Assange gives evidence in Spanish case against security contractor

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen in a prison van traveling to Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

By Thomas Scripps - 21. December 2019

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was brought from Belmarsh Prison yesterday to appear in person at Westminster Magistrates Court and provide video-link witness testimony in the Spanish prosecution of David Morales, the founder of security firm UC Global. Morales, a former Spanish military officer, is accused of spying on Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy and was charged in October with privacy violation, bribery and money laundering.

The hearing was held in private session. No members of the media or the public were allowed inside the courtroom to see or hear Assange, on the remarkable grounds that the Spanish prosecution of UC Global involves “matters of national security.” His appearance took place 24 hours after he appeared via video-link in a case management hearing ahead of the scheduled February 24 trial on the application by the United States to extradite him. Assange has been charged with 17 counts of espionage and is threatened with life imprisonment over his role in WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents leaked by whistleblower Chelsea Manning which exposed US war crimes and diplomatic intrigues.

The Morales case has major implications for the US extradition attempt. UC Global was contracted by the Ecuadorian government to provide security for its embassy in London, where Assange sought and was granted political asylum in June 2012. Instead of protecting Assange, Morales’s company is known to have illegally monitored and recorded every aspect of his personal life from 2015 until March 2018. Investigations published by Spanish newspaper El Paisand Italian newspaper La Repubblica have uncovered evidence that leaves little doubt the surveillance was carried out on behalf of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Among the numerous conversations that were illegally spied on were confidential discussions between Assange and his lawyers and doctors, meaning his fundamental legal right to privacy in these matters was violated.

Assange’s British lawyers made clear again yesterday that they intend to use the evidence arising from the UC Global case to argue that the extradition application should be rejected out-of-hand, as it further proves he will not receive a fair trial in the US. A major precedent was set in the 1970s, when the case against Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg was quashed following the revelation that President Richard Nixon had overseen spying on consultations between Ellsberg and his doctors.

The importance of the UC Global case was underscored when British authorities initially refused to comply with the European Investigation Order (EIO) issued by Spanish Judge José de la Mata requesting that Assange be made available to provide witness testimony. His appearance yesterday only took place due to considerable media coverage of a formal complaint by de la Mata. El Pais observed that the backdown took place because Britain’s stance was “viewed as resistance to an investigation that could hinder Assange’s extradition to the US.”

Morales and UC Global greatly enhanced security equipment and procedures at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2017, the same year Trump announced a stepping up of US intelligence operations against Assange. This included fitting cameras with recording devices and putting secret microphones throughout the spaces used by Assange in the embassy.

According to La Repubblica journalist Stefania Maurizi, who obtained files evidencing UC Global’s spying operation, among those recorded were doctors, journalists, politicians and celebrities who visited Assange. UC Global compiled profiles on Assange’s London-based lawyer Jennifer Robinson and the head of his legal team in Spain, Baltasar Garzon. A series of photographs seen by Maurizi shows that Garzon was also followed. Her own phone and USB sticks were tampered with.

Maurizi wrote on November 18: “Nothing and no one was spared. Even the most inviolable meetings were violated—video and audio footage seen by Repubblica show a half-naked Julian Assange during a medical check-up, the Ecuadorian ambassador Carlos Abad Ortiz and his staff during one of their diplomatic meetings, two of Assange’s lawyers, Gareth Peirce and Aitor Martinez, entering the women’s bathroom for a private conversation with their client.

“It was Julian Assange who suggested holding the legal meetings inside the women’s toilet due to his suspicion of being under intense surveillance. Lawyers had considered it paranoid on Assange’s part, and UC Global had reassured them on this count, but in reality microphones had even been placed inside the women’s toilet.” (See: “A massive scandal: how Assange, his doctors, lawyers and visitors were all spied on for the US”)

According to the New York Times, the 61-page court filing issued by the Spanish public prosecutor states that the information collected in the embassy was sent to UC Global’s headquarters in Jerez de la Frontera, in southern Spain.

In a hearing before Judge José de la Mata, Morales has claimed that all recordings were taken on behalf of the Ecuadorian secret service and that the work was known to the country’s ambassador. He claims that “there was absolutely no outside access” to any information gathered inside the embassy. However, testimony taken from former company employees alleges that Morales travelled once or twice a month to the United States and took hard disks of recordings with him. The employees also allege that Morales ordered them to keep these trips secret from Ecuadorian officials.

In 2015, Morales signed a contract with the casino company Las Vegas Sands, which the prosecution claims functioned as his go-between with the CIA. The owner of Las Vegas Sands is Sheldon Adelson, “one of the main donors to the Republican Party and a personal friend of Donald Trump,” according to El Pais.

Morales is alleged to have returned from a security fair in Las Vegas and told an employee: “From now on, we play in the first league… We are now working for the dark side”—explaining that this meant working for US agencies.

