Next month, British prosecutors, on behalf of the US government, will argue before a British High Court that a judge’s move to block the extradition of Australian journalist Julian Assange should be overturned. It will mark the latest in the United States’ legal attack against the WikiLeaks founder. Yet even as the High Court gets ready to hear arguments that will help decide whether Assange will stand trial in the United States, a fuller and darker picture has emerged of the US government’s extralegal campaign against Assange.
A bombshell investigation by Yahoo News, based on interviews with over thirty former US officials, gives the most in-depth picture to date of the CIA’s war on WikiLeaks. And it’s truly disturbing. The tactics weighed by the CIA under Mike Pompeo — including kidnapping and assassinating — were so extreme they even alarmed members of the National Security Council and White House lawyers, hardly Assange supporters.
Some became so concerned about the legality of what the CIA was proposing, they alerted congressional oversight committees. According to Michael Isikoff, one of the three reporters who worked on the Yahoo News story, the arguments over whether to kidnap Assange “were one of the more contentious intelligence debates of the Trump presidency, and it was all done in secret. The public had no idea this was going on.” Pompeo has publicly responded to the allegations by asserting that those who spoke to Yahoo should be prosecuted for exposing CIA activities. But he conceded that “pieces of it are true.”
From Obama to Trump
Assange has been in the US government’s crosshairs ever since he published cables from the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (provided to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning). In 2011, the Justice Department convened a grand jury to contemplate indicting Assange.
But while the Obama administration waged an unprecedented war on journalists’ sources and whistleblowers, it decided against going directly after journalists like Assange, worried it could set a precedent for prosecuting major newspapers like the New York Times. In spite of the administration’s enormous crackdown on press freedoms, here they drew a line. In addition to putting a stop on any prosecution of Assange, the Obama White House also limited what actions intelligence agencies like the CIA could take against WikiLeaks, arguing they were deserving of the protections afforded to news organizations.
Meanwhile, the intelligence community stewed. After the Guardian and Washington Post broke stories about illegal NSA surveillance — the fruits of revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden — the intelligence community was again out for blood. The CIA lobbied the Obama administration to redefine certain figures previously considered journalists as “information brokers,” thus allowing greater investigatory actions against them and opening the door for potential criminal prosecutions.
The CIA wanted to label not just Assange and WikiLeaks “information brokers,” but also Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the journalists who broke the Snowden revelations. The Obama administration rebuffed these chilling requests, but okayed greater intelligence collection against WikiLeaks. No longer were warrants, subpoenas, or national security letters required to gain information about WikiLeaks. The CIA now had a “WikiLeaks team.”
The WikiLeaks revelations about Hillary Clinton provoked fanatical ire among many partisan Democrats. It also earned the organization praise on the campaign trail from Trump. Yet, it would be the Trump administration that would dramatically escalate both the legal and extralegal war on WikiLeaks.
Trump and Vault 7
Trump set the tone early. He appointed as his attorney general Jeff Sessions, a longtime surveillance hawk and First Amendment foe who made targeting “leaks” a top prosecutorial priority. For his CIA chief, Trump tapped Mike Pompeo. Pompeo had repeatedly attacked whistleblower Edward Snowden, at one point calling for him to be executed.
Sessions revived the criminal investigation into Assange and pressured prosecutors to bring charges against Assange in the Eastern District for the 2010 to 2011 disclosures. In April 2017, Sessions publicly announced that prosecuting the journalist was a top priority. When asked about the implications of such a move for outlets like the New York Times, Sessions appeared unfazed.
Just a week before Sessions’s chilling announcement, Pompeo declared during a public address that WikiLeaks was a hostile non-state intelligence agency. Given the public setting, many dismissed the statement as hot air. But it turned out to be part of a much more disturbing legal theory.
About a month earlier, in the largest loss of data in CIA history, WikiLeaks published “Vault 7,” which detailed CIA hacking tools. The release infuriated Pompeo and the CIA. As the Yahoo News story makes painfully clear, Pompeo became obsessed with Assange and WikiLeaks. No plot, it seems, was too wild.
When the CIA takes covert action, they must receive authorization from the president in what is known as “finding.” Select members of Congress are notified. Yet, when the CIA deals with rival spy agencies, its measures are deemed “offensive counterintelligence”; and no such findings are required.
The CIA tried, but failed to tie WikiLeaks to Russian intelligence. Eager to evade any oversight, the CIA declared Wikileaks a non-state intelligence agency, thus allowing them to act without presidential approval or congressional notice. (The 2018 Intelligence Authorization Act, passed by Congress, declared that “WikiLeaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.” This raises serious questions about what Congress knew. No subsequent legislation contained similar language).
