New evidence suggests that the CIA’s shadow loomed over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for several months during his long stay at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, through the cooperation of a Spanish security firm that made audio and video recordings of the Australian activist’s conversations with his lawyers and allegedly relayed this material to US intelligence services. On Monday, a judge in London ruled against extraditing the cyber-activist to the US, where he is facing espionage charges over WikiLeaks’ release of classified military and diplomatic material in 2010.
An investigation started by Judge José de la Mata of Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, and to be continued by his replacement at this courthouse, is tracking the IP addresses – unique numbers that identify devices connected to the internet – that logged on to the servers of UC Global S.L, the Spanish company in charge of security at the embassy where Assange took refuge between June 2012 and April 2019. The company’s servers, where all its information is stored, are located in the southern Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera.
According to evidence provided by a computer expert who used to work for this company, and who is now a protected witness, the internet service provider (ISP) of one of the IP addresses that accessed the Spanish security company’s servers matches that of the US-based The Shadowserver Foundation. According to its website, this organization works with national governments and law enforcement agencies, among others, to expose security vulnerabilities and malicious online activity. Other IPs that accessed the Spanish servers were from Texas, Arizona, Illinois and California.
The Spanish High Court’s investigation is currently stalled. Six months after Judge De la Mata requested judicial cooperation from US authorities, asking them for identifying information about the IPs that accessed UC Global’s servers, the US justice system has yet to respond. US prosecutors demanded to know the judge’s sources, and De la Mata sent additional information, but no reply has been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has also failed to comply with De la Mata’s request to take statements from the lawyers who were spied on while working with Assange. These delays are hindering the investigation, according to judicial sources.
The servers of UC Global S.L., a company created by former military officer David Morales, stored dozens of hours’ worth of illegal recordings, as well as reports on the WikiLeaks founder, his fingerprints, handwriting analyses, and photographs of the passports and cellphones of every visitor who came to see Assange at the embassy, including lawyers, politicians and journalists, as revealed by an EL PAÍS investigation in 2019.
This evidence of spying against Assange ended up at the High Court after the activist’s legal team filed a suit against Morales, who was arrested and is being investigated for violation of privacy and client-attorney privilege, as well as bribery and money laundering. De la Mata, who is going to be replaced by Judge Santiago Pedraz, wanted to question Zohar Lahav, the vice-president for security at Las Vegas Sands, a casino owned by Sheldon Adelson, a leading donor to the Republican Party and a personal friend of US President Donald Trump.
Morales used to provide security services for Adelson’s luxury yacht on its Mediterranean trips, and the investigation points to the possibility that Lahav may have been the contact point for Morales to offer his information about Assange to the CIA. Judge De la Mata also requested, unsuccessfully so far, to take statements from former Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and from the actress Pamela Anderson, who both visited the activist at the embassy and who were both monitored. Emails exchanged between Morales and his employees in 2017 order the latter to place cameras with secret audio recording capability and microphones in the fire extinguishers of the embassy’s meeting room and inside the ladies’ bathroom. These emails are filled with passages suggesting cooperation with US intelligence services, such as “a plan to try and sell to the American friends,” or “we are playing in the big leagues,” “I have gone over to the dark side,” and “those in control are friends of the US.”
Morales, a former member of the Special Operations Unit of Spain’s Navy Marines, sent a few of these emails in late January 2017 from The Venetian, a Las Vegas hotel owned by the business magnate Adelson. Morales asked his employees at the Ecuadorean embassy for all available information “on the computer and network systems” at the diplomatic mission, as well as the telephone numbers of “the guest,” their codename for Assange.
On January 24, 2017, in a conversation with an employee who is now a protected witness in the case, Morales said: “I want you all to be alert because I am told that we may be under surveillance, so anything that’s confidential must be encrypted.” In another conversation, Morales said: “I’m involved in something that I expect will get us monitored. How well are we protected against that?” The employee listed the company’s systems, and Morales replied: “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for those who may want to take a look at us [...] what can we do if a stars-and-stripes agency wants to look at us?” The employee replied: “I figured that’s what this was about.”
In another email sent from Miami in July 2017, Morales asked one of his most trusted aides to send him the estimate for the audio-enabled cameras that would later be installed at the embassy. “Send it to me so that I can hand it in when I meet [with unspecified persons],” he wrote, adding an emoji of a winking Donald Trump. In another email exchange asking for the access manual to “the profiles website,” there was a Trump emoji with its hands on its head. Morales had asked his employees to draft and store background information about every person who came to visit Assange, with Russian and American nationals viewed as “priority targets.” Using the expression “selling to the friends I told you about,” Morales mentioned the September 2017 visit by Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician. “These kinds of visits and connections could be interesting. We need to indicate the reason for the visit, and who he was with.” Morales also ordered his workers to place stickers on the embassy windows to enable the recording of conversations from outside the building, according to witness accounts obtained by this newspaper.
Assange had himself installed a white noise lamp inside the meeting room, and he would turn it on every time he met with anyone because he suspected that he was under surveillance. An investigation by The New York Times has revealed that Assange became a priority target for the CIA under its then-director Mike Pompeo. Official sources told that newspaper that WikiLeaks was investigated in search of alleged ties between Assange and Russian intelligence.
English version by Susana Urra.