Roger Stone, a political strategist and associate of US president Donald Trump, exchanged private messages with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, documents released by the FBI last week reveal.
Stone, who worked on Trump’s presidential campaign and retained close ties with senior campaign figures, promised to back Assange if the US government took action against the WikiLeaks founder.
The disclosures are contained in 34 search warrants issued by FBI investigators seeking access to Stone’s email, Twitter account, mobile phones and computer equipment released last week, following a legal challenge by the Associated Press and other media outlets.
Stone was sentenced in February to more than three years in prison and is currently on bail. He was found guilty on seven criminal charges, which included lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing the House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Communications revealed in the FBI search warrants show that Stone contacted Assange in June 2017 to offer him support as US law enforcement agencies became increasingly antagonistic towards WikiLeaks.
The director of the CIA had denounced WikiLeaks weeks earlier as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” that was often abetted by state actors like Russia. And the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced that Assange’s arrest was a priority.
Stone promised Assange, who was in exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, that he would support WikiLeaks if the US government attempted to prosecute him for what he argued was journalistic work.
In a private message to Assange’s personal Twitter account, Stone wrote: “If the US government moves on you, I will bring down the entire house of cards. With the trumped-up sexual assault charges dropped, I don’t know of any crime you need to be pardoned for. As a journalist, it doesn’t matter where you get information, only that it is accurate and authentic.”
Six days later, Stone assured Assange that he was doing everything possible to help him “at the highest level of government” as the way Assange was being treated was an “outrage”.
Stone may have felt he had reason to be grateful to Assange for playing a role in releasing large quantities of material that assisted in the Trump campaign.
The leaks began in June 2016, when the GRU began publishing thousands of documents stolen from the email accounts of Democratic National Committee (DNC) staff, supporters and volunteers, through an online persona called DCLeaks.
The hackers behind DCLeaks gave selected journalists advanced access to the hacked documents on pages of the website that had yet to be made public.
DCLeaks used Twitter to send private messages to WikiLeaks, suggesting they collaborate almost immediately.
WikiLeaks had already published an archive of around 30,000 Clinton emails obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act.
In the message, later recovered by the FBI, DCLeaks told WikiLeaks: “You announced your organization was preparing to publish more of Hillary’s emails. We are ready to support you. We have some sensitive information too, in particular, her financial documents. Let’s do it together.”
A day later, a new online persona, Guccifer 2.0, appeared on Twitter, claiming that he, a lone Romanian hacker, was responsible for the DNC hacking, rather than the GRU.
WikiLeaks sent private Twitter Messages asking Guccifer 2.0 to send “any new material for us to review” as it will have a much higher impact being published on WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks followed up by asking Guccifer 2.0 to send over any material on Hillary Clinton as a matter of urgency, before Clinton solidified her support at the DNC.
The material reached WikiLeaks in the form of an encrypted email attachment, and on 22 July 2016, WikiLeaks published around 20,000 emails from the DNC.
Within days, Trump issued a public challenge to Russian intelligence to find thousands of emails that Clinton had controversially stored on a personal server while serving as secretary of state at the Obama Whitehouse.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” he said.
Robert Mueller’s Report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election found that GRU hackers started targeting Clinton’s staff within hours of the president’s challenge.
Trump’s associate, Stone, set to work on finding out what else WikiLeaks might have in store that could benefit the presidential campaign.
He emailed Jerome Corsi, a political commentator and former Washington Bureau chief for the far right website Infofwars.com, urging him to contact Assange: “Get to Assange[a]t Ecuadorian Embassy in London and get the pending WikiLeaks emails.”
Corsi went on to act as a back channel, feeding information about WikiLeaks’ plans for further leaks through to Trump’s former campaign manager.
“Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more [document] dumps,” Corsi told Stone. “Impact planned to be very damaging.”
The real culprit
Meanwhile, Stone went on the offensive to convince the world that a lone hacker, rather than Russian intelligence, was behind the DNC hacks.
In an article on the right-wing website Breitbart news, Stone accused Clinton of spreading false accusations that Russia was behind the hacking, and berated the mainstream press for conspiring with her.
“I have some news for Hillary and Democrats – I think I’ve got the real culprit. It doesn’t seem to be the Russians that hacked the DNC, but instead a hacker who goes by the name of Guccifer 2.0,” he wrote.
The FBI documents quote an unidentified source who makes claims Stone arranged the purchase of hundreds of fake Facebook accounts.
The source told the FBI that Stone had “pushed out” content related to emails hacked from John Podesta, an aide to Clinton.
Search warrants revealed that Stone bought advertisements, rebutting charges of Russian collusion in the hacking of Democratic emails and denying that he had been in contact with any Russians.
One Facebook advertising campaign said: “ROGER STONE – NO consensus that Guccifer 2.0 is a ‘Russian Asset’ just because US Intel says he is.”
The Real Guccifer 2.0
Stone’s antics caught the attention of the hackers behind Guccifer 2.0, who tweeted their support: “@RogerJStoneJr thanks that u believe in the real #Guccifer2.”
Guccifer 2.0 followed with a private Twitter message to Stone: “i'm pleased to say u r great man. please tell me if I can help u anyhow. it would be a great pleasure to me.”
Publicly, Stone gave a series of interviews in which he claimed to have advanced knowledge of WikiLeaks and dropped hints about his back-channel contacts with Assange.
When John Podesta suggested publicly that Stone and the Trump campaign had advanced warning that WikiLeaks was going to release the Podesta emails, Stone denied that he had ever met Assange.
“We have a mutual friend who’s travelled to London several times, and everything I know is through that channel of communications,” he told NBC.
Stone attacked by WikiLeaks
Stone’s public claims to have inside information about forthcoming leaks appear to have irked WikiLeaks.
When Stone sent a private Twitter message to WikiLeaks urging the organisation to cease its public attacks on him, the response was to the point.
The Democrats were using false claims of association between WikiLeaks and Trump to undermine the impact of WikiLeaks publications.
“Don’t go there if you don’t want us to correct you,” WikiLeaks told Stone.
Stone received another message from WikiLeaks the day after the US 2016 presidential election propelled Trump to victory. It consisted of one word: “Happy?”
Following the investigation by the House Intelligence Committee, Stone was accused and later found guilty of lying about his contacts with WikiLeaks and Assange and putting pressure on a key witness not to testify.
Trump has continued to support Stone, who filed an appeal against his conviction and sentencing on 30 April 2020.
Last week, Trump tweeted: “Does anybody really believe that Roger Stone, a man whose house was raided early in the morning by 29 gun-toting FBI Agents (with Fake News @CNN closely in toe), was treated fairly.”