Did the CIA under the Trump administration plan to kidnap and assassinate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during a shootout in London? That is one of the explosive findings in a new exposé by Yahoo News that details how the CIA considered abducting and possibly murdering Assange while he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden for rape allegations, charges that were dropped in 2017. More than 30 former officials say former CIA Director Mike Pompeo was apparently motivated to get even with WikiLeaks following its publication of sensitive CIA hacking tools, which the agency considered “the largest data loss in CIA history.” Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, lays out the plans and describes how the abduction plan “was one of the most contentious intelligence debates of the entire Trump era,” noting it ultimately spurred the Justice Department to fast-track its legal case against Assange. We also speak with Assange’s legal adviser Jennifer Robinson, who says the latest revelations should alarm American citizens, as well as journalists around the world. “This is the CIA talking about conspiracy to kidnap and murder an Australian citizen and an award-winning journalist and editor who has done nothing but publish truthful information.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Did the CIA, under President Trump, plan to kidnap and assassinate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during a shootout in London? That’s one of the explosive findings in a new exposé by Yahoo News. The report details how the CIA considered abducting, and possibly murdering, Assange while he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden, charges that were dropped in 2017 in Sweden.
More than 30 former officials described how then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo was apparently motivated to get even with WikiLeaks following its publication of sensitive CIA hacking tools, called “Vault 7,” which the agency considered “the largest data loss in CIA history.” One official said Pompeo and others, quote, “were completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7. They were seeing blood,” unquote.
For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by one of the three reporters on this story. Mike Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, where he’s also editor-at-large for reporting and investigations.
Michael Isikoff, welcome back to Democracy Now!
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be with you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is just an explosive story. Can you lay out your findings? You spoke with scores, your team, of people in intelligence. Lay out the scene, from before 2017 on.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right. This was one of the most contentious intelligence debates of the entire Trump era. And it really starts with that Vault 7 leak. As is well known, WikiLeaks had been on the radar screen of U.S. intelligence for years, going back to its publications in 2010 of the State Department cables, the Afghan War Logs and Iraq War Logs that had been provided by Chelsea Manning, and, of course, Assange’s role in publishing the Russian-purloined DNC emails and Podesta emails during the 2016 election. But what really set Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director, off was that Vault 7 leak. This was on his watch. This was his agency. And while Pompeo had been somewhat dismissive of the Russia allegations and Assange’s role in that, the Vault 7 leak focused his energies on getting back at WikiLeaks and Assange, at dismantling the organization.
I was in the room when Pompeo gave that speech in early April 2017 where he described for the first time WikiLeaks as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service.” I thought and assumed, like many, it was some kind of rhetorical talking point, a grabby line that Pompeo had came up with. In fact, that designation, internally, opened the door for the CIA to launch and plan all sorts of operations that didn’t require a presidential finding and didn’t — and wasn’t going to be briefed to Capitol Hill.
These were offensive counterintelligence activities. Pompeo — there’s abduction plans to — basically, a snatch operation to take Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy. There was talk of assassination, although, we want to be clear, that never was forwarded to the White House; that was internally within the CIA. The abduction plans were, as part of a much broader, multipronged CIA attack on WikiLeaks that included stealing computers, surveillance of WikiLeaks associates, sowing discord among its members.
And Trump White House lawyers raised concerns that Pompeo had gone further than was legally authorized. For one thing, at the time that the CIA was developing these plans, there was still no indictment by the Justice Department of Assange. So it raised the question: If you abducted him, rendered him, where would you take him? On what grounds could you hold him in custody without an indictment? This spurs the White House to get on the Justice Department’s back and try to get them to accelerate an indictment of Assange, which finally comes in late 2017.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, Michael, you talk about the differences between the Justice Department and the CIA on this. And also, clearly, as you mentioned, these were more on the lines of scenarios, because the plans never got a go-ahead, certainly not from the Trump White House, because Trump had been praising WikiLeaks for, in essence, helping him —
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — in his election campaign with their release of documents.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Absolutely. We all remember “I love WikiLeaks” from the 2016 campaign. And one note: I should point out that, in our piece, we got a statement from Trump, because we had a source who said that when Trump was finally briefed on this, he raised the question of “Can you assassinate Assange?” Trump, in a statement to Yahoo News just last week, that’s in the piece, denied that but then said something really interesting. He said, “Assange is being treated very badly.” He’s basically reverted to the 2016 position of “I love WikiLeaks,” expressing sympathy, no doubt, for what Assange did during the 2016 election.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to that famous comment of President Trump declaring how he loved Wikileaks.
DONALD TRUMP: This just came out. This just came out. WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks!
