a more controversial move.

The bill would establish a “sense of Congress” that WikiLeaks and its leadership “resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.” The language echoes almost exactly CIA director Mike Pompeo’s scathing April speech calling WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” a departure from the “I love WikiLeaks” rhetoric from then-candidate Trump.

The move, Eoyang assessed, would open WikiLeaks up to even more extensive surveillance.

“It would allow the intelligence community to collect against them the same way they collect against al-Qaeda,” Eoyang said. “If you think you’re helping WikiLeaks to aid a transparency organization, the US government fundamentally disagrees with you and you could find yourself on other end of NSA scrutiny.”

Wyden has criticized WikiLeaks before, including a May statement that “Trump actively encouraged Russians and WikiLeaks to attack our democracy.” WikiLeaks denies the accusation. But Wyden voted against the bill out of concern for the implications of the WikiLeaks provision.

“My concern is that the use of the novel phrase ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets,” Wyden said in a quote to the Daily Beast he later released in a statement.  

“The language in the bill suggesting that the U.S. government has some unstated course of action against ‘non-state hostile intelligence services’ is equally troubling.  The damage done by WikiLeaks to the United States is clear.  But with any new challenge to our country, Congress ought not react in a manner that could have negative consequences, unforeseen or not, for our constitutional principles.  The introduction of vague, undefined new categories of enemies constitutes such an ill-considered reaction.”

WikiLeaks did not respond to a request for comment before publication, but hours afterward provided links to its previous defenses against the charge that it is an adjunct of Russian intelligence. (link 1 and link 2).

This story was updated to add links provided by WikiLeaks after publication.