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CIA director refuses to provide information on Spanish company’s espionage of Julian Assange

William J. Burns invoked the agency’s statutory privileges to avoid giving a New York judge details of the spying operation that was revealed by EL PAÍS in 2019

José María Irujo
William J. Burns
William J. Burns, veteran American diplomat and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

CIA Director William J. Burns has invoked the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949 to refuse to provide any information to a New York court judge investigating how a Spanish company spied on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during his stay at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

In an eight-page letter sent to Judge John G. Koeltl, Burns claims that the information could cause “serious damage to the national security of the United States.” He further cites the CIA’s statutory privileges “to protect intelligence sources, methods and activities” at issue in the case. The New York judge ruled last December that the Spanish company UC Global S. L and the CIA violated the rights and privacy of the U.S. citizens who visited Assange during his stay at the Ecuadorian embassy — rights protected by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Four U.S. citizens, two lawyers and two journalists, sued Mike Pompeo, the former director of the CIA, the intelligence agency, and David Morales, the owner of UC Global, which was tasked with security in the London embassy during the Ecuadorian administration of Rafael Correa.

Confidential report for the judge

The statement from Burns, to which this newspaper has had access, is dated March 27, and is intended to anticipate the next stage of the case in which the plaintiffs will request the declassification of the CIA operation in discovery. According to legal sources, Judge Koeltl could authorize this request. The details of this secret operation (audios, videos, emails and documents) were revealed by an EL PAÍS investigation in 2019. Evidence from this report was presented in the lawsuit filed by the spying victims in the New York justice system.

Burns, a renowned former diplomat and the architect of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, argues that “either admitting or denying that CIA has information implicated by the remaining allegations in the Amended Complaint reasonably could be expected to cause serious — and in some cases, exceptionally grave — damage to the national security of the United States.” The head of the most powerful intelligence service in the United States reiterates that his legal privileges include refusing to disclose the CIA’s activity in this case and all information related to classified sources, methods and interests.

In addition to this statement, the head of the CIA has delivered to the judge an ex parte report, solely accessible to the magistrate, where he explains in detail that only the judge can know why declassifying this espionage operation would cause serious damage to the national security of the United States. Burns has no qualms about taking part in CIA activities on the ground: in August 2021, he met with the leader of the Taliban in Kabul during the U.S. army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Judge John G. Koeltl recognized that the plaintiffs’ rights were violated when UC Global S.L. workers seized their cell phones and photographed their passwords and content — practices that he considered illegal. But he ruled that it was not illegal for microphone recordings to be made of their conversations with Assange at the embassy or for photographs of their passports to be taken. For the Koeltl, these last actions of the workers of UC Global S.L. did not constitute a crime as the visitors had no “reasonable expectation of privacy” when they entered the embassy, as it is a public space.

For the judge, the plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence that Morales, the Spanish ex-military officer who owns UC Global, acted as an agent or collaborator and following instructions from the CIA and its then-director Pompeo, who was later appointed Secretary of State during the Donald Trump administration (2017-2021).

The lawsuit over the spying of Assange’s visitors was filed in August 2021 by lawyers Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, and journalists John Goetz and Charles Glass, both national security specialists. The four visited the Australian activist, as did hundreds of people who were also spied on. According to the lawsuit, a hundred American citizens, including Assange’s lawyers and doctors, suffered the same fate.

In his ruling, the New York judge noted that Pompeo said Assange was a “target” of the CIA and that he would start a “long-term campaign” against WikiLeaks. The investigation of this newspaper revealed in 2019 that the company UC Global S.L. spied on the Australian’s conversations with his lawyers and collaborators for the U.S., when the WikiLeaks founder was preparing his defense strategy against the U.S. extradition request for revealing secret information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Weeks later, the police arrested David Morales. The ex-military officer has been on bail since then and Spain’s high court, the Audiencia Nacional, is investigating him for the alleged crimes of violating client-attorney confidentiality, misappropriation of funds, bribery and money laundering.

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