Does WikiLeaks have dirt on Hillary Clinton? And will it publish more damaging internal documents from the Democratic National Committee? Democrats fear that the release last month of nearly 20,000 emails from inside the DNC was just the first blow in a flurry to come. And according to Julian Assange, they are right to worry. The editor of WikiLeaks has promised in several recent interviews to publicize additional material — information weaponized with the potential to influence the 2016 presidential election.
But, at least in public, the institutions Assange claims will be affected by the new release don't appear to be mounting a pre-emptive response, and they’ve been tight-lipped about what they're doing (or not doing) to prepare for it. Representatives for the DNC and the Clinton campaign declined comment on Assange's claims of an upcoming release.
"If there is something substantial right before the election, it could change things."
"We have a lot of material related to the US election campaign, including related to Hillary Clinton's campaign, to the Clinton Foundation, and to the DNC," Assange said last week during an interview on the Dutch television program Nieuwsuur. In fact, WikiLeaks presented the searchable database of DNC emails as "part one of our new Hillary Leaks series."
Cybersecurity experts, political operatives, and observers of Assange don't believe he is bluffing, even as the contents of the supposed documents and the timing of their release remain a mystery.
"There was tremendous attention placed on the contents of the DNC emails, and there were obviously some repercussions," Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University whose research focuses on hacker culture and politics, told BuzzFeed News. "And yet it's sort of like everything has gone on as if nothing happened at some level as well."
The DNC material was published just before the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. But a release of information closer to the election could have a bigger impact on the outcome.
"If there is something substantial right before the election, it could change things, and that's what I find interesting about the current iteration," Coleman said.
The timing and substance of WikiLeaks' previous release, on the inner workings of the Democratic Party, still proved politically damaging and was seized upon by the Trump campaign. The document dump ignited discord at the party's "unity" event, dominating national news coverage. And since WikiLeaks published the trove of correspondence, four top officials from the DNC have resigned, including its chief, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
A Clinton campaign official told BuzzFeed News that the campaign had not been notified by the FBI of any breach to its internal information system. Since the emails were released, the DNC has created a cybersecurity advisory board to help prevent future intrusions, although the makeup of the board has already been criticized by Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU and network security expert Peiter Zatko, better known as Mudge, for not including anyone with technical cybersecurity expertise.
Michael Sussmann, one of the cybersecurity advisors brought in by the DNC and a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie, told BuzzFeed News, "The four people on the advisory board aren't the beginning or the end of the cybersecurity expertise that's being brought to bear on the challenge." Sussmann added that the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike is advising the DNC as well.
"I have to imagine that they are preparing in case 'X,Y,Z' comes out, because they have more information than we have as to what was acquired," Coleman said, referring to the anticipated release.
Vincent Harris, CEO of Harris Media, who led digital strategy for Rand Paul's presidential bid and has helmed digital operations for Ted Cruz, told BuzzFeed News that when it comes to opposition research, campaigns should already know what their opponents can throw their way.
"A good campaign or organization will be prepared for the hit, having done opposition research on itself," he said.
But unlike in a traditional campaign, the Clinton camp and the DNC aren't squaring off against a political opponent who's dredged up their past. If the material does come, the source will likely remain unknown (at least officially). And the contents of the release won't simply pick apart Clinton's political record.
The disclosures will probably be more of an organizational doxxing, the release of a massive heap of internal documents. While a campaign can prepare for an attack ad with a rebuttal, it's a much more daunting task to brace for the unveiling of its internal communications. "What could you possibly do beforehand against this sort of organizational doxxing?" Bruce Schneier, a security expert and author, told BuzzFeed News.
"We haven't said what it is precisely that we are going to publish," Assange told PBS Newshour earlier this month. "We are working on it. We obviously want it to be a bit of surprise because that encourages public uptake and interest."
"What could you possibly do beforehand against this sort of organizational doxxing?"
Assange was asked on Nieuwsuur whether WikiLeaks was sitting on the new information to generate even more exposure and political havoc, and whether he was holding the material back in order to deliver an "October surprise," a revelation close to Election Day with the power to steer the outcome. "WikiLeaks never sits on material," he said.
