The war on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange: Yahoo News Explains

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In April 2010, when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared at the National Press Club to release a classified video depicting a U.S. military helicopter killing 18 people, he was hailed in some circles as a hero. More than a decade later, new reporting reveals the depths of the CIA’s war against Assange and WikiLeaks during the Trump administration. Yahoo News National Security Correspondent Zach Dorfman explains.

Video Transcript

ZACH DORFMAN: When Julian Assange appeared at the National Press Club in April 2010 to release a video depicting a US Apache military helicopter killing 18 people, including two Reuters journalists--

- And this particular event is-- this is clearly murder.

ZACH DORFMAN: He was hailed in some circles as a hero.

MICHAEL MOORE: We really owe a debt to Mr. Assange, and to Wikileaks.

ZACH DORFMAN: In the months that followed, Wikileaks released massive tranches of classified and sensitive documents related to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables. As US intelligence agencies scrambled to deal with leaks on a scale never seen before, Assange rose to worldwide stardom, and for some, infamy.

- Government secrets, lies, and embarrassing facts. They're all on the web for anyone to see.

- The story behind the biggest leak in intelligence history, profile on me.

- Hello, America. I'm Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.

ZACH DORFMAN: But with infamy came increased scrutiny for Assange, and by 2012, the walls are closing in. Faced with an extradition order to Sweden for multiple charges, including rape, he found refuge in Ecuador's London embassy.

- I thank President Correa for the courage he has shown in considering and in granting me political asylum.

ZACH DORFMAN: The Obama administration struggled with the First Amendment issues surrounding charging Assange with crimes related to the disclosure of classified information.

BARACK OBAMA: The fact is these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate.

ZACH DORFMAN: And ultimately, declined to do so.

DONALD TRUMP: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

ZACH DORFMAN: With the advent of the Trump administration also came new blood to the upper echelons of the Justice Department, and national security bureaucracy, and a new, tougher attitude toward Assange.

MIKE POMPEO: It's time to call out Wikileaks for what it really is, a non-state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors, like Russia.

ZACH DORFMAN: This antagonism only intensified when Wikileaks started publishing ultra secret CIA hacking tools in March 2017. In response, the CIA repeatedly proposed kidnapping the Wikileaks founder from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and flying him to the United States. Some senior Trump administration officials and CIA executives even discussed assassinating Assange, according to former intelligence officials. Later in 2017, US intelligence agencies picked up reports that Russian intelligence agents were plotting to arrange for Assange to escape London.

Some of the suspected scenarios appeared almost cartoonish, ranging from the lanky Australian hiding himself in a laundry cart to hopping into a Russian diplomats van and being loaded onto a cargo plane to Russia. The intrigue over an Assange breakout set off a wild scramble among rival spy agencies to position themselves for what might happen. CIA and Trump administration officials prepared for a number of scenarios to prevent Assange from escaping to Russia, including potential gun battles with Russian operatives on the streets of London, smashing a car into the vehicle transporting Assange, and grabbing him, and shooting out the tires of a plane, carrying Assange before it could take off. While the kidnapping plot never came to pass, President Trump was briefed and warned that the matter could provoke an international incident.

DONALD TRUMP: I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It's not my thing.

ZACH DORFMAN: Other officials, including attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was "very, very anti-Assange," argued that Assange's case was best handled through overt legal channels.

DONALD TRUMP: The attorney general will be involved in that, and he'll make a decision.

ZACH DORFMAN: By 2019, the Swedes had dropped their investigation into Assange, but the Wikileaks founder had also worn out his welcome in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Exactly nine years and six days after his first appearance at the National Press Club in Washington DC, Assange was evicted and released into British custody. That same day, the US government unsealed its initial indictment of Assange.

A British judge initially ruled that Assange could not be extradited to the United States, citing a high risk of suicide. But in July, a UK court formally permitted a US appeal to move forward. For now, Assange's legal odyssey appears to have only just begun.