Staff and security guards at the Ecuadorian embassy are keeping minute-by-minute records and filing daily official reports on the activities of their long-term guest Julian Assange. The documents, marked “secret”, reveal the occasionally fraught relationship between the WikiLeaks chief and his hosts, laying out details of clashes with embassy staff, concerns over Assange’s psychological health, and potential escape plans.
The details are contained in a series of internal documents of the Ecuadorian government seen by BuzzFeed News and initially reported on by the journalist Fernando Villavicencio. BuzzFeed News has independently corroborated several details from within the documents.
Assange has been unable to leave the embassy, a small flat in Kensington, since seeking asylum there in June 2012. The WikiLeaks editor-in-chief faced extradition to Sweden for questioning over allegations of rape and sexual assault, although he cited potential U.S. prosecution over the publication of leaked documents from Chelsea Manning as his reason for flight.
The documents seen by BuzzFeed News detail two particular flare-ups in the embassy’s tight confines. The first (PDF) took place in September 2012, just three months after Assange first took up residency.
A security guard was on duty at around 8:30pm on 6 September, when Assange was in the embassy with two associates. Around this time, the guard discovered that Assange had made his way into the embassy’s secure control room – a room strictly off-limits to him – and started tampering with the security equipment. This led to a scuffle between Assange and the guard that caused damage to the embassy’s equipment.
The report then details conflicting accounts of what happened. According to the security guard’s account, Assange was asked to stop messing with the embassy’s systems and to leave the secure room, which he initially refused to do.
The guard alleges that Assange then punched over a computer monitor before grabbing him by the shirt. This led, according to the guard, to an altercation for a number of minutes that spilled out into the corridor.
Assange’s account lays the blame on the security guard, who he claimed had accosted him.
A filmmaker who was present for the incident, the report notes, told embassy staff he did not see the beginning of the scuffle, but that Assange was “out of control” and very upset, and clearly wanted to be verbally offensive and to provoke a reaction.
Embassy staff, including the ambassador and two security officials described only as “Mr White” and “Mr Blue”, had a meeting to discuss the incident the following day. In sections of the report marked as analysis and recommendations, the author notes that Assange — described as “Mr Guest” — knows “what the limits of his movements are inside the embassy”.
The section continues by noting that “we cannot allow these incidents to be repeated, nor any further attacks against personnel who work for the embassy”. The report acknowledges the stress Assange was under, due to both his confinement and the presence of “more than 20 British agents posted outside the building”, and recommends further psychological support.
However, just a few months later a separate report (PDF) notes a similar incident of seemingly erratic behaviour from the WikiLeaks chief shortly before dawn on 4 January 2013.
The report painstakingly notes Assange’s movements from minute to minute – further evidence of how closely the Ecuadorians monitored “Mr Guest” – reporting that he seemed to wake at 6:05 that morning. Then, just five minutes later, the security guard heard a loud crash from Assange’s room.
Assange came to the door, assuring the on-duty guard that everything was fine, but (according to the guard’s account) seeming to try to block his view of the room’s interior. A few minutes later, Assange left the room carrying his laptop into a nearby room designated as his bathroom, where he remained for a period of hours.
During this time, the memo continues, the guard was able to see inside Assange’s bedroom, where a large, smashed bookshelf was strewn across the room. The guard took photographs of the room’s condition.
The room visible in the photos from the secret Ecuadorian report clearly matches the one in an August 2013 Juice Rap News video featuring Assange during his bid to run for the Australian senate (Assange’s embassy room is visible in the video between 3:42 and 4:16).
Additonal photo of room:
Assange later told embassy staff that the bookshelf had fallen over of its own accord, according to the same memo, but this seemingly did little to assuage their concerns about the wellbeing of Assange or those around him. As before, the incident was passed up the embassy’s chain of command – reference is made to a daily report on his activities – including, once again, “Mr White” and “Mr Blue”.
The report notes with concern a regular comment in “internal daily reports” on Assange recording his tendency to “shout and talk incoherently” at night, attributed to night terrors.
It then goes on to note: “This episode is nothing more than the result of the stress that Mr Assange could be feeling as a result of his isolation.
“If it’s clear that his situation could result in psychological harm because of the circumstances in which he finds himself, it’s equally clear that there is no protocol that might help avoid or minimise this.”
The report continues in quite a critical manner as to Assange’s intrinsic “nature”, independent of his stressful situation, stating that his “evident anger” and “feelings of superiority” could cause stress to those around him — “especially the personnel who work in the embassy, mainly women”.
