Attempts by the US to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are motivated by politics, rather than any genuine concern for justice, a court heard yesterday.
Edward Fitzgerald, representing Assange, told Woolwich Crown Court that the US government’s attempt to extradite him was an abuse of power by the US.
On the first day of a five-day hearing, Fitzgerald told the court that the US was keen to take extreme measures against Assange. Ideas discussed included accidentally leaving the Ecuadorian Embassy doors open to allow the entry and kidnapping of Assange, and the possibility of poisoning him.
Fitzgerald said a decision had been made by Barack Obama, when he was US president, not to prosecute Assange.
The US administration realised that if it prosecuted Assange for publishing classified documents, it would also have to prosecute journalists for similar publications in breach of their first amendment rights, said Fitzgerald.
But in 2017, the US decided to reopen the Assange prosecution after president Donald Trump came to power, he said.
“President Trump came to power with the objective to declare war on investigative journalism,” Fitzgerald told the court.
He said Trump denounced the media as unhinged, totally corrupt and fake news providers and set about whistleblowers in general, dramatically increasing the number of investigations into journalistic leaks.
“It was against that background that Julian Assange had been made an example of,” said Fitzgerald.
In 2017, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared WikiLeaks a non-state intelligence agency, and declared that Assange had no first amendment rights under the constitution.
The WikiLeaks founder was the “obvious symbol of all that Trump condemned”, said Fitzgerald. He brought US war crimes to the attention of the public, and exposed outrageous, even murderous, wrongdoing, he added.
Timing of criminal complaint
The timing of the criminal complaint against Assange, issued on 21 December 2017, over a computer misuse offence, was significant, the court heard.
It coincided with the Ecuadorian Embassy’s decision to grant diplomatic status to Assange that could have allowed him to seek asylum overseas.
Edward Fitzgerald, lawyer for Julian Assange
According to witnesses’ evidence, the US knew Assange had been granted diplomatic status, and “lo and behold, on that day the criminal complaint was issued”, said Fitzgerald.
The US ratcheted up the pressure in May 2019, when it issued a superseding indictment against Assange, escalating the charges from computer misuse to serious espionage.
According to an expert witness for the defence, it is unprecedented for the US to prosecute anyone for the publication of state secrets. “The decision to reverse this 200-year precedent was a political one,” said Fitzgerald.
This took place just 10 days after Sweden had announced its intention to issue an international arrest warrant for Assange’s extradition to the US.
“The inescapable conclusion is the US ratcheted up the charges to ensure their extradition took precedence,” said Fitzgerald. “The whole history is one of political motivation.”
US accused of surveillance of Assange in embassy
The court heard that while he was taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange’s private conversations were recorded by a private security company allegedly acting on behalf of the US.
In about 2015, David Morales, owner of security firm UC Global, returned from a trade fair in Las Vegas with a contract to provide security services to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, said Fitzgerald.
The contract purported to be to provide security for Adelson’s private yacht, but the ship already had extensive security arrangements in place, he added.
Morales had a side agreement to provide surveillance services to what was described as the “dark side”, understood to be the US intelligence services, said Fitzgerald.
The court heard that a former employee of the contractor, turned whistleblower, had revealed that the company had installed extensive surveillance equipment in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
The whistleblower, known as Witness 2, said Assange and his lawyers were priority targets and were subject to special measures.
The company closely monitored Assange’s lawyers, and some of this was captured on tape, said Fitzgerald. Some of the surveillance was carried out as a direct request from the US intelligence services.
The security company uploaded data from visitors to a computer server, which, to the direct knowledge of witnesses, was accessed by the US.
Video recordings and audio sounds were collected personally by Witness 2 about every 14 days and were taken to the US, said Fitzgerald.
Congressman offered Assange deal with Trump
US congressman Dana Rohrabacher visited Assange during his stay at the Ecuadorian Embassy with Charles Johnson, a political activist, according to evidence heard in court.
“They wanted us to believe they were acting on behalf of Trump,” said a witness statement by Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s legal counsel.
Rohrabacher wanted to resolve “ongoing speculation about Russia”, which he said was damaging.
He suggested that information about the source of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) leaks would be of interest and value to Trump.
He presented the offer as a win-win for both Trump and Assange, but Assange did not provide any source material.
Rohrabacher last week denied discussing the matter with Trump, and Trump has denied everything, said Fitzgerald, adding: “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”
“We say the Trump administration was prepared to use the threat of extortion to obtain political advantage,” said Fitzgerald.
US paid money to Ecuador
The court heard that a large sum of money was provided to Ecuador for capacity building, persuading the country to remove Assange from its embassy.
After Assange was ejected, his confidential papers were illegally taken by the US and his lawyers have been unable to recover them, the court heard.
“We say it is not good enough to say that ‘oh, if we did that, we won’t use it’. It is an abuse of power,” said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald said US claims that Assange had published unredacted documents that put people at risk were untrue.
“It is completely misleading to suggest that it was Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to disclose unredacted names,” he said. “They were only published after they were published by others, who have never faced prosecution.”
Every attempt was made at redaction, the court heard. In the case of the Iraq war documents, WikiLeaks used an auto redaction tool that removed names, but rendered the documents almost unreadable. With the embassy cables, WikiLeaks published documents that had already been redacted by The Times and other newspapers, said Fitzgerald.
The case continues.
Read more on Hackers and cybercrime prevention
The case of Julian Assange as he faces US extradition bid – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast
Company accused of spying on Assange acted for Ecuadorian Intelligence, says ex UC Global manager
Spanish court to question witnesses over ‘illegal surveillance’ of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
FBI seized ‘legally privileged’ material from Ecuador Embassy, claims Julian Assange’s lawyer