WASHINGTON — There is one person who can almost singlehandedly put to rest one of the more cruel conspiracy theories to infect American politics this century. That person is Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who currently sits in Britain’s Belmarsh prison. That theory claims Seth Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic Party staffer murdered in what police call a street robbery gone wrong, leaked tens of thousands of private emails to WikiLeaks in 2016, upending the U.S. presidential race and leading to the resignation of senior party officials.
In recent weeks, the legal team for Seth Rich’s older brother, Aaron, have escalated their efforts to force Assange and WikiLeaks to come clean with what they know about Seth Rich and the DNC hack. Aaron Rich filed a defamation lawsuit last year after he became a target of baseless theories involving Seth, and now his lawyers are seeking to use some novel legal maneuvers — including serving a subpoena on WikiLeaks via Twitter — to force Assange and his organization to provide documents and a deposition before the case potentially goes to trial next summer.
“WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, are uniquely positioned to confirm the truth: that neither [Aaron] Rich nor his brother ever provided any documents to, or received any payments from WikiLeaks or its agents,” reads the most recent filing by Aaron Rich’s lawyers. “However, despite multiple attempts through various channels over more than a year, Mr. Rich has to date been unable to serve a subpoena on WikiLeaks or Mr. Assange — or even confirm an address or agent on whom to serve a subpoena on them — as the former does not have a known physical location for service of process and the latter had been under the protection of the Ecuadorian Embassy prior to his more recent incarceration in the United Kingdom.”
Aaron Rich’s lawyers declined to comment further on the motions. Twitter declined to comment on whether it would comply with a third-party subpoena intended for WikiLeaks. A U.K.-based lawyer for Assange, Jennifer Robinson, did not respond to a request for comment.
In August 2016, Assange gave a TV interview with a Dutch TV program. WikiLeaks had published thousands of stolen DNC emails, throwing the presidential race into chaos and leading to the resignations of top officials at the Democratic National Committee, including Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
In the Dutch TV interview, Assange demurred on how he obtained the DNC emails, then dropped a tantalizing hint. “There’s a 27-year-old who works for the DNC who was shot in the back, murdered, just a few weeks ago, for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington.”
“That was just a robbery, I believe, wasn’t it?” the host interjected.
“No,” Assange said. “There’s no finding.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting that our sources take risks,” Assange said, “and they become concerned to see things occurring like that.”
Assange never said Rich’s name, but the implication was obvious: Rich was his source. WikiLeaks then announced a $20,000 reward on Twitter for information about Rich’s murder.
WikiLeaks later released a statement vaguely distancing itself from Rich, but it was too late: Assange’s hint and the reward acted like an industrial-grade accelerant. Rich’s name went viral: Twitter data reviewed by Rolling Stone show a huge spike in mentions of Rich’s name, most of them amplifying Assange’s insinuation. According to BuzzFeed News, the frenzy reached as far as China, where the youth wing of the Communist Party piled on: “The sources of the Hillary leaked emails were murdered, one after another? This is the truth of Western democracy!”
Assange’s comments fueled bogus theories about Rich, the DNC, and the 2016 election — theories that continue to this day. Within the Trump administration, those theories reportedly reached as high as the CIA director and the White House. Indeed, the president’s insistence that it was Ukraine’s government, not Russia’s, that interfered in the 2016 election and his fixation on the American cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike overlap with the Rich theories: In both cases, Trump seeks to deny Russia hacked the Democratic Party, weaponized stolen emails, and published those emails in an effort to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
But that, of course, is what happened, according to the U.S. intelligence community, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation. The special counsel’s probe offered the strongest evidence yet that Seth Rich had nothing to do with the DNC hack after Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for carrying out the hack and laid out in detail how they did it.
Mueller’s final report accused Assange of “falsely implying” Rich provided the stolen DNC emails to WikiLeaks. “Beginning in the summer of 2016, Assange and WikiLeaks made a number of statements about Seth Rich, a former DNC staff member who was killed in July 2016,” the report said. “The statements about Rich implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails.”
Assange, for his part, has never apologized or retracted his comments referencing Rich. He is currently held in Belmarsh prison in London and is fighting extradition to the U.S. where he faces charges of violating the Espionage Act for receiving and publishing classified military cables leaked by Chelsea Manning. A group of doctors recently published an open letter that says Assange is in poor health and could die in prison if he doesn’t receive treatment.
In March 2018, Aaron Rich sued a former Fox News pundit and a pro-Trump blogger for defamation after they made statements accusing Aaron of participating in the DNC hack with his brother and taking money from WikiLeaks. (The two defendants denied many of Rich’s allegations but failed to dismiss the case. A trial is tentatively scheduled for June 2020.)
In court filings, Rich’s lawyers say they’ve tried various traditional methods to serve a subpoena on WikiLeaks and Assange without success. Rich’s lawyers now want the court’s permission to serve WikiLeaks via Twitter, where the group continues to maintain an active presence. Federal courts have granted similar service-by-Twitter requests before: A judge in the Southern District of New York allowed the D.N.C. to serve a complaint and summons for WikiLeaks via Twitter in its election-hacking lawsuit against WikiLeaks as well as the Trump campaign and the Russian Federation. (A judge tossed out that suit in July.)
Aaron Rich’s lawyers have also asked the judge in the case, a George W. Bush appointee named Richard Leon, for help to ask the British justice system to make Assange available to respond to a “limited set of questions” connected to Aaron Rich’s case.
Judge Leon has yet to rule on the two motions.