It adds that the stress on those personnel also stems from media pressure, police, and “most worryingly, the hard core of people who are either for or against Mr Assange’s cause”, risking the embassy’s capacity to function as usual.
The report contains multiple recommendations to improve the situation, including a proposal from “Mr Blue” for regular assessments of Assange’s physical and mental health, regular meetings with Assange’s confidantes to assess his demeanour and state of mind, and efforts to prevent Assange becoming isolated.
The report also notes a need to “control access to alcohol”.
Other documents set out the external security challenges faced by the Ecuadorians through the activities of the Metropolitan police, who at one point had up to 50 officers in and around the building containing the embassy.
A 2012 presentation shows handwritten instructions to officers at the scene – embarrassingly caught by a photographer’s long lens and made public – instructing them on what to do if Assange emerged from the embassy.
“Action required – Assange to be arrested under all circumstances,” it states. “He comes out with dip[lomatic] immunity, as dip bag, in dip bag (risk to life) in dip vehicle. ARRESTED.”
Asked whether the Metropolitan police would violate diplomatic immunity to arrest Assange, a Met spokesperson said: “Our objective is to arrest Julian Assange for breach of bail. Under no circumstances would an arrest be made in breach of diplomatic immunity.”
In the Ecuadorian slides, the police orders are translated into Spanish and given a short analysis before a later slide sets out a series of options of ways to get Assange out of the UK.
The first option considered was to obtain diplomatic immunity for Assange by making him Ecuador’s representative to the UN. While there was a risk that the UN General Assembly could revoke this status, the report notes that this would take some time, which could be exploited to get Assange on to Ecuadorian territory.
A second consideration was to attempt to smuggle Assange out in an inviolable diplomatic car. However, the officials concluded that this would probably be impossible as Scotland Yard had even placed officers inside the embassy building, which was shared with other tenants.
“Police are located in the hall, on the stairs, and the exits of the lifts,” it states. “The British police can be found in all the routes that would allow Assange to take a diplomatic car.”
Elsewhere the document notes that officers had come still closer: “Last night (28/08/2012), security at the Ecuadorian embassy had to remove a policeman who entered without permission, in the department above the embassy.”
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan police declined to respond to a query on the incident.
Another option for exfiltrating Assange considered by embassy staff was to put him in a diplomatic bag, considered inviolable by treaty, but only if they solely contain documents relating to the normal practice of an embassy.
Officials dismissed this plan as they knew police outside the embassy had “advanced technology that can detect body heat”. Elsewhere, embassy staff had noted a police van across the road from the embassy was “bombarding” the building with microwaves, and was capable in the view of staff of collecting most if not all signals from within.
The final plan contemplated on the slide was that of a “discreet exit”.
“Assange could leave in fancy dress,” the document suggests, “or try to escape across the rooftops towards a nearby helipad, or get lost among the people in Harrods.”
In the event, it seems none of the plans were followed through. Three years later, Assange remains in the embassy.
Operation Hotel & SENAIN
Operation Hotel (PDF) was designed in three phases by the Ecuadorian intelligence agency (SENAIN) with three specific objectives: to generate adequate living conditions for the “guest”, to resume full activities at the Embassy to avoid possible information leakage and to optimise the security processes in the diplomatic home quarters.
Phase I sought to guarantee the conditions under which Assange was staying at the Embassy and prepare a plan for a possible attack which could force the “guest” and his security team to evacuate in case of a deliberate fire and the ensuing smoke ; it even prepared for a situation in which the opposing force could use hidden chemical agents obliging the “guest” to go outside for lack of oxygen.
At this stage the technical adjustments to the site, such as installing a shower in the bathroom, carpentry and painting services in areas that would be available to Assange were also made. In addition, a meticulous record of all the people working in every area of the Embassy was kept, especially of those who were close to him.
“We understand that Mr. Guest is used to interact with the Embassy staff, especially those with whom he has a lot of contacts and a friendly relationship”, stated the SENAIN report. There was so much control around him that part of the Operation Hotel strategy was to limit the contacts he had with the embassy employees. It was even determined that it was very important that those who provided security inside the embassy should speak Spanish, to ensure they would be able to communicate without any problems and thus ensuring a basic communication only with the “guest.”
