The Yahoo! report provides important new details of facts reported a year ago, but contains several errors, including a fabricated story about Russian operatives exfiltrating Assange from the Ecuador embassy, writes Joe Lauria.
The Yahoo! News report that is mistakenly being credited for breaking the story of a CIA plot to assassinate or kidnap WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is filled with crucial errors, while at the same time providing important new details about inside-Washington deliberations on how the plot came about.
Consortium News, along with other outlets, reported a year ago, on Sept. 30, 2020, of a CIA plot to kidnap or poison Julian Assange, based on sworn testimony in Assange’s extradition hearing in London. Max Blumenthal of The Grayzone was the first to report the story back in May 2020.
The September 2020 testimony made first in a Madrid court came from a former partner, and an employee of UC Global, the Spanish security firm paid by the CIA to spy on Assange inside Ecuador’s London embassy, including on Assange’s privileged conversations with his lawyers and doctors.
One of the witnesses testified that in December 2017 “the U.S. was desperate” to get Assange out of the embassy, and that “more extreme measures should be used.”
“Leaving the embassy door open to allow Mr. Assange to be kidnapped and even poisoning was under consideration,” a witness testified that UC Global CEO David Morales told him. Both witnesses approached an attorney who contacted a Madrid court which ordered an arrest warrant, a search of Morales’ home and issued charges against him for spying on Assange.
The reaction to the 7,000-word piece by Yahoo! News on Sunday proves the axiom that until something appears in the mainstream media, it didn’t happen. That’s because establishment media largely ignored the story a year ago when it was revealed in court. The Yahoo! piece has now been covered by CNN, MSNBC, The Guardian and other corporate outlets, making a larger audience aware of it for the first time and potentially putting pressure on the Biden administration to drop the case.
Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post have reported on it so far and did not cover the UC Global employee’s testimony in September 2020.
The Guardian was one of the few big outlets that reported it when it first emerged in court. Yahoo! buried deep in its story that The Guardian covered it back then (they weren’t the first or only ones), allowing an impression to form that Yahoo! was breaking the story for the first time.
While the Yahoo! article does advance the story by providing Washington confirmation of the UC Global witnesses’ testimony and fleshes out crucial details from U.S. intelligence sources for the first time, especially then CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s role in the plot (discussed below), it contains a number of factual errors.
Yahoo! uncritically reports a made-up story about Russia trying to extract Assange from the Ecuador embassy.
Yahoo! falsely reports that the Obama administration took no action against Assange until WikiLeaks helped whistleblower Edward Snowden escape Hong Kong in 2013, when the Obama FBI actually ran a sting operation against Assange in Iceland in 2011, and empaneled a grand jury the same year, facts not mentioned in Yahoo!‘s report.
Yahoo! takes as fact that Russia hacked the Democrats and gave its emails to Assange, though these are only allegations in a U.S. indictment and ignores congressional testimony from CrowdStrike’s CEO that there was no concrete evidence of a hack resulting in data being taken.
The thrust of the Yahoo! article is that the Obama administration was good to Assange while elements of the Trump administration plotted the assassination or abduction before taking the acceptable path of making a legal case against Assange. But the legal case is also troubling.
The article also sets up a misleading idea that the CIA’s extrajudicial methods, such as assassination and abduction, sometimes as freelance acts without a presidential directive, are rare in the agency’s history. That history is littered with criminal acts, scores of which were uncovered by mid-1970s congressional investigations.
What the CIA plotted to do with Assange is one more criminal act in a sordid history. It should produce no shock to anyone who knows that history. There has never been a time when the CIA was not willing to break the law in the service of U.S. elites, nor has the U.S. ever been a nation predominately ruled by law and not men, as many Americans believe.
Stopping the ‘Russian Exfiltration’
The article’s most sensational disclosure is not the assassination or kidnapping plots, which had already been disclosed, but that the CIA discussed with British counterparts stopping Assange — with the use of firearms if necessary — from being exfiltrated from the Ecuador embassy by “Russian intelligence” operatives.
The article says:
“In late 2017, in the midst of the debate over kidnapping and other extreme measures, the agency’s plans were upended when U.S. officials picked up what they viewed as alarming reports that Russian intelligence operatives were preparing to sneak Assange out of the United Kingdom and spirit him away to Moscow.
“The intelligence reporting about a possible breakout was viewed as credible at the highest levels of the U.S. government. At the time, Ecuadorian officials had begun efforts to grant Assange diplomatic status as part of a scheme to give him cover to leave the embassy and fly to Moscow to serve in the country’s Russian mission.
