US prosecutors have drawn up secret charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, according to a leaked internal email extracted from private US intelligence firm Stratfor and obtained by the whistleblower site.
WikiLeaks began releasing the first tranche of more than five million Stratfor emails on Monday in a bid to show "how a private intelligence agency works, and how they target individuals for their corporate and government clients". Australian broadsheet The Age, which obtained early access to the emails through an investigative partnership with WikiLeaks, reports that in one internal email sent in January 2011 a senior Stratfor exec writes: "We have a sealed indictment on Assange".
Stratfor's vice-president for intelligence, Fred Burton, a former chief of counterterrorism in the US State Department diplomatic security service, made the comment in an exchange discussing media reports about unconfirmed US investigations into WikiLeaks. In the email (sent via a BlackBerry and published by WikiLeaks here), sent to fellow intelligence analysts, Burton underlined the potential sensitivity of the information on a possible US case against Assange but saying "Pls protect" and "Not for Pub[lication]".
It's unclear where Burton got his information, presumably from a government informant, or its accuracy. But US charges against Assange have been the subject of consistent speculation.
The Australian embassy in Washington reported in December 2010 that the US Justice Department was running an "active and vigorous inquiry into whether Julian Assange can be charged under US law, most likely the 1917 Espionage Act". The cable went on to describe the US investigation into WikiLeaks as "unprecedented both in its scale and nature" adding that rumours that a secret grand jury had been convened in Alexandria, Virginia, were "likely true", The Age reports.
Suggestions that US prosecutors drew up secret charges against Assange some time ago have appeared while the WikiLeaks founder awaits a UK Supreme Court decision on an appeal against extradition to Sweden for questioning over an alleged sexual assault.
Lawyers acting for Assange have argued that his extradition to Sweden will open the door to a US extradition on possible espionage charges over the leak of confidential US military reports from Iraq and US diplomatic cables.
US army private Bradley Manning, a former Iraq-based intelligence analyst, faces court martial as the alleged source of classified US documents later published by WikiLeaks.
Stratfor provides intelligence and analysis to corporate and government subscribers. It's described by some as corporate America's Wannabe CIA.
The Texas-based global intelligence firm was infamously hacked by Anonymous last December, with the hackers making off with email spools and credit card information from insecure systems. Wikileaks doesn't say where it got its information but the dates covered by the emails - July 2004 and late December 2011 - are consistent with the hacktivists' ransacking of Stratfor.
In a statement covering the release of the so-called Global Intelligence Files (GIFiles), Wikileaks states that the emails show "Stratfor’s web of informers, pay-off structure, payment-laundering techniques and psychological methods". The statement makes no attempt to disguise the adversarial relationship that has developed between WikiLeaks and Stratfor, even accusing the Texas-based global intelligence outfit of attempting to subvert WikiLeaks.
The material contains privileged information about the US government’s attacks against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and Stratfor’s own attempts to subvert WikiLeaks. There are more than 4,000 emails mentioning WikiLeaks or Julian Assange. The emails also expose the revolving door that operates in private intelligence companies in the United States. Government and diplomatic sources from around the world give Stratfor advance knowledge of global politics and events in exchange for money.
The Global Intelligence Files exposes how Stratfor has recruited a global network of informants who are paid via Swiss banks accounts and pre-paid credit cards. Stratfor has a mix of covert and overt informants, which includes government employees, embassy staff and journalists around the world.
In a lengthy statement, George Friedman, founder and chief exec of Stratfor suggested some of the emails might be forgeries while admitting others might be accurate. Friedman goes on to say the firm will neither confirm nor deny which are which, with the exception of saying that his supposed post hack resignation email was a fake. He said the emails were extracted during the Anonymous hack, which he condemns.
As most of you know, in December thieves hacked into Stratfor data systems and stole a large number of company emails, as well as private information of Stratfor subscribers and friends. Today Wikileaks is publishing the emails that were stolen in December. This is a deplorable, unfortunate - and illegal - breach of privacy.
Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies. Some may be authentic. We will not validate either, nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questions about them.
The disclosure of these emails does not mean that there has been another hack of Stratfor's computer and data systems. Those systems, which we have rebuilt with enhanced security measures, remain secure and protected.
The release of these emails is, however, a direct attack on Stratfor. This is another attempt to silence and intimidate the company, and one we reject. As you can see, emails sent to many people about my resignation were clearly forged.
Friedman goes on to defend Strafor's professional ethics.
Stratfor has worked to build good sources in many countries around the world, as any publisher of geopolitical analysis would do.
We are proud of the relationships we have built, which help our analysts better understand the issues in many of these countries through the eyes of people who live there.
We have developed these relationships with individuals and partnerships with local media in a straightforward manner, and we are committed to meeting the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct.
Stratfor is not a government organization, not is it affiliated with any government. The emails are private property. Like all private emails, they were written casually, with no expectation that anyone other than the sender and recipient would ever see them. And clearly, as with my supposed resignation letter, some of the emails may be fabricated or altered.
Friedman concludes by apologising for last year's breach and the inconvenience it has resulted in for the firm's subscribers and employees. ®