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ESPIONAGE IN THE AGE OF INFORMATION WARFARE: THE CASE OF JULIAN ASSANGE

Updated: Jul 23

Elena Montaña, Counterintelligence and Cyber Team (CICYBER) Team; Dja Camara, Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team

Week of Monday, July 5, 2021


Flag of Foreign Intelligence Service (Russia) 2009[1]


On June 29, 2021, Sputnik International (Sputnik) published an interview with Alfred de Zayas about the legal action the United States government is taking against Julian Assange. In the interview, de Zayas alleged that should Assange be extradited to the United States and die in government custody, the CIA would be responsible for his assassination. Sputnik is known to be a biased publisher that is highly critical of American foreign policy and is funded by the Russian government. Other websites and social media platforms are serving as mediums for this article, while #JulianAssangedidntkillhimself and #Assangedidntkillhimself have seen spikes in activity around the date of publication. The article itself has implications in national security and defense in regards to the larger Russian information warfare campaign that has been waged against the United States. Washington’s national security efforts must exceed the scope and sphere of the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine and delegitimize American domestic and foreign policy, as well as institutions.


The June 29 Sputnik Article + The Assange Case


On June 29, Sputnik published an interview with Alfred de Zayas, former United Nations Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, alleging that should Julian Assange die in government custody, the CIA would have assassinated him.[2] It is highly probable that what de Zayas is describing is a conspiracy, but unlike traditional conspiracy theories that are post-factum, the conspiracy theory about Assange’s death appears to be preemptive. Conspiracy theories are theories “that reject the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot.”[3] What de Zayas communicated in this interview can be taken as a biased opinion, but it can also be serving a larger strategic purpose by deploying elements of existing conspiracy theories. It is very likely that de Zayas’ theory is subliminally describing a larger conspiracy, which appears to be that Assange poses a similar threat or opportunity to the United States’ elite just as Jeffrey Epstein and John McAfee did before him.[4] Q (behind QAnon) and similar messengers connect actors and events to a larger global network based on their worldview;[5] the view here being that Epstein and McAfee, and by extension Assange, know too much and they can pose a risk of incriminating the elites. The opportunity that suicide, something that can be perceived as an admission of guilt, may present is the possibility of controlling the narrative surrounding these actors without being challenged by the actors themselves. It is unlikely that the Kremlin subscribes to this worldview because the view extends to President Vladimir Putin who allegedly poisoned ex-FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko because Litvinenko “knew” that Putin was a pedophile.[6] The opportunity to benefit from the Assange case seems to present itself to the Kremlin and its proxies, and so is almost certainly being exploited around the Epstein and McAfee conspiracy theories. Recent developments in the Assange case, which can be understood for their counterintelligence and cyber implications, could indicate that the Kremlin is actively attempting to exploit controversies, including controversial actors, as part of its larger information warfare campaign. The United States charged Assange with eighteen federal charges involving both cybercrime and espionage, firstly for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and conspiring with Chelsea Manning, which later expanded to Assange conspiring with Anonymous.[7] The Biden Administration’s decision to try Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917 likely caught public attention as the Espionage Act was not originally designed for the current cyber environment, but has still been applied for prosecutions that were not directly connected to espionage, but leaking. The complexity of Assange’s case has in all likelihood been exploited to discredit Washington, as his level of involvement remains unclear to the public.


The Counterintelligence and Cyber (CICYBER) Team: Implications


Assange’s initial indictment could explain if he is defined as a hacker, whistleblower, or committed journalist. This uncertainty in Assange’s status has been the trigger of protests offline and criticism, as both whistleblowers’ and journalists' respective activities would be protected by the law and ultimately, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Assange’s CFAA charge, however, resulted from his aiding and abetting Manning in obtaining classified information through illegal means as he used rainbow tables (precomputed dictionaries with plaintext passwords and their corresponding hash values) to decrypt a hashed password string.[8] It is unclear whether he was eventually successful, but his alleged active role in the illegal obtention of this information would not be protected by the First Amendment.[9] It also distances him from usual reporters that routinely engage in “soliciting information from government sources, communicating documents online and protecting sources' identities.”[10] Moreover, the application of the Espionage Act, which condemns obtaining/disclosing sensitive classified information without proper authorization, could distinguish his involvement as a leak or an act of espionage. Providing and distributing classified information in the digital era could in turn be understood as giving leaked or stolen intelligence to America’s adversaries indirectly.