AMY GOODMAN: But then, we go back to 2017, when Mike Pompeo was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
MIKE POMPEO: [WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and] talks like a hostile intelligence service. It has encouraged his followers to find jobs at the CIA in order to obtain intelligence. It directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information. It overwhelmingly focuses on the United States, while seeking support from anti-democratic countries and organizations. It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a nonstate hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia.
AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange later responded to the allegation in an interview with Jeremy Scahill on his podcast, Intercepted.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Pompeo has stated that WikiLeaks instructed Chelsea Manning to go after certain information. That’s a interesting revelation. And then there is his statement that this, i.e. WikiLeaks and its publications, end now. So, how does he propose to conduct this ending? He didn’t say. But the CIA is only in the business of collecting information, kidnapping people and assassinating people. So, it’s quite a menacing statement that he does need to clarify.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Julian Assange, and he’s laying it out right there, if the CIA is in the business of assassinating or kidnapping people. And Pompeo started by saying, “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” the key part there.
So, I wanted to ask you about the scene you lay out, outside a place we have been to a number of times, interviewing Julian Assange, before he was in Belmarsh, the prison, where he is held right now awaiting extradition, a case — what the British government will determine, whether they’ll send him to the United States. We’ve interviewed him a number of times in the Ecuadorian Embassy. You describe the actual picture, the people. It’s right next to Harrods in London. But at one point, the number of intelligence agencies basically made up all of the people posing as whoever outside the embassy.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah. Everybody within a three-block radius, we were told, was likely working for one intelligence service or another. There is a sort of second phase of all this that’s — in which that comes up. And that is, later in — and I should point out, the abduction, rendition plans never got the approval from the Trump White House. Trump White House lawyers raised objections. They even raised went to the Hill, raised concerns about some of what Pompeo was up to. But some of what Pompeo was planning and the CIA was planning did go through. And that includes audio and visual surveillance of Assange from inside the Ecuadorian Embassy and monitoring of the communications and travels of Assange associates. So, aspects of the war on WikiLeaks that Pompeo was declaring did get implemented. And that’s confirmed for the first time — although there have been lots of allegations to this effect, this is confirmed for the first time in our piece.
But, later in 2017, the U.S. intelligence community gets information it views as credible that Russian operatives are on the ground in London preparing to spirit Assange out of the embassy and onto a plane and fly him to Moscow. And this, this is when things really get ramped up. The Trump White House, at the highest levels, get involved in planning and overseeing all sorts of plans and scenarios to thwart the feared Russian escape of Assange from the embassy. There were discussions about a potential gun battle on the streets of London. This was done in consultation with British authorities, who made it clear that if there was going to be any shooting, they would do it. There was also plans for stopping the Russian aircraft from taking off from the United Kingdom, plans to shoot the tires on the airplane, have helicopters stationed to hover over to prevent the airplane from taking off. There was a lot of wild Jason Bourne stuff going on to prevent what U.S. officials feared was going to be a Russian-assisted escape from the embassy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Michael, I’m just wondering — I mean, the revelations in your article are shocking, but they shouldn’t be surprising, given the history of the CIA, whether it’s Patrice Lumumba or the hunt for Che Guevara or — the CIA has always been in the business of these assassinations and renditions. But doesn’t it really lay to rest any doubt that what has been happening to Julian Assange all of these years, from the original Swedish charges, was really being engineered by the United States’s effort to get him as a result of the WikiLeaks disclosures?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, there are certainly lots of questions raised by all this. I mean, you know, whether the Swedish charges can be put on the CIA, I don’t have any information to back that up. But certainly, I think there’s going to be already sort of calls for an investigation into this, certainly questions for the CIA.
But also, I think most immediately, there’s this extradition case before the British courts and every indication that there are folks, including Assange’s legal team, that want to bring some of this to the attention of the British courts as grounds for blocking the extradition of Assange to a country, some of whose officials were talking about kidnapping and assassinating him not too many years ago. Whether that works or not, I don’t know. The British courts have a very narrow brief on this, and that is, the ruling by the British judge blocking the extradition was over the risk of suicide that Assange would face were he sent to prison. So, whether the appeal by the Merrick Garland-Joe Biden Justice Department of that adverse ruling can be expanded to include some of these allegations, we’re going to find out very soon.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about Jeff Sessions, who was the attorney general at the time —
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — to say the least, extremely anti-Julian Assange, but very opposed to the CIA, because he thought they would mess up the ability to extradite him, and compared it to Dan Ellsberg.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Sure. And listen, I mean, some of this is sort of institutional, bureaucratic, you know, turf protections. The Justice Department doesn’t want the intelligence agencies mucking around on their cases in ways that could jeopardize the prosecution.