Speaking outside the court yesterday, the former Ecuadorian legal consul in London, Fidel Navraez, rejected Morales’s claim that the surveillance was carried out on behalf of Ecuadorian agencies. “That company [UC Global] was contracted by Ecuador in order to protect the embassy, protect Julian Assange, protect the embassy staff… but it is a corrupt company, we know that now,” he stated.

Illegal spying is just one of the host of outrages perpetrated against Assange by the US, British, Swedish, Ecuadorian and Australian governments. On Thursday, Assange’s legal team submitted several bundles of evidence to be presented in his defence against US extradition early next year. These covered the blatantly political nature of the Espionage Act charges levelled by the US government, evidence relating to Chelsea Manning, public statements by US politicians denouncing Assange and WikiLeaks which jeopardise any prospect of a fair trial, as well as evidence relating to abuse of due process, vindictive prison conditions and denial of medical treatment.

Speaking with the New York Times, Amy Jeffress, a former Justice Department attaché at the American embassy in London, claimed that the illegality exposed in the UC Global case was not relevant to Assange’s extradition. According to the Times, she asserted that “the legal standard is whether extradition would comply with Britain’s Human Rights Act, which protects the right to privacy but balances it against considerations like national security and fighting crime.”

Such statements serve only to underscore the hostility within the political establishment for the fundamental legal rights and democratic principles at stake in the case of Julian Assange. Assange has never committed a crime. In the public interest, and in partnership with major newspapers around the world, WikiLeaks published leaked documents that revealed rampant criminality on the part of the American and other governments.

The relentless nine-year persecution of Assange—including the flagrant violation of his human rights and the monitoring of his every word and movement while he was supposed to be protected by political asylum—is aimed at terrorising all would-be whistleblowers and journalists into silence.

 

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER:

Two months before Assange’s extradition hearing, RSF calls for his release on humanitarian grounds and for US Espionage Act charges to be dropped

December 24, 2019

Julian AssangeReporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by reports that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s health has deteriorated in detention, and calls for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds. RSF condemns the continued targeting of Assange for his journalistic-like activities, which sets a dangerous precedent.

Assange’s extradition hearing is due to begin at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London on 24 February. RSF is concerned by reports that Assange has had insufficient opportunity to prepare for this hearing, and that his lawyers do not have adequate access to him in prison. Both of these measures violate his fundamental rights. RSF representatives plan to monitor the extradition hearing.

RSF is deeply concerned by the statement issued by UN Special Rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer on 1 November, in which he “expressed alarm at the continued deterioration of Julian Assange’s health since his arrest and detention earlier this year, saying his life was now at risk.” A group of more than 60 doctors also issued a similar warning in an open letter dated 25 November, expressing concern that Assange’s health was so bad he could die in prison without urgent medical care.

Assange appeared in a Madrid court via videolink from the UK on 20 December as part of an investigation into his allegations that a Spanish firm spied on him while he lived inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

RSF has previously condemned the US government’s targeting of Assange for his journalistic-like activities, as classified documents leaked by WikiLeaks led to journalistic revelations that were in the public interest. Assange should not be prosecuted for being an intermediary between a whistleblower and media outlets. In the US, Assange faces a total of 18 charges, 17 of them under the Espionage Act, which has been increasingly used by the Trump administration to target reporting and whistleblowing on matters related to national security. 

“We are alarmed by the current state of Julian Assange’s health, and call for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds, said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. Assange is being targeted by the US for his journalistic-like activities, which sets a dangerous precedent for press freedom. The journalistic community in the US and abroad is worried that these proceedings take the criminalization of national security journalism to a new level. This precedent could be used to prosecute journalists and publishers in the future for engaging in activities necessary for public interest investigative reportingThe US should cease its persecution of Assange and drop the charges under the Espionage Act without further delay.”

RSF has expressed concern that leak prosecutions under the Espionage Act do not adequately protect whistleblowers; defendants are not permitted to present a public interest defence, and prosecutors need only show that the leak could have harmed national security – not that it actually did. RSF worries that targeting Assange under the Espionage Act could set a dangerous precedent.

RSF has also condemned the decision by the UK Home Office to green-light the US extradition request. Assange currently remains detained at Belmarsh prison, awaiting his US extradition hearing, after receiving a 50-week sentence in May 2019 for breaking bail by seeking refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in June 2012, where he remained until his removal and arrest in April 2019.

The US and UK are currently ranked 48th and 33rd respectively in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index

 

Media Elites To Assange: Fight For Your Own Hide

The Committee to Protect Journalists mimics the government and drops the jailed Wikileaks founder like a hot potato.

