Julian Assange bail
Court artist sketch of Julian Assange (Image: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire via AP)

The confirmation yesterday by Yahoo! News that the CIA planned to abduct and render, or murder, Julian Assange also revealed the absurd extent of surveillance to which Assange, and anyone associated with him, was subjected to. One former official quoted by Yahoo! described the surveillance, by teams from multiple countries, as “beyond comical”, with “every human being in a three-block radius … working for one of the intelligence services — whether they were street sweepers or police officers or security guards”.

Assange was also the subject of intense surveillance within the Ecuadorian embassy, with even toilets bugged by UC Global, the firm ostensibly charged with providing security for the embassy.

The surveillance meant that anyone who visited Assange was scrutinised by an array of official and non-official intelligence units.

“I visited the embassy a number of times, most recently in 2017,” former Greens senator Scott Ludlam says. “Knowing now that Julian and other guests of the Ecuadorians were being placed on a speculative kill list makes my blood run cold. The revelations of the last few days confirm beyond doubt that the pursuit of Julian and his friends and associates was long ago unmoored from the rule of law, common sense or morality … it must end now, and it’s time, a decade late, for our government to draw a line.”

Former Greens staffer Felicity Ruby found herself directly targeted for her support of Assange. “First it was part of my job, but the more I learned, the work became my own choice,” she told Crikey. “I’ve visited Julian in Ellingham Hall, the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and the Belmarsh dungeon [where he is currently imprisoned]. I knew each time I visited that I was under surveillance and that caring personally about him and his team could be dangerous.”

“While it has cost me, not acting in defence of a free press would have cost me more. The very point of a chilling effect is provoking fear and paralysis, so it’s important to shrug it off but that hasn’t always been easy.

“It got real for me personally when documents surfaced showing the UC Global chief telling his staff to target me and a colleague. My mother was dying at the time and I was disturbed by the confirmation of our fears, but also afraid it would become public and upset her. We know … plans existed back in 2010 to destroy supporters and the organisation.

“If you’re a friend of Julian’s, it does affect your life, how you communicate, how open you are to meeting new people without suspicion. It’s awkward too when an old friend gets in touch, or a new friend comes into my life, to explain that because I’m a close friend of Julian Assange, their communication will likely be caught in surveillance, but it seems irresponsible to not flag it.”

“Reading about plans to kill Julian, and that we were all stalked and watched makes me wonder how much our government knew or even participated in this CIA operation, and when it will ever end. I’m tired, but that’s also the point of the torment, to tire supporters and see them drop away, but the opposite is happening.”

Academic and technology researcher Suelette Dreyfus speaks of the high personal cost of being a friend of Assange’s. “I wrote a book with Julian Assange in 1997, and we’ve stayed friends. Nothing could prepare me for the personal cost of that friendship in terms of the surveillance inflicted on me.

“The physical surveillance was so obvious that at times friends and relatives observed it and asked about it. At times, their presence frightened my children. My phone was stuffed for months. Out of place people followed me to country Victoria. Strangers entered my house when I wasn’t there — and they didn’t know I could determine they had been there. A surveillance team even followed me to Queensland on holidays with my family. It was nuts. I was censored from speaking at a conference — here in Australia — by Australian Signals Directorate.

“So, yeah, I’ve paid a high personal cost. But nowhere near as high as Julian Assange. Nor Daphne Galizia, Jan Kuciak, Giorgos Karaivaz or Peter de Vries — all assassinated investigative journalists.” 

Dreyfus wants to know how much the government knew about the US and UK plans. “When your best-buddy allies hatch plans to assassinate your citizens, it may be time to rethink that partnership … President Biden needs to drop all the trumped-up charges against Assange. All three governments need to issue, if not an apology which is owed, at least an enduring commitment to stop trying to silence journalists who reveal uncomfortable truths. And all of these governments need to confess to their citizen victims about the overreach of the spying and harassment that went on — so it doesn’t happen again.”

Human rights lawyer and Assange legal adviser Jen Robinson also wants answers from the Australian government. “I have serious questions for the Morrison government: (1) What did you know and when about US plans to abduct and assassinate Julian Assange, an Australian citizen? (2) What action will the Australian government now take in response to these revelations? (3) What more will it take for our government to act to protect this Australian citizen?”

“For more than a decade,” Robinson says, “I have been asking successive Australian governments to exercise diplomatic protection over Assange. How can the Australian government now stand silent and refuse to act in response to a CIA proposal to assassinate an Australian citizen who has done no more than publish truthful information about the US, war crimes, human rights abuse and unlawful government surveillance?”

“For years, we have been raising concern with our government about the unlawful spying on Assange and on us as his lawyers. The Australian government has so far done nothing.”

On Friday, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki, asked about Assange, said “we do think of ourselves and we are approaching this from an entirely different approach of the last few years as it relates to freedom of the press”.

The US appeal to overturn the ruling by the British courts refusing to allow the extradition of Assange on espionage and conspiracy charges continues. Assange remains in Belmarsh prison.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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