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The Surveillance of WikiLeaks


It was the worst kept secret in the novella of espionage delights, but the discussion in Glenn Greewald’s the Intercept was anticipated. The article suggested its imminent newsworthiness: “Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert intelligence to prosecution” (Feb 18).

If only we could say it was the first time. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have become the bread and butter of a good many staff in the National Security Agency and their British equivalent, GCQH. The outfit is also providing rich fare for a range of agencies keen to mark out WikiLeaks in some capacity as an illegal organisation. The effort has so far failed because the implications – at least for now – are simply too terrifying, especially for those with even a shade of interest in publishing and reporting. Criminalise WikiLeaks, and you criminalise us all.

In the hawkish eyes of the security establishment that keeps watch on WikiLeaks, the turn from reporter activist to perfidious criminal may be a short one. The language of the US government targeting “the human network that supports WikiLeaks” is chilling. A classified document from August 2010 outlines the Obama administration’s effort to collectivise the targeting of WikiLeaks, urging “foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs.”

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation correctly observes, such an act is blatant forum shopping on the part of an administration hamstrung by the constitution. The dirty work, in short, can be done elsewhere. “Publishing classified documents is not illegal in the United States, and the US has not charged WikiLeaks with any crime for publishing the Afghanistan war logs or any other classified documents.”

Another document, from July 2011, details discussions between NSA offices as to whether WikiLeaks might be designated a “malicious foreign actor” for reasons of surveillance (the language in the document is “targeting with no defeats”). Such a designation would simply broaden the scope of activities available to the agency. “No defeats are needed when querying against a known foreign malicious actor.” The response from the agency’s general counsel on the subject of WikiLeaks’ status is tentative – “Let us get back to you.”

Anonymous also features in a question about whether it is “okay to target the foreign actors of a loosely coupled group of hackers… such as with Anonymous?” The reply from the counsel: “As long as they are foreign individuals outside of the US and do not hold dual citizenship…then you are okay”.

According to a GCHQ4 document, the British agency monitored the reader traffic to WikiLeaks in 2012, using tapping capabilities of the Internet’s fibre-optic cables. This is hardly earthshattering copy, but it is important in terms revealing scope. Importantly, it also took note of US readers as part of its ANTICRISIS GIRL initiative. Much of the document is otherwise pyscho babble, a tedious watered down attempt to “understand and shape the Human Terrain”. The interesting part, rather, lies in the “real-time monitoring of online activity”.

Greenwald’s discussion, building on Snowden’s documentation, further shapes the picture created by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre through documents obtained through Freedom of Information. In June 2011, the US Department of Justice and the FBI were the subject of claims seeking, “All records regarding any individuals targeted for surveillance for support for or interest in WikiLeaks.” Records with lists of names of individuals who had shown interest in WikiLeaks were also sought, in addition to agency communications with social media companies demonstrating an interest in WikiLeaks.

The DOJ were in no mood to divulge their trophies, and cited a mysterious, unnamed statute that prevented them from doing so. “All three units at DOJ – a reflected in declarations from FBI’s David Hardy, National Security Division’s Mark Bradley, and Criminal Division’s John Cunningham – claimed the files at issue were protected by statute.” The statute would only be named in classified declarations – to have done otherwise, in Cunningham’s terms, “would undermine interests protected by Exemption 7(A)”. To release the documentation requested by EPIC “could reasonably be expected to interfere with an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”

As the note at Empty Wheel (Feb 19) explains, the DOJ seemed pensive that the Court could be trusted to keep a secret declaration under lock and key. In its motion, it submitted that the, “Defendants respectfully request that the Court not identify the Exemption 3 statute(s) at issue, or reveal any of the other information provided in Defendants’ ex parte and in camera submissions.”

Obfuscation and rejection can often be a form of confession. The documents then made it clear, if only by sleight of hand, that WikiLeaks was the subject of ongoing investigations about potential criminality.

WikiLeaks associate and journalist Jacob Appelbaum was also the subject of DOJ surveillance, as is made clear in two court orders released by Alexa O’Brien (Feb 17). The department was proving hungry for intelligence on the organisation. Prosecutors obtained a court order in April 2011 directing, a US-based internet service provider, to turn over the Internet Protocol and email addresses of people who had been in touch with Applebaum. The attachment is detailed in terms of listing “subscriber names, user names, screen names, or other identities” including, among others, “mailing addresses, residential addresses, business addresses, e-mail addresses, and other contact information.”

This range of actions show the determination to box WikiLeaks into a category that is refuses to fit. A publishing organisation that also acts as a militant discloser of secrets – the operatic spy of the people – is a fundamentally dangerous challenge. Even as far back as 2008, the Pentagon would call WikiLeaks, in the clunky jargon of a report, “a potential force protection, counterintelligence, OPSEC and INFOSEC threat to the US Army.” One almost senses the anxiousness in the otherwise dull disclosures that WikiLeaks is on to something, and the emperor’s guards don’t like it. As the colourful Slavoj Žižek claimed in The Guardian in September last year, the Snowden disclosures showed that “whistleblowing is now an essential art. It is our means of keeping ‘public reason’ alive.”

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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