At this point the CIA obsession took a dark turn. Executives within the agency requested “sketches” on how to assassinate Assange and other WikiLeaks figures involved with Vault 7. These plans were scuttled and don’t appear to ever have made it beyond internal CIA discussions. Nonetheless, the fact that CIA leaders were requesting that assassination plans be drawn up is alarming, to say the least.
While the assassination plans did not go far, the scheme to kidnap Assange made it to the White House — it perplexed National Security Council lawyers who noted that Assange hadn’t even been charged with a crime and that it was unclear under what authority the CIA could seize Assange or even where they would hold him. As one unnamed official who attended the National Security Council meetings told Yahoo News, “Were we going to go back to ‘black sites’?”
In 2017, the plans reached new levels of derangement. The CIA became convinced that the Russians would try to “exfiltrate” Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and bring him to Russia.
Their imaginations running wild, the CIA thought that the Ecuadorians would release Assange onto the street. The Russians would be waiting — most likely in a diplomatic car — to spirit Assange to the airport and out of the country. One suggestion was to have CIA agents crash a car into another vehicle, thus creating a traffic jam and delaying the Russian diplomatic vehicle containing Assange. It was decided, however, while such an action was appropriate for Afghanistan, it was not appropriate for the streets of London.
While car crashes were too much, the CIA was fully preparing for a gun battle. Concerned about the optics of Americans engaging in a shootout with Russians on the streets of London, they requested their British counterparts handle all firing. The British obliged. (Firing on a Russian diplomatic vehicle would be an act of war.)
Had the Russians escaped from the hail of gunfire, made it to the airport and onto the tarmac, and gotten Assange into a plane, the CIA were preparing to shoot out the tires of the plane to prevent it from taking off. If the plane still managed to get into the air, the CIA was prepared to have EU countries deny the plane entry into their airspace — a dirty trick the United States had previously used when they thought Bolivian president Evo Morales was secretly carrying Snowden onboard his presidential plane.
Stella Morris, Assange’s partner, denies that the Russians were going to exfiltrate Assange. Nevertheless, as Isikoff stressed in an interview, the CIA believed it was real and their plans were deadly serious. So serious, in fact, that Trump himself was briefed on the plan by those who worried it would create an ugly, international incident.
The CIA’s fear that Assange would flee was partly because WikiLeaks had only released some of the Vault 7 documents in their possession. The agency was concerned that Assange could escape to Russia with secrets. But the officials who spoke to Yahoo made clear that an equal or even greater concern was the geopolitical or propagandistic victory Vladmir Putin would purportedly score if Russia was sheltering not only Snowden, but also Assange. This appears to be the motivation behind the deeply irrational plan.
Assassination plans out of the Cold War, kidnappings and renditions out of the “war on terror,” an act of war against another government, all with one end in sight: to make sure Assange never escaped the clutches of the US empire.
The CIA’s Crimes
The latest revelations are particularly shocking, but they join a growing list of outrages. In addition to National Security Council lawyers, the CIA also angered Sessions and the Justice Department. Their motives were not pure: the Justice Department viewed Assange as being on their turf and the CIA’s actions as jeopardizing a potential criminal prosecution (the CIA’s kidnapping scheme may have pressured the Justice Department to speed up seeking an indictment). Even before Sessions, the FBI and the CIA competed over jurisdiction for Assange. The FBI had been pushing for Assange to be charged since the Obama years.
However, the FBI’s hands are far from clean. In June, Icelandic newspaper Stundin revealed that an FBI informant (who had himself been convicted of sex crimes) admitted that allegations in the US indictment against Assange were fabricated.
And earlier this year, Declassified UK exposed the existence of Operation Pelican, a UK Foreign Office plot to get Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy.
All of this comes as Spain’s High Court is investigating Spanish security firm UC Global. UC Global was hired to provide security at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, but it allegedly cooperated with US intelligence in its spying on Assange, his lawyers, and journalists who visited him. In fact, it was a former UC Global employee who first stated that the CIA discussed killing Assange.
The CIA’s crimes must be understood within this wider war against Assange. But there is another important context. After revelations of the CIA’s use of rendition and torture during the war on terror, there were calls for prosecutions. Instead, Obama opted to look forward, not backward.
For those who took on CIA war crimes, the calculation was quite different. The Obama administration, at the urging of the CIA, allowed the American Civil Liberties Union to be criminally probed after its lawyers representing clients at Guantanamo were able to successfully identify CIA torturers in court briefs. While the venerable civil liberties organization was cleared of wrongdoing, John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on torture, was prosecuted, something the CIA requested of the Bush administration but was denied.
The decision to let CIA war criminals off the hook while treating whistleblowers, journalists, and others who expose US war crimes as enemies on par with spies or terrorists has consequences.
One of those consequences: a completely lawless CIA plotting to assassinate or kidnap a journalist.