Lawyers and journalists sued the CIA and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo Monday for spying on them while they met Julian Assange when he was living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had political asylum. The lawsuit is being filed as Britain prepares to extradite the WikiLeaks founder to the United States, where he faces up to 175 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act by publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. We speak with the lead attorney in the case, Richard Roth, who details how a private security company stationed at the London Embassy sent images from Assange’s visitors’ cellphones and laptops as well as streamed video from inside meetings to American intelligence. He says the offenses breach a range of client privileges and could sway a U.S. judge to dismiss the case if Assange is successfully extradited.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The CIA and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo were sued Monday for spying on U.S. lawyers and journalists who met with Julian Assange while he was living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had political asylum. The lawsuit is being filed as Britain prepares to extradite the WikiLeaks founder to the United States, where he faces up to 175 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act by publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange spent nearly seven years inside the embassy, from 2012 ’til April 2019, when Metropolitan Police entered the embassy, arrested him, after Ecuador revoked his political asylum.
The lawsuit filed Monday accuses the Spanish security firm UC Global of spying on Assange and his visitors inside the embassy on behalf of the CIA. UC Global and the company’s director, David Morales, are also named as defendants in the new lawsuit, which comes less than a year after Yahoo News revealed the CIA considered abducting, and possibly assassinating, Assange while he was in the embassy.
On Monday, several plaintiffs in the lawsuit spoke during an online news conference. This is Deborah Hrbek. She’s a media lawyer who visited Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London several times to discuss sensitive legal matters.
DEBORAH HRBEK: On arrival, there was a strict protocol, for the protection of Julian, we were told. Passports, mobile phones, cameras, laptops, recording devices and other electronic equipment were turned over to the security guards in the lobby. We learned much later, through a criminal investigation under the supervision of a court in Spain, that while visitors like me were meeting with Julian in the embassy conference room, the guards next door were taking apart our phones, removing and photographing SIM cards and, we believe, downloading data from our electronic equipment. Their boss, David Morales from UC Global, who appears to have been recruited by the CIA through associates of Sheldon Adelson during a visit to a tech conference, was making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to New York, to Las Vegas, reportedly to hand over thumb drives and to receive further instructions from his U.S. government handlers.
In other words, during our meetings with Julian at the embassy, recordings of our confidential conversations and the contents of our electronic devices were being delivered into the hands of the United States government. I’m a New York lawyer. I have the right to assume that the U.S. government is not listening to my private and privileged conversations with my clients, and that information about other clients and cases I may have on my phone or laptop are secure from illegal government intrusion. This is not just a violation of our constitutional rights. This is an outrage.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s, again, the attorney Deborah Hrbek, who is a plaintiff in the new lawsuit against the CIA and the former CIA director, Mike Pompeo, for spying on her and other visitors when they met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
We’re joined now by Richard Roth, the lead attorney who filed the lawsuit on Monday.
Lay out the case, Richard.
RICHARD ROTH: Hi, Amy. Thank you for having me.
So, the case is very — it’s very simple and very troubling. Essentially, there are these individuals who work at the embassy who are just there to essentially monitor the traffic that comes in. What we learned was that — through a Spanish court proceeding, we learned that, in fact, UC Global went to a convention and presented at a convention, where Sheldon Adelson, as Deborah Hrbek said, essentially introduced them to — brought them in to the wings of the CIA to not only just monitor who comes to visit Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy, but to actually take their phones, their cellphone, their laptops, any kind of recording devices, and to image them while they were inside, because when they walked in, they had to leave them with the security company. We also learned that they were streaming, that they actually had streaming microphones and cameras inside the embassy for meetings with Julian Assange.
We learned this in the Spanish court proceeding. And there are witnesses who essentially were employees at UC Global, thinking that they were just doing their job, and learning from Morales that all of this was going back to, quote, “American intelligence.” It was going back to the Americans. It was going back to the “dark side.” And these individuals came forward and told, essentially, the Spanish court and others that they did not understand at the time that they were part of this enterprise that tape-recorded everything that Julian Assange did.
And what’s very troubling about it is not only is it a violation of the Fourth Amendment, your right to privacy, but you have lawyers, you have journalists, you have doctors who went to visit Julian Assange. And if doctors went in, there’s a doctor-patient privilege. There’s an attorney-client privilege. And so, not only did they literally listen in on the conversations, but any client of, for example, Deborah Hrbek’s who had information on her laptop — not even Assange’s — the U.S. government now has privy to. So, it’s very troubling. Deborah’s comment that it’s an outrage is square on point.
