Spanish company provided CIA with information leading to Julian Assange’s arrest
Emails from the owner of UC Global reveal that he sold data about the Wikileaks founder’s legal defense strategy to the intelligence agency. The U.S. government quickly sent a warrant to the U.K. to foil the activist’s escape plan
“Be on the lookout tomorrow to see what you can get... and make it work.” Michelle Wallemacq, head of operations of a Spanish company called UC Global, wrote this message on December 20, 2017, to two technicians monitoring security at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was living after being granted asylum. She was alerting them to the arrival of Rommy Vallejo, the head of SENAIN, Ecuador’s secret service, who was scheduled to meet the next day with Assange to receive confidential information that could influence the cyberactivist’s future.
Vallejo had hired the services of this small company from Jerez de la Frontera in southwestern Spain to provide security for Ecuador’s diplomatic corps in London but didn’t know that it was planning to record his meeting with Assange. Vallejo was unaware that UC Global had planted hidden microphones throughout the embassy, even in the women’s bathroom. Nor did he know that UC Global’s owner, David Morales, had been sending information about Assange’s meetings with his lawyers to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) soon after he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
Ecuador’s president at the time, Lenin Moreno, had ordered his staff to work with Assange’s Spanish lawyers to develop a plan to get Assange out of the embassy, grant him Ecuadorian nationality and provide a diplomatic passport. The plan was set weeks before Vallejo’s meeting and was known to only six people. When UC Global’s cameras recorded the meeting attended by Assange, his lawyer Stella Morris, Ecuadorian consul Fidel Narváez and Vallejo, it learned that the getaway would happen in four days: December 25. Assange would leave in one of the ambassador’s diplomatic cars and travel through the Eurotunnel to Switzerland or another destination in continental Europe.
“It’s very late... Because it’s so big, I put the file in a shared Dropbox [cloud data storage service] folder. Someone with experience in audio can make it more intelligible... The ecu [Vallejo] is quite audible, but the others [Assange and Morris] are very muffled,” wrote one of the technicians a few hours later to David Morales.
Morales dispatched the data in the early morning hours to his “American friends,” and the impact was immediate. The United States quickly sent an arrest warrant for Assange to the United Kingdom, so the escape plan had to be aborted. Two years later, Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy. In June 2022, the British government ordered his extradition to the United States. Since then, Assange has been held in a London jail pending an appeal. The United States has charged him with 18 alleged crimes that could lead to a maximum of 175 years in prison.
Several days before Vallejo’s visit, two disturbing events occurred thousands of miles away. An advisor to the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry with information about Assange’s escape was assaulted by several hooded men at Quito Airport after his return from an official trip to the United States. The only thing taken was his computer. Then, very early on December 17, several assailants wearing balaclavas entered the Madrid law offices of Baltasar Garzón and Aitor Martínez looking for a computer server. The lawyers had just returned from a meeting in London with Assange to prepare for his departure. Despite multiple footprints left by the thieves, Spanish police repeatedly claimed to have no information.
The American friends
David Morales’ relationship with his mysterious American clients was not built in a day. The former Spanish Special Forces soldier modeled his company after Blackwater, the American private military contractor with a heavy presence during the Iraq war. By the time he obtained the security contract for the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Morales already had American billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s casino company, Las Vegas Sands, as a client. He provided personal security for the gambling magnate while vacationing on his Mediterranean yacht. That’s when he met a former CIA officer in Adelson’s security team. Adelson, who died in 2021 at 87, was a Republican Party donor and friend of former president Donald Trump.
2017 was a crucial year for the partnership between a small security company in Jerez de la Frontera and the most powerful intelligence agency in the world. Emails and chats between Morales and his workers obtained by EL PAÍS provide clues about how it developed. Eleven months before Morales passed on the tip that caused Assange to abort his escape from the embassy, Morales wrote to one of his technicians from The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, a property owned by Adelson. “Do we have status reports on the embassy’s computer systems and networks? I need an inventory of systems and equipment, the guest’s [Assange] phones, and the number of networks.” Morales later sent his employee a chat message: “I want you to be alert because I’m told that we may be monitored, so everything confidential should be encrypted... Everything is related to the UK subject... The people in control are our friends in the USA.”
