Exclusive: Security reports reveal how Assange turned an embassy into a command post for election meddling
By Marshall Cohen, Kay Guerrero and Arturo Torres, CNN
Updated 3:31 PM ET, Mon July 15, 2019
Atlanta (CNN)New documents obtained exclusively by CNN reveal that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange received in-person deliveries, potentially of hacked materials related to the 2016 US election, during a series of suspicious meetings at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
The documents build on the possibility, raised by special counsel Robert Mueller in his report on Russian meddling, that couriers brought hacked files to Assange at the embassy.
The surveillance reports also describe how Assange turned the embassy into a command center and orchestrated a series of damaging disclosures that rocked the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States.
Despite being confined to the embassy while seeking safe passage to Ecuador, Assange met with Russians and world-class hackers at critical moments, frequently for hours at a time. He also acquired powerful new computing and network hardware to facilitate data transfers just weeks before WikiLeaks received hacked materials from Russian operatives.
These stunning details come from hundreds of surveillance reports compiled for the Ecuadorian government by UC Global, a private Spanish security company, and obtained by CNN. They chronicle Assange’s movements and provide an unprecedented window into his life at the embassy. They also add a new dimension to the Mueller report, which cataloged how WikiLeaks helped the Russians undermine the US election.
An Ecuadorian intelligence official told CNN that the surveillance reports are authentic.
The security logs noted that Assange personally managed some of the releases “directly from the embassy” where he lived for nearly seven years. After the election, the private security company prepared an assessment of Assange’s allegiances. That report, which included open-source information, concluded there was “no doubt that there is evidence” that Assange had ties to Russian intelligence agencies.
UC Global did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Assange, a native of Australia, has always denied working for the Kremlin and has insisted that the source of the leaks “is not the Russian government and it is not a state party.” He also said he would have published damaging information about then-candidate Donald Trump if he had received it.
The US announced criminal charges against Assange earlier this year for his role in the 2010 leaks of secret diplomatic cables and Pentagon war logs, which WikiLeaks got from then-US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. British police yanked Assange from the embassy in April. He is now serving a one-year prison term in London for skipping bail in the UK, while aggressively fighting extradition to the US.
WikiLeaks did not respond to requests for comment. Assange’s lawyers declined to comment. Assange maintains his innocence and WikiLeaks says the charges are “the worst attack on press freedom in our lifetime.”
The surveillance reports of Julian Assange’s activities inside the Ecuadorian Embassy add a new dimension to the Mueller report, which cataloged how WikiLeaks helped the Russians undermine the US election. The documents build on the possibility, raised by Mueller, that couriers brought hacked files to Assange at the embassy.
A guest with privileges
Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in June 2012 to apply for political asylum and avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced sexual assault allegations, which he denies.
The decision to offer Assange asylum was made by then-Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who claimed he was protecting Assange from “political persecution.” The asylum also served two larger purposes: It heightened Ecuador’s status on the world stage and brandished Correa’s credentials as a leading US antagonist in Latin America.
Initially the diplomats hoped to take Assange swiftly to Ecuador. But that plan stalled amid British refusals to allow Assange safe passage outside the embassy. So he settled in for a protracted stay.
Though confined to a few rooms inside the embassy, Assange was able to wield enormous authority over his situation. From the outset he demanded (and was granted) high-speed internet connectivity, phone service and regular access to professional visitors and personal guests. This arrangement enabled him to keep WikiLeaks active, the documents said.
Assange also issued a special list of people who were able to enter the embassy without showing identification or being searched by security. He was even granted the power to delete names from the visitor logs. To avoid surveillance cameras, Assange occasionally met guests inside the women’s bathroom, according to the security reports.
This all leaves open the possibility that additional sensitive meetings took place but are still secret.
Quickly, the once-mundane diplomatic mission in the heart of London became a hotbed of tension and suspicion. Throughout Assange’s stay at the embassy, Ecuador employed three security companies to conduct constant surveillance. Assange installed his own recording devices and used noise machines to stymie the snooping, according to the documents obtained by CNN.
