A US federal judge has ruled that lawyers and journalists, who claim their phones were illegally searched, can seek damages.
A federal judge has ruled that four US nationals can proceed with their lawsuit against the CIA in court. They claim their electronic devices were illegally searched on behalf of the agency when they visited WikiLeaks founder Juilian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The decision by Manhattan-based US District Court Judge John Koeltl on Tuesday relates to a case filed by attorneys Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, as well as John Goetz and Charles Glass – journalists who report on national security issues. Their complaint was initially submitted in August 2022, but the CIA sought to have it dismissed.
The case focuses on events at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2017 and 2018, when the four individuals visited Assange. Undercover Global, the now-defunct Spanish firm hired by the diplomatic mission to provide security, was allegedly compromised by US spies. It had installed secret cameras and microphones to snoop on Assange, and shared personal data about visitors with the CIA, according to press reports and court filings.
The complaint was directed against Undercover Global, its CEO David Morales Guillen, the CIA and its then-director Mike Pompeo. The latter had publicly branded WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service,” and expressed animosity towards Assange. The plaintiffs claim this attitude motivated the agency’s monitoring by a proxy.
Koeltl partially granted the CIA’s request to dismiss, ruling that the plaintiffs could not hold Pompeo personally accountable for alleged violations of their constitutional protection from unreasonable search and seizure. He also struck down their complaints about hidden cameras, but allowed the claims against the agency regarding personal devices to proceed.
According to US media reports, Pompeo’s CIA was prepared to resort to drastic measures in targeting Assange. He was hiding at the embassy over fears of being arrested and extradited to the US. An investigation by Yahoo News based on multiple interviews with agency officials claimed in 2021 that Pompeo had considered various scenarios for getting Assange, including possible kidnapping or assassination.
Ecuador allowed British law enforcement to arrest Assange in 2019, after a new government in Quito revoked his asylum. He has since been detained at a top-security prison. London’s High Court is set to review his final legal bid to stop extradition to the US in February, WikiLeaks announced on Tuesday.