There is no one more zealous than a convert.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo previously welcomed WikiLeaks’ disclosures about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee when these proved helpful to the Republican nominee. Now he has experienced a road-to-Damascus moment.
“WikiLeaks,” Pompeo said at a think tank event last week, “walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service.” Pompeo also regards Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks and the lonely maintainer of its hyper-active Twitter account, as a “fraud.”
In a rather folksy fly-over metaphor, the former Kansas representative likened the albinoid antipodean anarchist to the Wizard of Oz, perhaps forgetting that the man behind the curtain turned out to be an all-right guy in the end rather than a helpmeet of European dictatorship and a purveyor of conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds.
Pompeo isn’t the only one who’s changed his mind about the man holed up for five long years at the Ecuador embassy in London. The U.S. Justice Department, headed by Jeff Sessions—a man who conveniently forgot while testifying before Congress that he twice met with the Russian ambassador to the United States—now considers arresting Assange a “priority.”
“We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail,” Sessions told a press scrum in El Paso on Thursday.
But what case can be made? Should Assange be indicted for espionage or perhaps just the theft of government documents, related possibly to the files stolen by former U.S. Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning, possibly with Assange’s personal connivance?
The problem with the first charge is that, as law professor Stephen Vladick puts it, echoing the sentiments of a long-retired CIA general-counselor, “The single biggest problem with the Espionage Act is that its limits have never truly been tested, and so it is exceedingly difficult to say with any certainty what it does and doesn’t proscribe.” And even if Assange were personally involved in the confiscation of U.S. state secrets, there comes the added legal complication of seeking his extradition from sovereign Ecuadorean soil, which two other Western governments have been unable to do.
Furthermore, the net result of a highly publicized legal campaign against Assange would be to anoint him a free speech martyr all over again, and just as the civilized world was beginning to see him for what he is: a reliable clearinghouse and megaphone for Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operations against the United States.
This is slightly different from the precedent Pompeo last week invoked in justifying his turn against Assange, a rosetta stone case of the Cold War.
Philip Agee was not only an American citizen but a CIA officer who in 1973 walked into the KGB’s rezidentura in Mexico City armed with “reams of information about CIA operations,” as Oleg Kalugin, then the head of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate’s counterintelligence division put it.
The dipso, womanizing Agee was initially turned away by the Russians who understandably thought he was a “dangle” designed to spread disinformation. So he went to see the Cubans, who accepted him as a true defector from Langley, and, owing to the subsidiary nature of Fidel Castro’s Dirección General de Inteligencia, or DGI, to its superpower patron, shared everything they received with Moscow Center. Agee thus became a Soviet agent, codenamed PONT. His first big “leak” was the exposure by name of 250 CIA operatives in the West, mainly in the United Kingdom, including the station officers in London.
True, there are unmissable parallels with Assange. As this was the Nixon-and-Vietnam era, as opposed to the Bush-and-Iraq era, Agee was greeted as a celebrity figure in the salons and op-ed pages of liberal Europe, feted by British MPs and an ingenuous media establishment led by the Guardian newspaper (which until recently also indulged Assange in much the same uncritical manner, that is, before he turned viciously on the Guardian).
The worst thing that happened to Agee, however, was not his arrest and extradition back to the United States but merely his expulsion from Britain, along with Mark Hosenball, the American journalist who helped ventilate his secrets about the Agency. Agee whiled away the rest of his days in Havana; at one point he even traveled back to the United States on his own passport and made it through customs, years after the damage he wrought had been done.
But his First Amendment martyrdom was viewed ecstatically in Moscow because it only aided in the KGB’s ongoing “active measures” against the main adversary. According to Christopher Andrew, the UK’s foremost historian of Britain’s domestic intelligence service, and Vasily Mitrokhin, the former KGB archivist who smuggled out his own service’s secrets at the end of the Cold War, “Campaigns of support for PONT were initiated in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Finland, Norway, Mexico and Venezuela… It doubtless did not occur to the vast majority of Agee’s supporters to suspect the involvement of the KGB and DGI.” (Here one can’t help adding that even if it did occur to them, they’d have still rationalized it away in the service of “anti-imperialism.”)
Much like Assange, Agee set up a cottage industry of publishing damaging secrets about U.S. espionage efforts around the world. The Covert Action Information Bulletin went into print in in 1978 and was founded, as Agee himself put it, as a “worldwide campaign to destabilize the CIA through exposure of its operations and personnel.”
