On 26 September, Yahoo News revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency, during Julian Assange’s years of asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy, explored plans to surveil, kidnap, and even kill the WikiLeaks founder.
The explosive report, which confirmed and built upon Max Blumenthal’s May 2020 exposé in The Grayzone, was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media. However, one fundamental aspect of the article even its advocates and promoters have largely overlooked is the disclosure that the C.I.A. possessed no evidence Julian or WikiLeaks had any ties whatsoever with Russia.
The “difficulty” in proving he or his organization had operated “at the direct behest of the Kremlin” was reportedly a “major factor” when, in April 2017, Mike Pompeo, then-C.I.A. director, designated WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” That unfounded assertion opened the floodgates for the Agency's untrammeled surveillance, harassment, and persecution of Julian and his collaborators.
High-level confirmation there is not a shred of support for the notion Julian acted wittingly or unwittingly as a Russian agent is seismic, for of all the baseless slanders levelled at him and his organization, that particular charge is perhaps the most enduring and damaging.
There is another dimension to this question that has so far remained unexplored. The pivotal role played by Integrity Initiative, a covert U.K. Foreign Office information warfare operation staffed by British military and intelligence veterans, in perpetuating this mephitic myth has never previously been told. Now, with Julian facing extradition to the U.S., it must be.
The sordid tale of British intel’s campaign to smear Assange as a Russian asset begins in Spain. It also reveals just how flimsy Western propaganda campaigns are concocted and then disseminated through compliant media.
Through its international “clusters”—clandestine networks of journalists, scholars, and military and intelligence operatives the Integrity Initiative covertly mobilizes the world over to influence policy to provoke more aggressive government policies towards Russia—the organization incessantly spread black propaganda falsely connecting Julian with the Kremlin.
The Initiative’s Spanish cluster was particularly instrumental in this regard. The largest and most influential of any Initiative cluster outside the U.K., its ranks include a number of prominent journalists, academics, think tank representatives, politicians from several parties, government ministers, and military officials.
Initiative documents leaked in November 2018 by Anonymous, the “hacktivist” collective, detail how this nexus has successfully subverted the Spanish political process. There is, for instance, the case of Pedro Baños, a colonel in the Spanish army and formerly chief of counterintelligence and security for the European Army Corps. Baños’ fate sheds important light on how the Initiative operates and its role in framing Assange as a Russian asset.
In June 2018, the spook-dominated Initiative learned that the governing Socialist Workers’ Party was to appoint Baños director of Spain’s National Security Department, which is roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Baños had repeatedly appeared on RT and Sputnik and publicly called for constructive, harmonious relations between the European Union and Moscow.
The Initiative simply couldn’t tolerate his appointment to such an influential post. Within hours of learning this confidential information—which may have been passed along by Spanish cluster member Borja Lasheras, who was then part of the National Security Department—the Spanish cluster covertly passed dossiers on the colonel to Spanish media outlets and activated its overseas clusters to start publishing negative comments about the proposed move on social media, to “generate international support” for its blockage.
The Initiative’s U.K. team also set up a dedicated WhatsApp group “to coordinate Twitter response, get contacts to expand awareness and get people retweeting the material.”
The cluster, moreover, sent material to El País and El Mundo, leading Spanish dailies. Representatives of the People’s Party—which has cluster operatives within its ranks—and Ciudadanos, another centrist party, publicly called for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to block the appointment, while some Spanish diplomats also expressed their “concerns.” As the day drew to a close, it was confirmed Baños was no longer in the running for the post.
Conducting destabilizing information operations in Spain hadn’t always been so easy for the Initiative. An internal file leaked to Anonymous—“Why is it so difficult to address the Russia issue in Spain, and what should be done?”—spells out in some detail the issues the organization hitherto encountered in this regard. Foremost among these, Moscow simply “[wasn’t] perceived as a problem affecting Spain’s national security,” not least because the two countries have no history of conflict that can be invoked to terrify and rile the Spanish public.
“Pro–Russian narratives” were said to “often [pervade] at all levels” of Spanish society, with citizens and officials alike widely believing that Moscow was “humiliated” in the 1990s, when Western powers broke clear agreements on NATO expansion, and that Russia has “a natural right” to a sphere of regional influence.
Overwhelmingly, Russia was seen in Spain “as a potential source of investment, tourism and business opportunities” rather than a hostile adversary, and politicians, journalists, diplomats, and citizens were moreover keen to pursue dialogue with Moscow, to “explore ways to restore [Europe’s] relationship with the Kremlin,” with “a tougher line from the E.U. or NATO” on Russia “mostly seen as counterproductive or even dangerous.”
Quite an insurmountable state of affairs—until Julian’s public commentaries on the Catalonian independence vote in 2017 handed the organization ammunition it needed to bogusly present Moscow as a grave threat to Spanish democracy and territorial integrity, while simultaneously reinforcing the spook-concocted charge that the WikiLeaks founder was a Russian operative.
‘Close Eye on the Crisis’
The autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia held a referendum on independence on 1 October 2017. Madrid declared the vote illegal and, in the weeks leading up to polling day, police cracked down on numerous large-scale protests. Photos and videos of these tumultuous scenes spread widely on social media. Many civic organizations and high-profile figures disseminated news of these protests and police actions. Among this throng was Julian Assange. His Twitter posts attracted thousands of retweets worldwide and were referenced in a number of RT and Sputnik reports on the events unfolding in Barcelona.
As the time came for citizens to go to the polls, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González asked Grupo PRISA— Spain’s most powerful media conglomerate and owner of El País, the country’s second-largest newspaper— to issue a “firm response” to the independence movement, “given the seriousness of the situation.”
El País duly began publishing extremely critical articles on the Catalonian situation on a daily basis, among other things inferring that the independence movement was somehow directed, financed, or influenced by Russia and that Spain, more broadly, was subject to a dastardly Kremlin interference campaign via bots and trolls on social media and “fake news” reports, at the very head of which Julian sat.
The degree to which El País was influenced by the Initiative prior to the referendum isn’t certain. But subsequently the organization circulated a “major study on Russian influence in the Catalan referendum process…privately to key influencers in Spain, including the Prime Minister’s office, and throughout Europe on the Integrity Initiative network.”
A briefing note, “Framing Russian meddling in the Catalan question,” offered “insights, background information and suggestions to contextualize and interpret (likely) Russian meddling in Spain.”
The paper’s headline claims were markedly bold. The Kremlin had “activated its propaganda apparatus”—including Julian and Edward Snowden—to “contribute to destabilizing Spain.” Catalan pro-independence activists—who formed part of an “extensive network of pawns” cultivated by the Kremlin overseas—may have somehow “bought Assange’s support.”
Evidence presented for these bombastic charges was nonexistent. For example, a small number of tweets posted by Julian in Catalan that implied a decent knowledge of the independence movement’s history purportedly suggested that persons unknown could have been feeding him information.
Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s reference to the referendum in a speech was alleged to have insidiously “conferred some legitimacy” on the vote, despite the fact that the Russian president vociferously backed Madrid, while declaring the unfolding crisis as “an internal affair of the Kingdom of Spain.” The Initiative inexplicably branded this banal diplomatic oratory a “subtle” indication the Kremlin was “keeping a close eye on the crisis.”
Such paltry conspiratorial conjecture led the organization to conclude that “a classic control and absorption mechanism of the KGB” had been deployed to support the independence movement and disrupt Spain to further Moscow’s propaganda narratives “about a dysfunctional, weakening and almost collapsing E.U.”
This bunkum was cited in a number of mainstream media articles, including an El País piece written by its editor, David Alandete. The fictional narrative that online support for Catalan independence was a Russian plot fronted by Julian conclusively minted, a trickle of disinformation became a deluge, with El País leading the charge. It published stories on the topic almost every day for weeks thereafter replete with slick charts and graphics, widely recycled by other news outlets.
All that hubbub, combined with the Initiative’s dodgy dossier reaching the desks of high-ranking politicians in Madrid, was surely instrumental in Spain’s defense and foreign ministers announcing in November 2017 that Russian-based Twitter accounts had used social media “to massively publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion behind it” in the lead-up to the referendum.
So it was that the next month, Alandete was invited to present his findings to the U.K. Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which was conducting an inquiry into “fake news.” Julian had been invited to testify separately, but this was rescinded after an intervention from the Foreign Office.
Accompanying Alandete were Francisco de Borja Lasheras, director of the European Council on Foreign Relation’s Madrid office, and Mira Milosevich–Juaristi, senior fellow for Russia and Euroasia at Elcano Institute, both members of Integrity Initiative’s Spanish cluster.
The panel of lawmakers was, to say the least, a receptive audience. With the Catalan Assembly elections mere days away, the committee thought it “a particularly interesting time to discuss this issue.” Chair Damian Collins also appears to have attended an Integrity Initiative event convened in February 2016.
The Spanish trio’s assertions met no challenge or criticism, as they rattled off virtually verbatim various bogus hypotheses and claims from the Initiative briefing paper. Milosevich–Juaristi declared that “the complexity of the combination of different instruments used during the referendum in Catalonia”—including Julian’s social media activities—meant it was “impossible” there wasn’t a determined Kremlin hybrid warfare strategy at work in the breakaway region, although admitted, “I do not have material to justify that.”
Still, the Spaniards convinced the committee that, “Russian interference was so huge and so oppressive that you could not move for it,” and the parliamentarians asked whether Moscow had sought to interfere with the referendum’s outcome, or if there was a specific objective in RT and Sputnik’s coverage of the violent scenes that unfolded in Barcelona. The witnesses were at a loss - Lasheras repeated stated “we have no specific evidence,” and “we do not know,” while Alandete unconvincingly said the only evidence he could provide was that Russian state-affiliated media organizations had reported on the events in the first place.
These admissions prompted no criticism or challenge on the part of the committee, although Labour MP Paul Farrelly fleetingly raised some vital points.
