The battle between the CIA and WikiLeaks is intensifying. CIA Director Mike Pompeo used his first major public remarks on Thursday to skewer WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” willing to work with Russia and other foreign actors to promote their interests.
He blasted Julian Assange as a “fraud” interested in his own fame, seeking to undermine efforts by the WikiLeaks founder to be viewed as a legitimate ally of civil libertarians. “It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is, a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” Pompeo said. “Assange is a narcissist who has created nothing of value,” the former Republican congressman charged. “He relies on the dirty work of others to make himself famous. He is a fraud—a coward hiding behind a screen.”
Verbal tantrum unbefitting a CIA director.
WikiLeaks was quick to respond, sending out a series of messages on Twitter claiming that Pompeo vowed to “silence” the organization over its purported disclosures of CIA hacking tools and using his remarks to promote an op-ed written by Assange in the Washington Post. In the op-ed, Assange wrote that WikiLeaks had the same mission as news outlets such as the Post and The New York Times.
The organization also mocked Pompeo by sending out a since-deleted tweet he wrote last July, when the former Kansas lawmaker cited stolen Democratic National Committee emails released by WikiLeaks as proof that the presidential nomination had been “fixed” for Hillary Clinton.
Pompeo’s speech was a wide departure from President Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks on the campaign trail. Trump and his administration have taken a much more hostile approach to WikiLeaks since taking office.
U.S. national security experts welcomed Pompeo’s comments as a signal that the new director was taking a hard line on an organization that has leaked information damaging to American interests.
“I think what [Pompeo] did was putting him on notice, which I think is exactly the right thing to do,” James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said. “I think he’s throwing down the gauntlet.”
But the speech was not warmly embraced by all. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published documents leaked by Edward Snowden, slammed Pompeo for his remarks, accusing him of “explicitly” threatening free speech and press freedoms.
“WikiLeaks now has few friends in Washington,” Greenwald wrote in The Intercept. “But the level of affection for WikiLeaks should have no bearing on how one responds to these press freedom threats from Donald Trump‘s CIA Director. Criminalizing the publication of classified documents is wrong in itself, and has the obvious potential to spread far beyond their initial target.”
WikiLeaks for weeks has needled the CIA by releasing troves of leaked documents allegedly revealing the agency’s hacking programs. The releases, called “Vault 7,” contain documents describing hacking techniques used by the CIA, such as tools to breach mobile devices and hack into smart televisions, as well as other internal communications.
Hours after Pompeo’s speech, WikiLeaks leaked yet another trove of documents that claimed to reveal information about a top-secret CIA hacking program called Hive.
Experts have largely described the contents of the periodic document releases as unsurprising, and evidence that the CIA is doing its job. Nevertheless, they have renewed the debate around privacy and intelligence community spying and also raised questions about the source of the leaks. “Obviously, this hurts when other people know where you have been, what you have been thinking,” said former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who said that the documents show no abuse of the agency’s powers.
“There is the danger that even though these things might reflect appropriate activities that Americans don’t object to, the fact that you can’t keep the tools secret, the fact that you can’t keep the data you collect from other prying eyes, that creates a real big, strong argument for, ‘then I don’t want you doing it in the first place,'” Hayden said.
Some note that the leaks underscore the persisting problem of insider threats, which has been a major cause for concern since the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and former soldier Chelsea Manning. Pompeo acknowledged Thursday that the agency needs to strengthen its own systems to prevent leaks.
Adam Klein, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that a major concern about WikiLeaks is that the organization provides an “outlet” for insider threats and encourages them. “Insider threats are our intelligence agencies’ biggest security threat,” Klein told The Hill.
WikiLeaks has appeared to target CIA interns as potential sources of information. “CIA advertises internships. Whistleblowing opportunity?” the organized wrote on Twitter in mid-March.
“To the extent that there’s any news here, it’s that we have not gotten a handle on insider threats,” Klein said of the latest releases, noting that Congress should be concerned about the CIA leaks. “I think it’s good news, frankly, that the CIA is thinking creatively about collecting information from foreign intelligence targets in the digital age,” Klein said.
The CIA has not confirmed the authenticity of any of the documents released, which Pompeo mentioned briefly on Thursday. “As a policy, we at CIA do not comment on the accuracy of purported intelligence documents posted online,” Pompeo said. “In keeping with that policy, I will not specifically comment on the authenticity or provenance of recent disclosures. But the false narratives that increasingly define our public discourse cannot be ignored,” he said.