© Peter Nicholls/Reuters/MI6/KJNJulian Assange
February 20/21st could mark WikiLeaks founder-and-chief Julian Assange's final opportunity to avoid extradition to the US. London's High Court has scheduled two days of arguments over whether he can ask an appeals court to block his transfer Stateside. If unsuccessful, he could be sent across the Atlantic, where he faces prosecution under Washington's draconian Espionage Act, and penalties ranging from 175 years in a "supermax" prison, to death, for exposing the lies and crimes of US global empire.

It is the most important press freedom case of all time. Yet, at no point during Julian's seven years of arbitrary detention in London's Ecuadorian embassy, or five years at His Majesty's Pleasure in Belmarsh Prison, Britain's "Gitmo", have the mainstream media or international human rights groups taken a serious interest in his plight. Many Western citizens - including those who had hitherto full-throatedly supported WikiLeaks, and Julian's crusade against official secrecy - were also indifferent over, if not outright supportive of, his violent explusion from the Ecuadorian embassy.

Much of this conspiracy of silence and apathy can be attributed to a concerted campaign of calumny, incubated in London and Washington DC, designed to extinguish public sympathy for Julian. As Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, wrote in a June 2019 op-ed Western media refused to publish, he was "systematically slandered to divert attention from the crimes he exposed," and once he'd been "dehumanized through isolation, ridicule and shame, just like the witches we used to burn at the stake, it was easy to deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide."

A prominent libel against Julian was that he operated upon the orders, and in the interests, of the Kremlin. Built up as an omnipotent villain on the world stage following the February 2014 Western-sponsored Maidan coup in Ukraine, and all manner of domestic political upheaval in Europe and North America small and large framed as somehow Moscow-orchestrated ever after, anyone and anything branded as even vaguely sympathetic to Russia automatically became an FSB and/or GRU chaos agent.

When British police forcibly hauled Julian handcuffed out of the Ecuadorian embassy, many mainstream outlets - and a great many Russiagaters - cheered, believing he would soon be indicted for his GRU-assisted role in subverting the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. No such charges have been forthcoming. And in September 2021, Yahoo News inadvertently let an incongruous cat out of the bag. The outlet revealed the CIA had explored plans to surveil, kidnap, and even kill Julian while he was ensconced in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The explosive report was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media - although one fundamental aspect of the article even its advocates and promoters largely overlooked was the disclosure that the CIA possessed no evidence Julian or WikiLeaks had any ties whatsoever with Russia. "Difficulty" in proving he or his organization had operated "at the direct behest of the Kremlin" was reportedly a "major factor" when, in April 2017, Mike Pompeo, then-C.I.A. director, designated WikiLeaks a "non-state hostile intelligence service." That unfounded assertion opened the floodgates for the Agency's untrammeled surveillance, harassment, and persecution of Julian and his collaborators. It also served as justification for its assassination plots.

There is another dimension to this mephitic myth that has largely remained unexplored. Integrity Initiative, a covert British intelligence information warfare operation, was pivotal to perpetuating the narrative of Julian as Kremlin asset. This sordid tale reveals just how flimsy Western propaganda campaigns are concocted and then disseminated through compliant media. Now, with Julian facing extradition to the US, it has never been more urgent to expose.

Killing Hope

A major component of the Integrity Initiative scandal was the organisation's construction of cloak-and-dagger "clusters". These were - and may well remain today - clandestine networks of journalists, scholars, politicians and military and intelligence operatives, which the Initiative could mobilise to disseminate black propaganda, therefore influencing policy and perceptions, targeting domestic and overseas adversaries. One little-known example of the potency of clusters was an aggressive campaign to falsely connect Julian with the Kremlin.

The Initiative's Spanish cluster was particularly instrumental in this regard. The largest and most influential of any Initiative cluster outside the UK, its ranks include a number of prominent journalists, academics, think tank representatives, lawmkaers from several parties, government ministers, and military officials.

Initiative documents leaked in November 2018 by Anonymous, the "hacktivist" collective, detail how this nexus has successfully subverted the Spanish political process. There is, for instance, the case of Pedro Baños, a colonel in the Spanish army and formerly chief of counterintelligence and security for the European Army Corps. His fate is highly relevant to the Initiative's role in framing Assange as a Russian asset.