“In response, the CIA and the White House began preparing for a number of scenarios to foil Assange’s Russian departure plans, according to three former officials. Those included potential gun battles with Kremlin operatives on the streets of London, crashing a car into a Russian diplomatic vehicle transporting Assange and then grabbing him, and shooting out the tires of a Russian plane carrying Assange before it could take off for Moscow. (U.S. officials asked their British counterparts to do the shooting if gunfire was required, and the British agreed, according to a former senior administration official.)”
“We had all sorts of reasons to believe he was contemplating getting the hell out of there,” said the former senior administration official, adding that one report said Assange might try to escape the embassy hidden in a laundry cart. “It was going to be like a prison break movie.”
What actually happened was that the Ecuadorian government devised a plan to give Assange diplomatic immunity and then send him to a third country, with Russia among the possible destinations. However, when Assange was told about the plan he rejected Russia. In the end, Britain refused to recognize Assange’s diplomatic status, putting an end to the entire affair. But Yahoo!, quoting three unnamed former officials, uncritically repeats the fantastic story that Russian operatives would extract Assange from the embassy and try to spirit him onto a Russian plane in London.
This so-called 2017 Christmas Eve plot was first reported in The Guardian by Luke Harding, known for his anti-Russian and anti-Assange reporting. But even Harding did not report that Russian intelligence would be involved in the extraction. He wrote that Ecuadorian and Russian diplomats met in London to discuss the transfer of Assange with diplomatic immunity to Russia, which would naturally have happened in the plan Ecuador had devised.
According to Stella Moris, an Assange lawyer and his fiancée, the story of a Russian extraction from the embassy is false and was devised by UC Global to satisfy the CIA and keep the $200,000 a month contract going, a not uncommon tactic of informants to make stuff up to please their paymasters. The fabricated story was presumably revealed in testimony in the Spanish case.
Yahoo! acknowledges that UC Global informed on the so-called Russian plot. “… testimony in a Spanish criminal investigation strongly suggests that U.S. intelligence may also have had inside help keeping tabs on Assange’s plans.”
It is impossible to know whether the CIA knew it was lied to. According to Yahoo! it was taken seriously:
“’It’s not just him getting to Moscow and taking secrets,’ [former U.S. counterintelligence chief William Evanina] said. ‘The second wind that Putin would get — he gets Snowden and now he gets Assange — it becomes a geopolitical win for him and his intelligence services.’
Evanina declined to comment on the plans to prevent Assange from escaping to Russia, but he suggested that the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance between the United States, the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand was critical. ‘We were very confident within the Five Eyes that we would be able to prevent him from going there,’ he said.”
Obama Took Action in 2011
The Yahoo! story says Obama took no action against Assange until he helped Snowden in 2013:
“ … the Obama administration, fearful of the consequences for press freedom — and chastened by the blowback from its own aggressive leak hunts — restricted investigations into Assange and WikiLeaks. ‘We were stagnated for years,’ said [William] Evanina, [a retired top counterintelligence official]. ‘There was a reticence in the Obama administration at a high level to allow agencies to engage in’ certain kinds of intelligence collection against WikiLeaks, including signals and cyber operations, he said.
That began to change in 2013, when Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor, fled to Hong Kong with a massive trove of classified materials, some of which revealed that the U.S. government was illegally spying on Americans. WikiLeaks helped arrange Snowden’s escape to Russia from Hong Kong.
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, the Obama administration allowed the intelligence community to prioritize collection on WikiLeaks, according to Evanina, now the CEO of the Evanina Group. Previously, if the FBI needed a search warrant to go into the group’s databases in the United States or wanted to use subpoena power or a national security letter to gain access to WikiLeaks-related financial records, ‘that wasn’t going to happen,’ another former senior counterintelligence official said. ‘That changed after 2013.’
From that point onward, U.S. intelligence worked closely with friendly spy agencies to build a picture of WikiLeaks’ network of contacts ‘and tie it back to hostile state intelligence services,’ Evanina said.
It is untrue that the Obama administration “restricted investigations into Assange and WikiLeaks.” U.S. prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia investigated Assange and empaneled a grand jury in 2011 seeking to indict him for WikiLeaks publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war diaries as well as the Diplomatic Cables in 2010, which were an embarrassment to the United States. Though the Obama Department of Justice ultimately decided against an indictment against Assange because of First Amendment considerations, the grand jury was resumed by the Trump administration in 2017.
Also in 2011, the Obama DOJ’s Federal Bureau of Investigation ran a sting operation against Assange in Iceland until the FBI was kicked out of the country. The word “Iceland” appears nowhere in the Yahoo! report. The FBI’s informant has recanted, saying what he told them about Assange was made up. Nonetheless, his testimony stills forms an important part of the U.S. superseding indictment of Assange.
