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CIA sought UK help ‘to kill or kidnap’ Assange

29th Oct 2021
CIA sought UK help ‘to kill or kidnap’ Assange

Julian Assange (left) and former Foreign Minister of Ecuador Ricardo Patiño at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London from where the US had allegedly planned to kidnap Assange.

(Credit: Xavier Granja Cedeño/Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Nadine Osman

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) proposed kidnapping or assassinating Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, while he was hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and asked British authorities for help, former officials have claimed.

Wikileaks publication of classified CIA hacking tools (known as Vault 7) in 2016 was considered the “largest data loss in CIA history”, and senior agency officials reportedly requested “options” on how to kidnap or assassinate Assange.

The jaw-dropping claims were made in a newly released Yahoo News investigation published on September 26 that included interviews with 30 former US officials.

Former CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, allegedly led the crusade against Assange in 2017 when WikiLeaks continued publishing Vault 7 documents. Pompeo’s plans intensified that year as rumours escalated that Assange might attempt to escape Ecuador’s embassy for Russia.

Assange has been confined in Belmarsh maximum-security prison in London since April 2019 when Ecuador’s Government revoked his asylum and British police arrested him for failing to surrender to the court over a warrant issued in 2012.

The US Government unsealed its initial indictment of Assange the same day. On January 6, Assange was denied bail, pending an appeal by the US to extradite him on charges of participating in the Chelsea Manning hacking conspiracy. If he were to be extradited, he would face 175 years in prison.

It is important, however, to understand, that only five of these would be under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, while the other 170 years are under the Espionage Act of 1917, passed during the height of the patriotic war fever as the US entered the First World War.

CIA officials reportedly suggested shootouts in London, colliding a car with a vehicle carrying him, or shooting out the tyres of a plane taking him to Moscow.

US officials allegedly even asked their British counterparts to aid in the mission by carrying out the shooting. A former senior administration official told Yahoo News that the British agreed with the plan.
WikiLeaks first drew fury from the US Government in 2010 after publishing thousands of pages of once-secret reports and documents generated by American military and intelligence agencies, including detailed descriptions of CIA hacking capabilities.

That same year, US authorities alleged Assange engaged in a conspiracy to hack a classified US Government computer with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

In 2012, Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London and was granted political asylum. The debate over possible American moves to seek Assange’s extradition from Britain first arose nearly a decade ago when Barack Obama was President.

Assange’s extradition was not sought by the Obama Justice Department because Assange and WikiLeaks were engaged in activities protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
WikiLeaks gained national attention again after publishing emails hacked from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a key adviser, which Clinton and some of her supporters say, was a factor in her election defeat to Republican Donald Trump.

Then, in 2017, WikiLeaks began Vault 7 and drew the ire of Trump administration officials. Only weeks after taking office in January 2017, the Trump administration filed a series of increasingly harsh criminal charges accusing Assange of participating in the Chelsea Manning hacking conspiracy.

Yahoo reports the US Justice Department rushed its drafts of such charges against Assange out of concern that Pompeo and the CIA’s talk of kidnapping or killing him would derail or jeopardise the prosecution.

A former senior counterintelligence official said the talks happened “at the highest levels” of the Trump administration with “no boundaries.” The official added that Pompeo and agency leaders had become “completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7. They were seeing blood.”

Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, in April 2017, Pompeo branded WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service”, a title that could legitimise treating the organisation as a foreign enemy.

However, the CIA faced difficulty in proving that WikiLeaks was conspiring with the Kremlin, which stunted their attempts to plan Assange’s capture or murder. Soon after his speech, Pompeo asked a small group of senior CIA officers to determine ‘the art of the possible’ for WikiLeaks, said another official. He is said to have told officials, “Nothing’s off-limits, don’t self-censor yourself, I need operational ideas from you. I’ll worry about the lawyers in Washington.”

Within months, US spies began targeting WikiLeaks including paralysing its digital infrastructure, disturbing its communications, planting damaging information in the organisation to start infighting and even stealing WikiLeaks members’ electronic devices.

The validity of the allegations is strengthened because Andy Müller-Maguhn a German hacker involved in the Vault 7 projects, made several claims in December 2020 about his time with WikiLeaks.

Among them were that someone tried to break into his flat, that he had been followed by “mysterious figures” and that his encrypted telephone had been bugged.

Meanwhile, US officials heard about a plan in which Ecuadorian officials would grant Assange diplomatic status as part of a scheme so he could leave the embassy and fly to Moscow.

Yahoo News reported that officials were alarmed when they witnessed Russian operatives near the Ecuadorian Embassy practising a starburst manoeuvre, a tactic in which multiple operatives disperse to escape surveillance.

The CIA began coordinating with the Trump White House to prepare for his expected escape, which is when CIA officials discussed tactics like shooting out the tyres of his plane. Pompeo and other intelligence officials discussed abducting Assange from the embassy through a process known as rendition, which involves bringing him to a third country before bringing him back to the US.

The idea was to “break into the embassy, drag [Assange] out and bring him to where we wanted,” a former intelligence official told the news outlet.

“There was a discussion with the Brits about turning the other cheek or looking the other way when a team of guys went inside and did a rendition,” said a former senior counterintelligence officer.

“But the British said, ‘No way, you’re not doing that on our territory, that ain’t happening.’” “I find it outrageous that our government would be contemplating kidnapping or assassinating somebody without any judicial process simply because he had published truthful information,” said Barry Pollack, Assange’s US lawyer.

He added he expects UK courts “will consider this information and it will further bolster its decision not to extradite to the US.”

Trump denied he considered having Assange assassinated. “It’s false, it never happened,” he said, adding “In fact, I think he’s been treated very badly.”

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