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Image credits: (FILES) In this file photo taken on February 5, 2016 WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange comes out on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy to address the media in central London on February 5, 2016. - The US will on on October 27, 2021 begin its appeal to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face trial for publishing US secrets, after a British judge blocked their request in January. (Photo by BEN STANSALL / AFP)

Secret Documents Have Exposed the CIA’s Julian Assange Obsession

New revelations show that the CIA secretly took control of the security company hired by Ecuador’s government to guard Julian Assange during his exile in London. The agency’s spying on Assange and his visitors constitutes a major breach of civil liberties.

By CHIP GIBBONS

tefania Maurizi was no stranger to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The Italian investigative reporter had worked as a partner journalist with WikiLeaks for all its major releases since 2009. Maurizi had also pursued litigation in four separate countries seeking to compel their governments to release information about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Assange, at that point, was trapped in the embassy. In 2012, Ecuador’s democratic socialist government granted him political asylum, but the United Kingdom made clear they would arrest the journalist should he ever set foot outside the embassy. Maurizi had visited him a number of times.

While Maurizi met with Assange on December 29, 2017, embassy security held on to her electronics for the duration of the visit. As she talked to her journalistic counterpart, employees of the Spanish security firm UC Global accessed her devices, photographed them, disassembled one of her phones, and removed its SIM card. On at least one occasion, the same security contractor took audio and video recordings of her meeting with Assange.

Since Assange had become an unexpected resident, the embassy beefed up its security by hiring Spanish security firm UC Global. In early 2017, UC Global had imposed a new regime on Assange’s myriad visitors. It demanded they turn over their passports and electronic devices when visiting the Australian journalist. UC Global also placed new video cameras inside the embassy. In spite of their claims to the contrary, those cameras recorded not just video but audio. Unbeknownst to Assange’s guests, UC Global was photographing their passports as well as attempting to access their electronic devices. According to former employees, UC Global’s actions within the embassy may have been at the behest of a second client — US intelligence services.

For three years now, UC Global and its owner, David Morales, have been the subject of an ongoing criminal probe in Spain. A Spanish judge has been investigating whether Morales, a Spanish citizen, violated Assange’s right to privacy and attorney-client privilege by spying on legal meetings. (Morales is also being investigated for money laundering and bribery.) The inquiry has increasingly focused on Morales’s alleged ties to the CIA. In June, Spain’s National High Court issued a subpoena for former CIA director Mike Pompeo to testify about a possible CIA plot to assassinate Assange.

And it is not just in Spain where Pompeo and UC Global are facing legal scrutiny. In August, two American journalists, Charles Glass and John Goetz, joined with two of Assange’s American lawyers, Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, in bringing a lawsuit against former CIA director Mike Pompeo, the CIA, UC Global, and Morales. The lawsuit alleges the copying of phones and electronic devices by UC Global was on behalf of the CIA and personally approved by Pompeo. As a result, their Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

Claims of constitutional violations can only be brought by US citizens, but the lawsuit draws attention more broadly to how the victims of this surveillance extended beyond Assange. UC Global ensnared not just the WikiLeaks publisher but his legal team, his doctors, his visitors, and the embassy itself. Assange had a wide array of visitors at the embassy, including everyone from celebrities like Pamela Anderson to political figures like Yanis Varoufakis. With certain visitors, UC Global has created profiles and kept dossiers. And UC Global, it is alleged, passed on this information to the CIA.

Srećko Horvat, the philosopher and political activist who cofounded Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 with Varoufakis, was a frequent visitor of Assange’s at the embassy. The two would watch YouTube videos late into the night or spend hours talking about technology or the work of science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. From the very first time Horvat visited the embassy, the presence of cameras everywhere made it clear they were being watched. But according to Horvat, things dramatically changed for the worse after Lenin Moreno succeeded Rafael Correa as president of Ecuador. As Moreno betrayed the legacy of his predecessor, he sought closer ties to the United States and became increasingly hostile to Assange. Coupled with UC Global’s actions, Horvat explained, “the feeling was more and more as if Julian was a hostage in a very hostile environment. Today we know this was really the case.”