Assange told PBS that WikiLeaks will release the new information in several batches, covering a wide range of issues, once the "journalistic work" is finished. "It's now a matter of completing the format, layout, to make it easy, and accessible. And so that journalists can easily extract material from it, extract stories from it," he said.
"There's always a question of how much do they have?" Dwayne Melancon, CTO of the cybersecurity firm Tripwire, told BuzzFeed News. "Unless you are the person who took the information, you don't ever know how much the attacker was able to grab."
Melancon said that with information breaches, most of the time the data is leaked out slowly and the material is put up for sale. Or, the intent is to make a colossal splash, dumping out information that commands the attention of the world news. With Assange, however, the Clinton material appears to be an exercise in generating suspense, Melancon said.
"If there's one thing we've learned about Assange, it's that he is building his brand, and his brand is full of intrigue," he said. "The fact that he has created search engines and indexing on top of the information that he leaks tells you that he is great at milking this information for everything it's worth."
But Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia told BuzzFeed News that for all the chatter about an October surprise, any material unearthed about Clinton is unlikely to influence how Americans decide to vote.
"I don't believe that much of anything from Clinton's emails or the DNC's emails will do anything other than confirm the voters who have picked Trump," he said. "They already have a dozen reasons for voting either for Trump or against Clinton. There is a grand canyon gap between the supporters of the two that you're just not going to have massive conversion at the last minute."
An outspoken critic of Clinton, Assange has disputed claims that he is using his role as the head of WikiLeaks to harm her bid for the US presidency. That said, he has also accused Clinton of supporting efforts to indict him, after WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables in 2010. Then, as secretary of state, Clinton condemned Assange's organization, saying that "disclosures like these tear at the fabric of the proper function of responsible government."
Assange's promise to release additional Clinton-related material comes as WikiLeaks faces heightened criticism over the lack of scrutiny applied to the documents it publishes and Assange's implication that a young DNC staffer who was murdered last month in Washington, DC, was a WikiLeaks source.
Assange insists that WikiLeaks would publish material damaging to Donald Trump if it obtained it, and that WikiLeaks is obliged to publish on Clinton, since the information WikiLeaks received about her has already been verified to be authentic. He's also dismissed criticism that he and WikiLeaks are effectively working as pawns of the Russian government, manipulating the American people to help ensure a victory for Trump, and ultimately Vladimir Putin.
"We are doing as we have always done," Assange told Nieuwsuur. "We are trying to educate our audience to understand how the world works in practice so they can make their decisions ... including who they want to support, who they want to vote for."
In an interview with RT earlier this month, Assange confirmed that the upcoming cache of documents would contain information about the Clinton Foundation.
During the same interview, he spoke critically of the foundation accepting donations from a transnational concrete company that the French Newspaper Le Monde claimed had indirect connections to ISIS. Assange also pointed to the foundation's financial ties to the government of Saudi Arabia, and to what he saw as Clinton's favoritism toward the nation during her time as secretary of state. The Clinton Foundation did not respond to several requests for comment.
Just as the publication of the DNC emails was timed to generate greater exposure, coinciding with a major political-media event, the new release may come just before the three presidential debates (two are in October) or in the run-up to Election Day, giving the leaks broader reach and a bigger punch, cybersecurity experts say.
Assange has repeatedly declined to say who the source of the DNC material was and if the new stash came from the same person. He has also reiterated that the hack of the DNC and WikiLeaks' release of DNC emails are not connected. "There is intense interest in the US election and it has been a driver for a number of interested people to submit material to the media, including WikiLeaks," he told Nieuwsuur.
Citing unnamed officials, the New York Times reported last week that the FBI has broadened its investigation into the breach of the DNC, which is now believed to be a much larger cyberattack than originally suspected. The private email accounts of more than 100 Democratic officials and groups were said to have been hacked by Russian intelligence operatives. The US government, however, has yet to publicly attribute the attack to Russia or any other entity.