LONDON — Like the proverbial “shot heard round the world,” the U.K.’s arrest and imprisonment of publisher and journalist Julian Assange officially signaled the Western world’s war on a free press. The Australian who founded WikiLeaks, but stepped down as editor-in-chief last year, was ousted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London last week after Ecuador President Lenin Moreno revoked his political asylum, and arrested by the U.K.’s Metropolitan Police. He was seen holding a copy of Gore Vidal: History of the National Security State while men dressed in suits — perhaps in a futile effort to make the arrest look a bit less repugnant — dragged the publisher out, handcuffed and resisting.
As in previous accounts given by visitors to the embassy, Assange looked thin and in need of health care but he appeared alert and defiant under the alarming circumstances. “The U.K. must resist! Resist this attempt by the Trump administration!” he hollered before being seen giving a thumbs up inside the police van as it rolled away. Within a few hours, authorities had hauled him into a courtroom devoid of any jury or the right to defend himself, where a judge found him guilty of violating bail conditions almost seven years ago. He will be sentenced in a few weeks, meanwhile remaining at Belmarsh, a southeast London prison notoriously known for housing terrorist suspects.
Assange’s arrest has been a long time in the making. Although Ecuador safeguarded his political asylum under former President Rafael Correa’s government, the political landscape in Ecuador shifted dramatically to the right with the election of Moreno, who has spent his entire presidency making backroom deals and manipulating Assange’s asylum in an effort to hand him over to the U.S.
For instance, President Donald Trump’s close friend Ivonne Baki, an Ecuadorian ambassador who is currently stationed in Qatar, brokered meetings with Paul Manafort and President Moreno during which Moreno expressed his desire to expel Assange in return for U.S. concessions. Baki also has a sordid history of lobbying in the interests of U.S. oil company Chevron, which was hit with a $9.2 billion judgment for egregiously damaging Ecuador’s environment and the health of those who lived in the areas they contaminated — a judgment that Moreno may very likely negate.
Moreno has also spent the last two years shoring up bilateral relations with the U.S. through private investments, military agreements, and billion-dollar IMF loans that the former foreign minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patino, recently agreed had come with a price: the sovereignty of Ecuador for the delivery of Julian Assange.
As for direct attacks on Assange, Moreno forced him to live under a series of protocols that had no legal backing, restricted his speech, and were constructed as a tripwire to revoke his asylum. The arbitrary rules were implemented after Moreno cut off Assange’s access to phone calls and the internet over a year ago. But aside from Moreno’s illegal revocation of both Assange’s asylum and his Ecuadorian citizenship, which gave him protection from extradition under Ecuador’s constitution, perhaps the most underhanded assault that Moreno delivered was the one that nobody saw: the spying.
Moreno government spied on political asylee
Moreno’s decision to end Assange’s asylum and throw him to the wolves of Washington came after weeks of simmering tensions between the Ecuadorian government and the Australian publisher. On April 4 WikiLeaks accused Moreno of using the INA Papers — a leaked batch of documents uploaded to inapapers.org that included Moreno’s personal emails, text messages, and family photos — as a pretext to expel Assange from the embassy. The government denied the allegations but didn’t stop short of publicly accusing Assange of the hack.
The General Assembly in Ecuador has since opened an investigation into Moreno’s alleged criminal activities based on the leaked material, so it’s likely that he is using Assange’s expulsion and subsequent arrest to distract from the scandal. However, it’s also likely that he’s trying to bury the shocking revelations that his government, allegedly under his direction, conducted an extensive surveillance operation against Assange, revelations that have already been forgotten by the press.
Last Wednesday, WikiLeaks held a press conference with Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, and former consul to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Fidel Narvaez, in which they announced that Moreno’s government had been spying on Assange, a political asylee and journalist, for over a year.
Newly installed high-resolution cameras with the ability to record audio tracked Assange’s every move, including meetings with his attorneys and examinations performed by his doctor. Robinson said that they had “long been concerned about surveillance,” and that the Ecuadorian government’s actions were a severe breach of client-attorney privilege that undermined their ability to defend their client.
