Assange lawyer urges British court to review Yahoo News story on CIA plans targeting WikiLeaks founder

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Accusing the CIA of having an “obsession for vengeance” against Julian Assange, a lawyer for the WikiLeaks founder urged a British court on Thursday to conduct an independent investigation into the agency’s aggressive measures targeting his client, including an aborted 2017 plot to abduct him from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London that was detailed in a recent report by Yahoo News.

“This is a case of credible evidence of U.S. government plans developed at some length to do serious harm to Mr. Assange,” said Mark Summers, a lawyer for Assange. He spoke on the second day of a two-day hearing before a British appeals court on whether the WikiLeaks founder should be extradited to the United States to face trial for publishing classified documents in violation of the World War I-era Espionage Act.

Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at court in London on May 1, 2019, to be sentenced for bail violation. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. government officials have consistently declined to comment on the recent Yahoo News story detailing a CIA plan to abduct Assange — as well as internal discussions within the Trump administration and the agency about the feasibility of assassinating him — after WikiLeaks published documents describing the spy agency’s highly sensitive “Vault 7” documents on how it conducts offensive cyber operations against U.S. adversaries.

But Summers, after reading at length from the Yahoo News story, noted that then-CIA Director and future Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who pushed the agency to develop the plans targeting Assange — has publicly said that “pieces of it are true.” (Pompeo, in a recent podcast interview, also said that more than 30 former U.S. officials who spoke to Yahoo News should be criminally prosecuted for disclosing classified information.)

Summers added that “there is going to have to be some assessment” of the reports about the CIA’s conduct as well as apparently related evidence developed by a Spanish judicial investigation into a security company that allegedly helped the CIA spy on Assange. He argued that the Yahoo News story and the Spanish probe buttress allegations that the CIA “plotted assassination, kidnapping and poisoning” of Assange.

It remains unclear whether the British court will ask Biden administration officials to address the reports of the CIA’s conduct, almost all of which took place during the early years of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Pompeo served as the agency’s director. And James Lewis, the British barrister representing the U.S. government in the case, did not address any of the assertions about the CIA made by Summers.

Mike Pompeo
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

One of the three British judges said it would not be surprising if, given Assange’s history, the CIA was “intensely interested” in him. But that prompted Summers to respond that the CIA’s conduct went well beyond maintaining an interest in the WikiLeaks founder. Pointing to the Yahoo News account, Summers said: “I invite my lords to read it in due course to get a proper understanding of what lengths the CIA has been prepared to go to in relation to Mr. Assange.”

Technically, the issue before the court is a ruling earlier this year by a lower-court judge, Vanessa Baraitser, denying the U.S. request to extradite Assange on the grounds that sending him to the United States to face trial would put him at serious risk of suicide. Although Assange was indicted by the Justice Department under Trump, the Biden administration — despite criticism from some civil liberties and press freedom groups — has continued the case and appealed Baraitser’s denial to the British High Court.

On Wednesday, during the first day of the High Court hearing, another of Assange’s lawyers argued that the risk of suicide is real given that Assange suffers from an Asperger's-like mental disorder and would likely be held under harsh prison conditions in the United States that would include solitary confinement.

But Lewis, the lawyer for the U.S. government, argued that that risk has been seriously reduced in light of recent assurances provided by U.S. officials, including an affidavit by the chief U.S. prosecutor in the case, Gordon Kromberg, that Assange will not be subjected to some of those harsh conditions, known as “special administrative measures” (or SAMs), nor will he be sentenced, if convicted, to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons maximum security facility in Florence, Colo. Instead, Kromberg wrote, Assange will be permitted to request a transfer that would allow him to serve out his sentence in a prison in his native Australia.

Supporters of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange
Assange supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Lewis contended that these assurances undercut the basis for Baraitser’s denial of the U.S. extradition request, stressing that the U.S. assurances can be relied on by the court. “The United States has never broken a diplomatic assurance — ever,” he said.

But Summers argued that there were plenty of holes in Kromberg’s affidavits to the British court detailing those assurances. For openers, he contended that once Assange is sent to the U.S., he will be held under restrictive conditions in an Alexandria, Va., jail while awaiting trial — a period that Summers contended could drag on for years, given the extensive pretrial motions and discovery that are likely to take place in the case. He also noted that even Kromberg acknowledged that Assange could still be subjected to special administrative measures upon the recommendation of the attorney general if the FBI or members of the U.S. intelligence community determine he is engaging in conduct that endangers national security, such as continuing to disclose classified documents still in possession of WikiLeaks. That makes the disclosures about the CIA’s conduct relevant and deserving of investigation, Summers argued.

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