Democracy, Digital Age, Human Rights, Information & Communication, Intelligence

Hacker, problem, stone in my shoe: why Ecuador turned on Assange

Apr 11 2019

Dan Collyns* – The Guardian

President Lenín Moreno made little secret of his desire to evict Assange from embassy building

Ecuador’s decision to allow police to arrest Julian Assange inside its embassy on Thursday follows a fraught and acrimonious period in which relations between the government in Quito and the WikiLeaks founder became increasingly hostile – and eventually broke down.

The country’s president, Lenín Moreno, had made little secret of his desire to evict Assange from the embassy building in Knightsbridge, west London, where he had lived since June 2012. Moreno has variously described Assange as a “hacker”, an “inherited problem” and a “stone in the shoe”.

In a video address on Thursday, Moreno expressed his frustration and irritation with Assange. “The patience of Ecuador has reached its limit on the behaviour of Mr Assange,” he said.

He accused Assange of breaching the “generous” asylum conditions offered by Ecuador and of meddling in the internal affairs of other states. Moreno claimed Assange had installed forbidden electronic equipment in the embassy, had mistreated guards, and “accessed the security files of our embassy without permission”.

The final straw came “two days ago”, Moreno suggested, when WikiLeaks directly “threatened the government of Ecuador”. On Tuesday Assange’s legal team gave a press conference in which they accused Quito of illegally spying on him.

In retrospect, Assange’s fate was sealed in 2017 when Moreno narrowly won Ecuador’s presidential election. Moreno’s leftist predecessor Rafael Correa had given Assange unconditional support and had offered him asylum. Correa argued that the WikiLeaks founder’s fear of persecution was legitimate and praised him for defending “freedom of expression”.

Moreno was the candidate for Correa’s Alianza Pais party . He might have been expected to support Assange too. In power, however, he rapidly distanced himself from his predecessor – apparently viewing Assange as a hangover from the Correa years and an impediment to better relations with the United States.

In a tweet on Thursday, Correa, now Moreno’s bitter enemy, described him as “the greatest traitor in Ecuador and Latin America’s history”.

In particular, Moreno took a dim view of WikiLeaks’ release of material that caused bilateral embarrassment. In 2016 WikiLeaks published emails hacked by Russia’s military intelligence spy agency, according to a 2018 indictment by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The emails were stolen from Hillary Clinton’s Democratic party.

Then in 2017, Assange tweeted in favour of Catalan independence – an action which annoyed the Spanish government, and caused difficulties for relations between Madrid and Quito. Assange also received prominent Catalan independence leaders at Ecuador’s London embassy.

In March 2018 Moreno restricted Assange’s access to the internet and insisted he abide by new conditions. Assange complained he had been cut off from visitors and the world.

Then near the end of last year, Ecuador laid out a stringent new set of house rules for Assange, warning the whistleblower to avoid online comments about political issues – and ordering him to clean his bathroom and take better care of his cat.

By spring of this year it appeared Moreno’s patience had finally run out and that his unhappiness with Assange had become personal. In radio interview earlier this month Moreno complained that “photos of my bedroom, what I eat and how my wife and daughters and friends dance” had been circulating on social media.

The Ecuadorean government said it believed the whistleblowing organisation had shared the photos, which date back several years to when Moreno and his family lived in Geneva. “We should ensure Mr Assange’s life is not at risk but he’s violated the agreement we have with him so many times,” Moreno said 10 days ago.

WikiLeaks tweeted last week that Moreno had said he would take a decision about Assange’s fate “in the short term” after it had reported on an “offshore corruption scandal wracking his government”.

Known in Ecuador as the Ina Papers, the scandal alleges Moreno corruptly benefitted from an offshore account in Panama. Moreno denies any wrongdoing.

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*Dan Collyns is a British multimedia journalist based in Lima, Peru. His written, radio and TV reports have been published and broadcast internationally.

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Annex:

Julian Assange charged by US with computer hacking conspiracy

 Jon Swaine  – The Guardian , New York

US justice department alleges that Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning to break into a secret Pentagon computer network

Julian Assange has been charged by the US with conspiring to hack into a secret Pentagon computer network, in a criminal indictment unveiled soon after the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest in London.

Assange is accused of working with Chelsea Manning, then a US army intelligence analyst, to break into the defense department network in March 2010 to obtain classified documents.

Julian Assange: US justice department says he faces five years in jail – live updates

Assange, 47, is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison if convicted.

US prosecutors allege Assange helped Manning crack an encrypted password to gain access to the computer network under a username that did not belong to her, making it more difficult for authorities to trace the source of leaked documents.

“Assange, who did not possess a security clearance or need to know, was not authorised to receive classified information of the United States,” they said.

Manning had by then given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of secret government records, including logs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She went on to give them a huge cache of secret diplomatic cables. Some of the files were published by WikiLeaks in partnership with news organisations including the Guardian.

