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The Metropolitan Police shared information about WikiLeaks journalists with US prosecutors for at least four years as the US Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted secret investigations into the whistleblowing website and its founder Julian Assange.
The Met has disclosed that it has shared correspondence with the US since at least 2013 on WikiLeaks’ UK staff, which include former investigations editor Sarah Harrison, editor in chief Kristinn Hrafnsson and section editor Joseph Farrell.
The three WikiLeaks employees learned in 2014 that a court in East Virginia had ordered Google to disclose their personal emails, contacts, calendar entries and log-in IP addresses to the US government, as part of an investigation into alleged violations of US federal laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the US Espionage Act.
US law enforcement agencies have been investigating WikiLeaks and Assange since at least 2010, when former US Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of US government diplomatic memos and cables that were published on the WikiLeaks website.
Manning, who was awarded clemency by Barack Obama after serving seven years of a 35-year jail term in January 2017, was jailed again last week when she refused to testify before a closed-door grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks, in Alexandria, Virginia. She said in a statement on Twitter: “I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to.”
The Met’s involvement in the US investigation, which appears to have begun after US prosecutors secretly seized the Google accounts of the three WikiLeaks staff, came to light after a precedent-setting ruling following an information appeal tribunal hearing in November 2018 (see ‘Tribunal sets legal precedent for journalists’ below).
The tribunal ordered the Metropolitan Police to confirm or deny whether it held correspondence on the three WikiLeaks staff, following a legal challenge brought by Stefania Maurizi, an investigative journalist with Italy’s La Repubblica, who has written extensively about the organisation.
“It is shocking to realise how a media organisation which has revealed very important information in the public interest and has revealed the true face of the wars in Afganistan and Iraq has been under investigation since 2010, and this investigation is completely shrouded in secrecy,” she told Computer Weekly.
Met confirms it exchanged information on UK WikiLeaks staff with US
The Met’s involvement in the US investigation emerged when Brian Wilson, senior information manager at the information rights unit of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), wrote to Maurizi on 30 January 2019.
The letter confirmed that the Met had shared correspondence with the US Department of Justice referring to one or more of three named WikiLeaks British editorial staff – including two British citizens – between June 2013 and June 2017.
An information appeal tribunal ruled in December 2018 that individuals should have the freedom to ask investigative journalists to obtain their personal data.
The precedent-setting case, brought by Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, means that in future people will be able to delegate a journalist to conduct subject access requests on their behalf.
“From a legal perspective, the FOIA case has been important in establishing how journalists can obtain information about individuals form public bodies,” said Estelle Dehon, a public law barrister who represented Maurizi at the tribunal.
“The case confirmed that a journalist can obtain that information directly, with the consent of the individual, rather than the individual being forced to make a subject access request themselves,” she said.
Maurizi had proper consent from WikiLeaks staff
The tribunal dismissed arguments by the Metropolitan Police and the UK’s information commissioner that Maurizi had not obtained proper consent from the three current and former WikiLeaks staff to obtain their personal data under data protection laws.
Maurizi supplied the tribunal with letters of consent from the three WikiLeaks staff, backed up by signed witness statements confirming they were happy for the Metropolitan Police to disclose their personal data to Maurizi as a journalist and for her to take a decision on whether or not to publish it.
WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson told the tribunal that he gave consent to Maurizi to act on his behalf “without hesitation, fully aware of her intention to use the information as material in her work as a journalist”.
There was no conflict in his mind that Maurizi could publish whatever information the Met Police released, he said.
The tribunal found that the Met had failed in its duty to advise and assist Maurizi by refusing her Freedom of Information request without explaining that it needed clarification over the consent provided by the WikiLeaks staff.
“This would hardly have been resource intensive and would have likely found a way through this difficulty and indeed have likely avoided the need for this tribunal hearing at all,” the 16-page ruling stated.
“It was necessary for Ms Maurizi to seek this information as, from the evidence, little progress was otherwise being made on whether or not the three named individuals were under criminal investigation,” it said.
Estelle Dehon, a public law barrister representing Maurizi, said the letter made it clear that the MPS had been asked to assist with the US DOJ investigation into WikiLeaks, and potentially Assange and other WikiLeaks staff.