In June 2018, the spook-staffed Initiative learned Madrid's governing Socialist Workers' Party was to appoint Baños director of Spain's National Security Department, roughly the equivalent of the US Department of Homeland Security. Baños had repeatedly appeared on RT and Sputnik in the months prior, and publicly called for constructive, harmonious relations between the European Union and Moscow.

The Initiative couldn't tolerate his appointment to such an influential post. Within hours of learning this confidential information, the Spanish cluster covertly passed dossiers on the colonel to local and international media outlets and activated its overseas clusters to publish negative comments about the proposed move on social media, to "generate international support" for its blockage.

The Initiative's London-based team also set up a dedicated WhatsApp group "to coordinate Twitter response, get contacts to expand awareness and get people retweeting the material."

The cluster, moreover, sent material to El País and El Mundo, leading Spanish dailies. Representatives of the People's Party — which has cluster operatives within its ranks — and Ciudadanos, another centrist party, publicly called for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to block the appointment, while some Spanish diplomats also expressed their "concerns." As the day drew to a close, it was confirmed Baños was no longer in the running for the post.

Conducting destabilizing information operations in Spain hadn't always been so easy for the Initiative. An internal file - "Why is it so difficult to address the Russia issue in Spain, and what should be done?" - spells out in some detail the issues the organisation hitherto encountered in this regard. Foremost among these, Moscow "[wasn't] perceived as a problem affecting Spain's national security," not least because the two countries had no history of conflict that can be exploited to terrify and rile the Spanish public.

"Pro-Russian narratives" were said to "often [pervade] at all levels" of Spanish society. Citizens and officials alike widely believed Moscow was "humiliated" in the 1990s, when Western powers broke clear agreements on NATO expansion, and that Russia has "a natural right" to a sphere of regional influence.

Overwhelmingly, Russia was seen in Spain "as a potential source of investment, tourism and business opportunities" rather than a hostile adversary, and politicians, journalists, diplomats, and citizens were moreover keen to pursue dialogue with Moscow, to "explore ways to restore [Europe's] relationship with the Kremlin," with "a tougher line from the EU or NATO" on Russia "mostly seen as counterproductive or even dangerous."

Quite an insurmountable state of affairs - until Julian's public commentary on the Catalonian independence vote in 2017. This handed the organisation all the ammunition it needed to bogusly present Moscow as a grave threat to Spanish democracy and territorial integrity, while simultaneously reinforcing the spook-concocted charge that the WikiLeaks founder was a Russian operative.

'Close Eye on the Crisis'

The autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia held a referendum on independence on October 1st 2017. Madrid declared the vote illegal and, in the weeks leading up to polling day, police cracked down on numerous large-scale protests. Photos and videos of these tumultuous scenes spread widely on social media. Many civic organizations and high-profile figures disseminated news of these protests and police actions. Among this throng was Julian. His Twitter posts attracted thousands of retweets worldwide and were referenced in a number of RT and Sputnik reports on the events unfolding in Barcelona.

As the time came for citizens to go to the polls, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González asked Grupo PRISA - Spain's most powerful media conglomerate and owner of El País, the country's second-largest newspaper - to issue a "firm response" to the independence movement, "given the seriousness of the situation."

El País duly began publishing extremely critical articles on the Catalonian situation on a daily basis. Among other things, these reports inferred the independence movement was somehow directed, financed, or influenced by Russia, and Spain more broadly was subject to a dastardly Kremlin interference campaign, via bots and trolls on social media and "fake news", at the very head of which Julian sat.

The degree to which El País was influenced by the Initiative prior to the referendum isn't certain. But subsequently, the organisation circulated
"a major study on Russian influence in the Catalan referendum process...privately to key influencers in Spain, including the Prime Minister's office, and throughout Europe on the Integrity Initiative network."
A briefing note, "Framing Russian meddling in the Catalan question," offered "insights, background information and suggestions to contextualize and interpret (likely) Russian meddling in Spain."

