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Lawyers and journalists sue CIA and Mike Pompeo over Assange surveillance claims

CIA and its former director sued over allegations that they authorised unlawful spying on US citizens when they visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London

US journalists and lawyers who visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London are suing the CIA and its former director, Mike Pompeo, for unlawfully obtained confidential information from their smartphones and laptops.

A group of four US journalists and lawyers claim in a lawsuit filed on 15 August 2022 that staff working for a security company at the Embassy unlawfully copied their electronic devices and passed their contents to the CIA during visits to Assange.

Lawyers acting for the group claim there is strong circumstantial evidence that staff working for the security company UC Global copied the electronic devices of US visitors to Assange at the Embassy on behalf of the CIA – breaching the visitors’ constitutional rights.

Richard Roth, attorney for the group, told Computer Weekly that he was confident the lawsuit would show the CIA’s involvement in surveillance at the Embassy.

“There is strong circumstantial evidence that the CIA has this information,” he said. “We believe there is sufficient evidence to allege a complaint and we further believe that once we get the document from UC Global from different entities, we will find some very troubling facts.”

Visitors to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London were required to hand over their phones and laptop computers to security staff before being allowed to visit Assange, who took refuge in the Embassy in 2012.

According to the lawsuit, visitors were unaware that Embassy security staff had copied their devices and allegedly passed on their contents and covert recordings of their conversations in the Embassy to the US intelligence agency.

The lawsuit claims that the constitutional rights of more than 100 US visitors to the Embassy, where Assange sought sanctuary until he was arrested in 2019, were violated.

They include journalists whose electronic devices contained information about confidential sources and stories, lawyers who stored legally privileged information about their clients, and doctors who carried out medical checks on Assange.

Fourth amendment

John Goetz, editor of investigations for German broadcaster NDR, visited Assange repeatedly at the Embassy between 2011 and 2017 to discuss potential story collaborations with WikiLeaks.

“I find it very disturbing that what was essentially a private editorial situation was conceivably or possibly or likely being listened to,” he told a press conference.

Documents that emerged when NBC took legal action against Spanish security company UC Global in Spain showed that the firm kept records of Goetz’s meetings with Assange. “I thought we were protected, especially as an American citizen by the fourth amendment,” he said.

The lawsuit, which is largely derived from an ongoing Spanish court investigation into allegations of criminality by UC Global, claims that UC Global and its owner, David Morales, acted as a conduit for information to the CIA.

Morales says allegations ‘bullshit’

Morales last night described the allegations as “bullshit” and an attempt to create noise around the extradition case against Assange.

He told Computer Weekly that the allegations against him were an invention, created by taking some of his emails out of context.

“After four years of trying to confirm the evidence in Spain in an absurd and illegal investigation where my legal and freedom rights were systematically broken – and that has not gone anywhere – now they trying to make some noise with these accusations and to continue with the disinformation,” he said.

CIA operated through cut-out

The lawsuit claims that the CIA hired UC Global’s owner through a contract with  the casino company Las Vegas Sands to conduct surveillance on Assange and visitors to the Ecuadorian Embassy, during a private security industry event in 2017.

When he returned from the trip, Morales told employees that the company would now be operating “in the big league” and work for the “dark side”. He said that “the Americans” would find contracts for the company around the globe, says the lawsuit.

Morales instructed UC Global’s IT engineers to install systems to improve the recording of conversations in the Embassy and to “precisely copy” the content of electronic devices brought in by visitors, the lawsuit alleges.

Despite the fact that Morales had a poor command of English, he provided technical instructions to UC Global employees in “perfect English” in an email sent from the Venetian Hotel, owned by Las Vegas Sands.

The data collected by UC Global was either delivered personally to Las Vegas Sands by Morales or placed on an FTP server where it could be accessed by the CIA or people working for the CIA in the US, says the lawsuit.

It claims that Morales travelled to the US more than 60 times over the course of three years, where he received instructions either from the CIA directly or through an intermediary in Las Vegas Sands’ security department.

Pompeo’s campaign against WikiLeaks

Lawyers claim that Mike Pompeo, the then director of the CIA, recruited UC Global and Morales to illegally obtain confidential information on Assange, his legal cases and his visitors.

Pompeo announced in one of his first speeches as CIA director that he would target whistleblowers who exposed clandestine or illegal activities by the US against countries perceived to be hostile to the US.

“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is,” said Pompeo, “a non-state hostile intelligence service.”

Pompeo went on to pledge that the CIA would embark on a “long-term” camping against WikiLeaks and Assange, who he described as a “narcissist”, a “fraud” and a “coward”.

Unlawful seizures of data

In the lawsuit, UC Global is accused of unlawfully seizing confidential, privileged information and documents about US citizens who visited the Embassy.

The visitors included Assange’s criminal defence lawyers, international human rights lawyers defending detainees at Guantanamo, and national security journalists whose sources could be put in jeopardy if exposed.

Medical professionals who regularly interviewed Assange as part of a five-year study into the effects of “involuntary detention on physical and mental health” were also subject to surveillance.

The lawsuit claims: “None of the plaintiffs would have brought their mobile phones or other electronic devices into the Embassy had they any knowledge that the Embassy security personnel were stealing confidential information… on behalf of the CIA.”

Implications for US extradition

The case will have no immediate implications for extradition proceedings against Assange from the UK to the US to face charges under the US Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

But lawyer Margaret Ratner Kunstler, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said it could put pressure on the US Department of Justice not to proceed.

“It is a way to draw attention to the US government misconduct that started with Julian Assange,” she said. “We can raise this with the public and try and convince the Justice Department that this is not a good case to continue.”

Robert Boyle, a constitutional lawyer advising the individuals bringing the action, said the surveillance operation made it difficult for Assange to have a fair trial.

“Mr Assange’s rights to a fair trial have now been tainted,” he said. “The recording of meetings with friends and lawyers and the copying of his attorney’s digital information taints the prosecution because the government knows the contents of those communications.”

Boyle said that if Assange was tried in the US, the US government would have to prove that any evidence is not tainted by illegal searches and seizures.

Privileged communications

Media lawyer Deborah Hrbek, who represented WikiLeaks journalists and videographers, said that during her visits to the Ecuadorian Embassy, visitors were required to hand passports, mobile phones, cameras, laptops, recording devices and other electronic equipment to security guards.

“We heard much later, due to a criminal investigation in a court in Spain, that while visitors were meeting with Julian Assange in a conference room, the guards next door were taking apart our phones, photographing our simcards and downloading data from our electronic equipment,” she said.

“I am a US lawyer. I have the right to assume the US government is not listening to my private and privileged conversations with my clients and that information I have on my phone or laptop is secure from illegal government intrusion.”

Assange filed an appeal in July 2022 against the extradition order signed by UK home secretary Priti Patel and has sought leave to reopen arguments that were originally rejected by the chief magistrate, Vanessa Baraitser, during Assange’s trial at Westminster Magistrates Court in 2001.

In the US, Senator Rand Paul this week called for the repeal of the US Espionage Act, which forms most of the charges against Assange, describing it in a post on Twitter as an egregious front to the first amendment.

No evidence of espionage, says UC Global lawyer

Fernando Garcia, lawyer for UC Global and chief executive Morales, told Computer Weekly that the Spanish cyber police had found no evidence of espionage or sale of information to the CIA.

“They just make a fool of themselves in courts in Spain and now they want to repeat the same comedy… with the only purpose to draw media attention of a hopeless case,” he said.

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