The US intelligence agencies are facing fresh embarrassment after WikiLeaks published what it described as the biggest ever leak of confidential documents from the CIA detailing the tools it uses to break into phones, communication apps and other electronic devices.
The thousands of leaked documents focus mainly on techniques for hacking and reveal how the CIA cooperated with British intelligence to engineer a way to compromise smart televisions and turn them into improvised surveillance devices.
The leak, named “Vault 7” by WikiLeaks, will once again raise questions about the inability of US spy agencies to protect secret documents in the digital age. It follows disclosures about Afghanistan and Iraq by army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 and about the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ by Edward Snowden in 2013.
The new documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. Monday’s leak of about 9,000 secret files, which WikiLeaks said was only the first tranche of documents it had obtained, were all relatively recent, running from 2013 to 2016.
The revelations in the documents include:
- CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
- The Center for Cyber Intelligence, based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
- A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.
The CIA declined to comment on the leak beyond the agency’s now-stock refusal to verify the content. “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents,” wrote CIA spokesperson Heather Fritz Horniak. But it is understood the documents are genuine and a hunt is under way for the leakers or hackers responsible for the leak.
WikiLeaks, in a statement, was vague about its source. “The archive appears to have been circulated among former US government hackers and contractors in an unauthorised manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive,” the organisation said.
The leak feeds into the present feverish controversy in Washington over alleged links between Donald Trump’s team and Russia. US officials have claimed WikiLeaks acts as a conduit for Russian intelligence and Trump sided with the website during the White House election campaign, praising the organisation for publishing leaked Hillary Clinton emails.
Asked about the claims regarding vulnerabilities in consumer products, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said: “I’m not going to comment on that. Obviously that’s something that’s not been fully evaluated.”
Asked about Trump’s praise for WikiLeaks during last year’s election, when it published emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign chairman, Spicer told the Guardian: “The president said there’s a difference between Gmail accounts and classified information. The president made that distinction a couple of weeks ago.”
Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, said the disclosures were “exceptional from a political, legal and forensic perspective”. WikiLeaks has been criticised in the past for dumping documents on the internet unredacted and this time the names of officials and other information have been blacked out.
WikiLeaks shared the information in advance with Der Spiegel in Germany and La Repubblica in Italy.
Edward Snowden, who is in exile in Russia, said in a series of tweets the documents seemed genuine and that only an insider could know this kind of detail. He tweeted: