Lucian Milasan -

CIA sought revenge against Julian Assange over hacking tool leaks, court hears

The CIA discussed kidnapping Julian Assange after WikiLeaks published thousands of documents revealing its arsenal of hacking tools, defence lawyers tell a London court

The CIA wanted revenge against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after WikiLeaks published documents about the CIA’s surveillance tools, a court heard today.

Lawyers for Assange told court judges that the Vault 7 leak – which disclosed the CIA’s hacking capabilities – provoked a desire for blood and vengeance from the US intelligence community.

They told the court that US agents discussed plans to forcibly remove Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy by kidnapping him and had discussed the idea of poisoning him.

The claims were made on the second day of an appeal by the US government against a UK court’s decision not to extradite Assange to face charges in the US.

The US has offered the court diplomatic assurances that Assange would not be subject to Special Administrative Measures, a form of solitary confinement in the US.

He could apply to serve his sentence in his native country of Australia.

But Assange’s lawyers questioned whether the US would keep its promises if the 50-year-old was extradited to face trial in the US, where he faces charges under the US Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The WikiLeaks founder chose not to attend today’s hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice by video link from Belmarsh prison. His fiancée, Stella Moris, said he had asked to attend the court in person but had not been allowed.

Poison plot

Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing Assange, said there was evidence of discussions to poison Assange when he was hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

A former employee of a company that provided security services to the embassy provided a witness statement alleging that the US wanted “extreme measures” to be taken against Assange, including the possibility of kidnapping or poisoning him.

An email from David Morales, who ran the company UC Global, directed its employees to obtain personal data, telephone numbers and email addresses of visitors to the embassy and to keep records of their visits.

“Special attention” was to be given to Moris, following a rumour that she had had a child with Assange. “If necessary, I want a person dedicated to this activity fully,” Morales wrote in an extract of the email read out in court.

Further details showing the extent of the CIA's operations against Assange were disclosed by former US intelligence and government officials in an investigation by Yahoo news

US gives diplomatic assurances

James Lewis QC, representing the US, said that the US had provided diplomatic letters giving assurances over Assange’s treatment if extradited to face charges.

These included assurances that Assange would not be subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMS) or imprisoned in ADX Florence in Colorado, a supermax prison, unless he were to subsequently do something that met the tests for their imposition.

The US has also provided an assurance that it will consent to Assange being transferred to Australia to serve any custodial sentence imposed on him.

“Diplomatic assurances are not dished out like smarties,” said Lewis. “Mr Assange knows he will get adequate medical care because the US never broke a diplomatic assurance. He knows he can serve his sentence in Australia.”

That brings hope and reduces the risk of suicide, Lewis told the court.

Assange at high risk of suicide

Fitzgerald told the judges that defence psychiatric expert Michael Kopelman was confident that Assange would find a way to commit suicide if he was extradited to the US.

That had nothing to do with him being placed under SAMS, but was because of his psychiatric conditions, he said. Assange would be deprived of supportive measures for his mental health, including contact with his family and access to the Samaritans in a US prison.

Drawing a parallel with alleged hacker Lauri Love, who also faced extradition, Fitzgerald said Assange had the determination, planning and intelligence to take his own life.

“They [the US] have suicide prevention measures, but in this case, given his condition, they won’t be sufficient,” he said.

Experts for the defence and prosecution agreed that Assange suffered from a depressive illness. “It was just a question of whether it was moderate or severe, but in any event it was a major illness.”

Reckless claims

The US criticised Assange’s psychiatric expert, Michael Kopelman, saying that his evidence should either be found inadmissible or given little weight.

Fitzgerald said the US had recklessly stated that Kopelman had misled the court, pointing out that district judge Vanessa Baraitser had made no such finding in her verdict.

Kopelman has been accused by the US of withholding information about Assange’s relationship with Moris in his first report to the court.