The indictment cited online discussions between the two in which Assange was seen “actively encouraging Manning to provide more information”, the justice department said.

“After this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” Manning was said to have told Assange in one message. Assange allegedly replied: “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”

Assange was secretly indicted in March last year by a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, according to the documents released on Thursday. The charge remained a secret until it was partly revealed by the justice department in a mistaken court filing last November.

By charging Assange with hacking rather than for publishing classified information, US prosecutors avoided having to directly challenge the press freedoms guaranteed under the first amendment of the US constitution.

The charge accuses Assange of conspiring to “knowingly access a computer without authorisation” in order to obtain secret information whose release “could be used to the injury of the United States and the advantage of any foreign nation”.

But allies of Assange said the US was prosecuting a publisher by the back door.

Barry Pollack, an attorney for the WikiLeaks founder, condemned what he called “an unprecedented effort” to “extradite a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information”. Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, described Assange’s arrest as “a dark moment for press freedom”.

Barack Obama’s administration was known to have investigated WikiLeaks in the years following the release of Manning’s document haul. But Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general, reportedly decided against bringing charges out of concerns that a precedent could be set for prosecuting publishers.

The grand jury in Virginia has continued investigating Assange in recent months, indicating he may yet face additional criminal charges from the US. WikiLeaks has come under scrutiny for publishing leaked spying tools taken from the CIA, and for releasing emails hacked from the accounts of senior Democrats during the 2016 election campaign.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said in response to the charges that Assange had become “a direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the west” and should be punished.

The US confirmed it would seek the extradition of Assange from the UK. He was arrested on Thursday morning at the embassy of Ecuador, where he had been staying since 2012 after being granted asylum. He was then under investigation by authorities in Sweden for allegations of sexual assault, which he denied.

Attorneys for Assange said they would fight the extradition process, which could result in a lengthy legal dispute in the British courts system.

Manning was convicted in 2013 under the Espionage Act for stealing classified government records. In May 2017 she was released from a military prison in Kansas after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence. Barack Obama granted Manning clemency during his final days in office.

Manning has been jailed in Virginia for the past month after being found in contempt of court for refusing to testify to the grand jury investigating Assange. She was held in solitary confinement for part of that time.

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Related:

The Guardian view on Julian Assange: it would be wrong to extradite him

Editorial

The WikiLeaks founder has been in Ecuador’s embassy in London since 2012. Clear judgment will be required if he now leaves his self-imposed retreat

It is almost seven years since the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange skipped bail and sought refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy. Now there are signs that the Assange case may be nearing a turning point. The immediate cause is a change in Ecuador’s attitude. Over the years, Ecuador’s ardour in support of Mr Assange has cooled for a variety of reasons, including shifting politics. Two months ago relations went into the deep freeze after private pictures of President Lenín Moreno and his family began appearing online, followed by the publication of papers that appear to implicate Mr Moreno in corruption, perjury and money laundering, which he has denied. A week ago, the president said Mr Assange was violating his asylum conditions. This was followed by repeated rumours that he would soon be leaving the embassy.

These events have not occurred in a global vacuum. Things have become more threatening for Mr Assange since Donald Trump succeeded Barack Obama in the White House two years ago. Ecuador’s economy is facing recession and mounting debt. It has just been bailed out by the IMF, to which the US is the largest contributor. Mr Trump has recently received the still-to-be-published Mueller report, which examined allegations that WikiLeaks was involved in publishing emails obtained by Russian hackers during the 2016 election. Mr Trump is also currently cutting a swath through the management of the US homeland security department, demanding tougher regimes against Latin American migrants and cybercriminals. All of this adds up to a more confrontational US stance towards countries like Ecuador and dissidents like Mr Assange.

The relative leniency of the late Obama years has given way to a more punitive approach to civil rights. In one of his last presidential acts, Mr Obama commuted the prison sentence imposed on the WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Under Mr Trump, Ms Manning is again back in jail, serving an indeterminate sentence for refusing to give further evidence to a secret grand jury in a WikiLeaks investigation. She should be released immediately. Last November it became clear that Mr Assange has himself been charged in the US – though no details have yet appeared. The possibility that the US will try to have Mr Assange extradited is very real.

From first to last, the Assange case is a morally tangled web. He believes in publishing things that should not always be published – this has long been a difficult divide between the Guardian and him. But he has also shone a light on things that should never have been hidden. When he first entered the Ecuadorian embassy he was trying to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of rape and molestation. That was wrong. But those cases have now been closed. He still faces the English courts for skipping bail. If he leaves the embassy, and is arrested, he should answer for that, perhaps in ways that might result in deportation to his own country, Australia. Nothing about this is easy, least of all Mr Assange himself. But when the call comes from Washington, it requires a firm and principled no. It would neither be safe nor right for the UK to extradite Mr Assange to Mr Trump’s America.

 

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