Media (foreign and domestic) positioning in these debates, often explained by the ambiguity of the situation, risks blurring the differences between critical concepts in the current hybrid environment. There is already a very thin line between them, as whistleblowers' “fair play” in the internet era becomes closer to cybercriminals’ hacking, despite their “moral agenda.” Moreover, rule of law, the basis of the United States and modern democracies, could be threatened in a scenario where society fits Assange’s case in a bigger pattern. Russia would be interested in formulating the enforcement of this judicial decision as to the silencing of dissent and selective enforcement of cyber laws. The aforementioned terms are used more and more arbitrarily by Russian-aligned media, altering public perception of what should be protected and what should be denounced, progressively losing its connotations. It could equally be argued that this version of the event would encourage future leaks and reward hackers throughout the world.


WikiLeaks, under Assange’s leadership, is known to have published a secret United States Department of Defense Counterintelligence Analysis Report following previous leaks related to the United States military action during the Iraq War.[11] This document described different methods of marginalizing WikiLeaks, besides including ideas like deterring potential whistleblowers via termination of employment and criminal prosecution of leakers. This leak, while promoting a halo of heroism around Wikileaks, seriously undermined the image of the Intelligence Community (IC), which today finds itself increasingly facing societal remarks about alleged abuses of information, likely worsened by the cloud of secrecy surrounding them. Although Wikileaks and other forms of hacktivism (the act of hacking, or breaking into a computer system, with a political or social purpose, ideological motivation, as a protest, a desire to embarrass certain organizations/individuals, or sometimes sheer vandalism) might theoretically be aimed at exposing the malpractices of powerful actors like governments for the “common good,” informants or (foreign) hackers making leaked or stolen information publicly available might often be seeking to advance their own nations’ interests. Whistleblowers, or hackers, often act as surrogates for intelligence gathering and disruption exercises, a useful while non-attributable and cost-effective strategy for the Kremlin.


Providing stolen content to WikiLeaks offers the Kremlin and other interested parties a wider audience and a more reputable medium than their sources provide. Aware of the negative image that the Kremlin inspires abroad, Russia gains more from discrediting American institutions from the inside. The WikiLeaks’ unfiltered distribution of data stolen online supports, intentionally or not, a particular narrative, adding another layer of uncertainty to the reasons behind its release.[12] Public attention is likely to be shifted towards the information revealed, not the "why now" and "who is profiting from this being published," which may be an afterthought. Coincidentally, there has been an apparent reemergence of hacktivism since 2020, evidenced by the reappearance of Anonymous. Even if WikiLeaks maintains a lower profile, for now, it has remained largely inactive, besides covering Assange’s case developments throughout 2019. The convenience of WikiLeaks’ publications for Russia is almost certain, as well as this country’s support for the portrayal of Assange as a victim of the IC and law enforcement. However, Assange is probably becoming the most conductive resource for Russian interests, as long as his case remains open and covered internationally.


The Counter Threat and Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team: Implications


The content of the Sputnik article is framed as a human rights issue as it deals with press freedom and arbitrary detention.[13] Historically, the United States government has been criticized for understating human rights in their national security policies.[14] In this respect, the Kremlin does seem to be dominating the narrative as they never claimed Assange as a Russian asset and have instead claimed that Washington is retaliating and persecuting Assange for exposing the practices of the National Security Agency (NSA), the United States Army, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).[15] The Kremlin may also be attempting to reframe Washington’s national security policy as government overreach and corruption. Weaponizing the human rights narrative can have a significant impact on perception as Washington could be framed as abusing the human rights of journalists and individuals alike. The proliferation of the news article on online and social media platforms can also indicate that this deployment has reach, relevance, resonance, and resolve. From the information we gathered, the article has been digitally reprinted by NEWSTRAL, Cukute, Success Stories, News Logic, Jordan News, News Now, and Shafaqna, in addition to circulating on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook, including de Zayas’ Twitter, Facebook, and website.[16] The use of a credible messenger such as de Zayas may be strategic as the message and its messenger amplify one another while possibly undermining and delegitimizing Washington as well as the IC.


Our prediction that de Zayas’ conspiracy theory will be linked to those of Epstein and McAfee can be interpreted as an attempt to appeal to more established and mainstream conspiracy theories. By preemptively framing the narrative of Assange as a victim, de Zayas has planted a seed of doubt which will almost certainly grow should Assange die in police custody, regardless of location or circumstance. This could serve as yet another argument to be made for Washington’s corruption and the larger conspiracy of elites. Analysis of the actual claims can infer that the conspiracy theory is rhetorical and relies on several logical fallacies. More specifically, the conspiracy theory appeals to an established worldview that is highly suspicious and critical of Washington, and it implicitly lends itself to not one but two popular conspiracy theories. The stacking of conspiracy theories can be an attempt to appeal to wider audiences, and in doing so, acts much like a resume statement by adding relevant context. This almost certainly resonates with those who already subscribe to QAnon, Anonymous, and #PizzaGate conspiracy theories. According to the graphic below, not only can we determine the reach of these related conspiracy theories, the duration of these social media trends (June 2021-July 2021) indicate that the Assange hashtags have resolve as well as reach, relevance, and resonance.