And you mention Daniel Ellsberg. That’s interesting, because when I spoke to Barry Pollack, the U.S. lawyer for Assange, over the weekend, that’s one of the first things he raised, that this could be — if Assange is extradited and brought to an American courtroom, his American lawyers would raise government misconduct as grounds for dismissal. And, as Pollack pointed out, that’s — Daniel Ellsberg’s lawyers succeeded on that very grounds. Ellsberg was being prosecuted for leaking the Pentagon Papers. And then, when evidence came out about some of what the Nixon White House was planning and did — you know, in one case, breaking into his psychiatrist’s office — that was grounds for tossing the indictment.
Whether the Assange — you know, whether that parallel will work for Assange, we’ll have to wait and see. You know, clearly, some of these more extreme measures weren’t implemented, but some, including the surveillance of Assange from inside the embassy, when he may have been talking to his lawyers or doctors and other privileged — having other privileged conversations, that could factor in to a government misconduct motion.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to bring in one of Julian Assange’s legal advisers, Jen Robinson, but first have her respond to Al Jazeera English White House correspondent Kimberly Halkett questioning White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki Friday about the charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and why Biden is persisting.
KIMBERLY HALKETT: Why is President Biden keeping the Trump-era charges against Julian Assange? Why is he allowing the prosecution from publishing the truth about human rights abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo? And does the president believe the ongoing detention of Assange is reasonable, even moral, given the transparency delivered and the greater good served?
PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Well, I don’t have anything new to say on the — on Julian Assange, and I would point you to the Department of Justice on that. I would say, though, that we do think of ourselves, and we are approaching this from an entirely different approach of the last few years as it relates to freedom of the press. And I think the Department of Justice’s actions as it relates to the prosecution of journalists or how we’re going to look at or go after records, something that the attorney general made an announcement about, the president has spoken to, is very clear evidence of exactly that.
KIMBERLY HALKETT: Does the president see this as a freedom of press issue with respect to Assange? Or does he separate —
PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Again, I have nothing — I have nothing new to speak to on Julian Assange.
KIMBERLY HALKETT: This is something that I emailed you about months ago, so there’s been time to [inaudible].
PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: I understand. I understand. I still don’t —
KIMBERLY HALKETT: Is there something —
PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: I don’t have a new comment from here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Jen Psaki, the White House press spokesperson, responding to Al Jazeera English White House correspondent Kimberly Halkett.
Jen Robinson is with us from Australia, longtime legal adviser and human rights attorney for Julian Assange.
Can you talk about the new information that we are getting from Yahoo, this explosive information about the possibility of kidnapping or assassinating him, something Julian talked about himself, and what this means for his case right now as he sits in the Belmarsh maximum-security prison?
JENNIFER ROBINSON: Thanks, Amy.
Well, of course, the Yahoo revelations are incredibly important, and what a brilliant piece of journalism. But this is just the latest shocking revelation. This is the CIA talking about conspiracy to kidnap and murder an Australian citizen and an award-winning journalist and editor, who has done nothing but publish truthful information about the United States and about war crimes, human rights abuse and corruption the world over. Any American citizen and journalists and editors the world over ought to be very concerned about these revelations about the conduct of the FBI — sorry, the CIA and their proposals with respect to WikiLeaks.
Now, this was something that was warned back in 2017, as soon as Mike Pompeo made this announcement that WikiLeaks was going to be considered by the CIA as a hostile nonstate intelligence agency. We were very concerned — and, in fact, I warned immediately — that this would lay the groundwork for unprecedented and unlawful actions by the CIA against WikiLeaks. And that’s precisely what we’ve seen, and that’s precisely what Yahoo’s latest revelations show us.
But this is nothing new. We have put evidence before the extradition challenge in London of unlawful spying, by USIC level, inside the Ecuadorian Embassy on Julian, his doctors, on us as his lawyers. And there were, in fact, materials gathered, video materials of us having confidential conversations with our client, legally privileged material, which has been shared with U.S. intelligence agencies. Now, this is clearly unlawful activity and, as my U.S. co-counsel Barry Pollack has said, should be sufficient to close this down.
Now, if the Biden administration was legitimately changing its position on the First Amendment and the protection of journalists, there is a principled reason to close this investigation down because of the First Amendment consequences. But this is also evidence of unlawful conduct in the context of this investigation, which gives further ground for the Biden administration to close this down. And that’s precisely what they should do.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Jennifer Robinson, attorney advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and also Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. We’ll link to his piece, “Kidnapping, assassination and a London shoot-out: Inside the CIA’s secret war plans against WikiLeaks.”
Next up, we go to Chicago to find out why workers at El Milagro tortilla plants staged a temporary walkout. Stay with us.