The Obama administration has admitted to spying on two Icelandic citizens with ties to WikiLeaks in the latest revelation pertaining to both the US government’s widespread surveillance practices and its war against the whistleblower website.
Documents surfaced on Friday showing that the United States Department of Justice demanded that Internet giant Google provide federal investigators with the personal emails sent and received by two Icelanders once involved in WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy website under investigation for publishing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents.
Herbert Snorrason and Smári McCarthy, both known publically as one-time associates of the website, released Justice Department-issued search warrants and court orders for their Gmail accounts on Friday that had up until recently been kept under seal. The documents compelled Google, the owner of the Gmail service, to provide metadata and content pertaining to emails that have passed through the accounts of both men.
The documents are redacted in part and are absent of information confirming that the intelligence is sought pursuant to the investigation of WikiLeaks, but Snorrason wrote on his website “it’s not a tricky guess” to figure out why they were targeted.
“All this is pretty much par for the course; I had assumed that I was caught in the dragnet cast around Julian Assange,” Snorrason wrote.
Assange, the publisher and founder of WikiLeaks, has been inside of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for one year as of this week. He is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sex crimes, but fears the court-ordered extradition to the Scandinavian country is a step towards sending him to America. There, he assumes, he’d likely be tried for espionage and perhaps sentenced to death. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has granted Assange asylum, but British authorities have been ordered to arrest him if he exits the embassy.
Both Snorrason and McCarthy collaborated with Assange after the WikiLeaks founder visited Iceland while the website was still in its infancy. They have each distanced themselves from the website in the years since but are far from the only individuals being probed by the US Justice Department for their past participation. Perhaps most well-known among the Americans targeted by prosecutors is Bradley Manning, a 25-year-old US Army intelligence analyst currently on trial in Maryland for his alleged role in sending a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks. If convicted of the most serious of charges, aiding the enemy, Manning could be sentenced to life in prison.
In a joint statement authored by Snorrason and McCarthy, the men salute the efforts of both Assange and Manning while condemning the US government’s unforgiving treatment aimed at the WikiLeakers and others who advocate for transparency much to the chagrin of the White House.
“The court orders were almost certainly related to the grand jury investigation of the unauthorized public disclosure of information showing considerable misconduct,” the men wrote, “including a number of probable cases of war crimes, by US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan during their wars in these countries, a list of people being held without trial or legal recourse in Guantanamo Bay and a trove of diplomatic cables detailing the ways the US government have conducted themselves – both good and bad – over many years.”
In a pretrial hearing earlier this year in Ft. Meade, Maryland, Manning took credit for sharing with WikiLeaks the material alluded by the Icelanders, including documents that exposed American diplomatic practices described in the press as “embarrassing” and other likely war crimes considered by many as atrocities. Despite this, though, a grand jury investigation into the website has run rampant for years, and several persons, both American and other, are being targeted for their alleged roles within the group.
“Over the last several years we have seen many of our friends, colleagues and allies pestered - for lack of a better term - by overzealous law enforcement, prosecutorial overreach and misapplication of laws which at one point may have been intended to protect democratic values. They have been hunted down, imprisoned and sometimes killed directly or indirectly, all for nothing but their desire to uphold the values our societies hold dear,” Snorrason and McCarthy say in their statement. “No more.”
According to a 2011 interview Snorrason gave to the Toonari Post, he began collaborating with WikiLeaks after Assange published a document about an Icelandic bank in July 2009. Snorrason later went on to the group OpenLeaks, a similar organization started by former WikiLeaker Daniel Domscheit-Berg.
McCarthy was described as “a former WikiLeaks volunteer”
as early as October 2010, according to an article that month in
the UK’s Telegraph, but has been tied directly to perhaps the
most well-known disclosure published by Assange: a video of a US
helicopter engaging in battle with unarmed Iraqi civilians
released in 2010 under the name “Collateral Murder” thanks McCarthy in the closing
credits. Manning has admitted to sending WikiLeaks the video
shortly after being deployed to Iraq in late 2009.
