Is Wikileaks A “Non-state Hostile Intelligence Service” As Some Claim?

Just before the annual rush to get out of town for the August District Work Period, the Senate Intelligence Committee passed its annual Intelligence Authorization bill by a 14-1 vote. The lone dissenter was Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, a recent guest at Cato and arguably the most articulate and well-informed member of Congress on Intelligence Community oversight issues. Almost a month after the vote, Wyden explained to The Hill why he elected to oppose the bill, which includes language aimed at Wikileaks and its founder and leader, Julian Assange:

“My concern is that the use of the novel phrase ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets,” said Wyden.

“The language in the bill suggesting that the U.S. government has some unstated course of action against ‘non-state hostile intelligence services’ is equally troubling.”

 The specific language in the bill reads as follows:

SEC. 623. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON WIKILEAKS.

It is the sense of Congress that WikiLeaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.

“Sense of Congress” provisions are legislative puffery—they have no legal force or effect. This is a political messaging and propaganda exercise aimed at the press and the Intelligence Community workforce, not a serious assault on Wikileaks or Assange. To claim otherwise trivializes the real threats that actual investigative journalists and their news organizations face from the U.S. government—such as attempted prosecutions for leaks under the Espionage Act or Congressional efforts to eradicate public encryption technologies journalists and their sources use to communicate securely. 

Genuine hostile intelligence services are not passive recipients of purloined secrets that they subsequently publish for all the world to see. Real spy services employ real human beings to actively seek out the secrets of other state-level actors or non-state entities like terrorist organizations, and they do everything possible to keep their successes—and failures—secret, for what should be obvious reasons. Wikileaks may be many things, but the notion that it is a stateless equivalent to the FSB or Mossad is laughable. 

Instead of obsessing about Assange and his organization, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees would do well to focus on real problems and real bad actors inside the American Intelligence Community—especially those who seem so intent on retaliating against IC employees and contractors trying to expose waste, fraud, abuse, or criminal conduct by IC officials.