Horvat would later learn from a report in La Repubblica that he was among the individuals singled out by UC Global, presumably at the request of the CIA. Horvat was not surprised by the CIA’s surveillance of Assange, but was surprised to learn of the extent of their interest in him. Nonetheless, the philosopher has no regrets about his solidarity with Assange. “I knew years of visiting Julian at the embassy was causing suspicion somewhere in the corridors of secret power, but I didn’t care and I still don’t care,” Horvart said.

Horvart stressed that the biggest problem with UC Global’s actions was the spying on lawyers and journalists on behalf of the CIA. Law and journalism are professions where confidentiality is crucial. Given that the United States was gearing up to seek Assange’s extradition and had waged a war on journalists’ sources, the CIA’s invasive actions are particularly sinister.

Margaret Ratner Kunstler, one of Assange’s lawyers who is suing Pompeo, stressed that, “historically, interference with the defense camp, either through spying or other nefarious means, has been considered a bridge too far for even the intelligence agencies.” It would severely damage Assange’s ability to defend himself, Kunstler said, if “intensely private strategic defense conversations” made their way into government hands.

Maurizi explained to Jacobin that part of the reason she first became interested in WikiLeaks back in 2009 was out of her urgency to protect her meetings and conversations with sensitive sources after one of her sources, convinced they would be illegally intercepted, stopped talking to her.

Maurizi has worked on particularly sensitive stories. The Italian journalist reported on the Snowden documents, coauthoring a piece with Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s spying inside Italy. One of the WikiLeaks-related revelations Maurizi wrote about, the CIA’s secret hacking tools, purportedly made CIA director Pompeo so angry that he escalated the CIA’s covert actions against WikiLeaks, actions that UC Global allegedly played a pivotal role in. That Maurizi is one of the journalists most heavily targeted raises its own questions. (As an Italian, Maurizi could not join the US lawsuit, though she has filed a criminal complaint against UC Global in Spain.)

Multiple governments, along with the full range of three-letter US intelligence agencies, have all been implicated in violating the rights of Assange. So who is UC Global and how did this small Spanish security firm become the center of an international spying scandal?

Spying Uncovered

Assange suspected he was being surveilled within the embassy. As with Assange’s decision to seek asylum due to fears of being prosecuted in the United States, his actions were frequently mocked as paranoid and unfounded. Both fears turned out to be justified.

The earliest proof of surveillance came weeks before Assange was ultimately arrested. A group of Spanish nationals approached WikiLeaks with videos of Assange inside the embassy, demanding €3 million for their return. WikiLeaks reached out to Spanish authorities, and editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson traveled to Spain to meet with the extortionist as part of a sting operation. The extortionists were arrested, but there were still many questions. The story was quickly overshadowed. The day after WikiLeaks went public about the extortion attempt and the surveillance, Assange was arrested.

Following Assange’s arrest, the Spanish daily El País, which had covered the extortion plot, published accounts of former employees of UC Global who described what it was like watching over Assange and spying on his legal meetings. Additionally, a former employee of UC Global approached one of Assange’s lawyers with revelations about the surveillance of legal meetings. Assange’s legal team filed a criminal complaint against UC Global. At this point, the Spanish judiciary began a probe. The investigation initially took place under seal, but its existence became public in a dramatic way in September 2019, when UC Global’s owner was arrested.

Morales is a former Spanish marine. According to a profile in El País, he admired the US mercenary firm Blackwater and was inspired by it to start the company. He reportedly justified his status as a double agent by boasting, “I am a mercenary through and through.”

The American Friends

It was during this investigation into Morales that the pictures of Maurizi’s electronic devices were discovered. But the most shocking evidence remains the testimony of former UC Global employees. Three former UC Global employees have testified in Spain as protected witnesses (meaning their identities have been withheld from the public). Two of them also testified as protected witnesses in the UK during Assange’s extradition hearing. Identified as “Witness 1” and “Witness 2,” their English-language affidavits from this proceeding offer a portrait of UC Global’s journey to what Morales called “the dark side.”

