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WikiLeaks threatens to sue CNN after ‘pedophile’ charge repeated on air

In this Feb. 5, 2016, photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
In this Feb. 5, 2016, photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. AP

The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks on Wednesday threatened to sue CNN over unproven allegations that its founder is a pedophile, an accusation that a former CIA deputy director repeated on air.

“We have issued instructions to sue CNN for defamation,” WikiLeaks said in a Tweet, unless the Atlanta-based network airs within 48 hours “a one-hour expose of the plot.”

Former CIA counterterrorism official Philip Mudd, appearing on CNN’s New Day program, called WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange “a pedophile who lives in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.”

Within hours, CNN’s New Day Twitter account carried a statement saying that Mudd regretted the remark and that the network “has no evidence to support that assertion.”

“Assange is currently wanted for extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations there, and no evidence suggests that the women involved were minors. We regret the error,” the statement said.

Mudd did not immediately respond to written messages.

Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London’s Knightsbridge district in 2012 and has remained there since. He offered a statement to Swedish prosecutors in November about the alleged incident but has refused to leave the embassy, fearful that British or Swedish authorities would hand him off to U.S. prosecutors to stand trial on espionage charges.

In fact, the pedophile allegation has little to do with Assange’s plight that has kept him in the embassy in London, which involves incidents in Stockholm in the summer of 2010.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence responds to questions about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's assessments on Russian hacking in the presidential election during a press briefing on Wednesday.

Rather, it is a bizarre tale involving a Houston-based dating website and its global and well-funded efforts to discredit Assange around the globe. The byzantine saga involves disconnected telephones and mystery websites.

The website, toddandclare.com, launched and ramped up its efforts against Assange during the U.S. presidential campaign, as WikiLeaks released hacked emails related to the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Whoever is behind the dating site has marshaled significant resources to target Assange, enough to gain entry into a United Nations body, operate in countries in Europe, North America and the Caribbean, conduct surveillance on Assange’s lawyer in London, obtain the fax number of Canada’s prime minister and seek to prod a police inquiry in the Bahamas.

The dating site’s campaign sought to thwart WikiLeaks’ efforts and discredit Assange, who played a role in a presidential campaign season that deeply divided the U.S. electorate and illuminated Russia as a major cyber adversary of the U.S. government.

One part of toddandclare’s two-pronged campaign put a megaphone to unproven charges that Assange made contact with a young Canadian girl in the Bahamas through the internet with the intention of molesting her. The second part sought to entangle him in a plan to receive $1 million from the Russian government.

WikiLeaks claims the dating site is “a highly suspicious and likely fabricated” company. In turn, the company has lashed out at Assange and “his despicable activities against American national security,” and warned journalists to “check with your libel lawyers first before printing anything that could impact or endanger innocent people’s lives.”

For nearly two months after the October allegations, toddandclare.com went off line. But it recently reappeared, repeating charges about the 8-year-old Canadian girl. The website did not immediately respond Thursday to a new query from McClatchy, and no respondent in the past has given a name or allowed telephone contact.

The online company paints itself as all-American. Online material says its founders, Todd and Clare Hammond, “are an average American couple from Michigan, who met in the eighth grade.” In 2011, the company says, the Christian couple started an email dating service, and “have married 3,000 couples to date.” Their online network began in 2015, and a statement it filed to a U.N. body says it has “100,000+ female singles” in six countries.

The company’s operating address is a warehouse loading dock in Houston. Its mail goes to a Houston drop box. Its phone numbers no longer work. WikiLeaks says Texas officials tell it the entity is not registered there either under toddandclare.com or a parent company, T&C Network Solutions.

A person who answered emails to the website in November declined to identify him or herself.

The people behind toddandclare.com persuaded a U.N. body known as the Global Compact to give it status as a participant in May, and it submitted an eight-page report to the U.N. group Oct. 4 carefully laying out its allegations against Assange. The firm was delisted by the U.N. body eight days later amid controversy over its claims. The report was later taken off the internet.

An Australian lawyer, Melinda Taylor, said the report’s precise language raised additional suspicions at WikiLeaks, where she assists Assange in human rights litigation.

“This is not a report that’s been drafted by a dating agency. It’s highly legalistic and very structured. It’s the language of someone who has drafted complex legal submissions,” she said.

Under Todd Hammond’s name, the report alleged that Assange’s Swedish lawyer had reached out in June to offer Assange’s services on a campaign against rape in exchange for an undisclosed amount of bitcoin. It said the two sides held two videoconferences.

