Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has spent over 1000 days in prison, much of which was without any standing charges against him. The persecution of Wikileaks and its founder however, has been going on for over a decade. During this time, mainstream media has by and large shied away from covering the issue. When they do pay attention, coverage has mostly revolved around the updates with the trial or continued attempts to vilify Assange and his work, ignoring the serious implications of his case on press freedoms not just in the US or the UK, but around the world.
The crucial developments in the case outside the court room over the past year are important to highlight, as they have exposed the highly political nature of the Assange persecution by the US government, which began in 2010 under the Barack Obama administration, and has continued by the successive administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
1. The CIA planned to kidnap and assassinate Assange in London
An investigative report released by Yahoo News in 2021 has found that there was a serious debate at the top rungs of the US government to either kidnap or assassinate Assange in 2017. The report – based on interviews with dozens of former US national security officers – showed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had discussed plans to silence Assange, following the publication of the Vault 7 files.
According to the report, the CIA leadership, under the Trump-appointed director Mike Pompeo, was “embarrassed” about the leak and “wanted vengeance on Assange.” At the time, Assange had already spent over five years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had taken refuge to avoid extradition.
Pompeo and other officials pitched plans to conduct rendition from inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. In the meanwhile, Trump asked for “options” to assassinate Assange. “Sketches” were reportedly prepared to not just assassinate Assange but also other Wikileaks’ journalists in Europe.
Fortunately, these plans never came to fruition because of concerns from White House officials over potential diplomatic tensions between the US and its European allies. Instead, the government went ahead with indicting Assange, which has led to the current grueling extradition process.
While Trump denied the allegations raised in the report, Pompeo in his response did admit that “pieces of it are true.”
2. The US prosecution is based on a fabricated testimony
The current US indictment against Assange under the Espionage Act is primarily based on attempts to portray him and Wikileaks as active participants in leaking data, and not as publishers. In order to prove this, the federal prosecutors in the US are leaning on the testimony from Icelandic hacker Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson obtained under the Obama administration.
In a crucial exposé published by Icelandic magazine Stundin – which seemingly was not on the radar of major news outlets – Thordarson admitted that he fabricated the testimony to secure immunity from prosecution for various crimes. Thordarson falsely portrayed himself as being close to Assange and made claims of hacking for Wikileaks in collaboration with the hacktivist group LulzSec.
In the second expanded indictment of Assange, Thordarson is mentioned as the “Teenager” whom Assange had supposedly encouraged to hack local banks and government officials. It turns out Thordarson was only remotely associated with a fundraiser for Wikileaks between 2010 and 2011, from which he embezzled USD 50,000.
It was to avoid legal repercussions for the embezzlement charge and other crimes he had committed that Thordarson contacted the US embassy and volunteered to be a witness. He was shortly contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and was flown out of Iceland.
Thordarson is currently serving a prison sentence for sexual abuse crimes in Iceland. He is a repeat offender who was described as a “sociopath” by court ordered psychologists during a trial for sexual abuse crimes against nine underaged boys, one of whom committed suicide.
3. The US made use of DDoS attacks on Iceland to acquire witness against Assange
In 2011, a DDoS (denial-of-service) attack by LulzSec affected several Icelandic government websites. The Stundin exposé on Thordarson also detailed how the US possibly exploited this DDoS attack to fly Thordarson out of Iceland and acquire his testimony.
At the time of the DDoS attack, LulzSec’s Hector Xavier Monsegur or Sabu was in FBI’s custody and recruited as an informant. This indicated that the US possibly had prior knowledge about the attack. According to Iceland’s Minister of the Interior at the time, Ögmundur Jónasson, the incident was exploited by the FBI to secure letters rogatory with Iceland to “spin a web” for Assange.
“They were trying to use things (in Iceland) and use people in our country to spin a web, a cobweb that would catch Julian Assange,” Jónasson told Stundin. According to Jónasson, the FBI was able to not only enter Iceland but hold multiple meetings with Thordarson, and then fly him out of the country as a witness.
The very proactive manner of acquiring witnesses at the time suggests that the Obama administration was also actively pursuing options to prosecute Assange. While the Obama administration eventually decided against a full-fledged indictment, the by-products of the pursuit became the basis of the Trump administration’s legal assault on Assange.
4. The US spied on Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy
In April 2019 Wikileaks had reported of an extensive surveillance operation on Assange within the Ecuadorian embassy. This was confirmed months later when Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional carried out a secret investigation prompted by a complaint by Assange himself. The investigation was reported by Spanish newspaper El Pais.
The investigation found that Spanish security company Undercover Global SL or UC Global, which worked for the Ecuadorian Embassy at the time, had illegally compiled a plethora of surveillance footage, audio and video recordings, personal information, and even private legal documents pertaining to Assange from the embassy.
UC Global’s director David Morales was arrested in September 2019, and later testified to the Spanish court, that the illegal surveillance of Assange was carried out since at least mid-2017.
Morales and UC Global whistleblowers told the Spanish court that the surveillance data on Assange was collected for the CIA. This was around the time the CIA debated rendition and assassination plans for Assange, as mentioned above.
After blocking requests from the Spanish court for more than a year, the UK eventually allowed Assange to testify in the UC Global case via video conferencing in December 2020. The US continues to block attempts by Spanish investigators to dig further into the US role in the surveillance.
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