And so, what we’ve done is we’ve commenced an action to essentially let the world know and to seek damages for these plaintiffs, who are journalists, who are lawyers, who essentially went to the embassy, unbeknownst to them, had everything of theirs recorded and imaged, and purely, clearly a violation of the Fourth Amendment. So we’ve sued Morales, UC Global, we’ve sued the CIA, and we’ve sued Mike Pompeo for the outrageous conduct.
On top of that, Mike Pompeo, in his very first address when he became CIA director, let it be known he was going to go after Julian Assange. He called —
AMY GOODMAN: I want to actually play that.
RICHARD ROTH: — Julian Assange and WikiLeaks —
AMY GOODMAN: Richard —
RICHARD ROTH: — a nonstate hostile intelligence agency. And he called Julian a fraud. And there’s plenty of evidence, more which we will get through discovery, that essentially will lead one to conclude that the CIA went in, took UC Global and put it under its wing to allow it to record and listen to everything that Julian Assange was saying.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard, I want to go to that clip of then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo in 2017 talking about WikiLeaks in his first address as CIA director in the Trump administration.
MIKE POMPEO: WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service. It has encouraged its 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 Pompeo’s allegation in an interview with journalist Jeremy Scahill on the 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: And again, Richard Roth, Yahoo News last year revealed that the CIA did consider abducting, and possibly assassinating, Julian Assange while he was in political asylum in the embassy. Your comments on this? And, of course, Pompeo could be a presidential candidate in the next presidential election.
RICHARD ROTH: Yeah, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks is a publication. It gets information from sources and publishes it, no different than The New York Times, no different than any newscaster. It does nothing more. There is an indictment alleging more. Certainly the government will have to prove it. But the bottom line is that, thus far, all we’ve seen is publication. It’s no different than the Pentagon Papers, that The New York Times actually published.
So, they are — there is a very clear purpose for the news, and that is if information comes in its possession, and it doesn’t matter which news source, whether it’s Fox or whether it’s CNN, then it has — not only is it right, but it has an obligation to tell the world that this is what I have. There’s no evidence — and we’ll certainly see, if he’s extradited, at this trial — that, actually — that WikiLeaks was actually involved in the hacking of any computers by the NSA. Chelsea Manning is a different story. But if Chelsea Manning gives information to The New York Times, you can bet your bottom dollar The New York Times is going to publish that, because that is its obligation. And that’s all WikiLeaks is.
Why Mike Pompeo went ahead and went so far, so extreme to essentially label WikiLeaks as a hostile nonstate intelligence service is just remarkable. And then what he did was they went ahead, and using a UC Global, they actually went in, and they are the ones that wrongfully took information. There’s a real irony here. While WikiLeaks is being charged of wrongfully taking information, it’s the CIA that wrongfully took information, not only of Assange but of U.S. citizens, of Ms. Hrbek, Margaret Kunstler and other plaintiffs. So, there’s a real irony here that what they’re being accused of is what the CIA was doing, which is very, very troubling.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, many journalists. I wanted to go back to 2014. In a Democracy Now! exclusive, we went inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London to interview WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as he had just entered his third year of political asylum.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Julian Assange took refuge two years ago. He’s been detained in Britain for close now to four years.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Julian.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you doing here? It’s been over two years that you have really not seen daylight for any extended period of time.
JULIAN ASSANGE: There’s been nearly four years that I’ve been detained without charge, in one form or another, here in the United Kingdom, first in prison, the solitary confinement, then under house arrest for about 18 months, and now two years here in the embassy. The Ecuadorian government gave me political asylum in relation to the ongoing national security investigation by the DOJ, the Department of Justice, in the United States into our publications and also into sourcing efforts. So, did I enter into a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced last year to 35 years in prison?
So, the question as to how I’m doing, of course, personally, it’s a difficult situation, in a variety of ways. I would say that when someone’s in this position, what you are most concerned about is the interruption in your family relationships. So, because of the security situation, that’s made it very hard for my children and my parents.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Julian Assange when we interviewed him. And people can go to democracynow.org to see all the interviews we did with Julian Assange in London. But the significance of now him being held for — that was 2014. He had been held for four years, so we’re 12 years now in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison, where Britain is preparing to extradite him to face espionage charges in the United States. What role do you see your lawsuit playing in the possibility of stopping this extradition?
RICHARD ROTH: So, it’s a great question. And let’s just talk for a second about the fact that he’s in a maximum-security prison. A maximum-security prison for a publisher. That, in and of itself, is an outrage.
