Prosecutors investigated Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Roger Stone for the hacking of Democratic National Committee servers as well as for possible campaign finance violations, but ultimately chose not to charge them, newly released portions of the Mueller report reveal.
Although WikiLeaks published emails stolen from the DNC in July and October 2016 and Stone — a close associate to Donald Trump — appeared to know in advance the materials were coming, investigators “did not have sufficient evidence” to prove active participation in the hacks or knowledge that the electronic thefts were continuing. In addition, federal prosecutors could not establish that the hacked emails amounted to campaign contributions benefitting Trump’s election chances and furthermore felt their publication might have been protected by the First Amendment, making a successful prosecution tenuous.
The fresh details of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s decision not to charge Assange, WikiLeaks, or Stone for their role in influencing the 2016 election come just a day before voters head to the polls for the 2020 presidential election.
The material sheds new light on the seriousness with which the special counsel investigated the hacks of Democratic party computers. In July 2018, Mueller indicted 12 Russian officers belonging to the Kremlin’s intelligence directorate, the GRU, for the theft and distribution of those emails.
The role that Stone and Assange may have played in the hacks or their distribution has been the subject of much speculation. Little, however, was known about how intently the special counsel focused on those individuals as possible targets for prosecution during the two-year investigation into Russian election interference. But a new version of the 448-page Mueller report released Monday by the Justice Department contains previously redacted sections on 13 pages, nearly all of them dealing with events surrounding the hacked emails and their eventual publication.
The passages were disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed by BuzzFeed News and the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, that called on the government to release the report in its entirety. In September, a federal judge ruled that while some parts could still remain hidden, the government had violated the law by withholding portions dealing with internal discussions among prosecutors. The judge ordered the Justice Department to release relevant sections by Nov. 2.
The newly visible sections, found in the table of contents as well as on pages 9, 51, 65, 174, 176–179, 188–189, and 190–191, deal almost entirely with charging decisions by members of Mueller’s team regarding the hacks and WikiLeaks’ publication of the stolen emails.
The Justice Department also unredacted footnotes and substantial sections of the report — 22 pages — that were previously withheld due to ongoing investigations involving the Internet Research Agency, commonly referred to as the IRA, the Russian troll farm that used social media platforms to sow discord and spread disinformation during the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump win. Mueller indicted 13 Russians affiliated with the organization in February 2018. Vast swaths of black ink have now been lifted from pages 14-17, 18-24, 26, 27-29, 31, 32, 45, 68, 88, 187 and 199 of the Mueller report.
The fact that prosecutors elected not to file any charges in the WikiLeaks matter is an apparent vindication for both Assange and Stone. But Mueller, writing in early 2019, did not completely absolve either man, noting in a newly unredacted footnote that there were “factual uncertainties” that were “the subject of ongoing investigations” by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
Trump has consistently tried to discredit Mueller’s investigation, frequently dismissing it as a “witch hunt.” He’s found support from his attorney general, Bill Barr, who overlooked major findings of the probe when he announced its conclusion in March 2019.
Barr has since intervened in cases related to the investigation, among them the prosecution of Stone, who was indicted in January 2019 and convicted of multiple felonies, including witness tampering and lying to Congress. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison, but Trump commuted his sentence in July, saying Stone “was treated very unfairly.”
Assange, for his part, was indicted in March 2018 for hacking and violations of the Espionage Act for conspiring with former US Army private Chelsea Manning to break into a government computer system and publish a trove of classified documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently detained in the United Kingdom and fighting extradition to the US. A decision in that matter is expected in January.
An attorney for Assange could not immediately be reached for comment. Grant Smith, an attorney for Stone, welcomed the new information about the report.
"The release of the unredacted sections of the Mueller report tonight vindicates Roger Stone and proves what Mr. Stone has been saying since the very beginning of this investigation, that he did not engage in any illegal activity around the emails hacked from the DNC and that he in no way knew the content or timing of their release," Smith said. "No matter how hard the Mueller team tried, they could not make the case they tried to pin on Mr. Stone from the start."
Although Stone was never a formal member of Trump’s campaign, he was in frequent contact with the candidate and his closest advisers and has admitted that he was in contact with an online persona known as Guccifer 2.0, later revealed to have been created and run by the GRU officers who were indicted. In addition, the Mueller team gathered evidence suggesting that Stone knew in advance that WikiLeaks would be publishing the emails from the DNC in July 2016 and from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, on October 7 — the same day the notorious Access Hollywood tape was released.
Assange repeatedly denied Russia was the source for the emails that WikiLeaks published, but the Mueller report found that WikiLeaks also was in direct contact with Guccifer 2.0, from whom it sought to procure the emails. “If you have anything hillary related we want it,” WikiLeaks wrote on July 6, 2016. Just 16 days later, WikiLeaks published nearly 20,000 pages of emails.
Nonetheless, the newly unredacted sections of the Mueller report show that prosecutors worried they didn’t have enough hard evidence to prove that Assange or Stone actively participated in the hacks or were aware they were ongoing at the time they communicated with Guccifer 2.0. Many of the communications took place on encrypted chats that the investigators appear not to have had access to.
“While the investigation developed evidence that the GRU’s hacking efforts in fact were continuing at least at the time of the July 2016 WikiLeaks dissemination,” a newly unredacted section of the report reads, prosecutors “did not develop sufficient admissible evidence that WikiLeaks knew of — or even was willfully blind to — that fact.”
Likewise, prosecutors faced what they called factual hurdles in pursuing Stone for the hack. The report notes they lacked proof “beyond a reasonable doubt that Stone knew or believed that the computer intrusions were ongoing at the time he ostensibly encouraged or coordinated the publication of the Podesta emails.”
Separately, prosecutors looked into whether publishing those emails could be viewed as an illegal campaign contribution because they materially benefitted the Trump campaign. But in their analysis, that case would be difficult to make because of the challenges in determining the emails’ value. In addition, they worried that Stone, Assange, and WikiLeaks could all be protected under the First Amendment.
“Assuming that no coordination with the Campaign occurred,” Mueller wrote, “a criminal prosecution of overseas actors providing non-express-advocacy information to American listeners would likely be difficult.”
The newly unveiled sections also include a small but noteworthy revelation regarding Russian attempts in August 2016 to hack a company that makes voter registration software.
The name of the company, VR Systems, had been redacted until now. According to the special counsel, GRU agents had succeeded in installing malware on the company’s network. VR Systems, based in Tallahassee, Florida, has in the past denied that it was compromised.
"We know that no system is ever completely secure and we work tirelessly every day to protect our systems and our customers,” the company’s chief operating officer, Ben Martin, said in a statement in 2019.
More than 18 months since the release of the Mueller report significant portions still remain redacted, in part because the Justice Department argues they contain information that could compromise ongoing investigations, impact individuals’ right to privacy, or reveal aspects of law enforcement tactics and procedures.
This marks the second time, however, that portions of the report have been unredacted under court order. In a scathing legal opinion in March, Walton faulted the government for failing “to provide a thorough representation of the findings” and questioned whether Barr intended “to create a one-sided narrative” that favored Trump “despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary.”
Three months later, newly revealed portions of the document showed that investigators had gathered evidence that Stone had told Trump in advance of the publication of the DNC emails in July 2016. That directly contradicted written answers provided to Mueller by Trump in 2018, but investigators did not provide any conclusions on whether the president had lied to the special counsel, the unredacted sections indicated. ●
This story has been updated to include a comment from Stone's attorney and a list of additional pages that were unredacted.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.