Assange also maintained direct contact with senior officials in Ecuador, including former Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, and regularly used those connections to threaten embassy staff, according to the surveillance documents and two Ecuadorian government sources who spoke to CNN. He claimed he could get people fired, even the sitting ambassador.
Assange’s authority appeared at times to rival that of the ambassador. In December 2013, Ambassador Juan Falconí wrote a letter to Assange and said that “you cannot give instructions contrary to mine.”
CNN reached out to the four ambassadors who overlapped with Assange’s time at the embassy. Only Falconí would comment, saying the Ecuadorian government had never pressured him to give Assange special treatment and that he had established rules for Assange to follow.
Several current and former Ecuadorian government officials, including Correa and Patiño, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. While Correa was in office, he responded to criticism over harboring Assange by doubling down on the asylum offer and holding Assange up as a symbol of Ecuador’s commitment to freedom of the press.
Referring to Assange, Correa pointed out that “the icon of freedom of expression chooses to take refuge in the embassy of Ecuador,” in a 2012 interview with RT en Español, a Spanish-language network controlled by the Kremlin. The Russian government operates television networks around the world to spread propaganda, and it reaches American audiences on its flagship English-language station, RT.
Despite the years of strife, Assange was allowed to stay and prepared to wield his power when the moment was right. That moment came in summer 2016, a pivotal time in the US presidential campaign.
Russia comes knocking
By June, Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had emerged as the de facto nominees of their parties and were gearing up for what would be a bruising general election. The campaign took a historic turn on June 14, when the Democratic National Committee announced that it had been hacked and blamed Russia — which Trump dismissed as a farce.
Assange was busy back at the embassy. That month, members of the security team worked overtime to handle at least 75 visits to Assange, nearly double the monthly average of visits logged by the security company that year. He met Russian citizens and a hacker later flagged in the Mueller report as a potential courier for emails stolen from the Democrats.
- Summer 2016: The releases begin
- JUNE 14, 2016
- Democratic National Committee announces it’s been hacked and blames Russia.
- JUNE 19, 2016
- Assange asks the Ecuadorian embassy to beef up his Internet connection.
- Embassy staff give Assange technical support “for data transmission,” according to the surveillance reports, and help install new equipment.
- JULY 6, 2016
- WikiLeaks asks Russian hackers for materials about Clinton “because the (Democratic National Convention) is approaching and she will solidify bernie (Sanders) supporters behind her after.”
- JULY 14, 2016
- Russian hackers send encrypted files to WikiLeaks, titled “big archive.”
- Assange meets for hours with German hackers Andrew Müller-Maguhn and Bernd Fix.
- JULY 18, 2016
- Republican National Convention kicks off in Cleveland.
- At the embassy, an Ecuadorian security guard abandons his post to receive a package outside the embassy from a man in disguise.
- WikiLeaks tells the Russian hackers they got the files.
- JULY 22, 2016
- WikiLeaks releases more than 20,000 internal files from the Democratic National Committee.
Sources: Surveillance logs obtained by CNN and the Mueller report.
Also in June, WikiLeaks secretly communicated with Russian hackers and Assange publicly announced plans to release new material about Clinton. The Mueller report says the Russian hackers obscured their identities by using online personas for all their communications with WikiLeaks, which included emails and direct messages to WikiLeaks’ account on Twitter.
Assange took at least seven meetings that month with Russians and others with Kremlin ties, according to the visitor logs.
Two encounters were with a Russian national named Yana Maximova, who could not be reached for comment. Almost nothing is known about Maximova, making it difficult to discern why she visited the embassy at key moments in June 2016. During her two visits that month, she met with Assange in the middle of the day in the embassy’s conference room.
