On behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency, a Spanish security company called Undercover Global spied on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange while he was living in the Ecuador embassy in London.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on September 25 that the company’s CEO David Morales repeatedly handed over audio and video. When cameras were installed in the embassy in December 2017, “Morales requested that his technicians install an external streaming access point in the same area so that all of the recordings could be accessed instantly by the United States.”
Technicians planted microphones in the embassy’s fire extinguishers, as well as the women’s bathroom, where Assange held regular meetings with his lawyers — Melynda Taylor, Jennifer Robinson, and Baltasar Garzon.
Morales’ company was hired by Ecuador, but Ecuador apparently had no idea that Morales formed a relationship with the CIA.
The world laughed at Assange when it was reported in a book from David Leigh and Luke Harding that he once dressed as an old woman because he believed CIA agents were following him. It doesn’t seem as absurd now.
A Tremendous Coup for the CIA
Julian Assange was expelled from the embassy and arrested by British authorities on April 11. It was subsequently revealed that the U.S. Justice Department indicted him on a conspiracy to commit a computer crime charge, and in May, a superseding indictment charged him with several violations of the Espionage Act.
He became the first journalist to be indicted under the 1917 law, which was passed to criminalize “seditious” conduct during World War I.
The WikiLeaks founder was incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in London. A court found him guilty of violating bail conditions when he sought political asylum from Ecuador in 2012. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison. But following his sentence, authorities refused to release him. They decided Assange should remain in the facility until a February hearing, where the U.S. government will argue for his extradition.
The expulsion, arrest, and jailing of Assange represented a tremendous coup for the CIA, which views WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service.”
“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is — a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” Mike Pompeo declared in April 2017, when he was CIA director.
“Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom. They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.”
Pompeo added, “Assange is a narcissist who has created nothing of value. He relies on the dirty work of others to make himself famous. He is a fraud — a coward hiding behind a screen. And in Kansas [Pompeo was a representative from Kansas], we know something about false wizards.”
The CIA’s loathing for Assange stems from the fact that the dissident media organization exposed the agency to unwanted scrutiny for its actions numerous times.
In 2010, WikiLeaks published two Red Cell memos from the CIA. One memo from March 2010 outlined “pressure points” the agency could focus upon to sustain western European support for the Afghanistan War. It brazenly suggested “public apathy enables leaders to ignore voters” because only a fraction of French and German respondents identified the war as “the most urgent issue facing their nation.”
The second memo from February 2010 examined what would happen if the U.S. was viewed as an incubator and “exporter of terrorism.” It warned, “Foreign partners may be less willing to cooperate with the United States on extrajudicial activities, including detention, transfer [rendition], and interrogation of suspects in third party countries.”
“If foreign regimes believe the U.S. position on rendition is too one-sided, favoring the U.S. but not them, they could obstruct U.S. efforts to detain terrorism suspects. For example, in 2005 Italy issued criminal arrest warrants for U.S. agents involved in the abduction of an Egyptian cleric and his rendition to Egypt. The proliferation of such cases would not only challenge U.S. bilateral relations with other countries but also damage global counterterrorism efforts,” the February memo added.
On these memos, which were disclosed by U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning, she said, “The content of two of these documents upset me greatly. I had difficulty believing what this section was doing.”
CIA Renditions Further Exposed
More than 250,000 diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department, largely from the period of 2003–2010, were provided by Manning to WikiLeaks. There were several that brought unwanted scrutiny to the CIA.
The CIA abducted Khaled el-Masri in 2003. He was beaten, stripped naked, violated by a suppository, chained spread-eagled on an aircraft, injected with drugs, and flown to a secret CIA prison in Kabul known as the “Salt Pit.” El-Masri was tortured and eventually went on hunger strike, which led to personnel force-feeding him. He was released in May 2004, after the CIA realized they had the wrong man.
Cables showed the pressure the U.S. government applied to German prosecutors and officials so 13 CIA agents, who were allegedly involved in el-Masri’s abduction, escaped accountability. They were urged to “weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations.”