“The question is how much influence has [Russian media] got?” he asked. “How much should it be blamed for the bad reflections it has for instance on the image of Spain, compared with the actions of the Spanish government that fed it in the first place? What emphasis should we place on that, compared with the actions that have been tweeted and shared around the world?”
Alandete repeatedly claimed to not understand the question, so Farrelly simply said “it doesn’t matter,” and moved on—a staggering capitulation on an absolutely key question that no study of alleged “fake news” or “disinformation” has ever adequately addressed. Still, while the lawmakers clearly weren’t interested in seriously probing the trio’s assertions, hacker and activist M.C. McGrath was, and submitted a detailed, withering assessment to the committee in response.
McGrath “scrutinized their testimony, along with other publications about Russian interference in Catalonia” supplied to the committee, including articles published by El País and Elcano Institute, identifying “numerous instances of misinterpretation of data sources, use of inaccurate information, lack of attention to detail, and poor research methodology,” which resulted in “exceptionally misleading” conclusions being presented to the parliamentary panel.
The sheer scale of the lies, distortions, exaggerations, misrepresentations and “exceptionally poor attention to detail” uncovered by McGrath is quite extraordinary. For example, numerous El País reports alleged there was a “suspiciously large” number of tweets about Catalonia from Russian bots and trolls, in particular retweets of RT and Sputnik, as well as Julian’s personal account.
However, McGrath’s analysis of 23,418 retweets of Julian’s posts discussing Catalonia in September and October showed that just 2.1% emanated from accounts located in Russia, a percentage entirely in line with world population ratios, and in no way indicating “disproportionate interest in the situation in Catalonia.” In fact, those retweeting Julian were overwhelmingly based in the U.S.
Even more damningly, McGrath found that Julian featured in just 17 of the 596 stories about Catalonia published by RT and Sputnik from September to December 2017, while of the 1,508 tweets shared by the pair’s English– and Spanish-language Twitter accounts on Catalonia within this timeframe, a mere 22, 1.46%, mentioned him. Ironically, El País published more stories referencing Julian than Sputnik and RT combined during this period.
“Claims about fake news, especially those published in the media and brought before legislative bodies, need to be more thoroughly scrutinized. It is important to conduct further research to understand how widespread of an issue fake news about fake news is and how these unfounded allegations come about,” McGrath cautioned. “It is necessary to explore how claims of fake news can themselves be used as a manipulative tactic and understand the impact this has on society.”
‘Escalation of Tensions’
Despite this savage indictment of the trio’s credibility, the committee appeared unmoved, issuing an interim report in July 2018 quoting them at some length and asserting unequivocally;
During the referendum campaign, Russia provoked conflict, through a mixture of misleading information and disinformation, between people within Spain, and between Spain and other member states in the E.U., and in NATO.
Even more significantly, in March that year the Initiative-manufactured controversy led to Ecuador cutting off Julian’s internet access and preventing him from receiving any visitors other than his lawyers. It was argued that his social media activities “put at risk the good relations [the country] maintains with the U.K., with the other states of the European Union, and with other nations.”
As Glenn Greewnald documented at the time, this resulted from “serious diplomatic pressure being applied” to Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno “from the Spanish government in Madrid and its NATO allies.” Greenwald:
The escalation of tensions with Spain, which has strong diplomatic ties to Ecuador, threatens Assange’s asylum in a way that the longstanding pressure from the U.S. and U.K. could not. Ecuador is being forced to choose between maintaining their relations with other states and upholding Assange’s asylum.
That same month, Foreign Officer minister Alan Duncan had a one-to-one meeting with then–Prime Minister Theresa May, in which he was instructed to “butter up” Moreno so as to facilitate Julian’s removal from the embassy. This precipitated a year of diplomatic schmoozing, including state-funded trips to London for high-ranking Ecuadoran officials and visits in the opposite direction by U.K. security and intelligence figures. A month after Julian’s dramatic arrest in April 2019, Trade Minister George Hollingbery flew to Quito to sign London’s Andean Countries Trade Agreement.
As Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture at the time, wrote in June that year, in an op-ed piece Western media refused to publish, Julian was “systematically slandered to divert attention from the crimes he exposed,” and once he’d been “dehumanized through isolation, ridicule and shame, just like the witches we used to burn at the stake, it was easy to deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide.”
The Initiative’s actions clearly went an enormous way to isolating Julian, severely curtailing his already limited access to the outside world, laying the foundations for his removal from the Embassy and resultant incarceration, consigning him to daily misery and physical and psychological torture.
The entire sorry episode is a palpable, and pitiful, example of the ease with which intelligence agencies can flood corporate media with outright fiction on the flimsiest of bases, in the knowledge credulous, pliable corporate journalists will peddle their fallacious lies as fact in the manner of religious conviction, and never face consequences for having done so.
If and when their lies are exposed, they can pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened, safely clinging to their legitimizing awards, blue ticks, and plaudits. Meanwhile, Julian resides at Her Majesty’s pleasure in “Britain’s Gitmo,” each and every day his mental and physical health deteriorating, the very real prospect of a 175–year sentence in a foreign prison, thousands of miles from home, hanging over him.
This article originally appeared on The Scrum.