On May 12, 2017, the day after he returned from another trip to Las Vegas, Morales wrote to his employee assigned to the Ecuadorian Embassy. “I am in a situation in which I foresee that they will start monitoring us [referring to the possibility that someone would be examining their abilities and methods]. What can we do if one of the Stars and Stripes agencies wants to observe us?” The employee replied, “I figured it would go that way.”
On June 12, en route to Washington, D.C., Morales asked his trusted man to remotely activate the “hotel” portal, a code name for the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The UC Global technicians had installed an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server and web portal in their Spanish headquarters to collect all the data related to the Ecuadorian Embassy contract. They assembled a surveillance dossier with profiles of Assange’s visitors — lawyers, diplomats, doctors and journalists — and mobile phone data, including photos of their IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) identifier. UC Global provided streaming access to a mysterious American client named X.
Cameras and microphones
According to the chats and emails sent to his employees, Morales went to Las Vegas after his stop in Washington, D.C. and checked into the Las Vegas Sands. He met with his “American friends " and showed them all his information. Weeks later, on July 23 and 24, Morales attended a meeting in Miami and asked his team for “a budget for the cameras” with microphones that would be placed in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London before the end of the year. “Send it to me so that I can deliver it when I meet,” he told his technician, adding an emoji of Donald Trump winking.
Around that time, Morales told his trusted employees that “he had gone over to the dark side,” that “they were working in the Champions League” and would get new contracts from the new American client. On September 8, he sent two emails with more information. “Regarding the Hotel [the embassy] work, I would like to offer our information collection and analysis capability to the American client… We must have a very well-structured presentation of the information we will provide — try to make it attractive and easy to interpret.”
The UC Global employee responded, “A pretty good source of information can be the mics [microphones]. All the cameras have a hidden one and will be located in the common areas. The guest [Assange] has three rooms and uses two quite frequently... We would have all the audio from there except in one room.”
On September 21, Morales asked his “musketeers” to be careful with the information they passed on because he suspected SENAIN was monitoring them. “I would like my whereabouts to be kept confidential, especially my trips to the USA,” he wrote. Morales instructed his team to collect data on the embassy’s wifi network, the composition of the walls in Assange’s rooms, photos of the interior and furnishings, and as much data as possible on Assange’s main visitors, especially his lawyers.
White noise and utmost interest
Since Assange turned on a white noise machine every time he entered the meeting room to prevent eavesdropping, the UC Global team was forced to install a microphone in the base of a fire extinguisher. Special stickers were placed on window corners to avoid vibrations and enable recording from the outside using laser microphones. “Do you have photos of the stickers from the embassy exterior? David asked,” wrote one employee. “No way, man. The news media is almost always there, and the only time I could go out there was at night,” he replied.
When everything was ready for the around-the-clock recording of Assange and his visitors, Morales sent more explicit messages to his trusted workers. “I confirmed the contact with the USA... Of course, all this is super confidential. I need a report from that meeting... I need all the data. In a week I will have to go to Washington... I know it is of the utmost interest and that the USA wants to do it.”
Morales was detained by the police in September 2019, weeks after EL PAÍS revealed audio and video recordings and reports from UC Global detailing the spying on Assange and his lawyers while they were preparing their defense. The evidence led to a formal complaint by Assange to the Spanish National Court and an investigation of Morales for privacy law offenses, violation of attorney-client privileged communications, misappropriation, bribery and money laundering. Several of his former employees have become protected witnesses in the case. Santiago Pedraz, the presiding magistrate, has asked the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to formally request information from the CIA about spying on the Wikileaks founder.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition