Charges announced by the Justice Department on Thursday against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provide fresh insight into why federal prosecutors sought to question whistleblower Chelsea Manning last month before a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Manning, convicted in 2013 of leaking classified U.S. government documents to WikiLeaks, was jailed in early March as a recalcitrant witness after refusing to answer the grand jury’s questions. After her arrest, she was held in solitary confinement in a Virginia jail for nearly a month before being moved into its general population—all in an attempt to coerce her into answering questions about conversations she allegedly had with Assange at the time of her illegal disclosures, according to court filings.
Though Manning confessed to leaking more than 725,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks following her deployment to Iraq in 2009—including battlefield reports and five Guantanamo Bay detainee profiles—she was charged with leaking portions of only a couple hundred documents, including dozens of diplomatic cables that have since been declassified.
British authorities on Thursday removed Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, his home for nearly seven years, following Ecuador’s decision to rescind his asylum. The U.S. government has requested that he be extradited to the United States to face a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer crimes.
Until Thursday, the reasons were fuzzy as to why Manning had been called to testify at all. Prosecutors had privately hinted to her attorneys that they believed the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst had provided conflicting statements about her communications with the anti-secrecy organization. But as of late March, supporters working closely with her legal team said that no such accusation had been raised in court.
Charges made public against Assange indicate that federal prosecutors sought to question her over online discussions in which Assange allegedly aided her in attempting to crack a password that would provide access to Defense Department network used to store classified documents and communications. While Manning already had access to the network, known as SIPRNet, the password would have enabled her to download additional material under a username that was not her own.
As Gizmodo first reported Monday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has exempted all files related to Manning under the Freedom of Information Act, citing risk to ongoing criminal proceedings. Manning had signed a Privacy Act waiver last year to allow national security reporter Emma Best to the more than 8,000 pages of documents the bureau had amassed on Manning.
“The indictment against Julian Assange unsealed today was obtained a year to the day before Chelsea appeared before the grand jury and refused to give testimony,” Manning’s support committee said. “The fact that this indictment has existed for over a year underscores what Chelsea’s legal team and Chelsea herself have been saying since she was first issued a subpoena to appear in front of a Federal Grand Jury in the Eastern District of Virginia—that compelling Chelsea to testify would have been duplicative of evidence already in the possession of the grand jury, and was not needed in order for US Attorneys to obtain an indictment of Mr. Assange.”
Among the documents leaked by Manning were nearly 500,000 military field reports known as Significant Activities, or SIGACTS, which were housed in a database accessible through SIPRNet known as the Combined Information Data Network Exchange (CIDNE). During her trial, prosecutors said that Manning had downloaded roughly 24 percent of the SIGACT—none of which were classified above “secret.”
CIDNE, as noted by Manning trial reporter Alexa O’Brien, was accessible by thousands of government employees, military personnel and contractors. “Almost all the information the military presents to the White House and Congress about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan originates in the CIDNE database,” O’Brien wrote.
While CIDNE also contained records of intelligence sources and methods (HUMINT), Manning avoided disclosing any of this material to WikiLeaks.
Ultimately, she was charged with leaking only portions of 227 classified documents, including many diplomatic cables that were later declassified. A damage assessment prepared by a review task force at the Defense Intelligence Agency on the nation security impacts of the redacted Iraq SIGACTs—which WikiLeaks calls the “Iraq War Logs”—concluded in October 2010 that the leaked information “was either dated, represented low-level opinions, or was commonly understood and known due to previous public disclosures.”
Reuters likewise reported in January 2011 that internal U.S. government reviews found the leak of State Department cables caused only limited damage, or as one unnamed official put it: “embarrassing but not damaging.”
Of the five Guantanamo detained profiles leaked by Manning, three related to British citizens known as the Tipton Three: Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul. The men were captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and held in extrajudicial detention by the U.S. government in Cuba until March 2004. After being released, they unsuccessfully sued the U.S. government, claiming they had been tortured while in custody, beaten, forcibly injected with drugs, and told they would be secretly executed.
In 2009, the Tipton Three’s case was dismissed by a U.S. appeals court on the basis that U.S. officials were immune from being prosecuted and that their treatment at Guantanamo was not considered illegal at the time. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case.
Other material illegally disclosed by Manning, but never published, included briefings on the 2009 U.S. cluster bombing of alleged Taliban defenses in the Bala Baluk district of Afghanistan’s Farah province. The strike reportedly killed more than 100 civilians. “It was like Judgement Day,” a health worker who witnessed the attack told Human Rights Watch.
In 2011, journalist Kim Zetter reported for Wired on the alleged exchange between Assange and Manning that now appears to form the basis of the charges against the WikiLeaks founder.
Manning made initial contact with WikiLeaks in February 2010, while on leave. After attempting unsuccessfully to disclose battlefield reports to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and her own hometown paper, she reached out to WikiLeaks on her laptop while inside a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Rockville, Maryland. The following month, according to her court-martial transcripts, Manning sought help from Assange in cracking the SIPRNet password.
Manning, who went by the handle “Nobody,” asked an individual the government has long claimed is Assange if they were “Any good at IM NT [sic] hash cracking?” (As Zetter noted, Manning likely meant “NTLM” for the Microsoft NT LAN Manager.)
Responding under the pseudonym “Nathanial Frank,” Assange allegedly responded: “We have rainbow tables for IM.” Manning is said to have then passed along the encrypted password, to which “Frank” replied: “Passed it on to our guys.” (A complete copy of the chat log is here.)
In addition to alleging Assange conspired to help Manning access the CIDNE databases, the government has accused him of “actively encouraging” Manning to provide additional classified material. While the Supreme Court has upheld the right of journalists to publish illegally obtained information, they cannot participate in, or conspire to, break the law themselves. (Expert opinions also vary widely over whether reporters who expose national secrets enjoy the same protections.)
“Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the Justice Department said.
If convicted, Assange faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Manning, who likely will face no new charges, can legally be detained for another 17 months; until the federal grand jury investigating Assange is dismissed; or she decides to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
Update, 2pm: Added statement from Chelsea Manning support network.