WikiLeaks continues to promote a story accusing Robert Mueller of having attempted “to frame WikiLeaks [and] Assange.” A review of interviews with participants, video footage, sealed files and other documents show that the FBI had not been in the process of “framing” WikiLeaks but was following a trail of evidence that posed a significant threat to the organization and its leadership.
According to the story shared by WikiLeaks, the Icelandic Minister of the Interior was accusing the FBI of having planned to frame WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. WikiLeaks repeated the accusation in their tweet. As Ögmundur Jónasson described it to Katoikos in late 2016:
What happened was that in June 2011, US authorities made some approaches to us indicating they had knowledge of hackers wanting to destroy software systems in Iceland. I was a minister at the time. They offered help. I was suspicious, well aware that a helping hand might easily become a manipulating hand!
Later in the summer, in August, they sent a planeload of FBI agents to Iceland seeking our cooperation in what I understood as an operation set up to frame Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
Since they had not been authorised by the Icelandic authorities to carry out police work in Iceland and since a crack-down on WikiLeaks was not on my agenda, to say the least, I ordered that all cooperation with them be promptly terminated and I also made it clear that they should cease all activities in Iceland immediately.
It was also made clear to them that they were to leave the country. They were unable to get permission to operate in Iceland as police agents, but I believe they went to other countries, at least to Denmark. I also made it clear at the time that if I had to take sides with either WikiLeaks or the FBI or CIA, I would have no difficulty in choosing: I would be on the side of WikiLeaks.
However, Jónasson’s account contradicts the documented record, including that of his own government. The FBI’s presence in Iceland was authorized, and they had the permission of Icelandic authorities and the cooperation of the police until Jónasson ordered it to stop. As the prosecutor’s office noted in a document detailing the events, the Icelandic government’s involvement in the case began on June 20, 2011 when the Bureau contacted Icelandic law enforcement to warn them of a possible computer attack.
The FBI alerted them to evidence they were being targeted by an international collective of hackers who had been responsible for successful hacks of government and corporate targets around the world. While the prosecutor’s document doesn’t identify the hackers, the collective in question was LulzSec. On June 23rd, representatives from the FBI and the National Commissioner of Police met to discuss the matter. Additional representatives from the National Commissioner of the State, the Ministries of the Interior and of Foreign Affairs were also consulted.
They collectively decided that the FBI submit a formal legal request for the Icelandic authorities’ assistance, which the Bureau did on July 4, 2011. The request was received by the Ministry of the Interior, and the request was ultimately passed to the National Commissioner of Police. The Icelandic authorities began to conduct their own investigation, resulting in suspicions of serious violations and offenses against the state. Before the investigation was completed, it developed evidence that both Icelanders and foreigners associated with WikiLeaks were involved. On July 7th, the Bureau requested that Icelandic authorities travel to the United States for new information concerning the case. After consulting the Ministry of the Interior and the State Prosecutor, three members of the police met with the FBI on July 11th.
A month and a half later, on the morning of August 23rd, the American Embassy in Reykjavik received an email with the subject “Regarding an Ongoing Criminal investigation in the United States.” According to the email, the sender (Sigurdur Thordarson) wanted to speak to an American representative about “an on going [sic] criminal investigation,” the nature of which he didn’t want to send in email. He identified himself as an Icelandic citizen, and said he was willing to meet at the Embassy. That evening, the Icelandic police were informed that an Icelandic man had made an appointment with the Embassy regarding the case.
The FBI requested that they, along with prosecutors from New York and Virginia, be permitted to come to Iceland to meet with their new informant. The Icelandic prosecutor was informed in the morning and contacted the Ministry of the Interior before meeting with them and the police. The meeting resulted in the FBI receiving authorization to come to the country. The Icelandic police would be involved in the questioning, and would ensure that there was no interrogation and that Thordarson’s rights were protected if he indicated he had committed a crime. A new case would be opened up for Thordarson.
The Americans came to Iceland that evening and met with Icelandic authorities the following morning. The Icelandic police and FBI would meet with Thordarson together while the American and Icelandic prosecutors would coordinate and review the salient law. When the American and Icelandic authorities had planned to meet with Thordarson, the prosecutor was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior. In this meeting, the Ministry told the prosecutors that the Americans would need to submit a new request. The Minister of the Interior then summoned the police officers to the Ministry where they were told to withdraw from the case. Over the next several days, the FBI met with Thordarson without the Icelandic police. On August 30th after discussions with Icelandic authorities proved fruitless, the FBI received formal notice to leave and that they were no longer welcome, and left the country.
