National Security

CIA chief targets WikiLeaks and Julian Assange as ‘hostile,’ vows to take action

CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Thursday called the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks a hostile intelligence service and said the group would soon face decisive U.S. action to stifle its disclosures of leaked material.

“It ends now,” Pompeo said in his first public remarks after 10 weeks on the job, indicating that President Donald Trump will take undefined but forceful action.

Pompeo lashed out aggressively against Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks – who has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for nearly five years – calling him a narcissist and “a fraud, a coward hiding behind a screen.”

The broadside against Assange and WikiLeaks marked a sharp about-face toward Assange, whom Trump once applauded for publishing emails stolen from 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The CIA, hurt by a recent WikiLeaks disclosure of purported stolen spying tools, is elevating WikiLeaks into a high-profile target.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service. It has encouraged its followers to find jobs at CIA in order to obtain intelligence,” Pompeo said.

“I can’t go into great detail, but the steps we take can’t be static,” Pompeo said.

WikiLeaks, a loose collective of hackers and activists backed by moneyed donors who support its cause of radical transparency to unmask the powerful, emerged a little over a decade ago. With a series of high-profile disclosures of leaked documents, the group once had significant support among the Western journalistic community.

Its major disclosures include hundreds of thousands of classified military files from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2010 and reams of highly classified State Department cables later that same year, opening a door on U.S. diplomatic activity all over the world.

Assange, fearful of U.S. capture, fled in June 2012 into the embassy of Ecuador in London’s Knightsbridge district, escaping an investigation into sexual assault allegations lodged when he had visited Sweden two years earlier. Assange claimed the Swedish investigation was designed to whisk him to the United States to stand trial for espionage.

It was WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 election campaign, in which it released pilfered emails from the Democratic National Committee and later from the personal email account of the Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta, that hardened establishment views of the group as hostile to particular figures, like Clinton, and intent on molding U.S. policies.

“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is – a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” Pompeo said.

Precisely what actions the Trump administration could take against Assange and WikiLeaks is not clear. The Ecuador Embassy where he resides is considered the sovereign territory of that South American nation. Any effort to jam communications there risks angering Ecuador.

Pompeo cited a Jan. 6 joint report by the CIA, the National Security Agency and the FBI that accuses a Russian military intelligence unit known as GRU of using WikiLeaks “to release data of U.S. victims that the GRU had obtained through cyber operations against the Democratic National Committee.”

WikiLeaks also collaborated with RT, the Russian state-operated network, Pompeo said.

Reflecting a criticism lodged by those who find an anti-American slant to WikiLeaks, Pompeo asserted that Assange’s embrace of freedom and transparency is skin-deep, hiding a willingness to accept support from non-democratic forces.

“Assange and his ilk make common cause with dictators today. Yes, they try unsuccessfully to cloak themselves and their actions in the language of liberty and privacy,” Pompeo said. “In reality, however, they champion nothing but their own celebrity.”

Pompeo also criticized Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who fled abroad in 2013 and divulged a series of secret NSA programs that alienated even leaders of close U.S. allies, who learned that they were targets of electronic surveillance.

“A colleague of ours at NSA recently explained that more than a thousand foreign targets – people, groups, organizations – more than a thousand of them changed or tried to change how they communicated as a result of the Snowden disclosures. That number is staggering,” Pompeo said

The remarks at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank, served as the first public presentation by Pompeo since he was sworn in Jan. 23.

A Kansan who served six years as a Republican congressman from Wichita, Pompeo is a West Point graduate and veteran of the House Intelligence Committee.

A previous CIA director, Michael Hayden, said Pompeo had made headway in winning respect at the agency after the “long-running gunfight” that Trump had engaged in last fall with the intelligence community, causing a rift unprecedented in modern times.

“From what I hear, he’s been well-accepted by the agency,” Hayden said of Pompeo in an interview with McClatchy. “He does seem to have gotten access to the president.”

Trump has faced steady and growing allegations that members of his inner circle maintained ties with Russia, which is accused of hijacking last year’s presidential campaign in his favor. The charges, following a formal assertion by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had sought to influence the campaign, have led to a full-blown investigation into whether collusion occurred.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4