In the summer of 2016, as WikiLeaks was publishing documents from Democratic operatives allegedly obtained by Kremlin-directed hackers, Julian Assange turned down a large cache of documents related to the Russian government, according to chat messages and a source who provided the records.
WikiLeaks declined to publish a wide-ranging trove of documents — at least 68 gigabytes of data — that came from inside the Russian Interior Ministry, according to partial chat logs reviewed by Foreign Policy.
The logs, which were provided to FP, only included WikiLeaks’s side of the conversation.
“As far as we recall these are already public,” WikiLeaks wrote at the time.
“WikiLeaks rejects all submissions that it cannot verify. WikiLeaks rejects submissions that have already been published elsewhere or which are likely to be considered insignificant. WikiLeaks has never rejected a submission due to its country of origin,” the organization wrote in a Twitter direct message when contacted by FP about the Russian cache.
(The account is widely believed to be operated solely by Assange, the group’s founder, but in a Twitter message to FP, the organization said it is maintained by “staff.”)
In 2014, the BBC and other news outlets reported on the cache, which revealed details about Russian military and intelligence involvement in Ukraine. However, the information from that hack was less than half the data that later became available in 2016, when Assange turned it down.
“We had several leaks sent to Wikileaks, including the Russian hack. It would have exposed Russian activities and shown WikiLeaks was not controlled by Russian security services,” the source who provided the messages wrote to FP. “Many Wikileaks staff and volunteers or their families suffered at the hands of Russian corruption and cruelty, we were sure Wikileaks would release it. Assange gave excuse after excuse.”
The Russian cache was eventually quietly published online elsewhere, to almost no attention or scrutiny.
In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of potentially damaging emails about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign, information the U.S. intelligence community believes was hacked as part of a Kremlin-directed campaign. Assange’s role in publishing the leaks sparked allegations that he was advancing a Russian-backed agenda.
Back in 2010, Assange vowed to publish documents on any institution that resisted oversight.
WikiLeaks in its early years published a broad scope of information, including emails belonging to Sarah Palin and Scientologists, phone records of Peruvian politicians, and inside information from surveillance companies. “We don’t have targets,” Assange said at the time.
But by 2016, WikiLeaks had switched course, focusing almost exclusively on Clinton and her campaign.
Approached later that year by the same source about data from an American security company, WikiLeaks again turned down the leak. “Is there an election angle? We’re not doing anything until after the election unless its [sic] fast or election related,” WikiLeaks wrote. “We don’t have the resources.”
Anything not connected to the election would be “diversionary,” WikiLeaks wrote.
“WikiLeaks schedules publications to maximize readership and reader engagement,” WikiLeaks wrote in a Twitter message to FP. “During distracting media events such as the Olympics or a high profile election, unrelated publications are sometimes delayed until the distraction passes but never are rejected for this reason.”
WikiLeaks’s relationship with Russia started out as adversarial. In October 2010, Assange and WikiLeaks teased a massive dump of documents that would expose wrongdoing in the Kremlin, teaming up with a Russian news site for the rollout. “We have [compromising materials] about Russia, about your government and businessmen,” Assange told a Russian newspaper.
“We will publish these materials soon,” he promised.
“Russians are going to find out a lot of interesting facts about their country,” WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said at the time.
In November 2010, WikiLeaks began to release documents from its cache provided by Chelsea Manning, which included cables from U.S. diplomats around the world, including Russia.
WikiLeaks partnered with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, but only a handful of stories were published out of almost a quarter of a million files from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Novoya Gazeta paid for exclusive access to the documents, according to John Helmer, a foreign correspondent in Moscow writing for Business Insider.
WikiLeaks says there was no financial aspect to the publishing partnership with Novaya Gazeta, which did not respond to a request for comment. “We do not have insight into the publication decisions of [Novaya Gazeta],” WikiLeaks told FP.
Meanwhile, Assange’s position on Russia was evolving. Assange in 2012 had his own show on the Kremlin-funded news network RT, and that same year, he produced episodes for the network where he interviewed opposition thinkers like Noam Chomsky and so-called “cypherpunks.”
Questions about Assange’s links to Russia were raised last year, when the Daily Dot reported that WikiLeaks failed to publish documents that revealed a 2 billion euro transaction between the Syrian regime and a government-owned Russian bank in 2012. Details about the documents appear in leaked court records obtained by the Daily Dot, which were placed under seal by a Manhattan federal court.
A WikiLeaks spokesperson told the Daily Dot that no emails were removed from what the organization published. The spokesperson also suggested the Daily Dot was “pushing the Hillary Clinton campaign’s neo-McCarthyist conspiracy theories about critical media.”
Assange believes that U.S. officials hoping to damage his reputation leaked the court records, according to the messages provided to FP.
“There’s a passing claim that the ‘500 pages’ comes from the US government’s investigation into Wikileaks,” one message from WikiLeaks reads. “If true, the US government appears to be leaking data on the Wikileaks investigation, which fabricated or angled to help HRC. Huge story that everyone missed.”
WikiLeaks again told FP that “the story is false” but did not elaborate.
When Novaya Gazeta reported in April 2016 on the 11.5 million documents known as the Panama Papers, which exposed how powerful figures worldwide hide their money overseas, Assange publicly criticized the work. He suggested that reporters had “cherry-picked” the documents to publish for optimal “Putin bashing, North Korea bashing, sanctions bashing, etc.” while giving Western figures a pass.
In fact, news outlets involved in publishing leaks reported on a number of Western figures, including then-British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“For me it was a surprise that Mr. Assange was repeating the same excuse that our officials, even back in Soviet days, used to say — that it’s all some conspiracy from abroad,” Roman Shleynov, a Russian investigative reporter,said in an interview with the New York Times.
WikiLeaks says Assange “didn’t” specifically challenge Novaya Gazeta or the other news outlets that worked on the Panama Papers, despite Assange’s public statements to the contrary.
“There should be more leaks from Russia,” Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former German spokesman for WikiLeaks, said in an interview with France 24 in March. He suggested that since WikiLeaks’s readers were mostly English-speaking, there wasn’t enough demand.
By June 2016, Assange had threatened to dump files on Clinton that would be damaging to her campaign prospects. A month later, on July 22, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails out of the Democratic National Committee — preceding the massive dumps in October of emails belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
In late August 2016, when WikiLeaks’s Clinton disclosures were in full swing, Assange said he had information on Trump but that it wasn’t worth publishing. (In a message to FP, WikiLeaks now says the organization “received no original documents on the campaign that did not turn out to be already public.”)
“The problem with the Trump campaign,” Assange said at the time, “is it’s actually hard for us to publish much more controversial material than what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth every second day.”