“This is the first time that such potential cooperation has been confirmed,” she said. “It is still unclear who or what is the subject of such an investigation, but confirmation that investigation involving UK authorities was ongoing between 2013 and 2017 is, in and of itself, new.”
The Met’s use of political and diplomatic exemption to refuse to disclose the correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act also revealed a clear political involvement in the case, she said.
Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012, after losing his appeal against extradition to Sweden - and potentially from Sweden to face criminal charges in the US - following allegations of sexual assault by two Swedish women.
The case has since been dropped, but Assange remains at risk of extradition to face charges in the US under the Espionage Act if he leaves the embassy.
British police have spent at least £13m policing the embassy between June 2012 and October 2015, when they ended 24-hour physical surveillance of the embassy in favour of cheaper “overt and covert” tactics to arrest Assange.
Met refuses to release correspondence
The Met has refused to release the correspondence with the US Department of Justice on the three WikiLeaks employees, citing damage to national security, international relations and the risk that the documents could disclose the involvement – or lack of involvement – of Britain’s intelligence services, MI5 and GCHQ.
The MPS argues that disclosure of the documents:
- May undermine reciprocal cooperation between the UK and other states in the future;
- Is likely to be detrimental to the UK’s international relations and may result in other countries or international organisations reconsidering their affinity with the UK;
- Would be likely to have the potential to provide intelligence and insight on whether individuals are of interest to the police. This, in turn, would compromise the security of policing information;
- Could indicate whether specific individuals and/or groups are of interest to the police, and whether any particular investigation has taken place.
Dehon said Maurizi was considering an appeal against the failure of the Met Police to release the correspondence.
“Some of the case law suggests that the MPS’s reasoning in applying the exemptions is flawed, particularly where the MPS is required to balance the reasons for refusing to provide the information against the public interest in disclosing that information,” she said.
US investigation gradually unfolds
The extent of the US Department of Justice investigation into WikiLeaks and its founder, and the role of UK police, has emerged gradually.
In June 2011, a number of Chelsea Manning’s friends were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, including WikiLeaks volunteer David House, according to a report by Kevin Poulsen in the Daily Beast. House initially refused to answer questions in the grand jury chamber, pleading a right of silence under the fifth amendment.
In May 2017, House was offered immunity from prosecution and agreed to testify in a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. According to Poulsen, House answered questions about his meetings with Assange. He was also questioned over a series of chat logs which show he had argued with Assange over the disclosure of documents that “could leave people vulnerable or put people’s lives at risk”.
In 2014, it emerged that the US government had accessed the personal emails, contacts, calendar entries, and login IP addresses from the Google accounts of three WikiLeaks UK employees as part of an investigation into alleged violations of US federal laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the US Espionage Act.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and DOJ became more outspoken about prosecuting WikiLeaks after the organisation published more than 8,000 documents and files detailing the CIA’s secret hacking operations and hacking tools in a series known as “Vault 7”
In April 2017, CIA director Mike Pompeo said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington: “It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
Prosecutors accused Joshua Adam Schulte, a former CIA employee, of illegally accessing the CIA’s secret information and supplying it to WikiLeaks. Schulte has further been charged with a raft of child pornography offences. Schulte has denied all the allegations.
Meanwhile, US special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting investigations into collusion between Trump and Russia over Russian interference in the US elections, which includes the role of WikiLeaks in publishing confidential documents from Hillary Clinton’s campaign team obtained by Russian hackers.
Further details of the US investigation emerged last year when the Department of Justice inadvertently revealed it was preparing charges against Assange when a prosecutor accidentally copied and pasted information disclosing a sealed arrest warrant and criminal complaint against the WikiLeaks founder into an indictment of an unrelated case.
Swedish FOIA requests reveal UK tactics against WikiLeaks
Maurizi began using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request public-interest information on WikiLeaks in 2015.
She obtained correspondence between the Swedish Prosecution Authority (SPA) and the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which revealed discussions between the UK and Sweden over allegations of assault made against Assange by two Swedish women.
Documents released under Swedish freedom of information laws showed that the CPS had advised the SPA not to agree to Assange’s request for Swedish investigators to interview Assange in the UK, but to pursue Assange’s extradition.