Even more brazen was the fact that embassy staff committed firsthand acts of espionage against Assange. In one particularly damning episode, Assange’s attorney left strategy notes for a court case against the state on a conference room table after which the staff actually stole and copied them.
WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hraffnson remarked that Assange’s life in the embassy was like the “Truman Show,” a reference to the 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey as an insurance salesman whose entire life is live-streamed 24 hours a day worldwide without his knowledge or consent. Narvaez, who spent six years at the embassy with Assange, described it as the most surveilled place on the planet. According to both men, the high-tech cameras that had captured and stored Assange’s life were installed in the embassy after Moreno came to power — and therein lies the heart of the matter.
Ecuador hires security services paid for by the Senain
When Assange was granted asylum in 2012, the Ecuadorian government hired a Spanish firm called UC Global for security services at the embassy in London. The private military company was founded in 2008 by David Morales, a former member of the Spanish Defense Marine Infantry who was once described as “the perfect mercenary.” His team consists of approximately 30 men, although the company’s database includes over 6,000 former military personnel “scattered throughout Latin America, the United States, England, Estonia” and Spain.
According to its monthly magazine, UC Global’s services include telephone and satellite communications, material and equipment, combat support and air evacuation, logistical support, critical infrastructure, intelligence, and maritime security. UC Global will also escort, transport, and interrogate detainees if a state hires it to do so and, according to an interview with Morales, most of its employees come from the ”NATO military sector.” Although the company generally operates around the globe, it is currently stationed in Spain, France, U.K., Mauritania, Tunisia, Ecuador, Portugal, Qatar, and the United States.
UC Global — and other security services at the embassy, such as Blue Cell — were paid directly by Ecuador’s intelligence service, the Senain, which was established by former President Rafael Correa in 2009, in response to concerns that the country’s intelligence services had been “co-opted” by the United States. The agency operated out of a mansion seized from the Isaias brothers, two convicted bankers wanted by Ecuador but currently being sheltered by the U.S.
Although Correa staunchly believed in national sovereignty and established the Senain with that in mind, Fidel Narvaez admitted that after it was created the agency became “an animal without god or law,” and that neither the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the former ambassador in London had any control over the embassy’s security operations.
WikiLeaks Hacking Team emails expose the Senain
The greatest scandal to rock the Senain happened in 2015, when WikiLeaks released a tranche of emails from Hacking Team, an Italian tech company that specializes in spyware. The emails revealed that the agency had purchased a three-year license from Hacking Team for 30 packages from its Remote Control System; spyware that could “infect and monitor computers with Windows and MacOs programs as well as Android, iPhone, Blackberry, and Symbian phones.” The purchase also included vectors that could “infect equipment physically and remotely;” training in Italy for four agents; and intel analysis training for 12 people in Quito.
The Ecuadorian public was outraged and both the Senain and then-President Rafael Correa came under heavy fire for the spying tools that oppositional forces claimed had been used against citizens, activists, and detractors. Fernando Villavicencio — an activist and political figure who has spent years churning out anti-Assange, anti-Correa material for outlets such as Focus Ecuador, Plan V, and The Guardian — took the opportunity to lash out at Correa. A month after WikiLeaks released the emails, Villavicencio published an article entitled, “Assange spied on by the Intelligence of Ecuador,” detailing the Senain’s spying operations at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which had been dubbed “Operation Hotel.”
However, rather than blast the Senain for spying on Assange, Villavicencio used leaked surveillance photos from the embassy and intelligence reports that may or may not have been doctored and that he had obtained from Cynthia Viteri, a politician who ran in both the 2006 and 2017 Ecuadorian presidential elections, to condemn the Correa government for allegedly surveilling and harassing its own citizens while simultaneously smearing Assange as a “bad houseguest.” Viteri, who appears in several WikiLeaks cables as being “eager to signal interest in better relations with the USG and Embassy,” was quoted as saying:
The operations of the Intelligence Secretariat — having conducted espionage on opposition politicians, social leaders, trade associations and ordinary citizens — violate the Constitution of the Republic and its own regulations, having used public resources to violate the privacy of our families.”
