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Thu 18 July 2019
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Julian Assange knew that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich couldn’t be the source of the hacked DNC emails, but he continued to suggest otherwise to distract from mounting evidence that WikiLeaks helped Russia interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

According to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s newly-released report, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spread conspiracy theories about the murder of Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer Seth Rich to obfuscate the real source of the stolen DNC emails it published during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Rich was murdered in Washington, D.C. on July 10, 2016, in what police say was a robbery gone wrong. However, the timing of Rich’s killing and his association with the DNC quickly drew the attention of conspiracy theorists, who falsely claimed that Rich was killed in retaliation for giving the stolen DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

Assange and the “radical transparency” organisation he founded wittingly waged a disinformation campaign to provide cover for themselves — and they used a dead man’s name to do it.

The conspiracy theory made its way into the mainstream thanks to figures like Roger Stone, Sean Hannity, and Jerome Corsi. But, throughout it all, no one did more to fuel the baseless speculation than Assange himself, who exploited Rich’s murder and used it to rebut claims that WikiLeaks had helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election by distributing emails and other documents that were stolen by GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) officers and given to WikiLeaks.


Assange, Russia, and the Hacked DNC Emails

According to the Mueller report, Assange’s first contact with the Russian intelligence agents who stole the Democratic Party emails took place on June 14, 2016, when WikiLeaks’ Twitter account received a direct message from DCLeaks, one of the false online personas created by Russia’s GRU to distribute the hacked emails.

“You announced your organization was preparing to publish more Hillary’s emails,” DCLeaks wrote to WikiLeaks, according to Mueller’s report. “We are ready to support you. We have some sensitive information too, in particular, her financial documents. Let’s do it together. What do you think about publishing our info at the same moment? Thank you”.

On June 22, 2016, WikiLeaks reached out to Guccifer 2.0 — another GRU persona — after it released some hacked material that was stolen from the DNC. According to the report, “WikiLeaks used Twitter’s direct message function to contact the Guccifer 2.0 Twitter account and suggest that Guccifer 2.0 ‘[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’”.

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A short time later, on July 6, 2016, WikiLeaks reached out to Guccifer 2.0 again, writing in a direct message: “if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after.”

On July 14, 2016, Russia used a Guccifer 2.0 email account to send WikiLeaks an encrypted attachment named “wk dnc link I .txt.gpg.” Four days later, on July 18, WikiLeaks confirmed that it had received the one-gigabyte file and, on July 22, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails and other documents stolen from the DNC’s network.


The Birth of a Conspiracy Theory

By the time WikiLeaks released the hacked DNC emails, cybersecurity experts at CrowdStrike had already published a technical analysis attributing the hack to Russia’s intelligence services. A short time later, ThreatConnect published evidence showing that Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks were creations of the GRU.

Yet: “As reports attributing the DNC and [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] hacks to the Russian government emerged, WikiLeaks and Assange made several public statements apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing,” Mueller’s report said.

This included “a number of a false statement about Seth Rich,” according to the report.

On August 9, 2016, WikiLeaks’ Twitter account posted an announcement promising a $20,000 reward for “information leading to conviction for the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich.” Many people interpreted the tweet as an indication that Rich was connected to WikiLeaks, most likely as a source.

How can we be sure that Assange knew he was peddling disinformation? Because the hacked DNC materials were sent to WikiLeaks four days after Rich’s murder.

The Mueller report also cites an August 25, 2016, interview during which Assange was asked: “Why are you so interested in Seth Rich’s killer?”

“We’re very interested in anything that might be a threat to alleged WikiLeaks’ sources,” he responded. “We’re not saying that Seth Rich’s death necessarily is connected to our publication. That’s something that has to be established. But if there’s any question about a source of WikiLeaks being threatened, then people can be assured that this organization will go after anyone who may have been involved in some kind of attempt to coerce or possibly, in this case, kill a potential source.”

While Assange never explicitly claimed that Rich provided the emails to WikiLeaks, his “statements about Rich implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails,” the report says.

Assange’s statements are even more notable given that he and WikiLeaks typically don’t comment at all on sources — but he made an exception to exploit the murder of a young man in an attempt to cover up the actual source, which was a team of Russian hackers.


