Journalists and attorneys whom the CIA spied upon when they visited WikiLeaksJulian Assange, publisher in the Ecuadorian Embassy has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the CIA, Mike Pompeo, UC Global, and David Morales, its former director.
Assange is being held in a London jail fighting extradition to the United States. Assange is facing 175 years imprisonment for violating the Espionage Act, which allows him to expose war crimes committed by the United States. Assange was visited more than 100 lawyers, journalists, and doctors during the seven years that he lived in Ecuador’s Embassy. They included Assange’s criminal defense attorneys in the United States, international human rights lawyers, national security journalists whose sources could be jeopardized if exposed, and physicians and medical professionals.
The CIA commissioned Undercover Global (UC Global), a private Spanish security company, to send images from Assange’s visitors’ cellphones and laptops as well as video streamed from their meetings to the CIA.
“Unbeknownst to anyone there, they actually put recording devices and cameras in the rooms where Mr. Assange was, which essentially live streamed what he was doing and saying back to Washington,” attorney Richard Roth, who filed the lawsuit, told me and my co-host Michael Smith on Law and Disorder radio. “I think that there was clearly a desire to bring down Julian Assange any way possible.”
Defendant Morales announced to his employees that UC Global would be operating “in the big league” and on the “dark side” with the CIA, the complaint says. Former employees at UC Global claimed that the agreement included selling information gathered through illegal surveillance.
All four U.S. citizens, the plaintiffs, claim that the defendants violated their Fourth Amendment rights not to be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures. They seek punitive and compensatory damages, as well as an injunction to stop the CIA from disclosing their private communications and the purging CIA files.
Deborah Hrbek is one of the plaintiffs. She is a media lawyer who visited Assange many times in the embassy. An interview at an online news conference, Hrbek noted:
We were told that there was a strict protocol for Julian’s safety upon arrival. Passports, mobile devices, cameras, laptops and recording devices were all handed over to security guards. After a criminal investigation by a court in Spain, we discovered that the guards next door were removing our phones, photographing SIM cards, and downloading data from our electronic equipment.
Attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler, another plaintiff, is a member of Assange’s legal team. She said at the news conference, “As a criminal attorney, I don’t think there is anything worse than your opposition listening in on what your plans are, what you intend to do, on your conversations. It is treated by the United States courts as a terrible thing … The result has very often been a dismissal of the indictment.”
Charles Glass and John Goetz, journalists, are the other plaintiffs. They interviewed Assange while Assange was at the embassy.
Roth stated that in addition to violating the Fourth Amendment, defendants also violated the attorney–client privilege and physician–patient privilege.
The lawsuit was filed almost one year after the publication of a Yahoo News report documenting the CIA’s plans to kidnap and assassinate Assange when he was in the embassy. Pompeo was furious. the 2017 WikiLeaks revelation of the CIA’s “Vault 7” program, which enabled the CIA to tap into people’s cell phones and smart TVs, turning them into listening devices. The CIA called the exposé “the largest data loss in CIA history.” Pompeo labeled WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” Senior CIA and administration officials ordered “sketches” and “options” to assassinate Assange. Donald Trump personally “asked whether the CIA could assassinate Assange and provide him ‘options’ for how to do so,” according to the report.
In 2019, the Trump administration filed an accusation against Assange. WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, which were provided to them by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. They include the 2007 “Collateral Murder” video, which shows a U.S. Army Apache helicopter gunship target and fire on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. At least 18 civilians were shot to death, including two. ReutersJournalists and a man who rushed to help the injured. Two children were also injured. One of the bodies was then run over by an Army tank, which split it in half. This video shows evidence of three war crimes that are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions as well as the U.S. Army Field Manual.
The Obama administration, which has indicted more whistleblowers that all its predecessors combined than any other, refused to indict Assange. WikiLeaks What was the result? The New York Times does. The Espionage Act has never been used to prosecute journalists or media outlets for publishing truthful information. The First Amendment protects the right of journalists to publish material that was illegally obtained from a third person if it’s a matter of public concern. The U.S. government never prosecuted journalists or media outlets for publishing classified information, which is an essential tool in journalism.
However, the Biden administration continues to pursue Assange’s extradition and prosecution.
In January 2021, British Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser ruled against extraditionBecause Assange could easily commit suicide because of the severe prison conditions he would have to endure and his fragile mental health.
The Biden administration came forward with conditional “assurances” that Assange would be treated humanely and the U.K. High Court overturned Baraitser’s ruling in spite of the CIA’s plot to assassinate him. The U.K. Supreme Court refused to hear Assange’s appeal.
Significantly, Baraitser warned that in Assange’s trial, the U.S. court would not admit evidence obtained through surveillance if it reveals communications subject to privilege (such as attorney-client and doctor-patient privileges). She wrote:
The US would be aware that privileged communications and the fruits of any surveillance would not be seen by prosecutors assigned to the case and would be inadmissible at Mr. Assange’s trial as a matter of US law … US statutory provisions and case law … would enable Mr. Assange to apply to exclude any evidence at his trial which is based on privileged material.
July 1, 2009 Assange appealed to the U.K. High CourtTo review the issues in which the magistrate ruled against him. These include:
- The fact that the extradition treaty between the U.S. and the U.K. prohibits extradition for a political offense and “espionage” is a political offense;
- Extradition is barred because the U.S. request is based on Assange’s political opinions;
- Extradition is an abuse of process, as it was politically motivated and not made in good-faith.
- The charges against Assange do not meet the “dual criminality test” as they encompass acts that are not criminal offenses in both the U.S. and the U.K.;
- Extradition would be oppressive and unjust if too much time has passed;
- Extradition would violate Assange’s rights to free expression and a fair trial. It would also violate the European Convention on Human Rights that prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment.
Assange will also raise the CIA’s plot to kidnap and assassinate him when he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy under a grant of asylum.
If Assange is ultimately extradited and tried, convicted, and imprisoned, it sends a troubling message to investigative reporters who would publish evidence of government wrongdoing. Amy Goodman was informed by Jamel Jaffer who is the executive director at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. Democracy Now! that “the point of the prosecution [of Assange] is to criminalize national security journalism.” It goes to the heart of what journalists do, he said: “[P]rotecting confidential sources, communicating confidentially with them, cultivating sources, and publishing classified secrets. These are the pillars of investigative journalism, of national security journalism in particular.”
There are greater stakes than ever for Julian Assange and for investigative journalism’s survival.