CIA accused of illegally spying on Americans visiting Assange in embassy

Lawyers, journalists sue super-snoop agency and Spanish security biz

The CIA illegally spied on US citizens while they visited WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, a lawsuit filed today has claimed.

Assange, right now being held in a maximum-security British prison, is fighting extradition to America where he faces espionage charges for publishing a huge collection of leaked classified documents, primarily US embassy messages in a searchable format and footage of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A legal complaint [PDF], filed in New York City on behalf of four attorneys and journalists, accuses the spy agency of spying on the American citizens without their knowledge or consent in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights while they met Assange at the embassy. It seeks damages from the CIA, then-CIA boss Mike Pompeo who went on to become Trump's Secretary of State, a Spanish firm Undercover (UC) Global that provided security services for the embassy, and the biz's former CEO David Morales Guillen. 

Plaintiffs include civil rights activist and human-rights attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler, media lawyer Deborah Hrbek, and journalists Charles Glass and John Goetz. The plaintiffs are suing, according to their federal court documents, to "protect their fundamental constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States."  

Seemingly no one had heard of burner phones

During 2017 and 2018, the four American citizens and "hundreds of others" visited Assange who was, at the time, seeking political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK capital. Before meeting the WikiLeaks founder, visitors were required to hand over their smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices to UC Global employees.

Once they surrendered their electronics, UG Global, which the lawsuit alleges was acting under orders from then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, apparently copied information stored on the Americans' devices. According to the lawsuit:

The practices complained of violate the rights of well over 100 American citizens who visited Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, England during his sanctuary, including attorneys who were then representing him, journalists there to interview him, and even doctors who were then treating him, each of whom have a privileged and confidential connection to the asylee and other clients, sources and patients, some of whose confidential information was stored on their electronic devices.

Pompeo has also reportedly ignored a request from a Spanish court to testify for an investigation into claims the CIA and Trump administration plotted to assassinate Assange.

The scheme to snoop on Assange's visitors at the embassy got its start at a Las Vegas hotel, according to the lawsuit. And yes, it is portrayed as every bit the typical beginning of spy thriller movie as it sounds.

UC Global won a contract to provide security at Ecuador's London embassy starting in 2012, we're told. Part of the firm's duties included protecting Assange.

In 2017, according to court documents, UG Global's CEO, which the lawsuit refers to as Morales, attended a private-security industry conference called the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, or SHOT convention, at the Las Vegas Sands Hotel. While at the conference, Morales was allegedly recruited to spy on Assange and his visitors on behalf of the CIA:

Upon his return to Spain after the SHOT convention, defendant Morales announced to his employees that the company would now be operating "in the big league" and for the "dark side" with the CIA. "The Americans," Morales told his employees, would find them lucrative contracts around the world.

This deal included selling information obtained through the illegal espionage efforts, and had been "approved and authorized" by Pompeo, according to the lawsuit.

The CIA did not immediately respond to The Register's request for comment. ®

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