Assange also had five meetings that month with senior staffers from RT, the Kremlin-controlled news organization.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that RT had “actively collaborated with WikiLeaks” in the past and played a significant role in Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 election and help Trump win. For several months in 2012, Assange hosted a television show on RT.
In June 2016, RT’s London bureau chief, Nikolay Bogachikhin, visited Assange twice, and gave him a USB drive on one occasion, according to the surveillance reports. That five-minute visit was hastily arranged and required last-minute approval from the Ecuadorian ambassador.
Nikolay Bogachikhin, London bureau chief for the Kremlin-controlled news outlet RT, visited Julian Assange at the embassy twice in June 2016, according to visitor logs obtained by CNN.
In an email to CNN, Bogachikhin said, “RT has produced multiple programming featuring Mr. Assange. Within that process, everything that is intrinsically involved in the production of content took place.”
The RT bureau chief previously mocked reports about his visits with Assange, jokingly tweeting that he gave the WikiLeaks founder “a whole bag of Novichok,” the chemical weapon used last year to poison a traitorous ex-Russian spy who lives in the UK. Since Bogachikhin’s post last year, he has remained silent on Twitter.
Shortly after WikiLeaks established contact with the Russian online personas, Assange asked his hosts to beef up his internet connection. The embassy granted his request on June 19, providing him with technical support “for data transmission” and helping install new equipment, the documents said.
This was the same day Assange and his lawyers met with then-Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Guillaume Long, according to the surveillance reports. Long declined to comment for this story.
It’s unclear whether Assange told the Ecuadorians that WikiLeaks was working behind the scenes to acquire documents related to the US election. The US government has never publicly accused Ecuador of knowingly helping Assange or the Kremlin.
Creating chaos from the embassy
As the election approached, security officials at the embassy noted that Assange released some of the hacked emails “directly from the embassy,” according to the surveillance documents. The Mueller report explicitly referenced that “Assange had access to the internet from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, England.” The rest of that paragraph is heavily redacted.
It’s unclear whether Mueller ever obtained these surveillance reports as part of his investigation.
Mueller concluded that hackers from Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, attacked Democratic targets in spring 2016 and removed hundreds of gigabytes of information. They created online personas — Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks — to transfer some of the files to WikiLeaks and publicly claim responsibility for the hacks, falsely disavowing any Russian ties.
Mueller’s team noted that it “cannot rule out that stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries who visited during the summer of 2016.” Assange has said a small group of associates helped him from the outside, but only to sift through the emails.
The special counsel named one of those associates, German hacker Andrew Müller-Maguhn, and said he “may have assisted with the transfer of these stolen documents to WikiLeaks.” The Mueller report appears to contain additional details about this possibility, but those portions were redacted because they contain classified information about sensitive investigative techniques.
Assange has known Müller-Maguhn for years. The hacker even showed up as a featured guest on Assange’s short-lived television show on RT in 2012, discussing the future of the internet and digital privacy. Müller-Maguhn is also involved in mainstream technology groups, and served on the board of ICANN, the international organization that governs internet domains.
When contacted by CNN, Müller-Maguhn declined to comment about his meetings with Assange. He previously told The Washington Post that he was never in possession of the hacked materials before they were posted online.
Julian Assange meets with German hacker Andrew Müller-Maguhn at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The hacker visited Assange at least 12 times before the 2016 election. The special counsel report on Russian meddling named Müller-Maguhn as a potential courier of hacked emails to Assange.
According to the surveillance reports, Müller-Maguhn visited Assange at the London embassy at least 12 times before the 2016 election. During a few of those meetings, Müller-Maguhn was accompanied by another well-known German hacker, Bernd Fix, the reports said. CNN was unable to reach Fix for comment.
The Mueller report says that on July 6, WikiLeaks reached out to the Russian online personas with a request to send anything “hillary related” as soon as possible, “because the (Democratic National Convention) is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after,” referring to her opponent in the Democratic primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The trio of hackers — Assange, Müller-Maguhn and Fix — then gathered on July 14 for more than four hours on, according to the security logs. The special counsel’s report indicates that on this date, Russian hackers posing as Guccifer 2.0 sent encrypted files to WikiLeaks, with the title “big archive.”