Photo credit Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

By TED GALEN CARPENTER - 26. December 2019

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange languishes in a British prison awaiting probable extradition to the United States to stand trial for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Ironically, he is serving jail time for jumping bail on trumped-up sex crime charges in Sweden that even the Swedish government has now abandoned. Most Western, especially American, mainstream journalists, though, have expressed at most tepid opposition to the persecution of Assange, even as reports mount that his health has deteriorated to an alarming extent. 

This is shameful and jeopardizes the news media’s own long-term interests. 

The worst thing about such conduct is that so many reporters have bought into the Justice Department’s insistence that Assange is not a “legitimate” journalist. John Demers, the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for national security, bluntly stated the government’s thesis earlier this year. “Julian Assange,” Demers said, “is no journalist,” since he engaged in “explicit solicitation of classified information.” 

Other Trump administration officials have conducted a similar campaign to delegitimize Assange’s status as a journalist, thereby justifying his prosecution for espionage. “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in April 2017 during his first public speech as head of the agency. “Assange and his ilk,” Pompeo charged, seek “personal self-aggrandizement through the destruction of Western values.”

Unfortunately, much of the U.S. press seems eager to exclude Assange from its ranks. A decision by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in early December underscored the mainstream media’s willingness to disown Assange. The CPJ refused to include him on its annual list of journalists jailed throughout the world. CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney’s attempt to explain the decision was an exercise in painful linguistic contortions. His December 11 blog post on the CPJ website used the unequivocal title, “For the sake of press freedom, Julian Assange must be defended.”

Much of the substance of the post, though, pointed to the opposite conclusion. “WikiLeaks’s practice of dumping huge loads of data on the public without examining the motivations of the leakers can leave it open to manipulation,” Mahoney sniffed. He continued:

To some, Julian Assange is a warrior for truth and transparency. To others, he is an information bomb-thrower. The question with which CPJ has had to grapple is whether his actions make him a journalist. Each year, we compile a list of journalists imprisoned around the world, based on a set of criteria that have evolved as technology has upended publishing and the news business. After extensive research and consideration, CPJ chose not to list Assange as a journalist, in part because his role has just as often been as a source and because WikiLeaks does not generally perform as a news outlet with an editorial process.

By using an array of rhetorical gymnastics, Mahoney and the CPJ tacitly accepted the Justice Department “logic” for prosecuting Assange, even as the CPJ officially condemned the prosecution itself. The bottom line is that the CPJ legitimized the government’s campaign to put Assange outside the boundaries of legitimate journalism. 

Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of Shadowproof.com, aptly pointed out the underlying problem with the CPJ’s tightrope act: “Can a laudable press freedom organization claim Assange is not a journalist without aiding the political case brought by prosecutors in President Donald Trump’s Justice Department?” Gosztola also highlighted a likely reason for the CPJ’s ambivalent (at best) stance: “CPJ’s Board of Directors is composed of many journalists in the U.S. media establishment, an establishment which clings to the notion that Assange is not a journalist in order to maintain a supposed distinction between his work and their work.”

Whatever their motives, journalists who excuse or justify efforts to prosecute Assange are acting as gullible tools in the government’s ongoing campaign to plug leaks and stifle criticism, especially regarding defense and foreign policy issues. The intent is clearly to suppress embarrassing revelations by WikiLeaks and other players.

But the strategy the CPJ and its cohorts have adopted is akin to appeasing a tiger in the hope that it will eat the appeaser last—or, ideally, become sated with its initial victims. This approach is both unprincipled and myopic. The government has already made worrisome forays against troublesome mainstream journalists who have published embarrassing disclosures. Barack Obama’s administration conducted electronic surveillance of both New York Times reporter James Risen and Fox News reporter James Rosen in an effort to identify their sources. The government even named Rosen as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in an espionage case brought against his source. Similarly, the administration asserted that it had the right to prosecute Risen, even though it chose not to take that step. Those were ominous warning signals.

The New York Times reported that President Trump expressed even greater interest in prosecuting journalists who utilize leaked classified information. In his much-discussed February 2017 Oval Office session with FBI Director James Comey (during which Trump allegedly asked Comey to end the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn), the president reportedly backed the Obama approach. “Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.”

Government prosecutors are going after Assange because he is an especially controversial figure and therefore a more vulnerable target. But prosecuting him and WikiLeaks for espionage poses a mortal threat to a free and independent press in the United States. It is extraordinarily dangerous to the health of the First Amendment to allow the government to decide who is or is not a “legitimate” journalist. Only legacy publications friendly to the national security bureaucracy could then count on restraint—and, as the Rosen and Risen cases indicate, even that expectation would be quite fragile. The CPJ and other media institutions that choose to abandon Assange are playing the role of the government’s useful idiots and imperiling their own best interests.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs. His books includeThe Captive Press: Foreign Policy Crises and the First Amendment (1995)which was named an Outstanding Academic Book by the College Division of the American Library Association.