Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS reported on July 9 that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was spied on by a Spanish private defense and security firm called Undercover Global S.L., when he lived in the Ecuador embassy in the United Kingdom.
The report was based on “documents, video, and audio material” that was “used in an extortion attempt against Assange by several individuals.” In May, Spanish police arrested journalist José Martín Santos, who had a record of fraud, and a computer programmer for their alleged involvement in an “attempt to make €3 million from the sale of private material.”
Reporters for EL PAÍS found the spying on Assange’s legal defense meetings to be most significant. They were stunned by the fact that Assange felt he had to hold meetings in the women’s bathroom if he wanted to ensure privacy. And they took note of U.C. Global’s “feverish, obsessive vigilance” toward “the guest,” which became more intense after Lenin Moreno was elected president of Ecuador in May 2017.
That is not how CNN viewed the same cache of information compiled by the private security company and eventually used to allegedly extort Assange.
Although EL PAÍS makes no mention of meddling in the 2016 presidential election in its coverage, CNN approached the material like analysts at the CIA. They voraciously consumed logs hoping the documents would confirm Assange collaborated with Russian intelligence assets to release emails from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
Compare the two reports, as they appeared on the news organization’s websites:
CNN was unable to find concrete proof, and the words “potentially” and “possibility” do heavy lifting for the media organization.
“New documents obtained exclusively by CNN reveal that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange received in-person deliveries, potentially of hacked materials related to the 2016 US election, during a series of suspicious meetings at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London,” the CNN report reads.
It adds, “The documents build on the possibility, raised by special counsel Robert Mueller in his report on Russian meddling, that couriers brought hacked files to Assange at the embassy.”
Yet, there is little to no evidence in the report to substantiate the conspiracy theory that CNN reporters want the public to believe.
Much of CNN’s report quotes from the Mueller report, not the private security company materials. It plugs in meetings and interactions Assange had with visitors that align with dates in the report in order to claim this appears to be evidence of collaboration with the Russian government, but CNN does not know what transpired.
For example, on July 18, 2016, CNN states, “While the Republican National Convention kicked off in Cleveland, an embassy security guard broke protocol by abandoning his post to receive a package outside the embassy from a man in disguise. The man covered his face with a mask and sunglasses and was wearing a backpack, according to surveillance images obtained by CNN.”
“WikiLeaks informed the Russian hackers that it had received the files and was preparing to release them soon. It’s not clear if these incidents are related, and the contents of the package delivered to the embassy are unknown,” CNN adds.
Nonetheless, hours after the report was published, CNN splashed the headline, “When Russia came knocking for Julian Assange” on their website, with a grainy but lurid frame from a surveillance camera that showed the Masked Man who made a delivery.
This is similar to when CNN went searching for a story about a Russian-funded digital media project called In The Now that produces viral videos. They wanted to show their work was aimed at “undermining American democracy.” When reporters could not find information to substantiate their state-identified suspicions, they manufactured a news story that involved giving Facebook a pretext for removing the project’s pages.
It also fits in with prior examples of malpractice, like when CNN jumped all over the false story that Assange met Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, at the embassy. In 2017, the network retracted a report when they falsely reported Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci was involved in a Russian hedge fund that the Senate was investigating.
Ecuador granted asylum to Assange in August 2012. The Ecuador government concluded Assange was a journalist, who faced the threat of persecution and would not receive a fair trial if was extradited. He also would likely suffer cruel and degrading treatment if he was sentenced to prison.
Since then, U.S. media organizations like CNN have refused to accept that Assange was a journalist targeted by the U.S. government. The ignorance of CNN reporters shows in the report.
CNN describes how Assange had “a special list of people who were able to enter the embassy without showing identification or being searched by security. He was even granted the power to delete names from the visitor logs.”
“From the outset he demanded (and was granted) high-speed internet connectivity, phone service and regular access to professional visitors and personal guests. This arrangement enabled him to keep WikiLeaks active, the documents said.”
Assange was not living in a prison cell, although he certainly suffered psychological trauma from his confinement in the embassy. He did not have restrictions like inmates. Of course, he was permitted to continue his work managing WikiLeaks and meeting with anyone who wanted to see him.
But if one reads CNN’s report, it is clear, like the CIA, they do not view the work Assange was doing as journalistic but rather the work of an “enemy” of the United States.
CNN reporters fixate on Andrew Müller-Maguhn’s visits to the embassy and a part of the Mueller report that referred to Andrew Müller-Maguhn, a German who met Assange through the Chaos Computer Club in 2007 and sits on the board of the Wau Holland Foundation.
“The Office cannot rule out that stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries, who visited during the summer of 2016,” the Mueller report stated. “For example, public reporting identified Andrew Müller-Maguhn as a WikiLeaks associate who may have assisted with the transfer of these stolen documents to WikiLeaks.”
Yet, the Mueller report’s citation was wildly misleading. The source for this example was a 2018 profile of Müller-Maguhn by journalist Ellen Nakashima published by the Washington Post (which CNN refers to in its report but does not bother to quote).
Müller-Maguhn told Nakashima it “would be insane” for him to hand deliver sensitive files, especially when the CIA has labeled WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”
“How many of you wouldn’t be scared shitless by the head of the CIA declaring you the next target?” He characterized this allegation as a “lame attempt” by U.S. intelligence agencies to hurt the Wau Holland Foundation so they cut off their tax-free donations to WikiLeaks in Europe.
The materials that CNN and EL PAÍS examined show Müller-Maguhn visited Assange “at least 12 times before the 2016 election,” but the most CNN can report is that he “potentially” was a courier. They have no evidence for their claims that are largely dependent on coincidence and guilt by association.
EL PAÍS’ report details the intrusive surveillance that the firm was hired to perform. Such surveillance violated the protections Ecuador supposedly granted Assange as a political asylee.
“The security employees at the embassy had a daily job to do: to monitor Assange’s every move, record his conversations, and take note of his moods. The company’s drive to uncover their target’s most intimate secrets led the team to carry out a handwriting examination behind his back, which resulted in a six-page report,” according to EL PAÍS. “Company employees also took a feces sample from a baby’s diaper to check whether Assange and one of his most faithful collaborators were the child’s parents. This intelligence work had nothing to do with protection duties.”
CNN did not find the fact that company employees took a feces sample to be all that important. Instead, their mention of feces involved the scurrilous statement made by Moreno that he once “smeared feces on the walls out of anger.”
Allegations against Russia have been world news, but Russia is mentioned only once in EL PAÍS report.
“The recording equipment picked up on several secret plans drafted by Assange’s team to spirit him out of the embassy in disguise and take him to Russia or Cuba,” EL PAÍS describes. “The projects were never executed because the Australian-born activist refused, as he considered this solution ‘a defeat.'”
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou said, “The CNN report is deceptive and misleading. It takes old information, adds conjecture, and reaches conclusions that simply are not supported by facts. It’s not news. It’s unsupported opinion and entertainment.”
CNN management must keep churning out gossip pieces like this report on Assange because its ratings partly depend on sustaining the panic around Russia’s alleged influence. Although Mueller was unable to “establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government,” that does not matter to the news network.
Worse, the Trump administration indicted Assange for allegedly violating the Espionage Act when he published classified documents from Chelsea Manning that revealed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other acts of political corruption. They launched a prosecution that could set a dangerous precedent that would greatly impact the ability of CNN to engage in newsgathering activities.
Such a precedent would not affect CNN when it produced intelligence agency propaganda like this story on Assange, but it could impede reporters if they dared to engage in journalism that challenged officials, particularly those involved in national security operations.