Thursday, 28 June 2018 09:58

Comey squashed possible limited immunity deal for Assange: report

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange. WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange.

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange was willing to discuss guidelines on the release of CIA documents — which were published under the name Vault 7 beginning in March 2017 — in exchange for a limited immunity deal that might have freed him for a while, but the deal was squashed by former FBI director James Comey, a report claims.

The Hill reported that Democrat Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr; and American lawyer Adam Waldman — who is known for his US Government connections — were involved in the negotiations to try and bring about the deal during the early days of the Trump administration.

According to the report, in January 2017 Assange's lawyers contacted Waldman to see if the new administration would negotiate with the WikiLeaks publisher. Washington was aware that Assange had a trove of CIA documents that he was planning to publish.

Waldman spoke to Ohr and they met in February 2017; between their talks and the meeting, Waldman met Assange thrice at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Ohr spoke to to DoJ officials and the intelligence community about what appeared to be the likelihood that the government would be able to negotiate what Assange would release.

The government officials understood that Assange would not agree not to release the documents, but they were interested in negotiating redactions; as one official who was involved put it, they " “understood any visibility into his thinking, any opportunity to negotiate any redactions, was in the national security interest and worth taking".

The DoJ chose the head of its counter-intelligence and export controls section, David Laufman, to lead the negotiations. He told Waldman what the government hoped to get out of the talks and Waldman outlined the terms for a deal to give Assange limited immunity in order to leave the embassy and talk to American officials.

According to documents obtained by The Hill, Laufman "played to Assange’s belief that he was a publisher...; he put an offer on the table from the intelligence community to help Assange assess how some hostile foreign powers might be infiltrating or harming WikiLeaks staff".

The first tranche of CIA documents were released on 7 March 2017 but this did not affect the talks as officials were interested in the next releases.

Apart from the written offer, Assange also said he would discuss with the US officials technical evidence that would rule out the assistance of certain parties in leaking emails from the Democrat National Committee to WikiLeaks. This was at the end of March.

Waldman told The Hill: "Mr Assange offered to provide technical evidence and discussion regarding who did not engage in the DNC releases. Finally, he offered his technical expertise to the US Government to help address what he perceived as clear flaws in security systems that led to the loss of the US cyber weapons program."

In early April, Laufman asked Waldman to clarify whether Assange wanted to meet US officials in London or wanted to travel to the US. Prior to this, Waldman had asked Warner if staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee was to meet Assange and talk to him. Warner responded to Waldman and then spoke to Comey.

In mid-February, soon after the initial contacts had begun, Waldman had messaged Warner that he had informed Assange that if he (Waldman) could not achieve the safe passage for Assange to talk to US officials, then he (Waldman) would be ending his middleman role. To this, Warner responded; "Have had important call about ur message will have answer tomorrow."

At that point, Waldman says Warner told him "he had just talked with Comey and that, while the government was appreciative of my efforts, my instructions were to stand down, to end the discussions with Assange".

But when he asked Laufman about this he got a different message. "What Laufman said to me after he heard I was told to ‘stand down’ by Warner and Comey was, ‘That’s bullshit. You are not standing down and neither am I'.”

This episode created distrust within WikiLeaks circles. The Hill says it was told by multiple sources that while the FBI's counter-intelligence team was aware of Laufman's mission, it could not explain the message from Comey.

Waldman was quoted as saying: "The constructive, principled discussions with DOJ that occurred over nearly two months were complicated by the confusing ‘stand down’ message.”

On 7 April, WikiLeaks released more Vault 7 documents containing specifics of CIA malware used in cyber attacks. The US Government pulled out of the negotiations and the CIA director at the time, Mike Pompeo, described WikiLeaks as a "hostile intelligence service".

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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