A company bugged Julian Assange in the toilet at the Ecuadorian embassy at the request of ‘friends in America’, who plotted to kidnap or poison the WikiLeaks founder, his extradition hearing was told today.
A series of extraordinary claims were made by a witness at the Old Bailey about instructions they say they were given by bosses looking to bring the stalemate with Assange to a close.
These even included orders to steal the nappy of a baby that regularly visited him, to establish paternity.
Julian Assange, pictured, was bugged in the toilet at the Ecuadorian embassy at the request of ‘friends in America’, who plotted to kidnap or poison the WikiLeaks founder, his extradition hearing was told today
UC Global boss David Morales, pictured, allegedly instructed the installation of cameras with sophisticated audio capability to secretly record Assange’s meetings, particularly with his lawyers, the court heard
Assange was ‘acutely troubled’ after unredacted documents became public, court told
Julian Assange was ‘acutely troubled’ when he learned of the imminent release of unredacted leaked documents, a court has heard.
The 49-year-old is fighting extradition to the US over the release of thousands of classified documents by WikiLeaks.
The US government has accused him of potentially putting informants lives at risk after names appeared in unredacted material.
In a statement to the Old Bailey, Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi described Assange’s reaction when he found out the material was about to be made public, after a password appeared in a book by a Guardian journalist.
In 2011, when she became aware the password had been compromised, Ms Maurizi had been due to visit Assange at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, the court heard.
She said: ‘Upon my arrival at Ellingham Hall, I encountered enormous concern.
‘There was an ever-widening circle of awareness that the files, until then considered to be safely encrypted, might nonetheless be public very soon because of the book which had been published.’
A German newspaper had published a story the day before making it possible to ‘connect the dots’, it was claimed.
She said there was a ‘misunderstanding’ by some that WikiLeaks could have done something about the situation.
She went on: ‘I remember that when I arrived there were fierce discussions as to what to do. Julian was clearly acutely troubled by the situation with which WikiLeaks was faced.’
When the unredacted material was published by Cryptome in September 2011, it was ‘never wished for by WikiLeaks or Assange’ and every possible step had been taken for over a year to avoid it, she said.
‘While I was at Ellingham Hall, Assange was himself making urgent attempts to inform the (US) State Department the information was circulating out of WikiLeaks’ control.’
After WikiLeaks eventually published the material, Ms Maurizi consulted ‘security guru’ Bruce Schneier.
He allegedly told her in an email that both parties made ‘dumb mistakes’ but the Guardian’s was ‘worse’.
He told her: ‘Without the key, no-one would have been able to brute force the file. No one, probably not even aliens with a planet-sized computer.’
Assange had sought refuge at the London embassy for seven years from 2012, fearing he would be pursued over the publication of thousands of classified documents.
The court today heard from two anonymous witnesses who had worked for a Spanish firm with a contract at the embassy.
One of them revealed the lengths ‘friends’ in the US considered going to after President Donald Trump came to power in 2017.
UC Global boss David Morales allegedly instructed the installation of cameras with sophisticated audio capability to secretly record Assange’s meetings, particularly with his lawyers, the court heard.
One of the witnesses said: ‘On one occasion around December 2017, Morales said the Americans were desperate and suggested more extreme measures to put an end to the situation, suggesting the door in the embassy would be left open, allowing people to kidnap him from outside, and even the possibility of poisoning him was discussed.
‘All these considerations were under consideration with contacts in the US.’
The court heard how UC Global had a contract with Ecuador from 2015.
In 2016, Mr Morales travelled to Las Vegas where he showcased UC Global and obtained a ‘flashy contract’ with a wealthy associate of Mr Trump, it was alleged.
Afterwards, he announced to the office: ‘We will be playing in the big league.’
A witness said: ‘He entered into arrangements with US authorities to supply them with sensitive information about Assange and the president of Ecuador.’
The second witness, employed as an IT expert from 2015, recalled Mr Morales saying they were moving into the ‘premier league’ having ‘gone to the dark side’.
Mr Morales allegedly told staff they were being vetted by ‘our friends in America’, so everything confidential should be encrypted.
