WikiLeaks alleges ‘extensive spying operation’ against Julian Assange triggered extortion attempt
WikiLeaks was asked to pay millions of dollars to prevent the release of video and audio recorded from inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London of the website’s publisher, Julian Assange, his associates said Wednesday.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, said that he met in Spain recently with individuals who showed him “gigabytes after gigabytes” of sensitive footage of Mr. Assange, an Australian native living in the Ecuadorian Embassy since 2012, including private recordings of his consultations with lawyers and a medical examination, among other material.
Speaking at a press conference in London, Mr. Hrafnsson said he was told during the meeting to pay around $3.4 million or else the material would be released through the media.
He subsequently contacted police in Madrid, who last week launched a sting operation and are investigating the offer as part of a “serious extortion case,” Mr. Hrafnsson said.
Spanish police did not immediately return a request for comment.
Mr. Assange, 47, entered the embassy nearly seven years ago to seek protection from charges related to publishing classified U.S. documents through WikiLeaks dating back nearly a decade. He was granted asylum by the administration in Quito within weeks, but the country’s current president, Lenn Moreno, has considered reversing course and said he will discuss the matter with Ecuadorian lawmakers Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating WikiLeaks since 2010. Mr. Assange suspects he will be arrested if he leaves the embassy and ultimately extradited abroad.
An Icelandic journalist who served as a spokesperson for WikiLeaks prior to succeeding Mr. Assange as the website’s top editor, Mr. Hrafnsson accused Mr. Moreno’s administration of authorizing “an extensive spying operation” inside the embassy.
Mr. Hrafnsson said that resulted in blackmailers gaining access to “thousands of photographs and documents and gigabytes after gigabytes of video material,” including visitor logs and legal documents in addition to the footage of Mr. Assange meeting with lawyers and doctors.
“This is a severe breach of lawyer-client attorney privilege and fundamentally undermines our ability to properly defend and provide a defense to Julian Assange,” said Jennifer Robinson, a British lawyer representing the WikiLeaks publisher who spoke at Wednesday’s press conference.
“We remain concerned about the cooperation that Ecuador has provided the United States in their ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution of Julian Assange,” she added. “No democratic government ought to be cooperating with requests from a foreign state to seek the extradition of a publisher for publishing truthful information outside of its territory. This sets a dangerous precedent for the entire press here in the U.K. and elsewhere.”
Representatives of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The Justice Department announced an investigation into WikiLeaks in 2010 after the website began releasing classified military and diplomatic documents later traced to Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst.
Federal prosecutors have filed criminal charges in the years since against Joshua Schulte, a former CIA engineer suspected of leaking to the website, as well as several Russians accused of participating in a hacking scheme that resulted in WikiLeaks publishing internal Democratic Party documents during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.