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Julian Assange phoned White House to warn of risk to lives

Julian Assange phoned the White House to warn officials that unredacted cables published on the web posed a risk to lives, a court heard yesterday

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange phoned the White House and Hillary Clinton to warn that leaked cables posted by other websites posed a risk to lives, lawyers for his defence said in court on Monday.

Assange tried to raise the alarm after a cache of US government documents, which WikiLeaks was working with media partners to redact, found their way onto other websites.

Assange told government officials that he did not understand why they were not treating the matter urgently, Mark Summers QC told the court.

The disclosure came as Assange’s defence team complained that he had been handcuffed 11 times and stripped naked. He had his court papers taken from him after returning to custody in Belmarsh Prison in south-east London.

“Hopefully, prison authorities will respond to our concerns and this won’t continue,” said Edward Fitzgerald QC, speaking during the second day of the extradition hearing at Woolwich Crown Court.

The Australian faces extradition to the US to face 17 charges under the US 1917 Espionage Act and one count of hacking under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which carry a maximum sentence of 175 years.

US charges ‘palpably false’

Lawyers representing Assange told the court that allegations made by the US government about the WikiLeaks founder were “lies, lies and more lies”.

Summers said the US government’s claims that WikiLeaks solicited former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak diplomatic cables from a US Army database were “palpably false”.

WikiLeaks published a list of “most wanted” leaks in 2009, but it was a collaborative list, contributed to by journalists, individuals, non-governmental organisations and human rights activists.

“Despite the impression you had from my learned friend, the most wanted list had nothing to do with diplomatic cables. The notion they were uploaded to WikiLeaks after Chelsea Manning had seen the most wanted list is absolute fantasy,” he told the court.

Julian Assange supporters outside Woolwich Crown Court

WikiLeaks formed a partnership with newspapers The Guardian, El Pais, Der SpiegelThe New York Times and local media to redact 250,000 cables leaked by Manning before they were published.

The procedures for handling the documents and redacting them securely were devised and managed by WikiLeaks and “utterly innovative” at the time, and were later used on projects such as the Panama Papers, said Summers.

“The notion they were dealt with in a way that puts lives at risk is a knowingly false allegation,” he said.

Rather than being a reckless unredacted release, the US government knew that The Guardian newspaper published a book containing the password to the unredacted material, which led to the documents being published in unredacted form on other websites.

“They circulated on the internet, not WikiLeaks. None of the websites have been prosecuted, some US-based,” he said.

All of them published the unredacted documents before WikiLeaks, said Summers. “The notion that Mr Assange put lives at risk by dumping a database of cables is knowingly inaccurate,” he said.

The Guardian said in a statement after the hearing that it was entirely wrong to say that the newspaper’s 2011 WikiLeaks book led to the publication of unredacted US government files.

A Guardian spokesman said: “The book contained a password which the authors had been told by Julian Assange was temporary and would expire and be deleted in a matter of hours. The book also contained no details about the whereabouts of the files.”

Assange phones White House

Mark Summers, told the court that the US government’s allegations that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange put lives at risk after recklessly soliciting and publishing restricted government cables were knowingly wrong.

In August 2011, six months after the publication of The Guardian’s book, a German newspaper claimed to have access to unredacted copies of the cables on the internet, the court heard.

Assange phoned the White House to warn the US government, and other WikiLeaks staff made attempts to contact that State Department and Hilary Clinton as “a matter of great urgency”.

Julian Assange phoned the White House to warn the US government that the availability of unredacted documents online was putting lives at risk

Assange, who was told to call back in two hours, told government officials: “I don’t understand why you are not seeing the urgency of this. Unless we do something, people’s lives are at risk.”

Rules of engagement

The court heard that Manning leaked a video, which became known as the Collateral Murder video, to WikiLeaks, showing a helicopter attack which killed two Reuters journalists in Iraq after the army refused to release information about the incident.

Summers said a transcript of the video is genuinely chilling. “It reads like five-year-olds playing a computer game with real people being killed. Ms Manning decided that her conscience required her to release this horrific video,” he said.

Manning provided WikiLeaks with a copy of the US rules of engagement in Iraq, not because the document appeared in WikiLeaks’ most wanted list, but because she wanted to show that the rules of engagement were being broken.

“The most wanted list is a key jurisdictional issue because the US wants to use it to impugn Mr Assange in the theft of documents,” said Summers.

Hacking claims challenged

Summers said US claims that Assange attempted to assist Manning in her attempt to decrypt a password hash to give her anonymous access to a government computer system were also false.

He said Manning already had access to the computer systems in question, known as the net-centric diplomacy database. The database, which was accessed by thousands of people, was used to store non-sensitive documents and did not require a password or username, the court was told.

“The short point here is that using the terminal to log into the net-centric database using another account would and could have made absolutely no difference to Ms Manning’s anonymity,” he said.

Witnesses at Manning’s court martial said it was common practice for soldiers to hack administration passwords to upload software, games, music and films to their computers.

Seven days before Manning had a conversation on the Jabber chat service about decrypting password hashes, her computer was re-imaged, “so if she wanted to use unauthorised software, games, etc, she needed to crack the passwords again”.

“None of that context makes its way into the evidence,” said Summers.

Straw man

James Lewis QC, representing the US government, said Summers had made a series of mis-statements on how the US indictment was formulated.

“What Mr Summers seeks to do consistently is put up a straw man and say this is what the prosecution seeks to say, but it is not,” he said.

The charge that Manning may have been able to log on anonymously if she cracked the hashed password is not linked to the databases she had accessed, he told the court, saying it was “much more general”.

Lewis said the defence relied on a self-serving statement Manning gave to an enquiry as if it were true.

“This court should not make a factual decision that the hack was for movies and computer games,” he said. “We say these are the paradigm of issues that have to be run in the USA. No doubt they will do and they will be part of his defence.”

“Assange did not have to publish the unredacted cables but he decided to do so,” said Lewis. “He did so on an easily searchable website, knowing that it was dangerous to do so.”

The Guardian’s former investigations editor, David Leigh, who wrote the book on Assange with Luke Harding, said: “It’s a complete invention that I had anything to do with Julian Assange’s own publication decisions. His cause is not helped by people making things up.”

The hearing continues.

Read more about Julian Assange’s extradition hearing

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