National Security

Internet cutoff is just the latest trouble for WikiLeaks’ Assange

WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange’s access to the internet was cut off on Monday. The anti-secrecy site blamed a ‘state actor.’
WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange’s access to the internet was cut off on Monday. The anti-secrecy site blamed a ‘state actor.’ AP

The digital megaphone of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears to have been silenced, and Britain is also moving against Russia’s foreign media operations.

WikiLeaks announced via Twitter Monday that it had launched “contingency plans” after unnamed state hackers severed the internet link used by Assange, who is under siege in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, taking pain pills for infirmities and with no access to sunlight or outdoor space. WikiLeaks later blamed Ecuador itself for the cutoff, reported The Associated Press.

It was one of the latest moves in a chess match that Assange has waged for years with U.S. and British authorities and that now has the Australian anti-secrecy advocate on center stage in the U.S. presidential campaign, releasing thousands of pages of leaked emails to thwart Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. The U.S. government accuses Russian state hackers of obtaining the emails and passing them to WikiLeaks.

In a separate move, RT, the Russian state cable and satellite television operator once known as Russia Today, said it was told that Britain’s National Westminster Bank would no longer provide it with banking services.

RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan told RIA Novosti that the broadcaster would not shut down operations in the United Kingdom but “it is clear to us that this is not the last step the United Kingdom is prepared to take to limit our broadcasting.”

Whether there was a connection between Assange’s loss of internet and RT’s loss of banking services was unknown, but the timing of the two events seemed remarkably coincidental.

WikiLeaks posted a tweet early Monday that said Assange’s “internet link has been intentionally severed by a state party. We have activated the appropriate contingency plans.”

What those contingency plans are was not clear. But WikiLeaks has been the target of efforts to silence it before.

During its release of State Department cables in 2010, Amazon.com, at the request of then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, canceled its contract to host the WikiLeaks site, and for years U.S. credit card companies refused to process donations to the organization. WikiLeaks also maintained scores of so-called “mirror” sites to host its content to prevent hackers from blocking access through what’s known as a directed denial of service attack – the practice of freezing a site with millions of automated efforts to contact it.

The silencing of Assange came with a bit of drama. Hours before the announcement that his internet connection had been cut, WikiLeaks posted three tweets that appeared to contain encrypted code, and rumors began to swirl that it was a “dead man’s switch,” a code revealing highly classified information that would ensure publication upon his death.

The tweets were later erased from the WikiLeaks Twitter account, but not before rumors erupted over Assange’s health and safety. The Ecuadorean embassy has issued no statement.

“I am hearing that Ecuador has caved to Clinton & Co. and (Assange) will either be extradited or dead in 12 hours,” a user calling himself RottenScoundrels posted on Reddit.

WikiLeaks recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, saying it had released more than 10 million secret documents.

Since early October, WikiLeaks has released more than 12,000 emails, some of them taken from the account of Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta, part of a purported trove of 50,000 that the group says reveal the inner workings of the Clinton campaign, including how it handled primary debates and its often-cozy relationship with the news media. A 10th batch was made public Monday.

Party leaders have responded with outrage, blaming the Russian government for the hack extracting the emails from Democratic Party servers and chastising WikiLeaks for doing the bidding of the Russian government by publishing them.

“Our intelligence community has made it clear that the Russian government is responsible for the cyberattacks aimed at interfering with our election, and that WikiLeaks is part of that effort. This revelation should deeply trouble all Americans in both parties,” interim party Chairwoman Donna Brazile said last Tuesday in a statement.

Assange, 45, appears to have orchestrated the leaks while living in a tiny room large enough only for a single bed and a small cupboard, and an adjoining room with a treadmill, his home at Ecuador’s embassy in London.

Three weeks ago, WikiLeaks published a 26-page “psychosocial profile” of Assange that it says a specialist wrote after conducting five lengthy visits to him in the embassy. Assange has been living there since June 19, 2012, when he sought political asylum to sidestep British efforts to extradite him to Sweden for questioning about sexual assault allegations. Assange has said he fears Sweden would turn him over to U.S. authorities, though no U.S. criminal charges are known to exist against him.

The report says Assange “is taking painkillers daily” to deal with severe pain in his right shoulder that is “growing progressively worse.” It says Assange’s physician is unable to diagnose the problem without conducting an MRI scan but that the British government refuses to guarantee his safe passage to a hospital. In an additional woe, Assange is in need of a root canal and gum surgery as a result of a cracked tooth, it says.

After a mental-state examination, the report says, Assange is thought to suffer from moderately severe depression.

His bedroom measures only 60 square feet, and he has access to an adjacent room with a desk and treadmill measuring 270 square feet, the report says. The embassy occupies half of the ground floor in a Victorian building in London’s Knightsbridge district.

Assange told the evaluator his sleep has been disrupted on occasion by “banging on the wall or window of his bedroom” by British police who staff surveillance cordons around the embassy.

“Embassy CCTV footage confirmed to Mr. Assange that the bang was external,” the report says, adding that it showed a British police officer throwing an object at his window.

“The incident caused Mr. Assange to feel chronically insecure about going to sleep,” it says, a feeling compounded when he learned that police had occupied an adjacent flat belonging to a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.

WikiLeaks has cast Clinton as someone who wants to see its founder dead.

On Oct. 3, it tweeted a link to a story on the True Pundit website purporting to summarize a meeting between Clinton and senior aides in 2010 as WikiLeaks prepared to release secret military emails about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“ ‘Can’t we just drone this guy?’ Clinton openly inquired, offering a simple remedy to silencing Assange and smother WikiLeaks via a planned military drone strike, according to State Department sources,” the True Pundit story claimed.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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