Redactions Hint at Unseen Depths in Assange Probe

(CN) – Not a word of substance was withheld from the U.S. indictment last week of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Federal prosecutors released a 26-page affidavit from an FBI agent almost in its entirety shortly thereafter.

The U.S. government pivoted back to secrecy Wednesday, however, in disclosing an intriguing tranche of files that suggest the WikiLeaks probe may be broader still.

“The government is currently investigating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, [REDACTED],” says the first paragraph of a motion to seal, dated Dec. 21, 2017.

Referring to this document, prosecutors wrote today that this blackened passage “contains nonpublic information about an ongoing investigation.”

“Premature disclosure of the information could jeopardize the investigation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Traxler wrote in a 3-page memo on Wednesday.  

Prosecutors also hinted that Assange’s associates may also be targets.

“Although the government has confirmed that Mr. Assange or WikiLeaks is under investigation, the government has never provided the specific details of that ongoing investigation, nor stated whether Mr. Assange has been charged or which of his affiliates may also be under investigation,” the memo states.

The only unsealed charge against Assange accuses him of conspiring with WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning to crack into a classified military database in March 2010.

By that time, Manning already had transferred thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs to WikiLeaks, but she had not yet disclosed detainee profiles from Guantánamo Bay. Prosecutors claim that Manning asked Assange for help logging into the secret Pentagon network containing them with someone else’s credentials to avoid detection.

“Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers under a username that did not belong to her,” Assange’s indictment states. “Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.”

An FBI affidavit, dated December 2017 and released this week, makes explicit the government does not allege that this scheme worked.

“While it remains unknown whether Manning and Assange were successful in cracking the password, a follow-up message from Assange to Manning on March 10, 2010, reflects that Assange was actively trying to crack the password pursuant to their agreement,” FBI agent Megan Brown wrote.

The limited nature of the charge led the Washington Post’s media critic Eric Wemple to opine “The Assange indictment is thin gruel.” Press-freedom advocates largely expressed relief that prosecutors did not charge Assange with violating the Espionage Act, a charge that would have related more directly to publishing the information on WikiLeaks.

The sole count to date focuses solely on an alleged attempted hack that likely never succeeded.

Though it is unclear what else federal prosecutors in Virginia may be investigating, special counsel Robert Mueller has alleged that Russian intelligence officers used WikiLeaks as a conduit to disseminate stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee in an effort to help elect Donald Trump in 2016.

WikiLeaks disclosures have also been the subject of a lesser-publicized criminal prosecution of former CIA officer Joshua Adam Schulte, the accused source of a tranche of the agency’s spying tools published under the name “Vault 7.”

Schulte’s recent court proceedings were mired in secrecy, as the presiding judge effectively sealed one recent hearing to privately discuss a CIA request to review the defendant’s attorney-client communications.

The CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, fall under the same jurisdiction where Assange is being prosecuted.

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