Assange Fuels Right-Wing Disinformation Campaign

The facts underlying the Seth Rich conspiracy theory never added up. Rich didn’t have the access that would have been needed to hack the DNC emails, nor is there any evidence that he had the technical knowledge to do so (he was a data analyst, a role which utilizes a very different set of skills to hacking).

Furthermore, the DNC wasn’t the only entity that was hacked. In separate instances, documents and emails were also stolen from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Rich didn’t have any inside connections to the DCCC or the Clinton campaign.

But, to Trump supporters and Assange defenders, the idea that Rich had been murdered in retaliation for leaking the DNC emails was so appealing that the facts didn’t matter.

The conspiracy theory reinforced the baseless rumor that the Clintons were involved in ordering hits on former insiders who turned into political liabilities, while also providing a distraction from the evidence that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump, with the assistance of WikiLeaks and possibly even the Trump campaign.

According to investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, the GRU tried to frame Rich as the source of the stolen DNC emails in order to draw attention away from Russia’s involvement.

With Assange lending credibility to the idea that Rich was his source, the conspiracy theory quickly took off, despite repeated pleas by Rich’s mourning family members to stop exploiting his death.

Trump associates like Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi relentlessly pushed the conspiracy theory even after acknowledging in private emails that hackers, not the DNC staffer, were responsible for stealing the material.

In August 2016, former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich floated the conspiracy theory on a right-wing talk show, claiming that Rich’s death was suspicious and “worth talking about”. He went on to cite the claims from Assange as some sort of proof, saying, “if Assange says he is the source, Assange may know. That’s not complicated”.

Sean Hannity — an ally of both Donald Trump and Assange — became one of the most outspoken proponents of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, devoting extensive coverage to the hoax and frequently posting about it on Twitter. Fellow Fox News personalities also joined in and, in May 2017, Fox News published a now-retracted article claiming that the FBI had evidence that Rich was in touch with WikiLeaks prior to his death (no such evidence has ever been produced).

Some reports suggest that Russia was also involved in pushing the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. According to investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, the GRU tried to frame Rich as the source of the stolen DNC emails in order to draw attention away from Russia’s involvement.


Evidence Shows Assange Knowingly Spread Disinformation About Seth Rich

After the U.S. intelligence community released its January 2017 report attributing the hack to Russia, Assange continued to deny that the hacked emails released by WikiLeaks had come from Russia. At one point, he even reportedly claimed to have “physical proof” to support his claims.

In his report, Mueller cites a Breitbart News article in which Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) discussed his August 2017 visit to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange was hiding to avoid being extradited to face sexual assault accusations in Sweden. Rohrabacher said Assange had told him that the DNC hack was an “inside job” and claimed to have “physical proof” that the Russians did not give the hacked materials to Assange.

Rohrabacher said Assange had told him that the DNC hack was an “inside job” and claimed to have “physical proof” that the Russians did not give the hacked materials to Assange.

But, that proof never materialised. Although it’s possible (though unlikely) that Assange was in denial about Russia being the source of the hacked documents, the Mueller report makes it clear that Assange knew Rich couldn’t the source — but he still spent months suggesting that he might be in order to prop up a conspiracy theory that served the interests of Trump, Russia, and WikiLeaks at the expense of a dead man’s legacy.  

How can we be sure that Assange knew he was peddling disinformation? Because the hacked DNC materials were sent to WikiLeaks four days after Rich’s murder.

As the Mueller report concluded, the file-transfer evidence “and other information uncovered during the investigation discredit WikiLeaks‘ claims about the source of the material that it posted”.

Additional evidence supports this conclusion.

A cache of Twitter direct messages released by journalist Emma Best in April 2018 show that, even as Assange was suggesting publicly in late summer and early fall 2016 that WikiLeaks had gotten the hacked DNC documents from Rich, he was secretly trying to obtain more hacked materials from Guccifer 2.0, which had already been linked to Russian intelligence. BuzzFeed described the messages as “the starkest proof yet that Assange knew a likely Russian government hacker had the Democrat leaks”.

In other words, Assange and the “radical transparency” organisation he founded wittingly waged a disinformation campaign to provide cover for themselves and help an authoritarian regime get away with undermining another country’s democratic election — and they used a dead man’s name to do it.

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