The Yahoo! article also makes a cryptic comment, not fully developed, that indicates the idea of abducting Assange began in the Obama administration. “While the notion of kidnapping Assange preceded Pompeo’s arrival at Langley, the new director championed the proposals, according to former officials,” the article says.
Yahoo!, in addition, wrongly states that WikiLeaks’ intention was to get Snowden to Moscow. It says: “WikiLeaks helped arrange Snowden’s escape to Russia from Hong Kong. A WikiLeaks editor also accompanied Snowden to Russia, staying with him during his 39-day enforced stay at a Moscow airport … ” It uncritically quotes Evanina, the former head of U.S. counterintelligence, as saying: “
“… the United States and the U.K. developed a “joint plan” to prevent Assange from absconding and giving Vladimir Putin the sort of propaganda coup he had enjoyed when Snowden fled to Russia in 2013, Evanina said.”
In fact, WikiLeaks booked Snowden on a flight to Ecuador via Cuba with a change of planes in Moscow. The United States had canceled Snowden’s passport so he was unable to board the connecting flight to Havana. Yahoo! also fails to make clear that it was the U.S. that enforced his stay in Moscow, where Snowden never had any intention of staying.
Accepting the Russian ‘Hack’
The Yahoo! story breaks a fundamental rule of journalism by reporting an indictment as fact, rather than allegations that need to be proven in court. Throughout the piece we read sentences like this:
“In 2018, the Trump administration granted the CIA aggressive new secret authorities to undertake the same sort of hack-and-dump operations for which Russian intelligence has used WikiLeaks.” [Emphasis added.]
In a follow-up Yahoo! piece published Tuesday, headlined, “5 big takeaways from an investigation into the CIA’s war on WikiLeaks,” the language is even more direct: “As U.S. intelligence officials later concluded, these emails were stolen by hackers from the GRU, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who then provided them to WikiLeaks as part of an effort to help elect Donald Trump president.”
The indictment against the agents from the GRU (Russia’s defense intelligence agency) will never be proven because the GRU agents will never be extradited to the U.S., for one thing, because there is no extradition treaty between the two countries. The prosecutors knew this, so their indictment in effect became a political instrument to be used against Russia by a willing media. Yahoo! is still at it.
The Democratic National Committee refused to allow the FBI to examine their computer server to find out how the emails were removed. Instead the DNC hired a private firm, CrowdStrike, which was given a disc image of the server and not direct access to it. In a closed-door hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Dec. 5, 2017 Shawn Henry, president of CrowdStrike, admitted under oath that his firm had no firm evidence that the DNC emails were hacked — by Russia or anyone else — and data removed.
House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff was able to keep Henry’s testimony hidden until May 7, 2020.
Asked by Schiff for “the date on which the Russians exfiltrated the data”, Henry replied, “We just don’t have the evidence that says it actually left.”
Though the emails were damaging to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, WikiLeaks was practicing journalism in publishing them.
This was not a case of a foreign power sabotaging a U.S. election with disinformation. The emails were true, resulting in the resignation of several top DNC officials. It was a matter of information given to American voters about one of the candidates. To have had possession of the emails and not to have published them would have been journalistic malpractice.
Assange also tried to get Trump material. In the 2017 film Risk, by filmmaker Laura Poitras, Assange is filmed on the phone in early 2016 saying WikiLeaks had obtained emails on Hillary Clinton and “we hope to get something on Trump.” As journalist Stefania Maurizi has written for Consortium News, WikiLeaks did obtain Trump documents but discovered they had already been published.
There is zero evidence that WikiLeaks had material on Trump and suppressed it, a widely believed falsehood. Assange favored neither candidate and before the election said the choice between the candidates was like choosing “cholera or gonorrhea.”
Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, told CN Live! that had WikiLeaks had damaging information on Trump, they certainly would have published it, especially before an election when voters need to be informed about the candidates.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report alleges that Assange communicated online with Russian GRU defense intelligence agents posing as “Guccifer 2.0” to obtain leaked Democratic Party emails, an allegation reported as fact by Yahoo!. Even if it were true that Guccifer 2.0 was a cover for Russian intelligence, Mueller declined to prosecute Assange because there was no evidence Assange would be aware of it.
If it were the Russians who provided the material to Assange, the emails were still accurate, meaning it is irrelevant who the source of the leak was. The Wall Street Journal‘s, CNN’s and other major media’s anonymous drop boxes prove that. They don’t need or want to know the source if newsworthy documents are authenticated. Theoretically Russia could send documents to CNN’s anonymous drop box and if they checked out, CNN could publish those documents without ever knowing Moscow provided them.
