Every few months a new wrinkle is added to the ongoing case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, still languishing in Britain’s notorious Belmarsh prison despite never having been convicted of a crime beyond bail jumping. He remains in jail pending an appeal after a District Judge in the UK, Vanessa Baraitser, denied an extradition request from the U.S. government on medical grounds, concluding there was a risk the publisher would commit suicide if handed over to American authorities to face trial.
It’s hard to argue with the judge’s decision as in public appearances and according to the testimony of those who have been able to see and speak to him, Assange is clearly suffering from issues with both his mental and physical health. While it was harder for most of us to understand in the past, after more than a year of lockdowns and isolation it’s easier to empathize with the trauma inflicted on the publisher during his years locked away in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Nonetheless, ignoring the entreaties of activists and politicians around the world, the U.S. Justice Department is continuing its appeal, a disappointment to many who hoped that the Biden administration would drop the dubious charges against the publisher, almost all of them under the 1917 Espionage Act, which has been used with ever more frequency to target whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning over the last 10 years.
In September it was revealed that when it was under the leadership of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2017, the CIA had put a call out to agents and analysts to come up with plans to either ‘rendition’ or assassinate the Wikileaks publisher in the event that his Ecuadorian hosts tried to bring him there or hand him over to a third country.
A long piece by Zach Dorfman, Sean D. Naylor and Michael Issikoff on Yahoo News detailed the CIA’s plans, which seemed to have been lifted from a Cold War era thriller.
The possibility of a confrontation between Russian and American operatives on the streets of London was said to have been contemplated by Pompeo and some subordinates, although the authors reported that British authorities refused permission to their closest ally to kidnap or kill the publisher. We should note however, that what they were planning was a somewhat common practice during the early years of the war on terrorism. One difference was that those subject to extraordinary rendition at that time were usually sent to third countries like Egypt to be tortured and sometimes disappeared.
The main justification given for the agency wide call to come up with plans to either seize or kill Assange was the belief that Ecuador was going to give the publisher diplomatic status and have him spirited out of the London embassy to Russia where he could join another whistleblower who embarrassed the American intelligence community, Edward Snowden, in exile. While Russian authorities have denied any knowledge of the proposal, the Guardian recently reported on documents released by an Ecuadorian lawmaker show that a plan had been drawn up to make Assange a “political counselor” at the country’s embassy in Moscow, a plan vetoed by British authorities who would have had to look the other way to facilitate his escape. The reporting also shows that another reason the CIA drew up their own illegal plans to prevent Assange’s escape was more mundane than a diplomatic dispute between great powers. After Mike Pompeo made his first speech as CIA director in 2017 in which he referred to Wikileaks as “non-state hostile intelligence agency” and not a journalistic outfit, the agency reportedly also began to make efforts to surveil others working with the organization, making plans to steal their phones and other electronic devices. The reason for this was not the 2010 leaks Assange faces charges for but more recent ones that deeply embarrassed the agency.
What Wikileaks called the Vault 7 leaks revealed much of the agency’s cyber toolkit, which, as reported at the time included, “various malwares, trojans, and even remote control systems”. The devices that were found to be vulnerable to CIA hacking tools included Android and IOS phones, Windows, Mac and Linux computers, computer systems built into various motor vehicles and even Samsung Smart TVs. Pompeo and others ordered subordinates to try and ensure that no more leaks would be put online but had difficulty in stealing or hacking devices owned by extremely security conscious Wikileaks supporters and employees.
As an anonymous former national security official who served under Trump told Yahoo News, “WikiLeaks was a complete obsession of Pompeo’s. After Vault 7, Pompeo and [Deputy CIA Director Gina] Haspel wanted vengeance on Assange.”
When Pompeo was recently asked about the Yahoo News report, he showed how little regard he has for the U.S. constitution’s protections for whistleblowers and journalists, “I can’t say much about this other than whoever those 30 people who allegedly spoke to one of these [Yahoo News] reporters — they should all be prosecuted for speaking about classified activity inside the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Another story related to Assange that received even less coverage in English language corporate media was an investigative report in the Icelandic magazine Stundin that revealed that a former Wikileaks volunteer in Iceland received a promise of immunity and became a paid FBI informant against the publisher despite being accused of very serious crimes of his own, including a past conviction for child molestation. Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson admitted in an interview with the magazine that he was not as close to the publisher as he claimed and recanted most of the accusations that he’d made against him. Thordarson also revealed that he had embezzled $50,000 dollars from the organization in his role as a volunteer fundraiser.
Thordarson was arrested when he returned to Iceland from Spain and put in prison on September 24th on financial fraud charges. With their main witness in prison, we might expect that the U.S. Justice Department would rethink their appeal in terms of Assange’s extradition but this is not the case. Even relying on someone like Thordarson in the first place and enabling a long running alleged crime spree by their informant should have led to the realization that the case against Assange is so deeply politicized that vengeance rather than justice seems to be the American government’s main goal.
There should be more sympathy for Assange and the outlet he founded in corporate media, especially outlets that have won prestigious awards for their coverage of things Wikileaks brought to light. In terms of national security reporters at major American outlets, one reason for the timidity in covering this ongoing story might be the fear of angering the insider, usually anonymous, sources at the heart of so much of their reporting.
This has left the alternative press as the main protector of the journalistic values that mainstream sources of news always say they work to protect. In researching this story, outside of The Guardian it was difficult to find reporting from more mainstream outlets about both the CIA plots and the questions around Thordarson, especially in thr U.S. If one thing’s sure in the case of Assange, it’s that the continued injustices being visited upon him might evoke some sympathy or horror on the part of many ordinary Americans if they were knew about them, an indictment of a corporate press that’s so often in the pocket of the powerful.