As Assange’s trial begins, his lawyers highlight risk of extradition with CIA spying operation’s ‘extreme measures’

Assange’s lawyers pointed to CIA surveillance by a Sheldon Adelson-backed private contractor and the Trump administration’s public contempt for the defendant as evidence that the Wikileaks founder would face grave risks if extradited.

By Kevin Gosztola

Puede leer este artículo en español aquí.

The defense for WikiLeaks founder and Australian citizen Julian Assange alleged that the director of a Spanish security company known as Undercover Global was contracted by Sheldon Adelson, a pro-Israel billionaire who is one of President Donald Trump’s biggest donors.

The allegation was made during the first day of a week-long extradition hearing unfolding at Woolwich Court in London. It is adjacent to Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh, where Assange is detained.

What happens this week will serve as a prequel to a more substantial hearing scheduled for late May and early June.

As the Spanish newspaper El País previously reported, Undercover Global targeted Assange when he lived in the Ecuador embassy in the United Kingdom, spying on him 24/7 on behalf of the CIA.

Company personnel surveilled privileged meetings between Assange and his lawyers. The WikiLeaks publisher met with his legal team in the women’s bathroom to ensure privacy, but it did not matter; microphones had been planted there too.

Undercover Global is owned and led by David Morales, a former officer in Spain’s military, who trained the Navy’s special ops unit.

A subsequent report from El País revealed that Morales was in Alexandria, Virginia, just around 10 kilometers from Washington, DC, in March 2017. The Spanish newspaper noted that “Alexandria is home to the US federal court that has been investigating the Australian cyberactivist for years and has requested his extradition from the United Kingdom.”

Edward Fitzgerald, a defense attorney for Assange, alleged Morales returned from Las Vegas in 2017 after attending a security trade fair. While he was in the United States, Morales inked a contract to provide security for Adelson’s private yacht, and allegedly negotiated a “side agreement” to go to the “dark side” and spy on Assange for U.S. intelligence.

A whistleblower who worked for Undercover Global, who was referred to in court as “Witness #2,” revealed how data was collected and uploaded daily to a remote server. That information was accessed by U.S. intelligence. Original recordings including sound were collected from several microphones every 14 days.

Company employees apparently discussed more extreme measures, such as kidnapping or poisoning Assange. The kidnapping scenario involved leaving the door of the embassy open so that officers or agents on behalf of U.S. intelligence could rush in and take Assange.

Witness #2 found the suggestions of “extreme measures” shocking, and multiple employees came to believe the course Morales was taking was dangerous.

Around December 21, 2017, Assange was granted “diplomatic status” by the Ecuador government. U.S. intelligence was spying and knew about this development. This same date, a criminal complaint of “computer misuse” and extradition on a “provisional warrant” was sought. His prosecution became a “political imperative.”

The espionage operation was not limited to Assange. Reports were compiled on journalists, attorneys, doctors, and any Russians or Americans who visited Assange.

At a security checkpoint, visitors were instructed to “hand over their bags, computers, electronic devices, and cellphones,” according to El País.

While visitors met with Assange, employees of the company put together reports that could be shared with the CIA via a server in Juarez de la Frontera. The FBI allegedly had access to files, too.

Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019. Upon expulsion, his confidential papers were seized and passed on to the U.S. government by the neoliberal Ecuadorian government of President Lenin Moreno, who initiated a pressure campaign to force Assange out of the embassy.

Fitzgerald argued this was evidence of the Trump administration politicizing the case. Because of the malicious nature of the espionage operation, Assange has “reason to fear” Trump’s political motivations. And if extradited, he would face real risks once brought to the United States given these extreme measures.

The defense outlined what they described as a “strange interlude” in the timeline of the case, where former Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher and a right-wing activist named Charles Johnson met with Assange at the embassy in August 2017.

Assange’s attorneys also stated there was a discussion about a preemptive pardon “in exchange for personal assistance to President Trump in the inquiry” into alleged Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails.

Assange’s lawyers told their client that Trump was aware they were meeting and approved of a proposal that would benefit himself politically, while at the same time preventing Assange’s indictment and extradition. However, after the defense teased this allegation last week, Rohrabacher denied he was acting at the direction of Trump.

“President Trump himself denies everything. But in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies: ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’” Fitzgerald said to the court. “And there may yet be further developments in relation to this particular aspect of the case, prompted by the public reporting of this allegation last week.”

“We say that this whole pardon business shows that, just as the prosecution was initiated in December 2017 for political purposes, so too the Trump administration [was] prepared to use the threat of prosecution as a means of extortion to obtain personal political advantage from Mr. Assange,” Fitzgerald added.

The defense pointed to Trump’s obsession with power, along with attacks on media, to assert that the court must stay the extradition request. They likened what has happened to Assange to cases loosely tied to Russiagate allegations, where Trump has promised pardons if he can extract some kind of benefit from defendants.

Assange’s case shows how the “dividing line between the high executive, the political executive, is being blurred as has happened in many other examples recently.” And according to the defense, the history provides the clearest evidence that extradition is an “abuse of process” that constitutes bad faith and abuses of power on the part of Trump.

In 2013, then-Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller explained the decision under President Barack Obama not to indict Assange: “If you are not going to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, which the department is not, then there is no way to prosecute Assange.”

To the defense, the Trump administration’s reversal of this decision is another glaring example of officials playing politics—and politicizing the case itself because out of sheer loathing of Assange and his political opinions.

The defense recounted the “sheer scale and significance of the revelations” brought about by Assange and WikiLeaks. “They range from the video of American soldiers shooting unarmed civilians from a helicopter to the brutal torture of detainees in Iraq and the exposure of the true figures of civilian deaths resulting from the invasion of Iraq,” they stated before the court. “Such revelations obviously put him in the sights of the aggressive ‘America First’ ideologues of the Trump Administration.”

Top US officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have described WikiLeaks as a non-state hostile intelligence agency, and that Assange therefore had no First Amendment rights. They have publicly denounced him in ways that the defense believes are prejudicial, and which abrogate the decorum that officials are expected to uphold when discussing ongoing legal cases.

In expert testimony submitted to the court, Professor Noam Chomsky declared, “In courageously upholding political beliefs that most of [us] profess to share, he has performed an enormous service to all those in the world, who treasure the values of freedom and democracy and who therefore demand the right to know what their elected representatives are doing.”

“So Julian Assange’s positive impact on the world is undeniable,” Chomsky argued. “The hostility it has provoked from the Trump administration is equally undeniable.”