When a journalist gathers oral evidence from a source, that source’s motive needs to be scrutinized. But if documents are verified and are newsworthy, the motive of the source providing the material is not relevant. Prosecutors work all the time with some of the worst elements of society but use their credible evidence if it can catch a bigger fish.
Though it’s irrelevant if Russia gave the Clinton emails to WikiLeaks, a big part of the Russiagate mania was based on mere allegations of a WikiLeaks-Russia connection, an allegation amply amplified by Yahoo! as truth. Yahoo! takes as flat fact that Guccifer 2.0 was an online persona of the Russian GRU agents and that NSA intercepts show Guccifer communicating with WikiLeaks about the transfer of the Democratic emails.
” … the NSA began surveilling the Twitter accounts of the suspected Russian intelligence operatives who were disseminating the leaked Democratic Party emails, according to a former CIA official. This collection revealed direct messages between the operatives, who went by the moniker Guccifer 2.0, and WikiLeaks’ Twitter account. Assange at the time steadfastly denied that the Russian government was the source for the emails … “
Assange still denies Russia was the emails’ source, not just “at the time,” which implies he’s changed his tune. The identity of Guccifer 2.0 as a front for the Russians has also been challenged, including by Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). The Yahoo! article confirms that the CIA has fake online personas in its arsenal, but decided against using it to disrupt WikiLeaks a year later. “Inventing a cyber persona to gain the group’s confidence, was quickly dismissed as unlikely to succeed because the senior WikiLeaks figures were so security-conscious, according to former intelligence officials,” the article says.
“The events of 2016 ‘really crystallized’ U.S. intelligence officials’ belief that the WikiLeaks founder ‘was acting in collusion with people who were using him to hurt the interests of the United States,’ … said [Robert] Litt [the intelligence community’s senior lawyer during the Obama administration.]”
The CIA now considered people affiliated with WikiLeaks valid targets for various types of spying, including close-in technical collection — such as bugs — sometimes enabled by in-person espionage, and “remote operations,” meaning, among other things, the hacking of WikiLeaks members’ devices from afar, according to former intelligence officials.”
This came at the height of Russiagate. Publishing accurate information critical of the U.S. was portrayed as coming from a pawn of a hostile foreign power, a McCarthyist smear that Yahoo! repeats.
It is interesting to note that the Yahoo! article first appeared on Aol. at 2 am last Sunday, curiously with just the single byline of Zach Dorfman. It then appeared on Yahoo! itself 20 hours later at 10 pm with two other bylines added, including Michael Isikoff’s.
Isikoff was one of the most prominent media promoters of the Russigate conspiracy theory, writing a March 2018 bestseller with Mother Jones‘ David Corn called Russian Roulette. After Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that there was no evidence of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, Isikoff slightly backtracked in December 2018, coming close to admitting that he was wrong. Russian Roulette was nevertheless re-released as a Special Impeachment Digital Edition in 2020. And as the Yahoo! article indicates, Isikoff still clings to elements of Russiagate.
The Important Yahoo! Revelations
There are a number of disturbing revelations in the Yahoo! report that deepen our knowledge of the U.S. government’s war against Assange and WikiLeaks.
It fills out the already known plot against Assange by reporting that CIA and Trump administration officials requested “options” and “sketches” for how to kill Assange. Plans to kidnap or assassinate the WikiLeaks publisher were discussed at the “highest levels” of the administration.
The piece offers confirmation of what always appeared obvious: that then CIA Director Mike Pompeo was the mover behind efforts to snatch or kill Assange in retaliation for WikiLeaks‘ 2017 Vault 7 release, the biggest leak of CIA materials in its history.
Pompeo and other top CIA officials were “completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7. They were seeing blood,” the article quotes a former Trump national security official as saying.
Pompeo’s description of WikiLeaks as a “non-state, hostile intelligence service” was crafted to allow the agency to aggressively act against the organization as if it were a foreign intelligence agency, a Spy vs. Spy scenario, which some officials believed freed the CIA from a presidential directive and congressional oversight, Yahoo! reports.
Yahoo! tells us this approach was also taken because within the walls of CIA headquarters there was private doubt about whether WikiLeaks was really working for the Kremlin, though in public, officials told a different story.
“’There was a lot of legal debate on: Are they operating as a Russian agent?’ said the former official. ‘It wasn’t clear they were, so the question was, can it be reframed on them being a hostile entity.’”
Some Trump officials were alarmed enough to contact staffers at the congressional intelligence oversight committees about what was going on. Yahoo! reports that President Donald Trump asked about killing Assange.
