It has been revealed that the US spy agency drafted plans to assassinate the WikiLeaks founder in London. It has shot itself in the foot, says James Ball
Two years ago last month, Julian Assange completed his UK prison sentence, a 50-week term for breaching bail conditions incurred in 2012 when, facing extradition to Sweden over alleged sexual offences — although he claims it was to avoid US prosecution — he fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He stayed there for seven years.
Despite having served his time, Assange, 50, remains confined in Belmarsh prison in southeast London — where Sarah Everard’s killer, Wayne Couzens, has just been sent — as he awaits the outcome of extradition proceedings at the Court of Appeal. Having been refused bail as a flight risk he continues to be detained, despite no convictions for years.
Last week, however, both he and the world learned that he could have faced a worse fate, when Yahoo News revealed that under President Trump’s appointed CIA director, Mike Pompeo, the agency discussed a variety of plans to kidnap Assange and extract him from the embassy.
Under Mike Pompeo the CIA discussed plans to kidnap AssangeMANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
This was not even the most radical option the CIA considered. Another was to ambush him should he leave his sanctuary, despite the risk of “potential gun battles with Kremlin operatives on the streets of London”. US agents also feared he could be spirited away to Moscow and had apparently approached their British counterparts to shoot out the tyres of any Russian plane carrying Assange before it could take off, if so required.
Even the most extreme option, assassination, was reportedly not off the table, according to multiple sources, with one claiming to the reporting team of Zach Dorfman, Sean D Naylor and Michael Isikoff that Trump himself had asked about it.
With these plans, the CIA has finally lived down to Julian Assange’s longstanding low expectations of the agency. In 2010, WikiLeaks, led by Assange, published data supplied by Chelsea Manning that revealed the existence of US military death squads operating in Afghanistan, and shed unprecedented light on the activities of the US State Department around the world through more than 250,000 diplomatic cables. At the time, Assange and his colleagues — including me, as I worked with him for a period of months in 2010 — would often speculate as to how far the US state might go to prevent disclosures they didn’t like.
The reality at the time was fairly prosaic: despite many furious words in the media, the Obama administration appeared to accept arguments that because WikiLeaks was publishing alongside a consortium of international newspapers — including The New York Times and the Guardian — it would be virtually impossible to indict Assange without also indicting several of the world’s leading editors.
WikiLeaks published two troves of emails related to Hillary Clinton’s campaignJOE MCNALLY/PA
Clearly, between 2010 and 2017, something changed in the most drastic of ways. Assange himself played a big role in engineering that change — because WikiLeaks played a dramatic role in the 2016 US election. It was WikiLeaks that published two troves of emails related to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, containing off-the-record conversations between reporters and leading Democrats, disparaging remarks about her rival for the nomination, Bernie Sanders and his team, and financial information on thousands of donors.
These emails had been hacked by people acting on behalf of the Russian state and passed to WikiLeaks — though there is no suggestion that WikiLeaks knew the real source. They ensured “emails” and “Clinton” were fresh in the heads of voters shortly before the presidential election in 2016, and also moved the news agenda on from Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments.
Assange could argue the timing was not political — and instead just about generating maximum attention for the documents — but people would be right to treat that with a degree of suspicion.
Assange had always taken Clinton’s 2010 condemnation of the Manning leaks personally — but it was her job as secretary of state to respond to the leaks. He and those around him also clearly saw potential in Trump. The WikiLeaks Twitter account coordinated with Donald Trump Jr, including asking the Trumps to share WikiLeaks releases, and suggesting that Trump should reject the result if he lost the election and say it was rigged (an interesting look to the future). The exchange — via Twitter direct messages — was largely one-sided, but Trump Jr replied on at least three occasions.
Julian Assange helped establish Trump’s bizarre presidency SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Instead, Assange learned a fundamental rule of politics: don’t expect gratitude after doing a favour.
Assange does not cut the most sympathetic of figures and often makes his own problems. The CIA’s wild and dangerous overreaction came after an escalation from WikiLeaks itself: the site in 2017 started publishing code to make it easier for others to hack the CIA, which prompted planning for a retaliation.
Separately from his publishing activities, Assange had faced extradition to Sweden to answer allegations of rape and sexual assault made against him by two women. The case was not linked to a US extradition effort and would in reality have made one more difficult, as both the UK and Sweden would have had to consent.
Assange instead conflated the case with his work at WikiLeaks, argued that it was a front for a US extradition, and after exhausting his appeals, fled to the small flat that is the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he managed to father two children with Stella Moris, a 38-year-old South African lawyer. Over the course of his seven-year stay, Assange politically antagonised his hosts so much they eventually gave UK police the authority to enter the embassy and arrest him. In many ways, Assange was caught in a trap of his own making.
Stella Moris with her and Assange’s two sons, Max and GabrielAARON CHOWN/PA
And yet it is possible to believe and acknowledge all of the above and still see the actions of the CIA and broader US state as more dangerous, more stupid and more counterproductive to their own goals than anything Assange has ever done.
America’s motive in pursuing Assange would, we can assume, be to try to prevent future internal leaks and mass publications of the sort WikiLeaks pioneered — around which a broader journalistic ecosystem has since grown.
There might be some degree of painful irony in Assange being saved by the more traditional parts of the US security state. Just as the Washington “blob”, as the foreign-policy establishment is known, appears to rightly have noticed that most of the CIA plans against Assange were not only highly likely to be illegal but were often outright insane, the CIA should recognise that it has vindicated every criticism against it for a whole new generation.
The people who were inclined to listen to Assange’s message before will read the Yahoo report and swing back in his favour. Those who might have been alienated by his post-Manning leaks might once again give him a hearing. When the CIA plans assassinations against non-violent purveyors of information, there is not much people will believe it won’t do.
It is tempting to dismiss the whole farrago as an anomaly of the Trump White House — but the Biden administration is, so far, still aggressively pursuing Assange. The US is not seeking him for later leaks, or offering evidence he has gone beyond his role as a mere publisher; it is seeking to prosecute him over the Manning leaks, for which she has already served a long prison sentence. Biden has yet to offer any rationale as to why he disagrees with Obama’s conclusion on the publication, or why his administration is pursuing only Assange and no one else who published the documents.
That extradition must surely be further in question in the light of the revelations. Can the UK courts really say with a straight face that there is no political element to this prosecution? Can UK courts really accept assurances that America, should it get its hands on Assange, would really protect his safety and wellbeing as it tried him?
In their strange and interlocked years-long tussle, neither Assange nor the CIA has served their own interests well — but in a strange way, each has affected the other. Assange helped establish Trump’s bizarre presidency and the changes that it brought to the CIA. Meanwhile, the US security state has restored Assange’s image as a persecuted fighter for truth — and at the same time reestablished its own, old image as a doer of dirty deeds.