Pressure was also applied to prosecutors and officials in Germany. They feared that magistrate Baltasar Garzón, who is now one of Assange’s attorneys, would investigate CIA rendition flights.
The cache of documents brought attention to Sweden’s decision to curtail CIA rendition flights after Swedish authorities realized stopovers were made at Stockholm’s Arlanda International Airport.
During the “Arab Spring,” cables from Egypt showed Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak selected as his potential successor, highlighted his collaboration with the CIA. Suleiman oversaw the rendition and torture of dozens of detainees. Abu Omar, who was kidnapped by the CIA in Milan in 2003, was tortured when Suleiman was intelligence chief.
The world also learned that the CIA drew up a “spying wishlist” for diplomats at the United Nations. The list targeted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other senior members. The agency sought “foreign diplomats’ internet user account details and passwords,” as well as “biometric” details of “current emerging leaders and advisers.” It was quite an embarrassing revelation for the CIA.
As cables spread in the international media, the CIA launched the WikiLeaks Task Force to assess the impacts of the disclosures.
Documents revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showed during this same period the security agencies had a “Manhunting Timeline” for Assange. They pressured Australia, Britain, Germany, Iceland, and other Western governments to concoct a prosecution against him.
Several NSA analysts even wanted WikiLeaks to be designated a “malicious foreign actor” so the organization and its associates could be targeted with surveillance, an attitude likely supported by CIA personnel.
‘We Look Forward To Sharing Great Classified Info About You’
The CIA joined Twitter in June 2014. WikiLeaks welcomed the CIA by tweeting at the agency, “We look forward to sharing great classified info about you.” They shared links to the Red Cell memos and a link to a search for “CIA” documents in their website’s database.
By December, the media organization published a CIA report on the agency’s “high value target” assassination program. It assessed attacks on insurgent groups in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya, Colombia, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
The review acknowledged such operations, which include drone strikes, “increase the level of insurgent support,” especially if the strikes “enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if noncombatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semilegitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.”
WikiLeaks also released two internal CIA documents from 2011 and 2012 detailing how spies should elude secondary screenings at airports and maintain their cover. The CIA was concerned that the Schengen Area — ”a group of 26 European countries that have abolished passport control at shared borders” — would makie harder for operatives because they planned to subject travelers to biometric security measures.
U.S. Intelligence Steps Up Effort To Discredit WikiLeaks
As Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigned against President Donald Trump, WikiLeaks published emails from John Podesta, chairman for the Clinton campaign.The national security establishment alleged the publication was part of a Russian plot to interfere in the 2016 election.
Assange held a press conference in January 2017, where he countered, “Even if you accept that the Russian intelligence services hacked Democratic Party institutions, as it is normal for the major intelligence services to hack each others’ major political parties on a constant basis to obtain intelligence,” you have to ask, “what was the intent of those Russian hacks? And do they connect to our publications? Or is it simply incidental?”.
“The U.S. intelligence community is not aware of when WikiLeaks obtained its material or when the sequencing of our material was done or how we obtained our material directly. So there seems to be a great fog in the connection to WikiLeaks,” Assange contended.
He maintained, “As we have already stated, WikiLeaks sources in relation to the Podesta emails and the DNC leak are not members of any government. They are not state parties. They do not come from the Russian government.”
“The [Clinton campaign] emails that we released during the election dated up to March . U.S. intelligence services and consultants for the DNC say Russian intelligence services started hacking DNC in 2015. Now, Trump is clearly not on the horizon in any substantial manner in 2015,” Assange added.
Yet, in the information war between WikiLeaks and the U.S. government, Brennan responded during an appearance on PBS’ “NewsHour.” “[Assange is] not exactly a bastion of truth and integrity. And so therefore I wouldn’t ascribe to any of these individuals making comments that [they are] providing the whole unvarnished truth.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller oversaw a wide-ranging investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. The report, released in April 2019, did not confirm, without a doubt, that Russian intelligence agents or individuals tied to Russian intelligence agencies passed on the emails from the Clinton campaign to WikiLeaks.