According to Witness 1, UC Global was a small company that solely had contracts with the Ecuadorian government (in addition to providing security for the embassy, they also provided security for President Rafael Correa’s daughters). Morales began traveling to the United States by himself for security expositions. Although UC Global was small, holding the security contract for the high-profile Ecuadorian embassy in London would be impressive to clients.

In 2017, Morales announced to his employees that the company had joined what he called the “dark side.” Witness 1 learned this meant that Morales had “entered into illegal agreements with U.S. authorities to supply them with sensitive information about Mr. Assange and Rafael Correa.” Morales began frequent trips to the US to visit what he referred to as “our American friends.” Upon further inquiry, Morales confirmed to Witness 1 that the “friends” were “US intelligence.” Morales’s wealth inexplicably grew following his trips to the US. He also began ordering surveillance within the embassy. Believing he was selling the information to the enemy, Witness 1 left UC Global and informed Assange’s attorneys of the surveillance.UC Global ensnared not just the WikiLeaks publisher but his legal team, his doctors, his visitors, and the embassy itself.

Morales’s newfound allegiance to the dark side coincided with another security contract. Morales was paid to personally oversee the security of billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s yacht when it entered the Mediterranean Sea. While a contract to guard Adelson’s yacht in the Mediterranean was lucrative for Morales personally, to Witness 1 it made little sense. The yacht only entered the Mediterranean for brief periods and had its own security team. In addition to being a wealthy casino magnate, Adelson was a major donor to the Republican Party and was the largest donor to Donald Trump. He was also a major backer of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hard-right positions on Israel (Adelson objected to AIPAC’s formal support of a two-state solution).

Witness 2 confirms the overarching narrative of Witness 1, including that Morales told employees the company had “gone to the dark side,” his references to “American friends,” frequent trips to the United States, inexplicable wealth, and security contracts for Adelson’s yacht. After installing new cameras within the embassy that recorded sound, a fact Witness 2 concealed from both Assange and embassy, Morales told Witness 2 that the American friends wanted real-time access to all of the security cameras.

Morales’s American friends were particularly interested in listening in on Assange’s meetings with his legal team. Many of the requests on behalf of the American friends were communicated by Morales to his staff during his frequent stays at a Las Vegas hotel owned by Adelson. Morales conveyed to Witness 2 other requests from the American friends that went beyond surreptitious recordings. While in the embassy, Assange fathered two children with his now wife Stella Assange. Stella and Julian Assange took steps to conceal this fact, fearing for the safety of the children. Nonetheless, either UC Global or the company’s American friends began to suspect the truth. The American friends wanted Witness 2 to steal the diapers of one of Assange’s children in order to establish Assange’s paternity. Witness 2 declined to do so and warned Stella Assange not to bring her baby to the embassy.

The Americans’ requests would take even darker turns. By late 2017, they were increasingly desperate to get Assange out of the embassy. Morales conveyed several suggestions from the Americans to UC Global staff. According to Witness 2, this included leaving the embassy door open so that unknown parties could come in off the street and kidnap Assange. Poisoning Assange was also brought up.

In 2021, over a year and half after the UC Global employees shared their experiences, Yahoo! News released a bombshell story based on former US government sources about the CIA’s “secret war plans against WikiLeaks.” The CIA received direct footage from within the embassy, plotted to kidnap Assange, and toyed with the idea of assassinating him. That US government sources have detailed CIA plots that mirror those of the UC Global witnesses presents fairly powerful corroboration of the most serious allegations. Yahoo’s investigation also stated the CIA covert operations escalated dramatically as Trump’s CIA chief, Pompeo, was incensed by the so-called Vault 7 disclosures, detailing highly classified CIA spying techniques. This also lines up with the testimony of the UC Global employees who say the company’s actions ramped up considerably after Trump’s election. The pivotal moment, per Yahoo, in the CIA’s decision to consider kidnapping Assange came after they caught wind that Ecuador might make Assange a diplomat to another country. Assange’s legal team was willing to consider countries that struck a defiant posture against the United States, including Venezuela, Bolivia, or Cuba. The Ecuadorian government instead suggested Russia, which had granted Edward Snowden asylum. Assange rejected the idea, fearing it would fuel further conspiracy theories. UC Global captured footage and audio of the meeting where this was discussed, meaning it likely played a pivotal role in the CIA escalation of its covert campaign against Assange.