Following three years of public outcry, in March 2018, President Moreno abruptly announced that he was shutting down the Senain in response to what he called “the ethical clamor of the citizens.” However, what he was really trying to convey to the public, and what was pushed in the media, was that he was rooting out the corruption of former President Rafael Correa’s government.
Moreno shuts it all down
In a sign of what was to come, after visiting Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in December 2017, Rommy Vallejo, appointed head of the Senain since 2014, abruptly quit his job two months later and fled the country for his alleged involvement in the 2012 kidnapping of political figure Fernando Balda. Vallejo had also been under enormous public pressure over the Hacking Team spyware but both Vallejo and former President Rafael Correa had previously denied that the purchase had ever happened.
Less than a month after Vallejo quit the Senain — on March 13, 2018 — welivesecurity.com reported that Hacking Team’s Remote Control System had been detected in systems in 14 countries, suggesting that developers were “actively working on the development of this spyware.” It took only six days after the report for Lenin to announce that he was shutting down the Seinan and that the government was “working on the appropriate institutional framework to guarantee the country’s security objectives.” This framework would later be announced as a “Coordinating Unit of Public Security,” which reportedly came under Moreno’s direct control.
The Ecuadorian press applauded the president on his decision. ABC International wrote that “dismantling the office that was spying on and persecuting opponents, dissidents and journalists, during the mandate of Rafael Correa” was “one of the most impressive decisions” made by Moreno since taking office. La Republica stated that the Senain had become a Stasi-like agency. And Diego Salgado, a member of the International Affairs Committee of the Assembly, made it clear that the Senain had only served “to persecute the opponents of the correismo [the policies of Rafael Correa].” Former President Correa, however, criticized Moreno’s decision, fearing that it would lead to a state intelligence service lacking oversight or immunity from foreign influence.
On the same day that Moreno announced the shuttering of the agency, prosecutors filed what has been described as trumped-up charges against three former Senain agents for the alleged Balda kidnapping. Another former head of the Senain, Pablo Romero, was implicated in the crime, as was Correa himself. An arrest warrant and subsequent extradition order was issued for the former president, who fled to Belgium for safety.
Meanwhile in London, Moreno’s crackdown continued. He scaled back security at the embassy, rescinded UC Global’s security contract, and hired a new security team from PromSecurity. Based on WikiLeaks’ April 10 press conference, at some point he also had high-resolution cameras with audio installed in the embassy to spy on Assange. Then, on March 27, 2018, when Julian Assange was still in control of his Twitter account, he tweeted out what has since been described as “the forgotten message:”
Senain bought spy packages from Hacking Team for 3 years.”
Linked in the tweet was an article that had been published earlier that day in which it was reported, “While developers suspect that the Hacking Team (HT) spy program is still working, the National Secretariat of Intelligence of Ecuador (Senain) has not confirmed whether or not it terminated its relationship with this Italian company.” The news outlet had reached out to the agency for comment, but it did not respond. The article also mentioned the earlier welivesecurity.com report and the fact that 20 percent of Hacking Team’s shares had been sold to Cypriot Tablem Limited, a company related to Saudi Arabia.
Approximately four hours after Assange’s tweet, Lenin Moreno cut of all of his communications including internet access, telephone calls, and visitors. Two days later, WikiLeaks stated:
Although Ecuador claims it isolated Assange over his Tweeting about the detention of [Basque rebel leader Carles] #Puigdemont in Germany, the political context is his breaking the “Watergate” of Ecuador, #HackingTeam, which led to the implosion of the national spy service this month.”
However, cutting off the head of a snake doesn’t always mean the body will die; shutting down the Senain in no way curtailed Morano’s surveillance activities.
The Strategic Intelligence Center
Two months after articles started surfacing that suggested Moreno’s government may have renewed its license with Hacking Team, The Guardian went on a one-week bender about “Operation Hotel,” the spying operation at the embassy that was first reported by Fernando Villavicencio in 2015 — directly after the Hacking Team emails were originally released. This time, however, Villencio and other Guardian writers such as Luke Harding claimed that the Senain had spent an abhorrent amount of money on protecting Assange rather than spying on him.