Assange + Epstein + McAfee Conspiracy Theories: Social Media Reach[17]


Tying Assange to Epstein and McAfee can also be interpreted as posturing by almost “daring” Washington to continue legal procedures in extradition and prosecution on the off chance that Assange does happen to die in the process. Regardless if Assange were to die in custody or Washington decides to stop pursuing charges, the Kremlin would have a symbolic victory because either Washington looks guilty or weak. An immediate implication can be that these conspiracy theories will result in an overwhelming amount of public pressure against Washington. This pressure may force Washington to concede, but there is also a chance that domestic tensions may escalate which could result in an event similar to the January 6 Capitol Riot. The civil unrest that escalates to destabilization has massive implications for the United States domestically and for its international interests. NATO allies, especially those in Eastern Europe, have been subject to Russia’s attempts to expand territorially.[18] In the Kremlin’s larger campaign against NATO, there will likely be gains made in other conflicts including Crimea and Ukraine. The Kremlin is seemingly creating the time and space it needs to accomplish other political objectives in these conflicts and regions by likely attempting to weaken its adversaries and lessen the probability of NATO challenging them outright. Ironically, in framing Washington as a human rights abuser, the Kremlin can be influencing its perception by distancing itself from its historic image as an autocratic government. This is almost certain to be done by optimizing the Kremlin’s say-do gap in comparison to Washington’s; by framing the IC as extrajudicial and corrupt, the widening of Washington’s gap concerning human rights and national security can be implied. This widening can also allow the Kremlin to fulfill its political objectives in Eastern Europe by “liberating” ethnic Russians as a justified human rights leader. Meanwhile, challenges from Washington and NATO will more than likely have issues in their overall reach, relevance, resonance, and resolve and the necessary impact to stop Russian expansion.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG): Recommendations


There have already been steps taken to address the threat the Russian information warfare poses to the United States, in both the form of espionage and messaging. The Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on 10 individuals and 6 proxies allegedly involved in espionage, while the Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed additional sanctions on 46 individuals and entities based on their involvement in the Kremlin's destabilization efforts against the United States and its NATO allies.[19] Other options exist for Washington to immediately implement in a more comprehensive approach, including allocating funding for several digital and media literacy campaigns, at the local and state level.[20] Washington can support the initiatives of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and create an American equivalent to the European Union’s Rapid Alert System (RAS).[21] CTG encourages the IC and CIA specifically to aim at deepening the trust of the citizens they protect. Despite the necessary covert element, we believe it would be useful to underline the accountability and oversight to which they are subjected, as well as their activity around foreign actions that threaten national security. It is also important to transmit that OSINT has increasingly become a part of the information collection process, while communications and the final product are understandably sensitive, much like intellectual property is. Improving the perception of the CIA domestically can only be possible with the support of Washington and through initiatives that enhance collaboration with different sectors.


The Espionage Act seems to be primarily concerned with traditional warfare and so it should be amended to include elements of the non-traditional warfare of today. This would be more comprehensive using the DIME framework which will more adequately define and address espionage, hostile cyber actors, leaking, speech that is not protected, and the intentional weaponization of information. CICYBER is prepared to draft these amendments which, with this case in mind, would treat spying and leaking as separate offenses to have more successful prosecutions. Given the absence of mechanisms and federal legislation in place to counter the deployment of messages and the employment of messengers within the DIME context, the Kremlin has largely remained unchallenged. Therefore, a governmental body that deals with disinformation, the malicious and/or criminal intent to mislead and manipulate the audience with unfactual messaging, is needed. CTSC is proposing such a draft, which would be more sustainable with the backing of legislation that is signed into law and enforced at the federal level. Both recommendations strongly urge that human rights considerations be implemented into the legal framework so that Washington can begin optimizing its say-do gap, and the human rights narrative will not be continually leveraged at its national security policies or other legitimate processes. CTG understands prevention and preemptive measures to be complementary to countermeasures, especially during non-traditional warfare. As such, CICYBER and CTSC can offer training in digital and media literacy and can consult decision and policymakers on the larger Russian information warfare campaign. CICYBER and CTSC recommend that these initiatives be digested and implemented as early as possible within a reasonable time frame.


