Julian Assange
Julian Assange on a balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (Image: AAP/Lloyd Jones)

This is an extract from the The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Updated Edition, by Andrew Fowler.

A sunny spring evening in Madrid. WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson and the organisation’s Spanish lawyer Aitor Martínez meet up at a café in the palatial Reina Victoria hotel in the city centre. Three men approach their table and introduce themselves.

One is a journalist, the other two are “computer experts”, but what they are doing on that April evening in 2019 involves neither journalism nor any particular expertise in computing. They’ve turned their hands to something far more dangerous and potentially rewarding. 

On a laptop they show Hrafnsson and Martínez an extraordinary sight: video and audio recordings of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange inside London’s Ecuadorian Embassy where he had taken refuge in 2012, talking with his lawyers, and meeting journalists and supporters. 

The three men want money for the footage and believe they can get 9 million. They will sell to the highest bidder and mention that a foreign TV station is interested. Although Martínez and Hrafnsson want to know why it’s worth anything to see Assange in the embassy, Hrafnsson negotiates with them and discusses the sum of 3 million.

What the amateur extortionists — who claim to be working for freedom of expression and who support Assange — don’t know is that every word is being recorded. Both Hrafnsson and Martínez are wired for sound. 

Martínez asks them, “If you are benefactors working for freedom of expression and for Assange’s legal battle, why do you want money?”

“We have to put food on the table too,” replies one of the men. 

Hrafnsson had been alerted that the material was on offer on Twitter. He had made contact, but he’d also tipped off the Spanish police. Several officers from the kidnapping and extortion department are nearby recording every word of the conversation. The deal has hardly been clinched when the police pounce. The audio recordings and surveillance footage, covertly shot by Hrafnsson as he sat at the table, are enough to arrest two of the men. 

It could be reasonably argued that uncovering the espionage operation against Assange might have tipped the scales of justice in his favour. The only charge Assange faced in the United Kingdom at the time was the relatively minor offence of skipping bail when he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy. Sex allegations against him by two Swedish women had long been dropped.

But on April 11, 2019, within hours of Hrafnsson calling a press conference in London to reveal the covert operation at the Ecuadorian Embassy, the Metropolitan Police stormed in and dragged Assange out. 

Exposing the internal surveillance had seemingly forced the British government’s hand. 

***

For the seven years that Julian Assange lived there, the Ecuadorian Embassy, just around the corner from Harrods the luxury department store in Knightsbridge, was publicly recognised as one of the most surveilled places in the world from the outside.

In the early days, shortly after Assange sought political asylum in 2012, the security was obvious. Dozens of police surrounded the ornate Queen Anne style red brick building in a show of force. 

As the months passed, the number of uniformed police dwindled, but in their place arose a more insidious threat. Across the road from the embassy high resolution cameras peered down on every person who entered the building. 

When I first visited Assange at the embassy in November 2013 I was stopped at the door by a uniformed officer from the Metropolitan Police who demanded my name. I told him he had no right to ask and he went no further. It was an act of mild intimidation. 

Inside, as we sat down to talk in the booklined conference room, Assange opened the window. Along with a fresh breeze the noise of trucks delivering goods to Harrods entered the narrow room, making it harder for us to be overheard. During another meeting, although the window remained closed, Assange turned on a machine that created “white noise” to make the job of eavesdropping that much harder.

He had every reason to be concerned about his conversations being overheard. Just a few months earlier a bugging device had been under the desk in the ambassador’s office in the next room. Exactly who planted it there is still a mystery, but suspicion fell on everyone from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the UK’s domestic spies at MI5 to renegade Ecuadorian intelligence officers opposed to the then-Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa who had granted Assange asylum. Just who was spying on whom at the embassy became what former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton famously described as a “wilderness of mirrors”.

Without taking into account what other countries were up to, the British government itself was spending £4 million a year on watching the embassy. British security agencies photographed and identified everyone who entered the embassy. Assange estimated that employed 30 people a day. 

The embassy already had its own security and surveillance operations in place. They were run by a little-known company based in the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera. Twelve kilometres inland from the Atlantic Coast, close to the Cádiz mountains, Jerez de la Frontera is better known for its fortified wine than spying. But not far from the ancient city centre, former Spanish naval officer David Morales had managed to build a successful business, Undercover Global (UC Global), specialising in security and surveillance.

In 2015 Ecuador signed a contract with Morales to protect its London embassy. What we now know is that some time later, according to documents filed in a Spanish court, UC Global began working as a double agent, around January 2017.

The material the company gathered wasn’t only being collected for the Ecuadorian government; secret access to the UC Global server had been given to others, with the explicit instruction from Morales that the Ecuadorian government was not to be told about this special arrangement. 

Morales boasted repeatedly to his staff in emails that “I have gone to the dark side” and that “those in control are the American friends”. Morales spoke of “US intelligence” and believed “the North American will get us a lot of contracts around the world”.

Questioning the euphemistic references to “Americans”, one employee demanded to know exactly who they were working for. According to a court statement, Morales replied: “la inteligencia de los Estados Unidos” (United States intelligence). 

Whatever the truth of that, material from surveillance of the Ecuadorian Embassy certainly ended up with the US government. Detailed evidence pieced together during research for my book, The Most Dangerous Man in the World, unmasks at least some of the secret recipients of Assange’s private conversations. As we shall see, the trail goes all the way to the US State Department and a Trump family adviser. 

UC Global’s spying activities might have remained secret but for that clumsy attempt to extort 3 million from WikiLeaks. It was bad luck for Morales. The extortionists had nothing to do with his company, but their greed exposed what he had been up to.

When the Spanish police raided Morales’ home, they found 20,000 and guns with their serial numbers filed off. Morales was charged with privacy violations, illegal possession of guns and money laundering.

At the company headquarters police seized computers, mobile phones and thousands of records. As they sifted through the material, details of UC Global’s secrets began spilling out.