The House Intelligence Committee is seeking information about a Yahoo News report that CIA officials plotted to kidnap Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2017 after WikiLeaks published documents describing the spy agency’s hacking tools.
“We are seeking information about it now,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee chairman, in an interview on the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast.
Schiff added that, as the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel in 2017, he was never briefed about the CIA’s plans to target Assange. But he said the committee had reached out “to the agencies” — an apparent reference to the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) — after reading about the Yahoo News account describing deep divisions within the Trump administration, including objections from White House lawyers, over the CIA’s plans for unusually aggressive measures to cripple WikiLeaks that had been proposed by then agency Director Mike Pompeo.
Asked if he had received any response to the committee’s inquiry, Schiff replied: “I can’t comment on what we’ve heard back yet.” (Spokespeople for the CIA and ODNI declined comment.)
The disclosure by Schiff that the committee is pursuing information about the CIA’s measures targeting WikiLeaks comes the day after the ACLU and more than 20 other human rights and press freedom groups wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to drop the criminal prosecution of Assange in light of what they called “shocking” reporting by Yahoo News “on the government’s conduct in this case.”
It also comes on the eve of a critical hearing before a British appellate court in London next week over the U.S. Justice Department’s appeal of a lower court judge’s ruling rejecting its request to extradite Assange to the United States to face trial for publishing classified documents in violation of the World War I-era Espionage Act. The judge concluded that Assange, who is now in a British prison after spending years holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, would be at serious risk of suicide if he were incarcerated in an American prison.
But lawyers for Assange intend to raise the issue of what they view as the CIA’s misconduct, arguing that returning him to a country where some top officials once plotted to kidnap him strengthens the judge’s conclusions about the risk of suicide and should be an additional basis for turning down the U.S. extradition request.
The Yahoo News story, published on Sept. 26, disclosed that Pompeo, who had publicly labeled WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” pushed for highly aggressive measures to cripple the organization, including a so-called “snatch operation” that would abduct Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy. There were also discussions within the CIA about the feasibility of assassinating Assange, including tasking for options on how to do so, although those talks never materialized into an actual plan.
White House lawyers also managed to scuttle the kidnapping plan pushed by Pompeo, but other CIA operations went forward, including monitoring the communications and travel of WikiLeaks associates throughout Europe. That surveillance also covered Assange himself, including audio and visual feeds from inside the Ecuadorean Embassy showing the WikiLeaks founder talking to friends and associates. (Assange’s lawyers have claimed these included confidential conversations that Assange had with his lawyers and doctors.)
As Yahoo News reported, Pompeo and other top agency officials were enraged by WikiLeaks’ publication of information about the CIA’s hacking tools, known as Vault 7, deemed at the time to be the largest data breach in the spy agency’s history. “They were seeing blood,” said one former Trump national security official.
Pompeo, when recently asked about the Yahoo News report on the Megyn Kelly podcast, said that “pieces of it are true” and that all the sources who spoke to the news organization should be criminally prosecuted for disclosing classified information. But when pressed about the talk of assassinating Assange, Pompeo denied that the agency had engaged in any planning that would have violated U.S. law.
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