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Kidnapping, assassination and a London shoot-out: Inside the CIA's secret war plans against WikiLeaks

Zach Dorfman, Sean D. Naylor and Michael Isikoff
 
Part 1 - Some in the White House worried that the campaign against WikiLeaks would end up “weakening America”
 
In 2017, as Julian Assange began his fifth year holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, the CIA plotted to kidnap the WikiLeaks founder, spurring heated debate among Trump administration officials over the legality and practicality of such an operation.

Some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration even discussed killing Assange, going so far as to request “sketches” or “options” for how to assassinate him. Discussions over kidnapping or killing Assange occurred “at the highest levels” of the Trump administration, said a former senior counterintelligence official. “There seemed to be no boundaries.”

The conversations were part of an unprecedented CIA campaign directed against WikiLeaks and its founder. The agency’s multipronged plans also included extensive spying on WikiLeaks associates, sowing discord among the group’s members, and stealing their electronic devices.

While Assange had been on the radar of U.S. intelligence agencies for years, these plans for an all-out war against him were sparked by WikiLeaks’ ongoing publication of extraordinarily sensitive CIA hacking tools, known collectively as “Vault 7,” which the agency ultimately concluded represented “the largest data loss in CIA history.”

President Trump’s newly installed CIA director, Mike Pompeo, was seeking revenge on WikiLeaks and Assange, who had sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape allegations he denied. Pompeo and other top agency leaders “were completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7,” said a former Trump national security official. “They were seeing blood.” 

The CIA’s fury at WikiLeaks led Pompeo to publicly describe the group in 2017 as a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” More than just a provocative talking point, the designation opened the door for agency operatives to take far more aggressive actions, treating the organization as it does adversary spy services, former intelligence officials told Yahoo News. Within months, U.S. spies were monitoring the communications and movements of numerous WikiLeaks personnel, including audio and visual surveillance of Assange himself, according to former officials.

This Yahoo News investigation, based on conversations with more than 30 former U.S. officials — eight of whom described details of the CIA’s proposals to abduct Assange — reveals for the first time one of the most contentious intelligence debates of the Trump presidency and exposes new details about the U.S. government’s war on WikiLeaks. It was a campaign spearheaded by Pompeo that bent important legal strictures, potentially jeopardized the Justice Department’s work toward prosecuting Assange, and risked a damaging episode in the United Kingdom, the United States’ closest ally.

The CIA declined to comment. Pompeo did not respond to requests for comment.

“As an American citizen, I find it absolutely outrageous that our government would be contemplating kidnapping or assassinating somebody without any judicial process simply because he had published truthful information,” Barry Pollack, Assange’s U.S. lawyer, told Yahoo News.

Assange is now housed in a London prison as the courts there decide on a U.S. request to extradite the WikiLeaks founder on charges of attempting to help former U.S. Army analyst Chelsea Manning break into a classified computer network and conspiring to obtain and publish classified documents in violation of the Espionage Act.

“My hope and expectation is that the U.K. courts will consider this information and it will further bolster its decision not to extradite to the U.S.,” Pollack added.

There is no indication that the most extreme measures targeting Assange were ever approved, in part because of objections from White House lawyers, but the agency’s WikiLeaks proposals so worried some administration officials that they quietly reached out to staffers and members of Congress on the House and Senate intelligence committees to alert them to what Pompeo was suggesting. “There were serious intel oversight concerns that were being raised through this escapade,” said a Trump national security official.

Some National Security Council officials worried that the CIA’s proposals to kidnap Assange would not only be illegal but also might jeopardize the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder. Concerned the CIA’s plans would derail a potential criminal case, the Justice Department expedited the drafting of charges against Assange to ensure that they were in place if he were brought to the United States.

In late 2017, in the midst of the debate over kidnapping and other extreme measures, the agency’s plans were upended when U.S. officials picked up what they viewed as alarming reports that Russian intelligence operatives were preparing to sneak Assange out of the United Kingdom and spirit him away to Moscow.

The intelligence reporting about a possible breakout was viewed as credible at the highest levels of the U.S. government. At the time, Ecuadorian officials had begun efforts to grant Assange diplomatic status as part of a scheme to give him cover to leave the embassy and fly to Moscow to serve in the country’s Russian mission.

In response, the CIA and the White House began preparing for a number of scenarios to foil Assange’s Russian departure plans, according to three former officials. Those included potential gun battles with Kremlin operatives on the streets of London, crashing a car into a Russian diplomatic vehicle transporting Assange and then grabbing him, and shooting out the tires of a Russian plane carrying Assange before it could take off for Moscow. (U.S. officials asked their British counterparts to do the shooting if gunfire was required, and the British agreed, according to a former senior administration official.)

“We had all sorts of reasons to believe he was contemplating getting the hell out of there,” said the former senior administration official, adding that one report said Assange might try to escape the embassy hidden in a laundry cart. “It was going to be like a prison break movie.”

The intrigue over a potential Assange escape set off a wild scramble among rival spy services in London. American, British and Russian agencies, among others, stationed undercover operatives around the Ecuadorian Embassy. In the Russians’ case, it was to facilitate a breakout. For the U.S. and allied services, it was to block such an escape. “It was beyond comical,” said the former senior official. “It got to the point where every human being in a three-block radius was working for one of the intelligence services — whether they were street sweepers or police officers or security guards.”

White House officials briefed Trump and warned him that the matter could provoke an international incident — or worse. “We told him, this is going to get ugly,” said the former official.

As the debate over WikiLeaks intensified, some in the White House worried that the campaign against the organization would end up “weakening America,” as one Trump national security official put it, by lowering barriers that prevent the government from targeting mainstream journalists and news organizations, said former officials.

The fear at the National Security Council, the former official said, could be summed up as, “Where does this stop?”

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