Coupled with Moreno’s earlier announcement that he was shutting down the Senain, The Guardian’s articles only added fuel to the speculative fire that Correa’s government had been rife with corruption and that it was working hand-in-glove with Assange to build a “center for spying” at the embassy. This, of course, was happening at the same time Moreno’s government was trying to garner public support for the trumped-up charges against Correa (and others) for the kidnapping of Balda.
In September 2018, Moreno’s “Coordinated Unit of Public Security” officially became the new “Strategic Intelligence Center” (Centro de Inteligencia Estrategica or CIES), after he issued a questionable executive degree transferring the “competences, attributions, functions, representations, resource assets,” and all other assets and liabilities from the Senain over to the CIES. The government was given a December 20, 2018 deadline to make the switchover.
However, recent reports at the end of last month suggest that in no way has the transfer of “movable and immovable property from one institution to the other” occurred — including the Isaias mansion, which housed the Senain’s operations center and 251 boxes of physical files ranging from 2009 to 2017. Jairo Jimenez, a delegate of the CIES, reported that the “change in ownership was suspended due to the change of authority,” which had limited the transfer of Senain’s assets. He also stated that there is “alleged information in the files of the former Senain that does not exist in the physical file.”
Moreno has gone to extreme lengths to convince the public that he’s rooting out government corruption. With the shutdown of the Senain, the revocation of UC Global’s contract at the embassy, the persecution of Correa and Romero over the Balda kidnapping, the Guardian articles, and the creation of a new intelligence agency, he would have everyone believing that he saved the country from the evil trappings of Rafael Correa’s former government if he could.
However, it appears that Moreno betrayed Correa, under whom he had previously served as vice-president, and used him as a smokescreen to hide his own criminal behavior. Correa’s former Foreign Minister and the ambassador at the embassy had no control over the embassy’s surveillance operations because, as Fidel Narvaez put it, the agency had become “an animal without god or law.” We also know from the WikiLeaks press conference that a large-scale spying operation was put into place after Moreno came to power.
The failure to transfer Senain’s operations center, assets, and documents — some of which appear to be missing — raises multiple questions, such as whether or not Moreno’s government is in the process of destroying records. Also, is the Senain still operating unofficially despite being “shut down” and, if so, is it operating independently or through the Strategic Intelligence Center that Moreno now directly controls. And, finally, did the Moreno government renew its license with Hacking Team?
Extortion ring or intelligence operation?
With the revelation that Ecuador’s current president sanctioned a full-blown spying operation against Julian Assange that was likely carried out by the embassy’s PromSecurity team, the Senain and/or Strategic Intelligence Center, and possibly foreign actors, the strange case of a group of individuals who tried to extort WikiLeaks a few weeks ago presents itself as more of an intelligence operation than anything else.
According to Kristinn Hraffnson during WikiLeaks’ April 10 press conference:
We learned about some individuals in Spain who were peddling around that they had a massive trove of documents relating to Julian Assange from inside the embassy and that it entailed audio, video, photographs, and documents.”
Although Hraffnson didn’t elaborate on how or where these individuals were peddling said materials, curiously, he was able to message them for more information.
An individual going by the initials “P.M.” responded that the material they had mysteriously obtained had a price of 3 million euros and that if WikiLeaks didn’t pay they would start publishing it through the press. This despite the fact that P.M. later disclosed that they had already (and allegedly) received offers of up to 9 million dollars — not euros — from “various outlets for the material.” Naturally this begs the question of why they would quote offers in dollars if they were located in Spain; and, as for the alleged media outlets who saw the material, no public comment has been made and their identity remains unknown.
Even more interesting is the fact that the individuals involved in the extortion ring were willing to meet with Hraffnson in Spain to show him the extent of documents, videos, and photographs that they had. However, according to the Spanish police, one of the individuals had previously been convicted on similar charges. After reaching out to Raymond Johansen — an activist, founding member of mydata.org, and member of the Board of Directors of Pirate Parties International — he stated:
What does a previously convicted extortionist have to gain from actually physically meeting his victim…nobody is that stupid.”