In some instances, the “guest” requested that he be able to chose his own Security Service inside the embassy, suggesting the use of Russians. For the SENAIN agents, such choice would have meant, among other problems, the loss of control of the Embassy itself leaving the “guest” free access to control and manage the flow of information. The report even asserts that it would have been the equivalent of “a coup in the embassy.”
During Phase II of this surveillance operation, the aim would be to strengthen measures, protocols and security systems designed to match the level of sensitivity of the situation in which the Embassy and its occupants found themselves, and also to visually and technically improve the safety measures as well as the screening of the staff and the detection of leaks.
The report stresses that “From a tactical point of view , the use of viewing and listening devices, as well as monitoring and surveillance tools created a containment situation with the opposing forces”
In Phase II, not only recording video and audio systems would be implemented but also the freedom of the guest’s movements would be restricted, especially the way he used to come in and out as well as his nocturnal activities in the offices and annexes, such as the ambassador’s and consul’s offices, because the risks meant a serious lack of security concerning the possibility of leaks of confidential or proprietary information to which Assange could have access to and which should be restricted.
These measures, which were as part of Operation Hotel, are an indication of the level of distrust that the regime of Rafael Correa had for Julian Assange. The following is an excerpt from the report: “Mr. Guest is a host at the Embassy, he is not a member of the staff and should not participate or interfere in the activities of the Embassy, so he must be kept away from activities that are the exclusive responsibility of the management of the diplomatic mission of Ecuador in London. ”
Some of the public activities around the presence of Assange in the Embassy of Ecuador in London were entrusted to the American/Venezuelan lawyer and journalist Eva Golinger, through a contract of service signed with the Ministry.
The Embassy staff had been really worried about the activities of the refugee, because in one of the paragraphs it is mentioned a need “to regain control and manage the necessary protocols to create the state of security needed to allow and redirect the actions in a positive and correct fashion. ”
Inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London there is an hostile environment and concern, together with the fact that the day to day activities are constantly interrupted. The report also reveals that the personality of Julian constantly clashes with the security agents who have to execute the orders and implement the processes.
The report shows that the monitoring levels applied to the “guest”‘s circle of people were very high, this was also the case for one of the painters who worked on the conversion of the apartments during Phase I of this operation. Rafael Paez had previously worked on the carpentry, masonry and other fixtures for Phase II of Operation Hotel.
The bizarre thing is that there was a second person with the same job. The following is an excerpt from the report that reveals the painstaking surveillance process concerning Assange. “The other person is an acquaintance of Silvia Almeida’s, the accountant, (they attend the same church, apparently he is quite religious. The Seguridad Diplomática guards believe he is a bit fanatical and spends all day singing religious songs and talking about God). The peculiar thing is that he said that he once belonged to the guerrillas in El Salvador and had lost three children to the war. It is worth finding out a bit more about Silvia Almeida’s religious connections. ”
Another person mentioned in this report is José María Guijarro (Txema), Under-Secretary for Africa, Asia and Oceania, who has commented that the “guest “had problems with his vision because his field of vision was limited to the dimensions of his room or his computer screen. It was recommended to let him go to the ambassador’s office at night so he could look out the window to alleviate his vision problem.
The report describes in detail that the cameras and systems used for the development of Phase II were exceptional first-generation equipment for the “control and supervision” of this diplomatic mission.
One of the paragraphs in the report directly refers to Julian Assange’s surveillance within the Ecuadorian Embassy. “If the Government of Ecuador finally decided the realization of such actions (obtaining information directly, espionage) they should be part of other operational parameters to avoid potential repercussions towards the Embassy once it was realised that such actions were taking place from inside the embassy itself. ”
Both the WikiLeaks team and the people trusted by Assange were subjected to the restriction of movements and controlled by the staff. According to this document, the intelligence inside the Embassy identified one Benjamin Griffin, British, former British Army soldier and a member of the SAS Special Forces as Assange’s personal trainer. The SENAIN assumed that “he is a potential threat in terms of the information he could have access to and/or provide to third parties because we do not have complete assurance that he does not have any more links to the British military establishment. ”
Given all these constraints, the “guest” had requested that the security installations be audited; the said auditor would have been part of Assange’s team, and at this stage, SENAIN voiced their disagreement on the grounds that such action would involve the transfer of all the keys as well as the systems’ configurations. “This would be another serious violation of the security protocol because neither Mr Guest nor his team can guarantee that the information obtained would not end up in the hands of third parties or used against the interests of Ecuador” says SENAIN.
