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The documents build on the possibility, raised by special counsel Robert Mueller in his report on Russian meddling, that couriers brought hacked files to Assange at the embassy.
Despite being confined to the embassy while seeking safe passage to Ecuador, Assange met with Russians and world-class hackers at critical moments, frequently for hours at a time. He also acquired powerful new computing and network hardware to facilitate data transfers just weeks before WikiLeaks received hacked materials from Russian operatives.
An Ecuadorian intelligence official told CNN that the surveillance reports are authentic.
The security logs noted that Assange personally managed some of the releases “directly from the embassy” where he lived for nearly seven years. After the election, the private security company prepared an assessment of Assange’s allegiances. That report, which included open-source information, concluded there was “no doubt that there is evidence” that Assange had ties to Russian intelligence agencies.
UC Global did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
WikiLeaks did not respond to requests for comment. Assange’s lawyers declined to comment. Assange maintains his innocence and WikiLeaks says the charges are “the worst attack on press freedom in our lifetime.”
A guest with privileges
Initially the diplomats hoped to take Assange swiftly to Ecuador. But that plan stalled amid British refusals to allow Assange safe passage outside the embassy. So he settled in for a protracted stay.
Though confined to a few rooms inside the embassy, Assange was able to wield enormous authority over his situation. From the outset he demanded (and was granted) high-speed internet connectivity, phone service and regular access to professional visitors and personal guests. This arrangement enabled him to keep WikiLeaks active, the documents said.
Assange also issued a special list of people who were able to enter the embassy without showing identification or being searched by security. He was even granted the power to delete names from the visitor logs. To avoid surveillance cameras, Assange occasionally met guests inside the women’s bathroom, according to the security reports.
This all leaves open the possibility that additional sensitive meetings took place but are still secret.
Quickly, the once-mundane diplomatic mission in the heart of London became a hotbed of tension and suspicion. Throughout Assange’s stay at the embassy, Ecuador employed three security companies to conduct constant surveillance. Assange installed his own recording devices and used noise machines to stymie the snooping, according to the documents obtained by CNN.
Assange also maintained direct contact with senior officials in Ecuador, including former Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, and regularly used those connections to threaten embassy staff, according to the surveillance documents and two Ecuadorian government sources who spoke to CNN. He claimed he could get people fired, even the sitting ambassador.
Assange’s authority appeared at times to rival that of the ambassador. In December 2013, Ambassador Juan Falconí wrote a letter to Assange and said that “you cannot give instructions contrary to mine.”
CNN reached out to the four ambassadors who overlapped with Assange’s time at the embassy. Only Falconí would comment, saying the Ecuadorian government had never pressured him to give Assange special treatment and that he had established rules for Assange to follow.
Several current and former Ecuadorian government officials, including Correa and Patiño, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. While Correa was in office, he responded to criticism over harboring Assange by doubling down on the asylum offer and holding Assange up as a symbol of Ecuador’s commitment to freedom of the press.
Despite the years of strife, Assange was allowed to stay and prepared to wield his power when the moment was right. That moment came in summer 2016, a pivotal time in the US presidential campaign.
Russia comes knocking
Assange was busy back at the embassy. That month, members of the security team worked overtime to handle at least 75 visits to Assange, nearly double the monthly average of visits logged by the security company that year. He met Russian citizens and a hacker later flagged in the Mueller report as a potential courier for emails stolen from the Democrats.
Assange took at least seven meetings that month with Russians and others with Kremlin ties, according to the visitor logs.
Two encounters were with a Russian national named Yana Maximova, who could not be reached for comment. Almost nothing is known about Maximova, making it difficult to discern why she visited the embassy at key moments in June 2016. During her two visits that month, she met with Assange in the middle of the day in the embassy’s conference room.
Assange also had five meetings that month with senior staffers from RT, the Kremlin-controlled news organization.
In June 2016, RT’s London bureau chief, Nikolay Bogachikhin, visited Assange twice, and gave him a USB drive on one occasion, according to the surveillance reports. That five-minute visit was hastily arranged and required last-minute approval from the Ecuadorian ambassador.
In an email to CNN, Bogachikhin said, “RT has produced multiple programming featuring Mr. Assange. Within that process, everything that is intrinsically involved in the production of content took place.”
This was the same day Assange and his lawyers met with then-Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Guillaume Long, according to the surveillance reports. Long declined to comment for this story.
It’s unclear whether Assange told the Ecuadorians that WikiLeaks was working behind the scenes to acquire documents related to the US election. The US government has never publicly accused Ecuador of knowingly helping Assange or the Kremlin.
Creating chaos from the embassy
It’s unclear whether Mueller ever obtained these surveillance reports as part of his investigation.
The special counsel named one of those associates, German hacker Andrew Müller-Maguhn, and said he “may have assisted with the transfer of these stolen documents to WikiLeaks.” The Mueller report appears to contain additional details about this possibility, but those portions were redacted because they contain classified information about sensitive investigative techniques.
