Journalists and lawyers have sued the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its former director, Mike Pompeo, over allegations that they were placed under surveillance when they met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
The lawsuit, filed in a New York District Court on Monday, alleges that the CIA violated their privacy rights by having their conversations recorded and data from their phones and computers copied. Plaintiffs include journalists Charles Glass and John Goetz, as well as lawyers Margaret Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, who have represented Assange.
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“The United States Constitution shields American citizens from US government overreach even when the activities take place in a foreign embassy in a foreign country,” said Richard Roth, the main lawyer representing the group.
Monday’s lawsuit represents the latest installment in a years-long battle between Assange and the US government that has ignited debate over press freedom, US foreign policy, and surveillance.
The CIA, the US foreign intelligence service, is prohibited by law from collecting intelligence on US citizens. Still, lawmakers have alleged that the agency maintains a clandestine database with such data. Roth said that the alleged spying would mean that Assange’s right to a fair trial had been “tainted, if not destroyed”.
“There should be sanctions, even up to dismissal of those charges, or withdrawal of an extradition request in response to these blatantly unconstitutional activities,” Roth said.
Assange has appealed to the High Court in London in an attempt to block his extradition to the US, where he could face criminal charges in a legal battle that has gone on for more than 10 years.
In the filing, the journalists and lawyers said that they were compelled to hand over their electronic devices to Undercover Global SL, a private security contractor at the embassy at the time, before they met with Assange.
They allege that the company then copied that data and passed it along to the CIA, then headed by Pompeo. Undercover Global and its Chief Executive David Morales Guillen are also named in the lawsuit.
Assange lived in the Ecuadorean embassy for seven years before being removed and imprisoned in 2019.
The founder of WikiLeaks, which published clandestine documents showing evidence of US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, is wanted in the US on 18 charges, such as spying. Under the Espionage Act, Assange could be sentenced to 175 years in prison.
The US alleges that by publishing vast troves of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables, Assange put lives in danger.
His supporters counter that he is being marked for punishment by the US government because he helped expose wrongdoing by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, actions they maintain the public has a right to know.
Others have said that publishing classified documents is an essential part of journalism and that the charges against Assange could lay the groundwork for wider assaults on press freedom.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is among those who have taken up Assange’s cause and has offered him asylum, but the US government has tenaciously pursued Assange across several presidential administrations.