Then came the bombshell: It said the company had ended ties with Assange following “pedophile crimes” he had committed in the Bahamas in late September. It charged that the victim was the 8-year-old daughter of a Canadian couple on a monthlong yachting vacation. The father went to police in Nassau on Sept. 28, the report claimed, charging that his family held video and chat logs showing Assange “internet grooming” the child and “propositioning the 8-year-old juvenile ‘to perform oral and anal sex acts.’ ”

It said Assange made a connection to the child’s 22-year-old sister, who was a client of the online dating site, from his refuge in London, eventually gaining access to the young girl.

An assistant commissioner for the Royal Bahamas Police Force, Stephen Dean, said “there is no investigation” into any such incident and that the police have received no evidence that such an incident occurred.

“We got a phone call of someone giving us some information. But we never had a face-to-face. It could have been a hoax,” Dean said. “We don’t know.”

If someone were in possession of video or chat logs about a pedophile crime, he or she did not provide them to Bahamian police, Dean said, which he said would be odd: “If you have something so significant, I think you’d want to leave a report.”

Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Per Samuelson, wrote to the U.N. body on Oct. 10 alleging that Hammond’s report against Assange was “entirely false” in all its facets and that he had had no contact with the dating site or Hammond.

Even as authorities in the Bahamas dismissed the report, the dating site sent a fax Oct. 17 to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying the Canadian family had fled the Bahamas due to “anti-white, racist abuse by Bahamian police.”

“Julian Assange ... has started a smear campaign to claim our dating company is behind an elaborate scam. It is fully to be expected. Pedophiles are devious and cunning,” the fax said.

The company said it would “continue to protect the family’s identity, until either the (Royal Bahamas Police Force) conduct a proper investigation, or hell freezes over. Whichever comes first.”

The fax was signed, “The Todd and Clare Team,” and left no way to contact the firm.

While the founders of toddandclare.com say they’ve been in the matchmaking business since 2011, their internet presence dates only to September 2015 and really got going only early last year. Those who have done work for the company say they were kept at arm’s length.

By summer, in the run-up to what many expected to be an “October surprise” from WikiLeaks to make an impact on the U.S. election, toddandclare.com began moving against Assange in multiple countries simultaneously. The DNC and a cyber-threat intelligence firm it had hired, CrowdStrike, were already fingering Russia as behind the hacks that would provide the fodder for WikiLeaks. They’d said in June that Russian hackers had access to DNC servers for about a year.

A company representative, identifying herself as Hannah Hammond, emailed Assange’s Swedish and British legal agents offering $1 million for him to appear in a five-minute tongue-in-cheek television advertisement. In a subsequent exchange Sept. 19, the representative wrote that “the source of the $1,000,000 is the Russian government.”

In a curious twist, she offered what she said were three facts about Assange’s London attorney that are “unknown to the public,” including details inside her home and an event in her son’s life, suggesting a capability to conduct surveillance.

Taylor, the Assange lawyer, said the details appeared “to create the impression that the members of his team were under close surveillance and/or to bolster the bona fides of the claim that the offer was linked to a State. Its inclusion does appear quite menacing.”

A lawyer identifying himself only as “James” responded the next day, slamming the offer as an “elaborate scam designed to entrap” Assange and embarrass him for ties to Russia.

The dating site representative sought to pull the veil off “James.”

“Julian: We know it’s you writing. The offer expires at midnight, October 31st 2016,” she wrote back on Sept. 21, according to copies of the emails posted by WikiLeaks on its website.

By early October, toddandclare.com went on the offensive. It filed a civil complaint in a British court against Assange, seeking 295 pounds sterling – about $359 – in damages because it said it could no longer use his services due to the “child sex offenses in Nassau.”

The suit, said Taylor, Assange’s lawyer, “seems to be designed to evade defamation law in the U.K. They’ve put highly noxious information knowing that it would be made public.”

The global tussle between the online dating company and WikiLeaks went public in mid-October when the anti-secrecy group voiced public doubt on whether toddandclare.com actually existed, or served only as a vehicle to attack Assange.

The announcement opened the gates for a disparate crew of internet sleuths – some motivated by hatred of Clinton and others impelled by support for WikiLeaks – to probe into the history of toddandclare.com, suspicious that the dating site might be an undercover operation with links to the Clinton campaign.

Posting their findings on the discussion websites like Reddit.com, they unearthed some curious coincidences. A perusal into the archives of the internet revealed that the Hammonds had once occupied a San Francisco building later rented to a company, Premise Data, whose co-founder has ties to Clinton and her top supporters.

Moreover, a telephone number once registered to a Todd Hammond later was registered to a former Premise employee, Aaron Dunn, although with a different area code.

Premise co-founder David Soloff said such findings could only be coincidences.

“I want to reiterate that Premise has no connection with this case. And beyond confirming that Aaron Dunn worked at Premise until 2014, I don’t know the answer to any of your questions,” Soloff wrote in an email.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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