According to the surveillance reports, Müller-Maguhn visited Assange at the London embassy at least 12 times before the 2016 election. During a few of those meetings, Müller-Maguhn was accompanied by another well-known German hacker, Bernd Fix, the reports said. CNN was unable to reach Fix for comment.
The Mueller report says that on July 6, WikiLeaks reached out to the Russian online personas with a request to send anything “hillary related” as soon as possible, “because the (Democratic National Convention) is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after,” referring to her opponent in the Democratic primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The trio of hackers — Assange, Müller-Maguhn and Fix — then gathered on July 14 for more than four hours on, according to the security logs. The special counsel’s report indicates that on this date, Russian hackers posing as Guccifer 2.0 sent encrypted files to WikiLeaks, with the title “big archive.”
The security company saw this unfold on surveillance footage and recommended that the guard be replaced. But the Ecuadorian government kept him on the job.
On that same day, according to the Mueller report, WikiLeaks informed the Russian hackers that it had received the files and was preparing to release them soon. It’s not clear if these incidents are related, and the contents of the package delivered to the embassy are unknown.
As Democrats tried to manage the fallout, Trump quickly upped the ante.
‘You won’t be disappointed’
While Trump and Clinton crisscrossed the country in the final weeks of the campaign, the Russians ramped up their efforts, and Assange was toiling away on another major project.
Russian hackers, posing as DCLeaks, had reached out again to WikiLeaks and offered more materials, writing that “you won’t be disappointed, I promise,” according to the Mueller report. They later transmitted 50,000 emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s inbox.
The special counsel report pinpoints a potential date for the data transfer: September 19. On that day, Assange met again with Müller-Maguhn and the security guards observed Assange installing new computer cables in his room, according to the documents obtained by CNN.
Trump touted the new leaks at nearly every stop on the campaign trail in the final weeks of the race, sometimes reading directly from emails and seizing on thinly sourced conspiracy theories.
“This just came out — WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks,” Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state that he carried by less than 1% of the 6.1 million votes cast statewide.
Kremlin-backed outlets, including RT, breathlessly amplified the leaks on social media. On at least two occasions, RT even published articles detailing the new batches of emails before WikiLeaks officially released them, suggesting that they were coordinating behind the scenes, which they deny.
Not long after the Podesta emails began trickling out, with the election fast approaching, the US government raised concerns with Ecuadorian officials that Assange was using their diplomatic mission in London to help the Russians interfere in the 2016 election, a former US official familiar with the matter told CNN.
The US protest came with an implicit warning: Stop Assange or there will be consequences for Ecuador, just like there would eventually be consequences for the Russians for meddling in the election, and for Assange too, according to the US official and documents obtained by CNN.
Facing this ultimatum, Ecuadorian officials in the capital city of Quito decided on October 15 to cut Assange off from the outside world, shutting down his internet access and telephone service. Even this didn’t stop the deluge of email releases, which WikiLeaks continued pumping out every day until the election.
Within an hour of Abad’s departure, he called the embassy and reversed the ban.
By 1 a.m., two WikiLeaks personnel arrived at the embassy and started removing computer equipment as well as a large box containing “about 100 hard drives,” according to the documents.
Security officials on site wanted to examine the hard drives, but their hands were tied. The Assange associates who removed the boxes were on the special list of people who couldn’t be searched. The security team sent a memo back to Quito raising red flags about this late-night maneuver and said it heightened their suspicions about Assange’s intentions.
Trump was inaugurated in January 2017 and continued to question whether Russia had meddled in the election. Assange’s internet access was restored after the election, and he continued to meet with hackers as well as an American lobbyist representing a prominent Russian oligarch.
In Ecuador, Correa’s presidential term ended in May 2017 and he was succeeded by Lenín Moreno, a close ally who had been his vice president for more than six years. But after Moreno was elected, he quickly turned against Correa and started undoing many of his policies, including his friendly relationship with Assange.
Justice Department lawyers secretly prepared a criminal case against Assange for the Chelsea Manning leaks. Federal prosecutors even turned to a controversial law to target Assange for actively soliciting and publishing classified materials, which is typically protected under the First Amendment.
In April of this year, Moreno revoked Assange’s asylum and said Assange had “violated the norm of not intervening in internal affairs of other states.” This cleared the way for British police to forcibly remove Assange from the embassy when the first US charges were unsealed.
Assange hasn’t been accused of any crimes related to his actions in 2016. He remains in a UK prison, awaiting what will likely be a grueling battle over his extradition to the US, where he could face spending the rest of his life in prison.
CNN’s Laura Weffer, Alfredo Meza and Evan Perez contributed to this report.
Timeline graphics by Tal Yellin. Illustration by Will Mullery.