Stefania Maurizi, La Repubblica
In one email, the then Crown Prosecution lawyer, Paul Close, told his Swedish counterparts that the UK authorities would block any attempt by Assange to leave the Embassy of Ecuador to seek medical treatment, despite reports on the BBC World Service about his deteriorating health.
“There is no question of him being allowed outside of the Ecuadorian embassy, treated, and then being allowed to go back. He would be arrested as soon as appropriate,” he wrote.
Close suggested he was optimistic that Assange could be extradited before Christmas, writing: “I am sure you can guess what I would just love to send you as a Christmas present.”
In an email on 13 January 2011, he wrote: “Please do not think that the case is being dealt with as just another extradition request.”
Attempts by Maurizi to use the FOIA to access Close’s correspondence floundered after the CPS admitted it had deleted his email account and was unable to recover its contents.
During a press conference in May 2017, Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny, who liaised with Close, disclosed that her office had deleted an email from the FBI. She said the email was a request for information already available on the prosecutor’s website.
WikiLeaks case ‘shrouded in secrecy, mystery and abuses’
Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, said Maurizi’s Freedom of Information disclosures raised important public interest issues.
“We already have confirmation that an indictment against Assange has been issued under seal as well as an extradition request. Previous FOIA requests have shed light on how the UK Crown Prosecution Service was instrumental in driving onward the Swedish investigation into Julian Assange, years after the Swedes wanted to drop the investigation,” he said.
Hrafnsson accused the Metropolitan Police of using national security as a pretext to quash press freedom in its refusal to release the correspondence with the US.
“In our Orwellian times, the truth is now labelled a threat to national security. It is an absurd but extremely dangerous attack on basic civil liberties,” he said.
Maurizi said: “The Assange and WikiLeaks case is shrouded in secrecy, mystery and abuses: it’s time to shed light on it.”
Journalists’ battle to secure answers on WikiLeaks
2009: Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi starts a media partnership with WikiLeaks. During the partnership, she verifies secret and restricted documents, and looks for angles and stories that would make the documents accessible to the public.
2010: Sarah Harrison becomes investigations editor for WikiLeaks, and Kristinn Hrafnsson becomes a spokesman for WikiLeaks.
2010: A US grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, opens an investigation after WikiLeaks publishes a series of secret files, including the Afgan and Iraq war logs, US diplomatic papers and the Guantanamo files, leaked by former US army intelligence officer, Chelsea Manning.
19 April 2011: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asks Google’s chief executive Eric Schimdt to press for the disclosure of any search and seizure warrants issued by Google for information on WikiLeaks or its staff. Assange tells Schmidt that Twitter had argued for the release of warrants seeking records during early court hearings. Schmidt tells Assange he will pass the request on to Google’s general counsel.
June 2012: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange takes refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after facing possible extradition to Sweden. The Swedish case has since been dropped.
2013: Sarah Harrison travels to Hong Kong to assist Edward Snowden as he seeks political asylum. She spends 40 days with Snowden while he remains in a Moscow airport, before being granted asylum by Russia, and later spends four months with Snowden in Moscow.
22 March 2012: Judge John Anderson signs secret warrants in the US District Court for the Easter District of Columbia, ordering the disclosure of all data and email content held by Google on three WikiLeaks staff – Sarah Harrison, investigations editor; Joseph Farrell, section editor; and Kristinn Hrafnsson, spokesman – within two weeks. Separately, Anderson went on to issue an arrest warrant for Edward Snowden, on 14 June 2013.
23 December 2014: Google sends notifications to three journalists and editors at WikiLeaks – Sarah Harrison, Kristinn Hrafnsson and Joseph Farrell. The notifications reveal that Google has provided US federal law enforcement with the entire content of their Google emails, subscriber information and other content. The notifications reveal a US investigation into charges including espionage, conspiracy to commit espionage, theft of US government property, breaches of the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and conspiracy and the Espionage Act. It is unclear whether the US investigation is targeting the three WikiLeaks staff named, WikiLeaks as an organisation, or its founder, Julian Assange.
26 January 2015: The Centre for Constitutional Rights, representing WikiLeaks, writes to Google chairman Eric Schmidt expressing its “astonishment” that Google waited two-and-a-half years to release details of the order and failed to provide the three WikiLeaks staff with details of the material it provided to US law enforcement authorities. The American Council for Civil Liberties (ACLU) raises concerns about the “shockingly broad” wording of the warrants and the First Amendment concerns raised by handing over information from the accounts of WikiLeaks journalists and employees.