“One of those officials said he was briefed on a spring 2017 meeting in which the president asked whether the CIA could assassinate Assange and provide him ‘options’ for how to do so.”
Trump denied to Yahoo! that he had discussed killing Assange, who he said was being “treated very badly.”
The plot to kill or abduct Assange never got off the ground because of the objections from White House lawyers and other Trump administration officials who alerted the House and Senate intelligence committees of Pompeo’s designs. “There were serious intel oversight concerns that were being raised through this escapade,” a Trump national security official is quoted as saying.
The piece says these extrajudicial plans spurred the eventual indictment against Assange:
“Some National Security Council officials worried that the CIA’s proposals to kidnap Assange would not only be illegal but also might jeopardize the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder. Concerned the CIA’s plans would derail a potential criminal case, the Justice Department expedited the drafting of charges against Assange to ensure that they were in place if he were brought to the United States.”
On Dec. 21, 2018, the Justice Department secretly charged Assange.
Perhaps the most important revelation is that the CIA also targeted WikiLeaks “associates” with possible assassination.
“U.S. spy agencies developed good intelligence on WikiLeaks associates’ “patterns of life,” particularly their travels within Europe, said a former national security official.
Proposals began percolating upward within the CIA and the NSC to undertake various disruptive activities — the core of ‘offensive counterintelligence’ — against WikiLeaks. These included paralyzing its digital infrastructure, disrupting its communications, provoking internal disputes within the organization by planting damaging information, and stealing WikiLeaks members’ electronic devices, according to three former officials. … agency executives requested and received “sketches” of plans for killing Assange and other Europe-based WikiLeaks members who had access to Vault 7 materials, said a former intelligence official.”
We also learned that Assange was so important to the CIA that updates on him were frequently included in Trump’s President’s Daily Brief. The CIA assembled a “group of analysts known unofficially as ‘the WikiLeaks team’ in its Office of Transnational Issues, with a mission to examine the organization, according to a former agency official.”
The article shows the lengths the CIA went to try to get around the First Amendment issues in Assange’s case.
“Still chafing at the limits in place, top intelligence officials lobbied the White House to redefine WikiLeaks — and some high-profile journalists — as ‘information brokers,’ which would have opened up the use of more investigative tools against them, potentially paving the way for their prosecution, according to former officials. It ‘was a step in the direction of showing a court, if we got that far, that we were dealing with agents of a foreign power,’ a former senior counterintelligence official said. …
‘Is WikiLeaks a journalistic outlet? Are Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald truly journalists?’ the former official said. ‘We tried to change the definition of them, and I preached this to the White House, and got rejected.’
The Obama administration’s policy was, ‘If there’s published works out there, doesn’t matter the venue, then we have to treat them as First-Amendment-protected individuals,’ the former senior counterintelligence official said.”
Trying to a smear serious journalists critiquing American power, like Assange, (and Greenwald and Poitras) as “agents of a foreign power” demonstrates that a vindictive U.S. government was exposed with clear evidence of committing war crimes, meddling in other nations’ internal affairs and spying on adversaries, allies and citizens alike and in response imprisoned and charged the journalist who revealed this wrongdoing.
The indictment of Assange is an attack on press freedom usually associated with the most aggressive totalitarian regimes, going to the core of how the West defines itself: as a democracy that upholds the right to criticize government, or authoritarianism that crushes dissent.
Why Didn’t the Assassination Happen?
In the end, the assassination discussions “went nowhere, said former officials,” Yahoo! reports.
“The idea of killing Assange ‘didn’t get serious traction,” said a former senior CIA official. “It was, this is a crazy thing that wastes our time.” Inside the White House, Pompeo’s impassioned arguments on WikiLeaks were making little headway. The director’s most aggressive proposals were “probably taken seriously” in Langley but not within the NSC, a former national security official said.
Even [then Attorney General Jeff] Sessions, Trump’s “very, very anti-Assange” attorney general, was opposed to CIA’s encroachment onto Justice Department territory, and believed that the WikiLeaks founder’s case was best handled through legal channels, said the former official.
The more aggressive the CIA’s proposals became, the more other U.S. officials worried about what the discovery process might reveal if Assange were to face trial in the United States. Eventually, those within the administration arguing for an approach based in the courts, rather than on espionage and covert action, won the policy debate.”
The Missing Context of CIA History
Consideration of the law won out in the end, but that the CIA seriously discussed assassinating or renditioning Assange should come as a surprise to no one as it neatly fits into the 74-year history of the Central Intelligence Agency. Many of these crimes were revealed in the Rockefeller Commission and the Senate’s Church Committee hearings and final report of 1975.