Days later, on July 18, while the Republican National Convention kicked off in Cleveland, an embassy security guard broke protocol by abandoning his post to receive a package outside the embassy from a man in disguise. The man covered his face with a mask and sunglasses and was wearing a backpack, according to surveillance images obtained by CNN.
An Ecuadorian security guard, who abandoned his post, receives a package outside the embassy from a man in disguise on July 18, 2016. The man covered his face with a mask and sunglasses and was wearing a backpack.
The security company saw this unfold on surveillance footage and recommended that the guard be replaced. But the Ecuadorian government kept him on the job.
On that same day, according to the Mueller report, WikiLeaks informed the Russian hackers that it had received the files and was preparing to release them soon. It’s not clear if these incidents are related, and the contents of the package delivered to the embassy are unknown.
WikiLeaks released more than 20,000 files from the Democratic National Committee on July 22, and the emails exposed how top officials preferred Clinton and tried to undermine Sanders. The party’s convention days later in Philadelphia dissolved into a chaotic mess. A week that had been designed to engineer party unity transformed into a near-mutiny and the DNC chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, was forced to resign.
As Democrats tried to manage the fallout, Trump quickly upped the ante.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said on July 27, referring to Clinton’s private server. Mueller said the Russians were listening after all, and tried for the first time to hack Clinton’s office within hours of Trump’s comment.
‘You won’t be disappointed’
While Trump and Clinton crisscrossed the country in the final weeks of the campaign, the Russians ramped up their efforts, and Assange was toiling away on another major project.
Russian hackers, posing as DCLeaks, had reached out again to WikiLeaks and offered more materials, writing that “you won’t be disappointed, I promise,” according to the Mueller report. They later transmitted 50,000 emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s inbox.
The special counsel report pinpoints a potential date for the data transfer: September 19. On that day, Assange met again with Müller-Maguhn and the security guards observed Assange installing new computer cables in his room, according to the documents obtained by CNN.
WikiLeaks started releasing Podesta’s emails on October 7 and released new batches nearly every day before the November election. The media covered all the embarrassing details, including transcripts of Clinton’s closed-door Wall Street speeches, sniping from staffers about her “terrible” instincts and frustrationsabout overlap between business and charity, which they dubbed “Bill Clinton Inc.”
- Fall 2016: Chaos at the embassy
- SEPTEMBER 15, 2016
- Russian hackers reach out to WikiLeaks with questions about how to submit more materials.
- They said, “I’ve got something that might interest you. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.”
- SEPTEMBER 22, 2016
- Russian hackers send encrypted message to WikiLeaks with subject line, “submission.”
- OCTOBER 7, 2016
- WikiLeaks begins releasing 50,000 hacked emails belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. (They released batches of new messages nearly every day until the election.)
- The US government publicly blames Russia for hacking the DNC and meddling in the election.
- WITHIN DAYS
- The US warns Ecuador: Stop Assange or face the consequences.
- OCTOBER 15, 2016
- The embassy cuts off Assange’s access to the Internet and telephone service.
- OCTOBER 18, 2016
- Assange gets into a heated argument with the Ecuadorian ambassador, who later bans any non-diplomatic visitors to the embassy.
- Within an hour, the ambassador lifts the ban. Two WikiLeaks personnel show up at the embassy and remove computer equipment and about 100 hard drives.
Sources: Surveillance logs obtained by CNN, the Mueller report, and a former US official.
Trump touted the new leaks at nearly every stop on the campaign trail in the final weeks of the race, sometimes reading directly from emails and seizing on thinly sourced conspiracy theories.
“This just came out — WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks,” Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state that he carried by less than 1% of the 6.1 million votes cast statewide.
