The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee are publicly accusing WikiLeaks of being a front for the Russian government and an ally in efforts to help elect Donald Trump, but U.S. intelligence officials aren’t so sure.
On Monday, Clinton’s spokesman called WikiLeaks “a propaganda arm” of the Kremlin and accused the site’s founder, Julian Assange, of “colluding with [the] Russian government to help Trump” by leaking embarrassing emails taken from the Democratic National Committee and from the account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. That statement went further than an assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Homeland Security Department last week that stopped short of explicitly naming WikiLeaks as a Russian agent. (It also made no mention of Trump or his campaign.)
Then, on Tuesday, the interim chair of the DNC tied WikiLeaks to an ongoing campaign to meddle with the U.S. elections. “Our Intelligence Community has made it clear that the Russian government is responsible for the cyberattacks aimed at interfering with our election, and that WikiLeaks is part of that effort,” Donna Brazile said in a statement.
But four U.S. military and intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that the relationship between Russia and WikiLeaks is not so clear cut. Undoubtedly, the group has benefited from the work of Russian hackers, who passed purloined emails to WikiLeaks. But does that mean that WikiLeaks is taking orders from Vladimir Putin and doing his bidding?
“For Russia, WikiLeaks is more like a useful idiot because they [WikiLeaks] are too cowardly and dumb to be in on the master plan,” one U.S. official told The Daily Beast, describing the website as essentially giving cover to Russian hackers.
Military and intelligence officials are convinced that WikiLeaks is an ongoing threat to U.S. national security and privacy owing to its leaks of classified documents and emails. But its precise relationship with Russia has been a subject of internal debate. Some do see the group as being in cahoots with the Kremlin. But others find that WikiLeaks is acting mainly as the beneficiary of stolen documents, not unlike a journalistic organization.
The intelligence agencies’ carefully worded statement last week about Russia’s role in hacking the DNC and other organizations suggests that there’s no consensus on precisely how WikiLeaks and Russia work together. Referring to two other outfits that have disclosed stolen emails, the statement read, “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.”
But there was no suggestion that any of those groups conducted hacking themselves—and many experts believe they haven’t—nor was there any elaboration on how “Russian-directed efforts” involved WikiLeaks. Experts have said that the Guccifer 2.0 persona is acting on behalf of Russia, but it appears mainly to be a conduit of information, and WikiLeaks insists that it has an independent process of vetting the information it receives.
The group “has a perfect, decade long record for the accuracy of its vetting process,” a WikiLeaks spokesperson told The Daily Beast, without responding to allegations that it was working to help Russia and Trump.
The uncertainty about the site’s allegiances—if any—is unnerving as a steady flow of stolen emails comes from WikiLeaks, including several batches from Podesta’s email that show Clinton spoke more favorably about free trade in paid speeches than she has on the campaign trail. Earlier, the DNC emails posted by WikiLeaks led to the resignation of the committee’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and revealed committee staff trying to undermine the campaign of Clinton’s then-rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
WikiLeaks has undeniably had an effect on U.S. politics. But, when asked how they how they categorize the group, two of the officials contacted by The Daily Beast responded with the same long pause. “Hmm, that is an interesting question,” they said.
Is it a media organization? Not exactly.
“I don’t treat them as a press entity since they don’t follow any journalistic ethics code,” one official said. (The WikiLeaks spokesperson rejected that idea, and noted that the group “has won a great many journalism awards,” including a prestigious award in Australia, where Assange is from.)
But those facts don’t mean WikiLeaks isn’t acting at Russia’s behest. And that’s not a trivial matter. If the United States were to determine that WikiLeaks is an agent of a foreign power, as defined in U.S. law, it could allow intelligence and law enforcement agencies to spy on the group—as they do on the Russian government. The U.S. can also bring criminal charges against foreign agents.
So, is WikiLeaks a criminal organization? “I wouldn’t go that far,” one U.S. official said. How about a facilitator to a crime? “Absolutely,” said another. “A purveyor of leaks that solicits others to commit criminal activity on its behalf.”
“We have never tried to define them. We’ve only spoken to the implications of their release,” another offered.
Privately, some officials are gleeful that, as the group has increasingly released the private information of ordinary citizens, public opinion has appeared to swing against the organization. Earlier this month, for instance, WikiLeaks released nearly 300,000 emails from Turkey’s AK Party, including information about every female voter in 79 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, which WikiLeaks critics said could put the women in danger.
To these government officials, the public is starting to see WikiLeaks as they have have for a decade: agenda-driven agitators, not journalists carrying the mantle for whistleblowers.
“We never viewed them as legitimate,” one U.S. official explained. “These are data dumps designed to embarrass the United States.”
Everyone seems to be in agreement about one point, however: WikiLeaks wants to play a role in the U.S. election and have an influence on American politics.
Assange “is trying to influence the machine of politics in this nation. This is a huge change,” Arun Vishwanath, a University of Buffalo communications professor specializing in cybersecurity, told The Daily Beast. And though there’s no evidence WikiLeaks has engaged in hacking, it’s clearly benefiting from it—along with all other American news organizations.
But those hacks have done more than expose private communications. U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russia is trying to undermine confidence in the integrity of the elections, an especially dangerous maneuver given that Trump has repeatedly warned that the only way he could lose in November is if the elections were “rigged” by government officials or voter fraud.
“Just two election cycles ago, we were not talking about cyber attacks. Now they threaten the very foundation of our political system,” said Vishwanath.
Into that strange new world, WikiLeaks has plunged headlong. Last week, Assange, has said the group hopes to publish new information for the next 10 weeks, well after the presidential election.
Until then, debates about how exactly to characterize the group will be overshadowed by secrets it exposes—much to the Clinton campaign’s chagrin.