The White House was behind the removal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London before his arrest, a court heard on 21 September.
US journalist and Trump supporter Cassandra Fairbanks claimed that she had been told by a Republican party supporter close to the president about plans for Assange’s arrest months before it happened.
In a witness statement read out in court today, Fairbanks said she had been given advanced details during a phone call from Arthur Schwartz, a wealthy donor to the Republican party, of US government plans to arrest Assange.
Schwartz gave Fairbanks advanced warning that Assange would be charged over the 2010 Chelsea Manning leaks, that the US would be going into the Ecuadorian Embassy to arrest Assange, and would be “going after Chelsea Manning”.
“Both of these predictions came true just months later,” she said. Schwartz could only have received the information on Assange from official sources, the court heard.
Claims dismissed by US
Joel Smith, representing the US government, dismissed Fairbanks claims, arguing that “the truth of what Ms Fairbanks was told by Arthur Schwartz was not in her knowledge”.
Smith said that the prosecution would also question the partiality of the witness, who acknowledges she is a supporter of WikiLeaks.
The court heard Schwartz was an informal adviser to Donald Trump Junior and worked for the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who it later emerged had been behind Assange’s expulsion from the US Embassy, the court heard.
Fairbanks, a Trump supporter, worked for Washington-based news organisation Gateway Pundit, which she described as a “pro-Trump” organisation.
She was part of a message group that included multiple people who worked for or were close to president Trump, including Schwartz and Grenell, she said in a witness statement.
Schwartz phoned Fairbanks on 30 October 2018 after she had posted an interview with Assange’s mother on the chat group, hoping that someone would see it and be moved to help.
“Arthur Schwartz was extremely angry,” she said. He told her that people would have been able to overlook her previous support of WikiLeaks, but they would not be so forgiving now that she was “more informed”.
“He brought up my nine-year-old child during these comments, which I perceived as an intimidation tactic,” she said in the witness statement.
Schwartz repeatedly told Fairbanks to stop advocating for WikiLeaks and Assange, saying that “a pardon isn’t going to f***ing happen”.
“He knew very specific details about a future prosecution against Assange that were later made public, and that only those very close to the situation then would have been aware of,” she said.
Assange would not be charged over CIA leaks
Schwartz told Fairbanks that Assange would be charged over the Chelsea Manning leaks, but would not be charged with publishing the Vault 7 documents – which exposed the CIA’s capability to conduct surveillance and cyber warfare – or the DNC leaks.
He also told Fairbanks that “they would be going after Chelsea Manning” and it would be done before Christmas. “Both of these predictions came true just months later,” she said.
The US government would be going into the embassy to get Assange, Schwartz said.
“I responded that entering the embassy of a sovereign nation and kidnapping a political refugee would be an act of war, and he responded, ‘Not if they let us’,” Fairbanks said in the witness statement.
“I did not know at that time that ambassador Grenell had that very month, October 2018, worked out a deal with the Ecuadorian government,” she said.
Manning leaked nearly 750,000 classified and sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, including the Afghan war logs.
Fairbanks warned Assange and Manning of arrests
In January 2019, although she was “shaken by the phone call” from Arthur Schwartz, Fairbanks visited Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy and “informed him of everything I had been told”, she said, adding: “I also met with Chelsea Manning in person and told her that I feared they might come after her again.”
When Assange was charged with publishing Chelsea Manning’s leaks in 2010 and Manning was put in front of a grand jury, Fairbanks said: “I understood that the information Schwartz had, had come from accurate and official sources.”
She visited Assange again on 25 March 2019 and said she was treated very differently. She was locked in a cold waiting room for an hour while embassy staff “demanded Assange be subject to a full body scan with a metal detector”. They only had two minutes to speak.
She messaged Schwartz on 29 March 2019. Schwartz called Fairbanks and told her that he knew she had shared the contents of their previous conversation with Assange.
Schwartz told her there was now an investigation into who leaked Fairbanks the information that she given to Assange in person in October 2018.
Assange and Fairbanks had communicated by passing notes and Assange had played a radio during the meeting to avoid surveillance. “Apparently those measures were not enough to ensure that my conversation was private,” she said.
Fairbanks told she could ‘no longer be trusted’
Schwartz told Fairbanks that he could no longer trust her with information relating to WikiLeaks.
“It was obvious that the US had been involved, including the State Department, and that Schwartz had been made a party to the information,” said Fairbanks.
Soon after Assange was arrested on 11 April 2019, ABC News reported that ambassador Grenell had been involved in the deal to arrest Assange “back in October when I first got the call from Schwartz”.
When Fairbanks tweeted the ABC story, ambassador Grenell messaged Fairbanks’s boss and tried to persuade her boss to get her to delete the tweet. “I refused,” said Fairbanks.
In September 2019, Trump announced that he had fired his National Security adviser John Bolton and Grenell’s name was being “floated everywhere” as a likely candidate to replace Bolton, said Fairbanks in her statement.
Direct orders from the president
Within hours of posting a tweet on Twitter that Grenell was involved in Assange’s arrest and had attempted to get Fairbanks fired for it, she received another phone call from Schwartz.
“This time he was frantic. He was ranting and raving that he could go to jail and that I was tweeting classified information,” she said.
“Schwartz informed me that in coordinating for Assange to be removed from the embassy, ambassador Grenell had done so on direct orders from the president,” said Fairbanks.
She recorded the call which will form part of the evidence in this hearing. It has not been played in court.
She said that she now believed that embassy staff took “extreme steps” in her second meeting with Assange because the contents of her earlier meeting with Assange had been fed back to the US authorities and those with close connections to them, including Arthur Schwartz.
Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing Assange, told the court: “We say what Schwartz told her is a good indication of the government at the highest level.”
The case continues.
Read more about Julian Assange’s September extradition hearing at the Old Bailey
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- US journalism historian and investigative journalist Mark Feldstein tells a UK court that use of the Espionage Act against Assange will have wide implications for the press.
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- Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked highly classified documents that changed the course of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, says WikiLeaks exposed a serious pattern of US war crimes.
- WikiLeaks and its media partners used software developed by an independent non-government organisation (NGO) to redact information that could identify individuals from 400,000 classified documents on the Iraq war, a court heard today.
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