Kremlin-backed outlets, including RT, breathlessly amplified the leaks on social media. On at least two occasions, RT even published articles detailing the new batches of emails before WikiLeaks officially released them, suggesting that they were coordinating behind the scenes, which they deny.
Not long after the Podesta emails began trickling out, with the election fast approaching, the US government raised concerns with Ecuadorian officials that Assange was using their diplomatic mission in London to help the Russians interfere in the 2016 election, a former US official familiar with the matter told CNN.
The US protest came with an implicit warning: Stop Assange or there will be consequences for Ecuador, just like there would eventually be consequences for the Russians for meddling in the election, and for Assange too, according to the US official and documents obtained by CNN.
Facing this ultimatum, Ecuadorian officials in the capital city of Quito decided on October 15 to cut Assange off from the outside world, shutting down his internet access and telephone service. Even this didn’t stop the deluge of email releases, which WikiLeaks continued pumping out every day until the election.
Ecuador soon released a public statement condemning WikiLeaks’ involvement in efforts to interfere with the US election but reaffirmed its commitment to protecting Assange. As this geopolitical saga unfolded, the Ecuadorian Embassy received calls from other countries asking about potential US retribution and Assange’s physical safety, the security reports said.
The situation intensified three days later. The security documents lay out a critical sequence of events on the night of October 18. Around 10 p.m., Assange got into a heated argument with then-Ecuadorian Ambassador Carlos Abad Ortiz. Just before midnight, Abad banned any non-diplomatic visitors to the embassy and left the building. Behind the scenes, Assange communicated with the foreign minister in Quito.
Within an hour of Abad’s departure, he called the embassy and reversed the ban.
By 1 a.m., two WikiLeaks personnel arrived at the embassy and started removing computer equipment as well as a large box containing “about 100 hard drives,” according to the documents.
Security officials on site wanted to examine the hard drives, but their hands were tied. The Assange associates who removed the boxes were on the special list of people who couldn’t be searched. The security team sent a memo back to Quito raising red flags about this late-night maneuver and said it heightened their suspicions about Assange’s intentions.
US intelligence agencies have said from the very beginning that WikiLeaks got the stolen emails from the Russian government, which Mueller also alleged in his indictment against a dozen Russian hackers. But the suspects are all living safely in Russia, so the US will likely never publicly produce a smoking gun or prove in court that Russia worked with WikiLeaks.
Trump was inaugurated in January 2017 and continued to question whether Russia had meddled in the election. Assange’s internet access was restored after the election, and he continued to meet with hackers as well as an American lobbyist representing a prominent Russian oligarch.
In Ecuador, Correa’s presidential term ended in May 2017 and he was succeeded by Lenín Moreno, a close ally who had been his vice president for more than six years. But after Moreno was elected, he quickly turned against Correa and started undoing many of his policies, including his friendly relationship with Assange.
Justice Department lawyers secretly prepared a criminal case against Assange for the Chelsea Manning leaks. Federal prosecutors even turned to a controversial law to target Assange for actively soliciting and publishing classified materials, which is typically protected under the First Amendment.
In April of this year, Moreno revoked Assange’s asylum and said Assange had “violated the norm of not intervening in internal affairs of other states.” This cleared the way for British police to forcibly remove Assange from the embassy when the first US charges were unsealed.
Assange hasn’t been accused of any crimes related to his actions in 2016. He remains in a UK prison, awaiting what will likely be a grueling battle over his extradition to the US, where he could face spending the rest of his life in prison.
Meanwhile, he still has allies in Russia. Within hours of Assange’s arrest, senior officials from President Vladimir Putin’s government rushed to Assange’s defense and slammed the US for infringing his rights, declaring that, “The hand of ‘democracy’ squeezes the throat of freedom.”
CNN’s Laura Weffer, Alfredo Meza and Evan Perez contributed to this report.
Timeline graphics by Tal Yellin. Illustration by Will Mullery.
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