A team of volunteers, including McCarthy, readied the footage for an April 2010 release just weeks before Manning was arrested and charged with disclosing classified intelligence.
“It was chaotic and hectic and also sort of very varyingly frayed nerves,” McCarthy said of working on the film in a scene from the just-released movie We Steal Secrets. “It wasn't really cloak and dagger stuff, it was just, you know, yes, another cool project.”
In a July 2010 interview with journalist Sam Knight, McCarthy discredited the notion that WikiLeaks volunteers were being surveilled to a significant extent.
“I know that it is nonzero. Beyond that it’s hard to estimate,” he said. “I am aware of one person being approached by an undercover US official requesting information about Julian Assange’s whereabouts, but that had absolutely no effect. Honestly, I think the US federal government has a lot of better things to do than trying to monitor WikiLeaks. One suggestion would be that they open up their document repositories and datasets before WikiLeaks does.”
Publication of the DoJ documents come amid an escalating scandal involving the US government’s questionable surveillance practices that have pitted President Barack Obama and his administration against the American public and press. Documents leaked by The Guardian newspaper throughout the month of June have exposed evidence that the Nation Security Agency and other authoritative bodies have continuously accumulated information about the telephone habits of millions of Americans daily while also shining light on the little-known FISA court’s secret and undeniable requests for email and other intelligence, similar to what's seen in the court orders sent to Google.
President Obama and officials from the NSA and DoJ have applauded the surveillance programs and contest to their constitutional legality, despite a myriad of complaints from privacy-concerned citizens and civil liberties groups.
On their part, Snorrason and McCarthy say the Justice Department's disclosure of the investigation suggests they may no longer be the targets of the grand jury probe being conducted in secrecy by the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“This investigation, which appears to be winding down as Justice Liam O’Grady felt it safe to unseal the orders, appears to have been conducted not for the purpose of attributing criminal behavior to those guilty of conducting said war crimes and violations of fundamental human rights, but to punish those who performed the public service of making the world aware of them,” they wrote.
“We view the documents which Google has finally provided us with,” the men added, “not as testament to our involvement or lack of involvement with the proceedings . . . but as evidence of the need to eliminate the surveillance state, in its entirety, before what democracy we do have is lost for good.”
According to the documents, Google was told by the Justice Department that they were prohibited from disclosing to either Snorrason or McCarthy any information about the investigation until indicated. Google was first compelled for details regarding their online activity in July 2011, and the court unsealed the gag-order on May 2, 2013. Both men published documents that only show that Google was asked for data and that the non-disclosure demands were recently lifted.
Jacob Appelbaum, an American hacker with well-documented ties to WikiLeaks, tweeted Friday that the government may be unhappy with the publication of the court orders.
Ok, technically it isn't a leak Google is allowed to send it but I'm guessing @smarimc's publication is considered a leak by the government.— Jacob Appelbaum (@ioerror) June 21, 2013
“The unsealing document states that I can do whatever I wish with it,” McCarthy tweeted to Appelbaum. “Which, to be fair, wasn’t much.”
“I'm not worried about legal consequences or the US attacking extrajudicially. I am enraged by their disregard for the rule of law,” Snorrason tweeted.
Appelbaum spoke on behalf of WikiLeaks during a 2010 conference in New York City and has had his electronic records previously subpoenaed by the government, presumably under the secretive grand jury investigation. The Justice Department has acknowledged the probe but has failed to provide any details. Attorney General Eric Holder said previously that the Justice Department and Pentagon are conducting "an active, ongoing criminal investigation” into the documents that have ended up on WikiLeaks.
In a conference call with RT and other organizations earlier this week, Assange said that the probe into WikiLeaks remains open and involves a Federal Bureau of Investigation file about his website that’s 42,135 pages long. He defends his work, however, and says that it is necessary to publish classified documents in order to hold those in elected office accountable. The US, on the other hand, equates that behavior with espionage.
“The broad case establishes a precedent that publishing national security related information about the United States is espionage,” Assange said.