FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that the radical transparency group WikiLeaks should not be considered a legitimate journalistic organization because it trafficked in “intelligence porn” and sought to damage the United States.
“There’s nothing that even smells journalistic about some of this conduct,” Comey told a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Comey’s broadside marked the second time in less than a month that a senior intelligence or law enforcement official had cast WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, as deeply hostile to the United States. CIA Director Mike Pompeo on April 13 called WikiLeaks a stateless “hostile intelligence service” and Assange a “narcissist” and “a coward hiding behind a screen.”
Asked whether the Justice Department had formulated charges against Assange over the release of classified U.S. documents and files, Comey said, “I don’t want to confirm whether or not there are charges pending,” noting only that “WikiLeaks is an important focus of our attention.”
WikiLeaks has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. government for a decade since its founding, obtaining and releasing millions of secret documents. Some fans, including Hollywood celebrities like Pamela Anderson, have lauded the group’s disclosures for revealing the reach of U.S. intelligence and surveillance activities.
Comey acknowledged that “there are Americans – well-meaning, thoughtful people – who think that WikiLeaks might just be a journalistic outfit.”
In a charge that brought an immediate rebuttal on Twitter from Assange, the FBI chief asserted that WikiLeaks does not comport to usual journalistic standards.
“In my view, a huge portion of WikiLeaks’ activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about leaking classified information to damage the United States,” Comey said.
“People sometimes get cynical about journalists. American journalists do not do that. They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, ‘Is there anything about this that is going to put lives in danger?’ ” Comey said.
It’s what I said to you, intelligence porn, just push it out in order to damage.
FBI Director James Comey
“They work with us to try to accomplish their important First Amendment goals by safeguarding those interests,” he said. “The activity I’m talking about – WikiLeaks – involves no such considerations whatsoever. It’s what I said to you, intelligence porn, just push it out in order to damage.”
In a tweet, Assange said WikiLeaks had consulted the FBI before the release last month of part of a dump of more than 8,000 documents taken from a CIA hacking unit, a release that it calls Vault7.
“James Comey just mislead (sic) the Senate while under oath when said Wikileaks ‘doesn’t call us’. We did over #Vault7 and I know he knows it,” Assange tweeted.
Assange entered the embassy in London nearly five years ago amid an investigation in Sweden over an alleged sexual assault, saying he feared Sweden would turn him over to U.S. authorities to stand criminal trial.
Sweden delayed sending prosecutors to take Assange’s testimony until last fall, and it has declined to pledge that the Australian national won’t be handed over to U.S. authorities.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., peppered Comey with questions about whether Assange had been charged with a crime in the United States. Comey did not answer directly. After the hearing, Sasse said he believed Assange was an enemy of U.S. democracy.
“If Assange was truly the free speech champion he claims to be, he wouldn’t be collaborating with a Russian thugocracy that murders journalists,” Sasse said in a statement.