Julian Assange’s lawyers were placed under surveillance. But that’s not the whole story

29 September 2019 — The Canary

A private security company organised 24/7 surveillance of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during his stay at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. This included confidential meetings between Assange and members of his legal team. The surveillance was provided directly to the CIA. These revelations could possibly jeopardise the viability of the US extradition case.

But within this story there lies another that raises serious questions about the establishment media and allegiances.

CIA streaming

According to El Pais, Spanish security firm UC Global, was responsible for the surveillance of Assange when he was a guest of the Ecuadorian government at their London embassy. UC Global, a firm with an address in Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz), was hired by Senain, the former Ecuadorian intelligence service, ostensibly to provide protection for Assange.

However, it’s now been revealed that the company’s owner David Morales passed on the results of the operations to the CIA. He even installed a video streaming service direct to the US. Also monitored were meetings between Assange and his lawyers, including Melynda Taylor, Jennifer Robinson, and Baltasar Garzón.

After Rafael Correa was replaced by the right-wing Lenín Moreno as president of Ecuador in May 2017, the latter cancelled the UC Global contract. Moreno then issued a new contract to Ecuadorian company Promsecurity. Video recordings and photos taken by that firm were subsequently used in an extortion attempt.

In the loop

In May 2018 the Guardian ran a story about these very surveillance systems in Ecuador’s embassy. Surveillance included logging of visitors, such as Assange’s lawyer Gareth Peirce, as well as a seven-hour session between Assange and his legal team on 19 June 2016. The story focused largely on the costs of the operation, which in total came to around $5m. These revelations may have contributed to the growing antagonism to Assange by Moreno.

Around the same time, the Guardian ran a number of articles not helpful to Assange’s plight. There was a story claiming Russia was involved in a plot to help Assange flee the UK. Another alleged that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort visited Assange at the embassy (The Canary reported on this, revealing it was all nonsense). Some of these stories were co-authored by Fernando Villavicencio, a former anti-Correa activist. Villavicencio’s name also appeared as a source at the bottom of an article on Assange and his support for the independence referendum in Catalonia.

There was a time when the Guardian collaborated with WikiLeaks via, for example, the publishing of the Iraq war logs, or the Afghan War logs, or the US embassy cables. But there was a ‘falling out’, and in time the Guardian adopted a different kind of collaboration – with representatives of the UK intelligence and security establishment.

Insider intelligence?

The UK Government’s Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) is more commonly known as the D-Notice Committee, and its stated purpose is to:

prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations

An alternative description is that it acts as a gateway for intelligence, disseminating and managing the kind of information that can be published.

A subset of the DSMA is the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC). Minutes of its November 2013 meeting listed members, including representatives of the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the MOD. It also criticised the Guardian for its publication of classified documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. And it noted:

Towards the end of July [2013] The Guardian had begun to seek and accept DA Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details, and since then the dialogue with the Secretariat had been reasonable and improving.

At the next meeting, minutes listed the Guardian’s deputy editor Paul Johnson as a member and noted:

Requests for DA Notice advice during the period were focussed on two major areas: the intelligence agencies, most notably further disclosures in The Guardian by NSA fugitive Edward Snowden

The minutes added:

The Secretary reported that the engagement of the DPBAC Secretariat with The Guardian had continued to strengthen during the last six months, with regular dialogues between the Secretary and Deputy Secretaries and Guardian journalists. … The process had culminated by the appointment of Paul Johnson (Deputy Editor Guardian News and Media) as a DPBAC member.

Indeed, Johnson’s tenure as DPBAC member continued until November 2018, when it was noted:

The Chairman thanked Paul Johnson for his service to the Committee. Paul had joined the Committee in the wake of the Snowden affair and had been instrumental in re-establishing links with the Guardian.

Privileged communications

In light of these revelations, Johnson’s work with the DBPAC poses questions about the relationship between the press and the DSMA. Nor should we forget that the security and intelligence services that the DSMA work with also liaise with the CIA and the NSA (the latter via the Five Eyes network).

But there’s another kind of intelligence – one that was sabotaged by the very covert operations reported by the Guardian and now by El Pais. For not only were the meetings between Assange and his lawyers monitored, with intelligence provided directly to the CIA, but Moreno reportedly agreed to hand over documents and other material belonging to Assange to the US authorities. Client-lawyer confidentiality remains a cornerstone of the English legal system. However, if that confidentiality is breached, the validity of any legal case under consideration could then potentially be subject to challenge.

Consequently, on this basis, there is an argument that the US extradition request should be denied.

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