2015: Sarah Harrison is awarded the Willy Brandt prize for political courage for her work with WikiLeaks and helping Edward Snowden to win political asylum.
22 May 2017: Investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi files a freedom of information request with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) for information relating to Julian Assange. The Met refuses the application on the grounds that “the correspondence would form part of a live police investigation”.
29 May 2017: Maurizi files a freedom of information request to the Metropolitan Police Service for information relating to WikiLeaks journalists Sarah Harrison, Kristinn Hrafnsson and Joseph Farrell.
8 June 2017: The Metropolitan Police Service initially refuses Maurizi’s freedom of information request on the grounds that it would not be possible to respond to the request without exceeding the cost threshold. It asks Maurizi to “specify exactly what documents you are after”.
29 June 2017: Maurizi narrows her freedom of information request to copies of correspondence between the US Department of Justice and the Metropolitan Police Service, relating to the three WikiLeaks journalists, between June 2013 and June 2017.
11 August 2017: The MPS refuses to confirm or deny that it possesses correspondence on the WikiLeaks journalists on the grounds that it constitutes personal information, citing Section 40 (5) of the Freedom of Information Act. Maurizi then contacts the three WikiLeaks journalists, who provide witness statements agreeing to the release of their personal information to Maurizi to use in her reporting on WikiLeaks and the investigation into the three members of staff.
14 September 2017: Maurizi asks the Metropolitan Police Service to review its decision to neither confirm nor deny that it held any correspondence on the WikiLeaks staff, on the grounds that there was a strong public interest in “shedding light” on the ongoing investigation into the individuals. She encloses a signed witness statement from the individuals giving their permission to release the information, providing contact details for each individual.
19 September 2017: The Metropolitan Police Service upholds its original decision not to confirm or deny that it holds correspondence on the three WikiLeaks journalists.
21 December 2017: Maurizi files a complaint with the UK information commissioner. She argues that the MPS’s argument that there would be a breach of the Data Protection Act by releasing information on the three WikiLeaks journalists is misplaced, as each has given consent for their personal data to be disclosed.
8 March 2018: The information commissioner upholds the Metropolitan Police’s decision not to confirm or deny that it holds correspondence relating to the three WikiLeaks journalists. The information commissioner holds that the witness statements do not amount to adequate consent to release their data to the public. She argues that the individuals’ identities would need to be confirmed and that it would be unreasonable to expect a public authority, such as the Metropolitan Police Service, to take that step.
March 2018: The Ecuadorian embassy denies Julian Assange internet and phone communications and access to visitors.
September 2018: Kristinn Hrafnsson is named editor in chief of WikiLeaks, after the Ecuadorian embassy denied Assange internet and phone communications and access to visitors.
22 October 2018: The MPS makes written submissions to the tribunal, in part to avoid sending a representative to defend its position.
20 November 2018: Lawyers for Stafania Maurizi argue in an information tribunal hearing that the Metropolitan Police and the Information Commissioner were wrong in arguing the Met should neither confirm nor deny that it held correspondence with the US Department of Justice about the three WikiLeaks journalists. The Information Commissioner argues the case for the Met to neither confirm nor deny holding the information. The Met Poilce did not attend the hearing.
15 November 2018: It emerges US prosecutors have inadvertently revealed that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been charged following a cut and paste error in an unrelated case in the Eastern District of Virginia. The case had been unsealed in early September.
17 December 20118 The First Tier Tribunal orders the Metropolitan Police to confirm or deny whether it held correspondence between the US Department of Justice and the Metropolitan Police on Joseph Farrell, Sarah Harrison and Kristinn Hrafnsson between June 2013 to June 2017.
30 January 2019: The Met confirms that it “holds information” within the scope of Maurizi’s request but refuses to disclose the correspondence on grounds that disclosure may international relations or national security or alternatively may reveal the ‘extent of the involvement or non-involvement’ of one of the UK’s intelligence agencies.
8 March 2019: Former US army intelligence officer, Chelsea Manning, who was arrested in 2010 after disclosing more than 700,000 confidential documents, videos and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, is jailed again for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks in Alexandria, Virginia.