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Journalists Who Visited Julian Assange Targeted By Company Spying On CIA’s Behalf

A Spanish security company was apparently enlisted by the Central Intelligence Agency to compile reports on journalists, attorneys, doctors, and any Russians or Americans who visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange while he was living in Ecuador’s embassy in London.

Undercover Global S.L. operated a security checkpoint. Visitors were instructed to “hand over their bags, computers, electronic devices, and cellphones,” according to Spanish newspaper El País.

While visitors met with Assange, employees of the company put together a report that could be shared with the CIA via a server in Juarez de la Frontera. The FBI allegedly had access to files, too.

Reports contained the date of the meeting, a copy of the visitor’s passport, the content of their conversation, and video from the meeting.

“Employees of U.C. Global S.L. took apart and photographed the cellphones of American journalists who visited the founder of WikiLeaks, according to testimony and graphic documents to which El País has had access.”

Glenn Greenwald, journalist and co-founder of the Intercept, had “photos taken of the Russian visas in his passport, as well as his cellphone.” Greenwald traveled to Russia to visit NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In a statement provided to Shadowproof, Greenwald wrote, “The new El País [report] indicates that affiliates of the U.S. Government, including the CIA and FBI, were effectively spying on their own citizens, including me, through an elaborate fraud in which visitors to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London who visited Julian Assange were lied to, told they had to give their passport for identification purposes and their cellphone for security purposes when, in reality, those items were seized so they could be photographed and put on a server, which both the CIA and FBI could access.”

“It’s unclear which parts of my cellphone were surveilled as part of this process, but what El País has reported constitutes an illegal and unconstitutional search of my property by the U.S. government. I am talking to lawyers about possible recourse, but this spying operation is very grave,” Greenwald added.

David Morales, the CEO of U.C. Global S.L., was arrested and released on bail on September 17 in Spain. Assange’s defense team previously filed a criminal complaint alleging “privacy offenses as well as violation of attorney-client privilege, misappropriation of funds, bribery, and money laundering.” The investigation is being handled by Spain’s High Court.

The intensified spying covered by El País primarily took place between the fall of 2017 and March 2018, when Ecuador President Lenin Moreno suspended Assange’s “privilege” to meet with visitors.

Stefania Maurizi, an Italian journalist with La Repubblica, was not one of the journalists mentioned in El País’ coverage. However, she visited Assange multiple times during this period.

“Immediately after Christmas in December 2017, I visited Julian Assange in the embassy, and it was really problematic, as the guards seized all my belongings, even my backpack in which I had important notes and my pens. I was completely upset: how can you protect your sources in these conditions?” Maurizi told Shadowproof.

She continued, “In March 2018, I visited Julian Assange again for an interview, which my newspaper La Repubblica published March 28, 2018, that very same day Lenin Moreno cut off Julian Assange from any communications and visitors.”

Maurizi recalled how the diplomatic staff at the embassy were friendly, yet “it was tricky.” U.C. Global security guards were collecting data and forced her to hand over her phone. “We had no control over what the security guys might be doing with our phones while we were in our meetings with Julian Assange.”

“I have always been very concerned as a journalist because I have a duty to protect the confidentiality of my sources, and yet we were going through physical inspections, inspections of our backpacks, and our phones were supposed to be handed over. It was a journalist’s nightmare,” Maurizi added.

Assange has been detained and imprisoned at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh since April, when he was expelled from the embassy and arrested by British authorities. He completed a sentence stemming from a charge levied against him by British authorities when he pursued political asylum in 2012 and “jumped” bail.

The WikiLeaks founder faces charges of violating the Espionage Act in the United States when he published information on U.S. military operations in the Afghanistan War. He is the first journalist to be targeted by the 1917 law in this manner, and an extradition hearing is scheduled for February.

On September 25, El País reported that Morales had technicians install audio and video streams that the CIA could access. Microphones were planted in the embassy’s fire extinguishers as well as the women’s bathroom, where Assange held regular meetings with his lawyers — Melynda Taylor, Jennifer Robinson, and Baltasar Garzón. It was part of the CIA’s efforts to neutralize a dissident media organization that it labeled a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”

La Repubblica worked with WikiLeaks as a media partner since 2009. Maurizi remembered “absurd situations” where Assange asked media partners to talk in odd places, like “in a very small utility room full of all sorts of stuff.”

“I was also very uncomfortable about using the women’s toilet, and now that El País revealed that there were cameras even in the women’s bathroom, my concerns are confirmed,” Maurizi shared.

She added, “When in the embassy, I always tried to drink as little as possible to avoid going to the toilet. I remember one day I asked to go to the toilet and a diplomatic staffer invited me to use the diplomatic staff’s toilet rather than the women’s toilet.

Maurizi suggested the diplomatic staffer did so with “gravity in her eyes.” She wondered if staffers saw or knew anything about what the security company was doing at the embassy.

Lowell Bergman, a 74-year-old investigative journalist; Ellen Nakashima, a national security reporter for the Washington Post; Evgeny Morozov, a writer and scholar who covers the social implications of technology; actress Pamela Anderson; and Timothy Eric Ladbrooke, Assange’s doctor, were some of the operation’s “priority targets.”

“On some occasions,” El País indicates U.C. Global employees opened the casing of targets’ cellphones in order to photograph the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, “a unique code that identifies a device and is one of the most valuable pieces of information for anyone looking to hack a phone. When a cellphone connects to a network, this identity number is automatically transmitted.”

The company even tried to steal Nakashima’s phone battery. “I took her phone, her recorder. I took out the battery,” an employee documented. “I tried to keep it, but the woman remembered it at the exit.”

Former CIA officer John Kiriakou suggested the CIA’s targeting of anyone who met with Assange during this period really pointed to the “paranoia of the U.S. government.”

“Do you really need every scrap of intelligence and information around everybody associated with Julian Assange in order to prosecute this case? No. I think they’re using that as an excuse, frankly, in order to just expand a spy network, nascent or not, against journalists.”

“The CIA will constantly push the bounds of legality and of ethics in order to collect information and intelligence on anybody they deem could ever become a threat to the CIA’s narrative,” Kiriakou added. “Nothing is private. Nothing is sacrosanct anymore, whether you’re talking to a journalist or to your attorney or to a diplomat. The CIA’s long reach can go right into that conversation, and as things stand now, there’s no one to stop them.”

Maurizi tried several times after March 2018 to visit Assange. After eight months, she was finally allowed to visit him in November last year. She felt like she was in prison while she was at the embassy.

“The security guards were watching me in real time,” Maurizi said. “I know this because when I entered the usual room for visitors I opened my backpack and tried to check whether my phones were working at all.” And, “As soon as I took my phones from my backpack, the guards entered into the room and seized my phones. They had watched every move inside the room.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."