In fact, as Andrew and Mitrokhin write in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, the Bulletin’s true founder was the KGB; the publication even had its own codename, RUPOR, although Andrew and Mitrokhin have exonerated other contributing editors as not having had any knowledge that, quite apart from working for a brave and independent truth-teller, they were working for one of Yuri Andropov’s turncoat spooks. Agee also sprinkled chickenfeed, or might you might call “fake news,” in with his gold dust:
“The Centre assembled a task force of personnel from Service A and Directorate K, headed by V.N. Kosterin, assistant to the chief of Service A, to keep the Covert Action Intelligence Bulletin supplied with material designed to compromise the CIA … Kosterin’s task force, however, became increasingly concerned about the difficulty of finding enough secret material for the Bulletin, and recommended that it look harder for open-source material, ranging from readers’ letters to crises around the world which could be blamed on the CIA—among them the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, when 900 members of the American religious cult the ‘People’s Temple’ had been persuaded to commit mass suicide or had been murdered.”
From readers’ letters and Jonestown to Twitter and PizzaGate…
WikiLeaks, too, disseminates disinformation by misconstruing or distorting the contents of its genuine cache of purloined documents. It has alleged, for instance, that Clinton was suffering from “decision fatigue,” conflating a click-bait article sent to her in 2011 by State Department counselor-in-chief Cheryl Mills with an actual psychological malady the fever swamps of the Internet accused her of succumbing to in 2016. It has also fanned the flames of a popular and debunked conspiracy theory that Clinton was wearing an earpiece for one of the presidential debates, citing an email in which longtime aide Huma Abedin asks Clinton if she had hers to hand—in 2009, when Clinton was then newly installed Secretary of State and therefore in the frequent position of having to have foreign counterparts’ remarks translated into English.
Whether or not Assange is just a relay mechanism or a witting agent of Moscow is something for Pompeo and Sessions to prove with evidence, and that might not be available until Putin’s own Mitrokhin emerges to provide it, assuming he or she ever does.
What is substantively easier to prove is that there was no more loyal or dutiful overseas servant to Trump than Assange, who spent the bulk of the pre-election period apologizing for a right-wing isolationist he was not entitled to vote for, while excoriating that candidate’s rival, whom the Australian saw as the true American threat to his freedom, such as it is now defined.
Is this a sincere administration-wide mea culpa about the intentions and accomplishments of the Kremlin or just the latest attempt to downplay the ongoing FBI investigation into whether or not members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Putin’s operatives, an investigation which no amount of Tomahawk missiles fired at Russia’s client-regime in Syria can scuttle?
The Nixon-tatted, race-baiting Trump surrogate Roger Stone has now called for Pompeo’s resignation as Agency director in light of the latter’s about-face on a trusted ally, which suggests that not everyone in the Trump firmament is behind this latest putsch against people who know too much.
Stone divulged months ago that he had personally communicated with WikiLeaks in the lead-up to the Republican and Democratic conventions last summer, giving him advance notice of John Podesta’s forthcoming embarrassment.
In the post-inaugural period, Assange has published an enormous tranche of CIA documents, evidently the haul of an internal Agency leaker, which may appear at first blush to do harm to a sitting U.S. president until one considers that the timing of these disclosures, too, coincided with Trump’s agenda: chiefly, his lunatic sallies against his own intelligence community, falsely accusing U.S. spies of wiretapping him when he was a private citizen and ignominiously comparing them to Hitler’s Gestapo. Assange aimed to prove this was true by giving the trolls and bots under a foreign state’s control ample new resources with which to argue that the sinister American “deep state” was out to sink the new commander-in-chief before he could clean house.
Assange has also feebly sought to corroborate Trump’s other ideologized fabrications, tweeting from the WikiLeaks account (which he himself mans) that there is indeed a rampant and underreported problem of criminal migrants in Sweden.
Here I can only assume that being confined Nosferatu-like to a suite of rooms for half a decade has cost an activist committed to total “transparency” any sense of irony.
He is, after all, currently hiding in a Latin American mission to evade sexual assault charges in Stockholm, making him perhaps the most famous misbehaving migrant to ever reach Swedish shores.
And now he’s something even lowlier than that: having been instrumentalized by Putin, perhaps thinking he would earn the long-term gratitude from the Trumpkins, Assange discovers both the Kremlin and Mar-a-Lago consider him as expendable as a passed-around hankie, an idiot who has outlived his usefulness.
As his favorite American politician would say: “Sad!”