Once Mr Trump won the US election in late 2016, the collection of information intensified and Mr Morales became ‘obsessed with obtaining as much information as possible’, the court heard.
The witness said they were told to form a task force at the firm’s headquarters in Spain and security cameras with sophisticated audio recording capacity were installed at the embassy.
Around June 2017, Mr Morales instructed that the cameras should allow streaming so ‘our friends in the US would be able to gain access to the interior of the embassy in real time’, it was alleged.
The witness, who refused, saying it was illegal, suggested that English instructions on how to do it were provided by a third party, possibly US intelligence.
In 2018, the witness was told to travel to London to install microphones including a fire extinguisher in a meeting room and in a toilet at the embassy where Assange met people.
The aim of bugging the embassy was to record meetings with visitors, specifically lawyers, as ‘that was required by our US friends’.
Protesters supporting Assange have demonstrated outside the Old Bailey during the hearing this week
The witness was asked to take pictures of ‘decorative objects’ in a meeting room that could be used to conceal bugs, the court heard.
Personnel were asked to obtain Assange’s fingerprint from a glass imprint, it was alleged.
The witness also stated they were asked by Mr Morales to steal the nappy of a baby that regularly visited Mr Assange, to establish paternity.
Instead, the witness revealed the plan to the child’s mother.
The recordings were taken personally by Mr Morales to the US, the court heard.
It was claimed he had increased assets, including a new home estimated to be worth one million euro (£910,000) and high end vehicles, and was being paid 200,000 euro (£182,000) a month by the US.
At the end of 2018, Assange’s lawyers requested material possessed by UC Global.
It was alleged Mr Morales proceeded to remove all the material from ‘Operation Hotel’, the name of the contract.
On Tuesday, Judge Vanessa Baraitser granted the two witnesses the same anonymity as approved by a Spanish court, amid fears for their safety.
The extraordinary claims come as the court was also told how the Taliban’s lies helped the US government prosecute Assange and Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
The WikiLeaks founder, 49, is wanted in the US for allegedly conspiring with Manning to expose military secrets between January and May 2010.
Edward Fitzgerald QC, for Assange, read out the statement from the Independent’s Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn at the extradition hearing today.
The WikiLeaks founder, 49, is wanted in the US for allegedly conspiring with Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, pictured, to expose military secrets between January and May 2010
‘He’s reported about various wars since 1977 and they have included the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and he sets out his views on the impact of the publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011.
‘He reports exclusively from the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that he and other reporters suspected but could not prove features of the US activities there including the fact the US authorities were killing civilians in significant numbers.
‘The WikiLeaks documents exposed the way the US, as the world’s sole superpower, really conducted its wars – something that the military and political establishments saw as a blow to their credibility and legitimacy.
‘There were some devastating revelations.
‘The early attempts to discredit Assange focused on trying to prove that the WikiLeaks disclosures led directly to the death of US agents and informants.
‘The Pentagon put a great deal of effort into substantiating this allegation, it set up an Information Review Task Force headed by a senior counterintelligence officer, Brigadier General Robert Carr, which studied the impact of the revelations and sought to produce a list of people who might have been killed because of the information the cables contained.
‘Carr later described the extent of his taskforce’s failure – that is failure to blame WikiLeaks – in testimony given at Manning’s sentencing hearing in July 2013.
‘His team of 120 counterintelligence officers hadn’t been able to find a single person among the thousands of American agents and secret sources*who could be shown to have died because of the disclosures.
‘Carr told the court that at one point his task force seemed to be getting somewhere: the Taliban claimed to have killed a US informant identified in the WikiLeaks cables.
‘It was a sign of desperation on the part of the counter-intelligence officers that in seeking evidence against Wikileaks they were reduced to citing the Taliban as a source.
‘The Taliban turned out to be lying. The named individual wasn’t even in the WikiLeaks disclosures at all.
‘He finishes by saying ‘WikiLeaks did what all journalists should do.’
Assange is fighting extradition to the US on charges relating to leaks of classified documents allegedly exposing US war crimes and abuse.
He could face a prison sentence of up to 175 years if convicted on all charges and be held in the ‘supermax’ administrative maximum facility near Florence, Colorado.
The hearing continues.