CIA Loses Control Of Largest Batch Of Documents Ever
In February 2017, WikiLeaks published “CIA espionage orders” that called attention to how all of the major political parties in France were “targeted for infiltration” in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
The media organization followed that with the “Vault 7” materials — what they described as the “largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” It was hugely embarrassing for the agency.
“The CIA lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponized “zero day” exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation,” WikiLeaks declared in a press release. “This extraordinary collection, which amounts to more than several hundred million lines of code, gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA.”
“The archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive,” WikiLeaks added.
Nearly 9,000 documents came from “an isolated, high-security network inside the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence.” (WikiLeaks indicated the espionage orders published in February were from this cache of information.)
The publication brought scrutiny to the CIA’s “fleet of hackers,” who targeted smartphones and computers. It exposed a program called “Weeping Angel” that made it possible for the CIA to attack Samsung F8000 TVs and convert them into spying devices.
As CNBC reported, the CIA had 14 “zero-day exploits,” which were “software vulnerabilities” that had no fix yet. The agency used them to “hack Apple’s iOS devices such as iPads and iPhones.” Documents showed the “exploits were shared with other organizations including the National Security Agency (NSA) and GCHQ, another U.K. spy agency. The CIA did not tell Apple about these vulnerabilities.”
WikiLeaks additionally revealed that CIA targeted Microsoft Windows, as well as Signal and WhatsApp users, with malware.
The CIA responded, “The American public should be deeply troubled by any Wikileaks disclosure designed to damage the intelligence community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries. Such disclosures not only jeopardize U.S. personnel and operations but also equip our adversaries with tools and information to do us harm.”
But the damage was done. The CIA was forced to engage with the allegations by insisting the agency’s activities are “subject to oversight to ensure that they comply fully with U.S. law and the Constitution.” Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft took the disclosures very seriously.
Assange attempted to force a public debate that high-ranking CIA officials did not want to have.
“There is an extreme proliferation risk in the development of cyber ‘weapons,’ Assange stated. Comparisons can be drawn between the uncontrolled proliferation of such ‘weapons,’ which results from the inability to contain them combined with their high market value, and the global arms trade. But the significance of “Year Zero” goes well beyond the choice between cyberwar and cyberpeace.”
(Note: Josh Schulte, a former CIA employee, was charged with violating the Espionage Act when he allegedly disclosed the files to WikiLeaks. He was jailed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York.)
CIA Exploits New Leadership In Ecuador
Lenín Moreno was elected president of Ecuador in May 2017. At the time, the U.S. Justice Department had essentially abandoned their grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks. President Barack Obama’s administration declined to pursue charges against Assange. But officials in the national security apparatus recognized a political shift in Ecuador and exploited it.
By December, the CIA was able to fight back against Assange and WikiLeaks by installing spying devices in the Ecuador embassy.
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou contended, “The attitude at the CIA is that he really did commit espionage. This isn’t about freedom of speech or freedom of the press because they don’t care about freedom of speech or freedom of the press. All they care about is controlling the flow of information and so Julian was a threat to them.”
Recall, as the Senate intelligence committee compiled a study on the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program, the CIA flouted restrictions on domestic spying and targeted Senate staff. Personnel even hacked into Senate computers.
“The CIA likes nothing more than being able to operate unfettered,” Kiriakou further declared.
He also commented, “[Moreno] did the CIA’s bidding. I have no idea why he would do such a thing, but he was the perfect person to take over the leadership of Ecuador at exactly the time that the CIA needed a friend there.”
As 2018 progressed, restrictions imposed by the Ecuador government on what Assange was allowed to do on the internet and in his daily work for WikiLeaks intensified.
A doctor named Sondra Crosby, who evaluated Assange’s health on February 23, described the embassy surveillance she experienced during her visit. She left the embassy at one point to pick up some food and returned to the room where they were meeting to find her confidential medical notes were taken. She found her notes “in a space utilized by embassy surveillance staff” and presumed they were read, a violation of doctor-patient confidentiality.
Forcing the removal of Assange from the embassy was a major victory for the CIA, and if prosecutors win his extradition to the United States, the agency will have a hand in how the trial unfolds.