Kopelman’s evidence was that he was concerned about Moris’s safety and privacy and that she had expressed a wish for their privacy to be protected.

The psychiatrist sought legal advice from Assange’s solicitor, Gareth Peirce, whether he could defer identifying Moris as Assange’s partner in a psychiatric report on Assange.

Peirce said it would be appropriate to do so as a temporary measure while she sought further legal advice.

The district judge found that Kopelman should not have withheld the information, but also found that he had done so for “understandable human reasons”.

This took place in the context of evidence of surveillance by UC Global in co-operation with a US agency of Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Assange's defence lawyer said there was video evidence of UC Global employees taking notes from legal counsel and solicitors and photographing them.

“There was no tactical advantage to be gained,” said Fitzgerald. Kopelman was not in cahoots with Assange, he said. Kopelman had his own ethical concern to protect privacy until he could get legal advice on what to do.

The district judge found Kopelman’s opinion to be “impartial and dispassionate”, writing: “I was given no reason to doubt his motives or the impartiality of his advice.”

Fitzgerald invited the court to proceed with caution in the light of a report from Professor Keith Rix in September. It that found Kopelman had acted professionally and responsibly and that he “exercised appropriate and reasonable caution” in not disclosing the full position in his first report.

Prison conditions

Mark Summers QC, also representing Assange, told the court that the US was attempting to recast its case against Assange by offering assurances over his treatment in the US.

He said the assurances did not remove the risk of SAMS or detention in the ADX maximum security prison. “Even if they did, they do not and would not remove the risk of isolation and therefore oppression for Mr Assange and the risk or suicide,” he said.

The US claimed that its position was always that there was no real risk of Assange facing SAMS once in the US.

Assange supporters outside the High Court, London

But Summers said US prosecutor Gordon Kromberg had given written evidence that SAMS, which could be imposed on the advice of the CIA, were possible but were not objectionable.

Kromberg had said that if Assange was held at the ADX high security prison, he could do crochet, engage in poetry, and communicate with the cells above and below him – presumably through the plumbing, said Summers.

“And in a fantastic euphemism, he can recreate individually,” the lawyer told the court.

Even without SAMS and ADX, Assange was likely to be placed in administrative segregation, spending 22 hours a day in his cell, he said. He would eat alone and exercise alone.

“The end result is that administrative segregation is not only a likelihood, in this case it is an almost certainty,” said Summers.

Assange would face conditions of extreme isolation, both pre-trial and post-trial, he added. Even in the case of acquittal, Kromberg could put Assange before a grand jury and have him tried again for civil contempt.

Summers told the court that if the US assurances were accepted, they should be put under scrutiny by the court. “The US has considered, if not plotted, assassination, rendering and kidnapping,” he said. “Nothing in this case is normal.”

Administrative segregation

Lewis, representing the US government, said there was a fundamental difference between administrative segregation and SAMS. Administrative segregation only applies pre-trial and would allow access to prison services, association with other prisoners and access to lawyers on an unlimited basis.

“It is impossible to describe that as solitary confinement,” he said.

Lewis said the evidence showed that Assange was moderately depressed, not severely depressed, as claimed by his lawyers.

The judges, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon and Lord Justice Holroyde, said they would take time to produce a verdict.

Political prosecution

Speaking outside the High Court, Stella Moris described the case as a “political prosecution”.

“The inhumane conditions of US prisons have been exposed before these courts in their full barbarity,” she said. “The crimes that have been undertaken by the US government against Julian have also been exposed before these courts.”

The WikiLeaks founder faces 17 charges under the 1917 Espionage Act for receiving and publishing hundreds of thousands of classified government documents leaked by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010.

He also faced one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was later bolstered by further contested allegations that he conspired with others to encourage them to obtain classified material through hacking. 

Assange, who has been held on remand in Belmarsh prison in south-east London since April 2019, could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted.

However, the US government said Assange was likely to face a sentence of between four and seven years.

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