The Assange indictment shows how hard it is to protect classified information in the modern era

Key Points
  • Julian Assange's arrest, and his short indictment document, display an uncomfortable new relationship between government leakers with access to highly sensitive classified information and the many organizations seeking out their wares.
  • Assange has characterized Wikileaks as simply an open mailbox for whistleblowers, but his indictment paints the founder as a manipulative character who pushed Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning for more and more information. 
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen in a police van after was arrested by British police outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Britain April 11, 2019.
Henry Nicholls | Reuters

A Justice Department indictment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange provides an uncomfortable look into the relationship between Chelsea Manning, a prominent source of classified information, and Wikileaks, which has positioned itself as a forum for concerned whistleblowers.

The indictment followed an extradition request by the U.S. for Assange, 47, who on Thursday morning was arrested and removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has lived for nearly seven years.

If the allegations in the indictment are true, it means that Wikileaks pushed leakers well beyond the bounds of "whistleblower" status and actively supplied them with hacking tools. It also highlights the uphill battle governments face in protecting classified information from insiders who face new kinds of pressure from outside organizations of all sorts.

Assange's attorneys weren't immediately available for further comment.

'That's all I really have got left'

The indictment describes a relationship that ran from January to May 2010. During that time, Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning, sent "nearly complete" databases from U.S. government agencies to Wikileaks at Assange's request. The data included 90,000 Afghan war reports, 400,000 Iraq war reports, 800 assessment briefs of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and 250,000 diplomatic cables.

Assange also allegedly provided support to Manning, and encouraged her to keep leaking terabytes of information even after she said she couldn't access any more.

Assange is alleged to have helped Manning break a password associated with the U.S. government's Secret Internet Protocol Network, encouraged Manning to provide various records and information from several different departments and helped Manning conceal her identity while doing it.

The indictment also outlines an alleged "password cracking agreement," in which Assange helped Manning find sensitive passwords and attempt to crack them, in order to give her greater access to classified information. For this, Manning used a Linux-based software tool, the Justice Department alleges, though it's unclear where Manning obtained the software.

These are the basis of charges that Assange conspired to hack government computers and steal classified information.

Assange also allegedly pushed Manning for more information.

"After this upload, that's all I really have got left," Manning allegedly said in early 2010 after the initial leaks.

"Curious eyes never run dry in my experience," Assange replied, according to the indictment.

The army arrested Manning for the leaks in July 2010. Wikileaks publicly released the data starting later that year.

Assange used the diplomatic cables to take U.S. government officials and media outlets on a months-long ride, involving promises of massive file dumps, allegedly damaging data held as "insurance," and various other teases throughout 2010. The data dumps provided Wikileaks with significant media attention and caused diplomatic headaches and long-lasting repercussions in the relationships between the U.S. and its European allies.

Manning has said she leaked the information to Wikileaks because of grave concerns that media and government portrayals of success in Iraq and Afghanistan were a stark contrast to the starker, uglier reality she had been observing in her Army role.

At her sentencing in August 2013, she said, "When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people. At the time of my decisions I was dealing with a lot of issues." She was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Throughout her court martial, Manning was often described by her attorneys as "emotionally fragile," and she said she became involved with Wikileaks staffers because they sympathized with her personally and made her feel like she could "be myself." Manning has so far fought a subpoena to testify in the case against Assange.

A thousand little Chinas or Russias

In the times of Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen, two of the most well-known spies recruited by Russian intelligence, the interactions between spies and their nation-state handlers were transactional and long-lasting. Those spies had to be mature enough to carry on a successful years-long relationship with their handlers, and well-placed enough to have credible access to classified data. In return, the spies usually expected financial compensation -- and could often be discovered because of unusual spending patterns.

The Assange indictment outlines a new era. Now, outsiders can target a much wider range of government employees not with financial incentives, but simply by offering them the emotional comfort of satisfying their conscience. As the indictment suggests, they can use psychology to manipulate them and modern communications tools to pass along effective technical tools and procedures. And instead of seeking targeted information, as a nation-state spy might, these organizations want as much information as possible.

For years, the focus of federal cybersecurity at the federal level has been stopping incoming hacking attempts from outsiders in China and Russia. The age of Assange could bring officials a thousand little Chinas and Russias to worry about.

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange arrested in London