The prosecutor’s account contradicts Jónasson’s on several important points. First, the Icelandic authorities had known since July that WikiLeaks seemed to be involved – it was neither a secret nor a surprise. Nor was it a conclusion handed to them by the FBI, but rather one they reached while conducting their own investigation. The prosecutor’s account also shows that the Bureau’s presence was authorized, and that they had the cooperation of the police and the prosecutor’s office until Jónasson put a stop to it. It also seems to indicate, contrary to Jónasson’s account, that the Bureau left when it was formally requested. Most significantly, the prosecutor’s account of events makes it clear that Jónasson’s Ministry of the Interior was briefed and consulted at every step.
WikiLeaks’ 2013 statement further deviates from the documented record. According to WikiLeaks, “The Icelandic Minister of Interior, Ögmundur Jónasson … found out on August 25th 2011 that the aim of the visit was to interrogate an Icelandic citizen he ordered the local police to cease all co-operation with the FBI.” As the prosecutor’s report makes clear, the purpose of the visit had always explicitly been to question Thordarson – and the police’s cooperation had been, in part, to protect his rights. As a result of ordering the Icelandic police to withdraw while the FBI questioned Thordarson, Minister Jónasson guaranteed the very thing WikiLeaks says he had been attempting to prevent.
WikiLeaks’ statement also describes Thordarson as having “managed several minor tasks for the organization,” a characterization that is far from accurate. Several former WikiLeaks volunteers have described Julian and Thordarson as having been close. While this has changed since Thordarson’s departure from WikiLeaks and his exposure as an FBI informant, the two had worked together and developed a friendship in their free time. Videos of the two show them smiling and spending time together away from the tasks of daily WikiLeaking.
In some instances, the two have worked side by side.
The story that would lead to the FBI contacting Icelandic authorities began on June 15, 2011 with the launch of a DDoS attack against CIA.gov by members of LulzSec. Amused, WikiLeaks soon made contact with the hackers who had just taken on CIA. That contact and initial recruitment were handled by Sigurdur Thordarson while he sat across from Julian Assange. As proof who they were, Thordarson took a pair of short videos showing the chat with the hacker (complete with Thordarson’s screen name), then panning up from the screen to the other side of the room to focus on Assange. Thordarson’s 20 and 40 second clips not only documents his working proximity to Assange, but his role in handling significant points of contact.
According to Parmy Olson’s interviews with LulzSec (the authenticity of which have been confirmed), Thordarson soon explained to LulzSec that WikiLeaks wanted data on Iceland, specifically to either expose corruption and cause an uprising or at least find something that could be presented as evidence that WikiLeaks was being unfairly targeted. In a separate interview, Thordarson explained in the narrative that he “initiated the contact, but it was with the approval and initiative of Julian Assange.” Assange “said that he didn’t care where the information comes from, as long as we had something to publish.” When Thordarson then received the suggestion that they hack Icelandic corporations and government offices and having been told by Assange that nothing was off limits, Thordarson passed the suggestion on. Thordarson later reaffirmed this narrative, as well as the one presented by Olson.
While Thordarson wouldn’t become an FBI informant until late August, one of the leaders of LulzSec, Hector Monsegur AKA Sabu, had become an FBI informant less than a week before Icelandic authorities were informed of the threat. Sabu, aware that it was WikiLeaks making the request, readily informed the Bureau – kicking off an international investigation into espionage and computer hacking. Far from engaging in an effort to “frame” WikiLeaks, the FBI was following a solid trail of evidence. They had the full cooperation of Icelandic authorities, who had concluded people associated with WikiLeaks were potentially involved in criminal activities.
Though Thordarson says he regretted it, the suggestion wasn’t made in idle jest, nor was it forgotten, abandoned or rescinded by Assange. Members of LulzSec spoke with Thordarson repeatedly over the following months, along with less frequent conversations with Assange. In that time, the request was repeated to multiple members of LulzSec, and it yielded results.
In November 2011, Sabu discussed an Icelandic document he’d provided to WikiLeaks and referred to it as part of a cache of documents. A series of transcripts located nearly 70,000 pages into one of the WikiLeaks-related sealed files show that by mid-December, Sabu wrote that he’d “been working a lot with the internals of WikiLeaks. Before LulzSec broke apart they came to us to hack the entire government of Iceland. So me and [redacted] worked that until [redacted] bounced.”
Three weeks later, while discussing the transfer of the 5 million Stratfor emails to WikiLeaks, Sabu is asked about whether or not he had talked to Assange about what he thought of the emails yet. Sabu responded that he hadn’t, but he was “waiting to because I want to see what we doing regarding .is [Iceland] hack I am doing for them… I was able to own islandic [sic] governments secretary, and sent them shit.” Contact with WikiLeaks had recently been more difficult due to Thordarson traveling, reducing the number of people who could speak with LulzSec. With Assange’s own time under constant strain, Sabu would contented himself to wait for the stars to realign.