“This audit requested by Mr Guest would represent a high operational risk, as well as a risk for the ambassador, since the agency in Salamanca would not be able to monitor and control the video surveillance and recording systems, in as much as it would enable the uncontrolled distribution of images which could potentially be counter-productive in regards of Ecuador’s political actions (although initially they could advance Mr. Guest’s cause) ” the report said.
As an example of the recommendations made by Assange, there is one which is particularly striking. He asked for his personal boxing trainer Ben Grifin to take part in supervising the installation of the security system.
It is estimated that at the beginning, Assange’s fame and the global impact of the asylum request itself created a special preferential context for the “guest”, a situation which changed when certain excesses were curtailed and a code of internal living standards was implemented. ”
“We understand that Mr. Guest is used to interact with the Embassy staff, especially those with whom he gets on well.
Understandably, he is also looking to establish similar relationships with the security agents, but this falls outside of the mission’s parameters which are set to maintain a strict protocol of interaction with all the people from outside the Embassy (mainly him and his guests), and up to then everybody enjoyed full freedom of movements inside (without any restrictions) but in some instances, non standard behaviour was witnessed in the building (consumption of alcoholic beverages in the lobby of the Embassy during working hours, walking barefoot through the Embassy during business hours, festive gatherings, inappropriate dress code, etc) and these actions could have had dire consequences in terms of the image of the Diplomatic Delegation and its mission in London and the same could be said of Mr Guest and his cause, ” it reads.
In August 2012, former ambassador Ana Alban implemented a special protocol to regulate the “Guest”‘s activities:
- Visiting hours will be between 08H00 and 19H00.
- Visitors need to show the diplomatic security agents some kind of photo ID.
- The Red Permit visitors will have to go though all the Diplomatic Security electronic systems for the duration of their visit at the Embassy.
- The “Guest”‘s visitors are his responsibility and his team’s and they must ensure that the visitors comply with the Embassy rules and regulations at all times.
- The consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited inside the Embassy. It is allowed with moderation in the “Guest’s room” as long as no one leaves the room carrying a drink and as long as their behaviour is professional and suitable for an Embassy environment.
- Recordings within the Embassy are prohibited without the Ambassador’s or the National Secretary of Communications’ prior permission.
- Under no circumstances should anyone be allowed inside the control room of the Embassy apart from the Ambassador and the diplomatic security team, this room is where privileged information, the secret files of the Embassy and the security systems, are kept.
- Visitors will have to stay inside the Guest’s quarters, they can only go out if they need the bathroom or leave the Embassy premises.
And obviously, there was also the distrust of the Ecuadorian government with respect to the specific interests of Assange and WikiLeaks; “We take note that Ecuador’s and Mr Guest’s agendas and interests maybe be aligned, but sometimes they may not converge and they may also be inconsistent with the policy of Ecuador,” said one of the documents.
There is very little information regarding Phase III apart from the fact that “it will be implemented taking into account other solutions, to strengthen the security of the site and its users’.”
An anecdote in the reports dated early September 4th 2012, records the moment when the Scotland Yard guards were changing shifts, they were in the alley facing the guest’s window where two police vans used to transport the guards are parked.
During the change over, the officers were in a festive mood and joking amongst themselves about the “guest”‘s situation when suddenly one of them reached into his pocket, took a coin and threw it at the guest’s window, hitting one of the panes. According to the report, this incident upset the guest, who wanted to use the pictures and publish them on the net to illustrate Scotland Yard’s aggression. The lawyer recommended that the Embassy should not complain, as it could be used against the Embassy by highlighting the use of special cameras and video equipment to monitor the London police.
The documents published here are part of a comprehensive report in the possession of Ecuadorian National Assembly member Cynthia Viteri, regarding surveillance activities carried out by SENAIN at the Embassy in London.
The Ecuadorian embassy did not respond to requests for comment or clarification on any aspect of the documents, although the spokesperson for Scotland Yard said the embassy had been in contact with them about the enquiry. WikiLeaks did not respond to a request for comment.
Assange responded to the media reports in a brief one-line statement on Wednesday, saying: “Yet another predictably false attack in the media during the run-up to the launch next week of our new book on the US-UK relationship The WikiLeaks Files.”
Bella Magnani (@BellaMagnani) September 01, 2015
Fernando Villavicencio, who initially reported on Assange’s embassy stay in Spanish for Ecuador Focus, has recently submitted allegations of persecution against him by Ecuador’s government to the UN.