Faced with the claims of his former employees, UC Global owner Morales has denied working for US intelligence. Initially, he denied any surveillance took place at all. After that position became impossible to maintain, Morales switched his story, claiming it was authorized by Ecuador’s then ambassador to the UK, Carlos Abad.

Abad passed away in November 2019, but Jacobin spoke to former Ecuadorian foreign minister Guillaume Long. Long has also testified before the Spanish criminal probe into Morales. Long explained how documents from Morales purporting to show Ecuador authorized the surveillance are forgeries, and crude ones at that. For example, they used the wrong email endings for Ecuadorian diplomatic officials. In addition to fake email addresses, the documents themselves also bore fake serial numbers.

“They [UC Global] were clearly intercepted by the CIA to spy on all of us, especially Assange,” Long told Jacobin. Long called the US-directed surveillance “a major breach of international law” that constituted “a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty, of the human rights of dozens of individuals, including the human rights of Ecuadorian citizens, and of all the rules regarding the sanctity and inviolability of diplomatic missions.”

The CIA does not comment on its covert actions, but former director Pompeo has publicly stated that Yahoo’s sources should be prosecuted. His predecessor, Leon Panetta, when asked in a German documentary about Pompeo’s alleged spying within the embassy, laughed, smiled, and said, “That doesn’t surprise me. That kind of thing goes on all the time. In intelligence, the name of the game is to get information anyway you can, and I am sure that’s what was involved here.”

The Obama-era spy chief clearly does not find the allegations implausible.

A Breach of Rights

The Spanish probe has uncovered strong evidence of UC Global’s spying operations inside the Ecuadorian embassy. The investigation, however, has faced several roadblocks. Initially, the UK tried to prevent a Spanish judge from interviewing Assange. And in spite of a mutual legal assistance treaty between Spain and the United States, the latter has so far failed to comply, stating it won’t do so unless the judge gives the identity of his sources. In the United States, the civil suit against Pompeo also faces a likely uphill legal battle. Taking on the CIA is not an easy task, and courts have increasingly invented new ways to keep victims of the US national security state from ever having their day in court.

Internationally, newspapers like Spain’s El País, Italy’s La Repubblica, and the UK’s the Guardian have devoted coverage to the scandal. In the United States, the UC Global story, much like the larger story of Assange’s persecution, has been kept alive by independent media such as Consortium News, the Grayzone, and the Dissenter. While there are some notable exceptions, the US corporate media has largely been silent — or worse, distorted the story beyond all recognition by downplaying the surveillance while demonizing the victims.

Some of the details about UC Global’s possible CIA connections may remain murky, but the facts that are not in dispute are troubling. UC Global extensively recorded Assange, including during meetings with his legal team. They photographed the passports and accessed and took bizarre photographs of the electronic devices of his visitors. Multiple UC Global employees report Morales told them he had gone to the “dark side” by taking on US intelligence as a client while instructing them to carry out invasive acts of surveillance on its behalf. Their stories match those of ex-intelligence officials when it comes to key details.

The allegations against UC Global and the CIA constitute a major spying scandal with an international scope. In addition to violating the rights of a political asylee, the story involves breaches of an embassy’s sovereignty and the surveillance of a range of journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians. Whether they were intentional targets or collateral damage in the CIA’s war on WikiLeakstheir surveillance, like that of Assage, remains an outrageous deprivation of human rights.

Chip Gibbons is policy director of Defending Rights & Dissent. He hosted the Still Spying podcast, which explored the history of FBI political surveillance. He is currently working on a book on the history of the FBI exploring the relationship between domestic political surveillance and the emergence of the US national security state.

Source: Jacobin

 
Written by The Levant

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