Assange was chatting with Sabu a week later when he, for the second time, found himself “basically hinting” for LulzSec to hack Kroll, Inc and retrieve their private intel reports. Assange boasted, neither for the first nor last time, that they “took down the Kenyan government in 2007” with one of Kroll’s reports. In less than a minute, Sabu was sharing the hint with his fellow hackers.
According to the transcripts, by the next week Sabu felt that Julian had crossed the line from suggesting to asking. These hints and requests do not appear to have been isolated events. Recalling events from that time period, several sources have described Assange and his representatives soliciting others to hack Icelandic targets, as well as critics of WikiLeaks and supporters that Julian didn’t trust.
At this point, WikiLeaks had been in touch with the hackers for several months. They had communicated with both Thordarson and Assange and been tasked with hacking Iceland virtually since the moment they made contact. At least one hack of a senior politician had been successful, and Icelandic documents had been passed to WikiLeaks as a result. Assange had communicated with members of LulzSec himself, and was continuing to ask and hint for government and corporate targets to be hit.
The 2011 assignments may not have been the first time WikiLeaks targeted the Icelandic government and its officials. In February 2010, a laptop was found in the parliament. Officials at the time believed that it had been used to exfiltrate data from the parliament’s network to an outside computer system that they were unable to identify. Suspicion was cast on WikiLeaks, though Kristinn Hrafnsson categorically denied it. Hrafnsson also strenuously denied that WikiLeaks knew Thordarson had been communicating with LulzSec and received over 7 million emails from them which WikiLeaks had published. More plausibly, Birgitta Jónsdóttir denied it on the basis that no one associated with WikiLeaks had been in Iceland when it had logged into the network – a defense that doesn’t account for things like WikiLeaks soliciting hacks.
While no evidence tied WikiLeaks directly to the computer, Icelandic officials suspected them of planting it to intercept communications. Circumstantial evidence would seem to strongly support that suspicion. Reports indicate that the laptop was located and removed in February 2010. In a chat with Chelsea Manning on March 8th, Assange (identified by Army officials) wrote that it looked like they had “the last 4 months of all audio to all phones in the .is parliament.”
Two days later, he wrote that they had successfully retrieved it. “Nixon tapes got nothing on us,” Assange boasted.
Later, he added that he “gave an Intel source here a list of things we wanted… and they came back with the last 4 months of parliament.”
Prompted for what was new later that night, Assange added that it was “350Gb of audio intercepts.”
However, this remains only circumstantial evidence – it’s entirely possible that WikiLeaks didn’t have the Icelandic parliament hacked in 2009 and 2010. Among other things, the “four months” described by Assange are difficult to reconcile with an official’s estimate that the laptop had been there for nearly a year. However, the evidence that WikiLeaks solicited the hacking of the “entire government of Iceland,” which led to the successful hacking of at least one senior politician and WikiLeaks receiving at least one document as a result of these hacks, is considerably stronger. It was this evidence that, despite WikiLeaks promoting claims that Robert Mueller had the FBI attempt to “frame” them, led the FBI to Iceland. The record of Minister Jónasson’s own government contradicts him by showing that until he ended the investigation, the FBI had the full cooperation of the Icelandic government. In terminating this cooperation, Jónasson inadvertently allowed WikiLeaks to receive the materials stolen from the Icelandic government and for Assange to solicit hacks against Kroll, Inc.
Earlier this year, Assange was accused of having “violated” the Ecuadorian embassy’s computers and “was apparently reading confidential diplomatic traffic.” While evidence regarding this case has not yet been made public, the U.S. Government’s sealed transcripts paint the picture of a man and an organization for which the actions would be neither unique nor out of character. Several months later, a Mueller indictment was unsealed, alleging that WikiLeaks had contacted the alleged DNC hackers – “Guccifer 2.0” – instructing them to “[s]end any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.” This message was followed by a later request to send “anything Hillary related” before the DNC. The Mueller indictment, which includes only a small portion of the exchange, does not allege that WikiLeaks solicited the hacking, but simply shows that they solicited the transfer of stolen documents. Several months later, WikiLeaks sent Donald Trump Jr. the password to an “anti-Trump site” that the organization said they had successfully guessed. Trump Jr. tried the password. In doing so, Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks may have both violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Selected documents are embedded below. You also can download copies of the redacted transcripts from Distributed Denial of Secrets.