CTG is committed to supporting the United States government in its counterintelligence, cybersecurity, and counter threat strategic communication efforts. As such, the CICYBER Team will continue monitoring developments related to this event as well as other relevant threats, as will the CTSC Team. Other regional teams, including CTG’s NORTHCOM Team and EUCOM Team, are tracking events and threats posed to the United States and its NATO allies. Meanwhile, CTG’s Threat Hunters and Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers actively collect information dealing with developing and ongoing threats that teams use in producing reports, projects, and proposals for our customers.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Flag of Foreign Intelligence Service (Russia) 2009” by Government of Russia licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Ex-UN Official: ‘If Assange Were Found Dead, I'd Suspect Extrajudicial Execution CIA is Known For,’ Sputnik, June 2021, https://sputniknews.com/uk/202106291083268080-ex-un-official-if-assange-were-found-dead-id-suspect-extrajudicial-execution-cia-is-known-for/

[3] Crash Course in Communications, Counter Threat Strategic Communication Team, June 2021, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1AXwW6lZxGjb1wMKZvYJNyPIbAlMXdPHdB6FeLUkGa50/edit#slide=id.p

[4] Epstein-like conspiracy theories spread after John McAfee’s suicide, South China Morning Post, June 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3138573/qanon-followers-spread-epstein-conspiracy-theories-about-john

[5] QUANTIFYING THE Q CONSPIRACY: A Data-Driven Approach to Understanding the Threat Posed by QAnon, The Soufan Center, April 2021, https://thesoufancenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/TSC-White-Paper_QAnon_16April2021-final-1.pdf

[6] Putin branded a paedophile and money launderer, The Times, January 2016, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/putin-branded-a-paedophile-and-money-launderer-fsr5gx7qm90

[7] WikiLeaks Founder Charged in Superseding Indictment, The United States Department of Justice, June 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/wikileaks-founder-charged-superseding-indictment

[8] Breaking Down the Hacking Case Against Julian Assange, WIRED, November 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/julian-assange-arrest-indictment-hacking-cfaa/

[9] Gabbard’s Espionage Act Reform Bill Highlights U.S. Government’s Recent Responses to National Security Whistleblowers, American Bar Association, February 2021, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/crsj-featured-articles/espionage-act-reform-bill/

[10] The Espionage Act Reform Bill Addresses Key Press Concerns, Just Security, March 2020, https://www.justsecurity.org/69232/the-espionage-act-reform-bill-addresses-key-press-concerns/

[11] Secret Document Calls Wikileaks 'Threat' to U.S. Army, WIRED, March 2010, https://www.wired.com/2010/03/wikileaks-army/

[12] Hacktivists vs Faketivists: Fancy Bears in Disguise, ThreatConnect, December 2016, https://threatconnect.com/blog/faketivist-vs-hacktivist-how-they-differ/

[13] Ex-UN Official: ‘If Assange Were Found Dead, I'd Suspect Extrajudicial Execution CIA is Known For,’ Sputnik, June 2021, https://sputniknews.com/uk/202106291083268080-ex-un-official-if-assange-were-found-dead-id-suspect-extrajudicial-execution-cia-is-known-for/

[14] UN experts urge US to align anti-terrorism programme with international law, United Nations, April 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/04/1089782

[15] How Russia Often Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets, The New York Times, August 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/01/world/europe/wikileaks-julian-assange-russia.html

[16] Sputnik News: Ex-UN Official: ‘If Assange Were Found Dead, I’d Suspect Extrajudicial Execution CIA is Known For,’ Twitter, June 30 2021, https://twitter.com/Alfreddezayas/status/1410308649436725256 Link to original article, Facebook, June 30 2021, https://bg-bg.facebook.com/Alfredmauricedezayas?fref=mentions Ex-UN Official: ‘If Assange Were Found Dead, I’d Suspect Extrajudicial Execution CIA is Known For,’ Alfred de Zayas' Human Rights Corner, June 2021, https://dezayasalfred.wordpress.com/

[17] Assange + Epstein + McAfee Conspiracy Theories: Social Media Reach, by Dja Camara, via Google Sheets

[18] Satellite Images Show Russia’s Expanding Ukraine Buildup, The Wall Street Journal, April 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/satellite-images-show-russias-expanding-ukraine-buildup-11618917238

[19] U.S. Sanctions on Russia: Spies Expelled, Debt Financing Targeted, CEPA, April 2021, https://cepa.org/u-s-sanctions-on-russia-spies-expelled-debt-financing-targeted/ Biden Administration Expands Russia Sanctions, The National Law Review, April 2021, https://www.natlawreview.com/article/biden-administration-expands-russia-sanctions

[20] Cybint Cybersecurity Workshop, Cybint, 2021, https://www.cybintsolutions.com/cybersecurity-workshop/ Be Internet Citizens, YouTube, 2017, https://internetcitizens.withyoutube.com/ Your State Legislation, Media Literacy Now, 2013, https://medialiteracynow.org/your-state-legislation-2/

[21] The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence is a multinational and interdisciplinary cyber defence hub, CCDCOE, May 2008, https://ccdcoe.org/about-us/ RAPID ALERT SYSTEM, European Union, March 2019, https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ras_factsheet_march_2019_0.pdf

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