Astonishingly, the meeting was set.
During the three-hour encounter, Hraffnson was shown hundreds of thousands of documents; videos of sensitive meetings that had occurred at the embassy, such as meetings with lawyers and doctors; copies of passports; and even that document Assange’s attorney had left in the embassy conference room that the staff stole and copied. Hraffnson said they had “pretty much everything on the life of Julian Assange inside the embassy.”
To date, it has not been disclosed how the extortion ring in Spain acquired such a large tranche of material that had obviously originated from the Senain and/or Intelligence Center, PromSecurity, or a foreign intelligence agency. According to Anonymous Scandinavia (@AnonScan):
We have reason to believe that the attempt of extorsion [sic] in the amount of three million euros, has connections to government officials cooperating with for example C 9 [Senain] and Prom Security.”
The Spanish police assisted WikiLeaks in setting up the sting operation in Madrid and they are now conducting a full investigation into the group’s attempts to extort the publishing outlet. However, as Johansen pointed out, “It’s a red flag to me that the Spanish police treated WikiLeaks that well,” in light of the fact that they believe Assange meddled in Catalonia’s struggle for independence. In fact, Moreno’s government issued a statement after cutting off Assange’s access to the internet and phone calls using that exact excuse.
With anomalies such as how did these individuals in Spain (where the headquarters of UC Global is located) manage to obtain the material; why were they still “peddling” the material after allegedly being offered $9 million by other media outlets; why the monetary discrepancy, i.e., euros vs. dollars; and why would a previously convicted extortionist set up a face-to-face meeting with the person he was trying to extort, it seems almost obvious that WikiLeaks had been caught up in an intelligence operation. Whether it was set up to actually extort the publishing outlet, threaten it, or for some other reason remains unclear.
Freedom of the press, freedom from persecution
The persecution of Julian Assange isn’t just about the freedom of the press to report and publish stories of public interest. His case also highlights the right for journalists, publishers, photographers, editors, and all media workers to work without fear of being retaliated against, harassed, hacked, wiretapped, surveilled, or even murdered. After all, the Saudi government used the Israeli company NSO’s spyware, Pegasus, to surveil Jamal Khashoggi before dismembering him in a Saudi consulate.
If a dictator from the other side of the world attacked a journalist — or, let’s be honest, a Western “mainstream” journalist — in the manner in which Moreno has attacked Assange, most people would call him a tyrannical madman because gagging a journalist, implementing obscene protocols that have no legal backing, smearing them publicly knowing they can’t respond, instituting a spy operation, running an intelligence operation to extort and/or threaten the publishing outlet the journalist works at, stripping them of their asylum and citizenship in return for financial concessions from which their own citizens will likely never prosper, and creating an elaborate smokescreen to fool the masses into believing it’s their opponent everyone should be worried about, is very, very mad.
As Randy Credico once said, “What are they so afraid of? It’s one man with a pen,” which, indeed, has always been mightier than the sword. Assange and other truth-tellers such as whistleblower Chelsea Manning — who is still imprisoned by the United States for refusing to take part in its secret grand jury system which, often times, is used against those who testify — brought the U.S. government to its knees by exposing its torture of Guantanamo Bay detainees and war crimes in Iraq. They have been trying to recover ever since and the Trump administration is now more than ever willing to exact full revenge upon those who exposed the truth.
Lenin Moreno’s corruption must be resisted, the U.K.’s arrest of Assange must be resisted, the United States’ extradition request for Assange and the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning must be resisted, and the Western world’s war on a free press must absolutely, categorically, be resisted.
Feature photo | Julian Assange leaves after greeting supporters outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London May 19, 2017. Frank Augstein | AP
Jjimmysllama is an independent researcher and writer who provides balanced, critical analysis with a focus on the Boston bombings, Magnitsky Act, and WikiLeaks. She is currently trying to stay warm in the Midwest. You can read more of her work at jimmysllama.com and find her on Twitter at @jimmysllama.