But the role is the following. If in fact we can prove that the CIA was listening to and taking information — and that includes Julian Assange’s lawyers, criminal lawyers, in the actual extradition proceeding, and in the proceeding which presumably will be tried in the Northern District of Virginia, when, in fact, he — if in fact he is extradited, and if in fact he’s tried. So, think about it. The CIA, years before he’s even tried in Virginia, has tape recordings of the conversations Julian Assange had with his lawyers. We think that that information is so outrageous that if, in fact, we prove our case, when we go to the Virginia court, there could be a federal court judge in Virginia that looks at the CIA’s conduct and says, “I can’t — there’s not a chance I will let you try this case, in light of the fact that you’re the ones that spied on him. You have all his information.”
And the goal with that lawsuit, independent of this one, is to have that lawsuit thrown out, to let the man — let the publisher publish. That’s all we’re asking, is let the publisher publish. I am not a lawyer in that case. I know the lawyer in that case. He’s a highly qualified Washington, D.C., criminal lawyer. But that’s what they’re going to — that’s the goal there. The goal there is to just let the publisher publish. That’s all it is.
And the irony is, yesterday Rand Paul said that the Espionage Act, for which Julian has been essentially indicted, should be repealed. So, on the one hand, you have a major Republican senator saying we should repeal the Espionage Act, and on the other hand, we have a full-court press on Julian to get him convicted for dozens and dozens of years under that same Espionage Act.
AMY GOODMAN: And what further information are you getting from UC Global in terms of the Spanish court case, and its connection to Sheldon Adelson, the late casino magnate, where they apparently met in Las Vegas at a tech conference?
RICHARD ROTH: Correct. They met at a conference called a SHOT conference, S-H-O-T. And what we’ve learned is that’s when Adelson actually introduced Morales to the CIA.
And what we’re getting from the Spanish courts — even though it is technically sealed, there is information coming out. And what we’re getting from the courts is that people that worked at UC Global did not really — that was not the job they took. Their job was to allow people to come in and out of the embassy in a structured manner. And all of a sudden they find out that the tape recordings are going on, and they’re adding recordings here, and they’re adding devices there, and they’re returning it to America. And they’re learning from Morales that this information is going to, quote, “the Americans.” It’s going to, quote, “American intelligence.” Why would information, A, be taped and go to American intelligence?
So, that’s all information that we currently have. We intend on getting a lot more from UC Global. We obviously just started the lawsuit yesterday, so there’s a process that has to take place. We certainly expect resistance on many parts, including Pompeo. But that’s the information that we intend on getting from these UC Global employees, who are going to tell as that they were directed to engage in this conduct and provide it to the Central Intelligence Agency. It’s nothing short of outrageous.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re also alleging that there was an official Ecuadorian rep, Gabriela Paiz, who was bribed with $20,000 in cash a month, according to the Spanish lawsuit?
RICHARD ROTH: That’s correct. That’s correct. The money was being paid to numerous people to allow for this intelligence to take place. It’s obvious that the purpose of putting someone seeking asylum and going in an embassy is essentially to shield them from the law, which was essentially the case for the first four years. But what happened was, not only was he — he was shielded, I guess, physically. But what happened was that whole process reversed when Pompeo became CIA — the head of the CIA, to essentially get from Assange and all the people that had come in there all the information that really should have been confidential. So, we will — we intend on taking depositions. We intend on getting documents. The Spanish proceeding is a little difficult to get information from, because it is sealed. But even the Spanish court has subpoenaed Mike Pompeo to testify.
AMY GOODMAN: And Mike Pompeo is being sued —
RICHARD ROTH: So, the sharks are circling.
AMY GOODMAN: — as a private citizen in your case, as well as the CIA?
RICHARD ROTH: That’s correct. That’s absolutely correct.
AMY GOODMAN: For damages? And has he responded?
RICHARD ROTH: No, he has not responded yet. We just filed it. We will serve it. We don’t know what kind of response we’re going to get. We do know that he’s — that Pompeo — my understanding is that he’s been hesitant and has not been forthright with the subpoena in the Spanish courts. I don’t know if he’ll be forthright or — and will probably have the same hesitancy in New York, but we shall see.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Richard Roth, lead attorney representing the lawyers and journalists who have filed a new lawsuit over CIA surveillance of their meetings with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange while he was in political exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He has been jailed now for over 12 years, now at the Belmarsh maximum-security prison, as Britain weighs extraditing him to the United States.
Next up, we look at the growing calls for longtime political prisoner Mutulu Shakur to be granted compassionate release. Stay with us.