Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN law enforcement analyst. He previously served as a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI conducting counterterrorism investigations. Follow him on Twitter at @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
“WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” Donald Trump famously exclaimed during his 2016 presidential campaign, as the elusive international group publicized emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton in an effort to hurt Clinton.
After the group’s founder, Julian Assange, was arrested by British authorities in April, reportedly at the request of the US government, Trump sought to downplay his knowledge of the organization’s activities, claiming he knows “nothing about WikiLeaks.”
Whatever Trump’s actual knowledge of the group, explosive new CNN reporting sheds further light on Assange’s efforts to systematically help upend the 2016 election in favor of Republicans.
Supporters of Assange and WikiLeaks have tried to absolve Assange, painting him as a truth-telling hero, committing journalism and becoming a victim of government censorship. But what this trove of documents appears to confirm is not heroic at all.
Perched inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he spent nearly seven years in asylum, Assange was engaged in nothing short of a full-fledged intelligence collection and dissemination operation to influence American voters.
According to documents obtained by CNN, Assange had multiple Russian visitors to the embassy, as well as visits from world-class hackers, and potentially received deliveries of hacked material related to the 2016 election. To evade surveillance detection from his Ecuadorian hosts, Assange would on occasion go so far as to meet with his mysterious guests inside a women’s restroom. These details were contained in surveillance reports compiled for the Ecuadorian government by UC Global, a private Spanish security company, and authenticated for CNN by an Ecuadorian intelligence official.
The WikiLeaks founder reportedly met several times inside the embassy with officials from RT, a Kremlin-backed TV network and propaganda outlet that bills itself as a news agency. Put simply, Assange appears to have been using the embassy as a platform to coordinate nothing short of information warfare.
Since its inception, WikiLeaks has remained a controversial and complicated outfit. Its ostensible mission has been to publish stolen secrets from governments around the world with the goal of ensuring public transparency. It has taken on many regimes and has spotlighted wrongdoing previously shielded from public view.
In 2010, following the group’s publication of hundreds of thousands of stolen US diplomatic cables, I took part in the FBI’s efforts to assess whether any bureau operations had been compromised or negatively affected by the security breach. There is no doubt in my mind that the group caused damage to US national security. To date, the government has still not provided a full public accounting of the assessment, likely due to reasons of operational security.
Although the leaks were devastating, one byproduct of the WikiLeaks diplomatic dump was, in my judgment, a realization that the US government periodically overclassifies information. One need only pore through the trove of stolen cables to see for oneself that not everything deemed off limits should have been restricted from public disclosure.
For these reasons, good people of all political stripes debated whether perhaps WikiLeaks was on to something in its effort to pursue transparency.
However, the narrative that the group and Assange operate in the public interest was utterly destroyed by revelations in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, along with the new CNN reporting about Assange’s involvement with Russians inside the Ecuadorian embassy.
Mueller found that, as early as 2015, Assange had indicated a preference for the GOP winning the 2016 presidential election.
WikiLeaks also went on to strategically time its release of stolen Democratic emails in an apparent effort to direct negative attention away from Trump. Indeed, less than an hour after the October 2016 release of an “Access Hollywood” tape depicting then-candidate Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, WikiLeaks began unloading stolen Democratic emails, according to Mueller.
As Mueller prepares to publicly testify before Congress next week, and with much attention being focused on whether President Trump obstructed justice, we should not lose sight of the aspect of Mueller’s investigation that deals with efforts by the Russian government to throw a US election.
For his part, Assange has continued to deny any connection to the Kremlin. But with so many now obvious connections uncovered between WikiLeaks and Russia, coupled with Assange’s own documented desire to hurt Hillary Clinton, how can anyone continue to take him seriously as a righteous pursuer of transparency operating in the public interest?
Undeniably, an American candidate for the highest office in the land – in this case, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – was the victim of a sophisticated influence operation launched by a hostile foreign government. That government appears to have been secretly aided by a group that has billed itself as a defender of the truth.