By Raphael Minder
Dec. 1, 2019
MADRID — This much has become clear in recent weeks: When Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, was living in Ecuador’s embassy in London, someone was spying on him, recording his private conversations. The question is: Who ordered the surveillance?
Mr. Assange — in jail in Britain and facing prosecution in the United States — is scheduled to testify remotely later this month before a Spanish judge in a criminal case accusing a Spanish security company of eavesdropping on him illegally.
The Spanish court case has revealed a new set of secrets in the international saga of Mr. Assange, 48, showing that his claims of being spied on were not just paranoia or a publicity stunt.
In Spain’s National Court, a public prosecutor and Mr. Assange’s lawyers have presented a raft of evidence that he was recorded while in the Ecuadorean Embassy, which they say violated his right to privacy. The material includes video recordings in which his conversations with visitors are audible, according to The New York Times.
The prosecutor and Mr. Assange’s allies argue that the C.I.A. was behind the spying. A spokesman for the agency declined to comment.
The case adds another layer of complexity to the legal travails of Mr. Assange, who has been indicted in the United States on charges of espionage and hacking, the first time in US history the Espionage Act has been used against a publisher or journalist. The Justice Department has asked Britain to extradite him, and British courts have reportedly begun considering the request, despite the fact that British law prohibits extradition for political cases, or to any country that has the death penalty.
His lawyers plan to introduce evidence from the Spanish case into the extradition case, arguing that it should block the British government from turning him over to the Americans, as the surveillance includes recordings of privileged conversations Mr. Assange had with his lawyers and doctors, and proves that he cannot receive a fair trial in the United States.
The British courts are unlikely to accept that argument, according to Amy Jeffress, a lawyer at Arnold & Porter in Washington and a former Justice Department attaché at the American Embassy in London. She said the legal standard is whether extradition would comply with Britain’s Human Rights Act, which protects the right to privacy but balances it against considerations like national security and fighting crime.
Mr. Assange is scheduled to testify on Dec. 20 by videoconference from Westminster Magistrates’ Court before Judge José de la Mata some 800 miles away, in Spain’s National Court in Madrid. The judge is handling the investigation into UC Global, a Spanish firm that was in charge of security at the Ecuadorean Embassy during Mr. Assange’s long stay there.
David Morales, who founded UC Global after many years in the Spanish military, was indicted in October, charged with privacy violation, bribery and money laundering. He denied wrongdoing, and Judge de la Mata released him pending a trial, but ordered him to surrender his passport and report regularly to the authorities.
One of Mr. Morales’s early security jobs was protecting the daughters of Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador at the time, who were living in Europe. That paved the way for a contract with Ecuador’s embassy in London.
In 2017, Mr. Morales overhauled the security equipment and procedures at the embassy, replacing surveillance cameras with new ones that had microphones, according to a 61-page court filing by the public prosecutor. Mr. Assange was repeatedly assured by Ecuadorean officials that he was not being recorded.
In reality, he was. He took precautions like using a white noise device in an attempt to mask conversations, and the Spanish prosecutor says UC Global took steps to counteract them.
The company put microphones in embassy restrooms, where Mr. Assange sometimes held meetings for greater privacy, the court filing says. And it states that UC Global placed a microphone in a meeting room, hidden in a fire extinguisher, that could record up to 12 hours of sound.
Recordings were sent to the company’s headquarters in Jerez de la Frontera, in southern Spain, the prosecution says — a charge that Mr. Morales denies. When he was detained, the police also raided his home and company, and have since been decrypting emails and information from his confiscated cellphone.
The court case also relies on the testimony of some former employees of UC Global who have been granted witness protection. They said that Mr. Morales traveled to the United States once or twice a month, carrying with him hard disks containing recordings from inside the London embassy.
Mr. Morales repeatedly ordered them not to talk with Ecuadorean officials about his trips, they said.
In the court filing, the prosecution asserts that Mr. Morales returned from a security fair in Las Vegas in 2015, gathered his employees and told them that UC Global was going to work “for the dark side,” which he explained as referring to the United States authorities.
He signed a contract with Las Vegas Sands, the casino and resort company of Sheldon Adelson, and the prosecution contends that Mr. Morales passed information about Mr. Assange to security officials at the company, saying it acted as a go-between with the CIA.
In his hearing before the Spanish judge, Mr. Morales said that any secret recording made at the London embassy was done on behalf of Ecuador’s secret service and with the knowledge of the ambassador. The Ecuadorean government has flatly denied spying on Mr. Assange.
Asked by the judge why his company had set up a remote access server to allow the transfer of information gathered within the embassy, Mr. Morales said that “there was absolutely no outside access.”
Mr. Morales is accused of bribing an embassy official, paying the official about $22,000 monthly to send positive reports about UC Global’s surveillance work back to the authorities in Quito.
WikiLeaks gained worldwide attention in 2010, when it published a vast cache of classified material leaked by whistleblower Chelsea Manning (formerly Army Private Bradley Manning) from American military computer systems, most of it about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the infamous “Collateral Murder” video which showed a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 repeatedly opening fire on a group of civilians and first responders, killing 12 people, including 2 <i>Reuters</i> journalists.
That year, Swedish prosecutors sought to arrest and question Mr. Assange on sexual assault accusations, which he said were fabricated as a pretext for handing him to the United States. Mr. Assange, who was in the UK at the time, surrendered to the British police, posted bail and fought extradition to Sweden.
But in 2012, fearing that he would lose that case, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, and Mr. Correa’s government granted it. Mr. Assange stayed there for nearly seven years, skipping court appearances, forfeiting his bail and continuing to run WikiLeaks.
Recently, the Swedes dropped their investigation, saying that the evidence was too weak for a prosecution.
In 2016, WikiLeaks published leaked Democratic Party emails revealing the DNC had rigged the 2016 primary election against Bernie Sanders, which Democratic Party officials immediately blamed for damaging the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. The DNC blamed, without evidence, the release of the emails on Russian spies who allegedly hacked the party’s computers, though they refused to turn their servers over to the FBI for investigation. Mr. Assange has repeatedly denied any link to Russian intelligence, insisting the emails were provided to Wikileaks by an insider, which many believe to be slain DNC data analyst Seth Rich.
After the new Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno succeeded Mr. Correa in 2017, Mr. Assange’s relations with his Ecuadorean hosts begin to rapidly deteriorate, as every effort was made by the new government to pressure him to leave. In April this year, Ecuador revoked Mr. Assange’s asylum, violating international law, and invited British police to enter the embassy and arrest him. He was convicted of bail-jumping and sentenced to 50 weeks in prison by a judge who immediately called him a narcissist at the hearing.
David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from London, and Charlie Savage and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.
* This article was expanded from original source published by The New York Times.