The paper's headline claims were markedly bold. The Kremlin had "activated its propaganda apparatus" - including Julian and Edward Snowden - to "contribute to destabilizing Spain." Catalan pro-independence activists - who formed part of an "extensive network of pawns" cultivated by the Kremlin overseas — may have somehow "bought Assange's support."

Evidence presented for these bombastic charges was nonexistent. For example, a small number of tweets posted by Julian in Catalan, which implied a decent knowledge of the independence movement's history, purportedly suggested persons unknown could have been feeding him the information.

Likewise, Vladimir Putin's reference to the referendum in a speech was alleged to have insidiously "conferred some legitimacy" on the vote. This was despite the Russian president vociferously backing Madrid in that oratory, while declaring the unfolding crisis "an internal affair of the Kingdom of Spain." The Initiative inexplicably branded this banal diplomatic boilerplate a "subtle" indication the Kremlin was "keeping a close eye on the crisis."

Such paltry conspiratorial conjecture led the organization to conclude, "a classic control and absorption mechanism of the KGB" had been deployed to support the independence movement and disrupt Spain to further Moscow's propaganda narratives "about a dysfunctional, weakening and almost collapsing EU".

This bunkum was cited in a number of mainstream media articles, including an El País piece written by its editor, David Alandete. The fictional narrative that online support for Catalan independence was a Russian plot fronted by Julian conclusively minted, a trickle of disinformation became a deluge, with El País leading the charge. It published stories on the topic almost every day for weeks thereafter replete with slick charts and graphics, widely recycled by other news outlets.

All that hubbub, combined with the Initiative's dodgy dossier reaching the desks of high-ranking politicians in Madrid, was surely instrumental in Spain's defense and foreign ministers announcing in November 2017 Russian-based Twitter accounts had used social media "to massively publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion behind it" in the lead-up to the referendum.

'Exceptionally Misleading'

So it was that the next month, Alandete was invited to present his findings to the British Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which was conducting an inquiry into "fake news." Julian had been invited to testify separately, but this was rescinded after an intervention from the Foreign Office.

Accompanying Alandete were Francisco de Borja Lasheras, director of the European Council on Foreign Relation's Madrid office, and Mira Milosevich-Juaristi, senior fellow for Russia and Euroasia at Elcano Institute. Both were - are? - members of Integrity Initiative's Spanish cluster.

The panel of lawmakers was, to say the least, a receptive audience. With the Catalan Assembly elections mere days away, the Committee thought it "a particularly interesting time to discuss this issue." Chair Damian Collins also appears to have attended an Integrity Initiative event convened in February 2016.

The Spanish trio's assertions met no challenge or criticism, as they rattled off virtually verbatim various bogus hypotheses and claims from the Initiative's briefing paper. Milosevich-Juaristi declared, "the complexity of the combination of different instruments used during the referendum in Catalonia" - including Julian's social media activities - meant it was "impossible" there wasn't a determined Kremlin hybrid warfare strategy at work in the breakaway region. She nonethless admitted, "I do not have material to justify that."

Still, the Spaniards easily convinced the Committee that, "Russian interference was so huge and so oppressive that you could not move for it." The parliamentarians asked whether Moscow had sought to interfere with the referendum's outcome, or if there was ANY OTHER specific objective in RT and Sputnik's coverage of the violent scenes that unfolded in Barcelona. The witnesses were at a loss. Lasheras repeatedly stated, "we have no specific evidence," and "we do not know," while Alandete unconvincingly contended the only evidence he could provide was that Russian state-affiliated media organizations had reported on the events in the first place.

These admissions prompted no criticism or challenge from the Committee. Still, Labour MP Paul Farrelly fleetingly raised some vital points:
"The question is how much influence has [Russian media] got? How much should it be blamed for the bad reflections it has for instance on the image of Spain, compared with the actions of the Spanish government that fed it in the first place? What emphasis should we place on that, compared with the actions that have been tweeted and shared around the world?"
Alandete repeatedly claimed to not understand the question, so Farrelly simply said "it doesn't matter," and moved on, a staggering capitulation on an absolutely key question that no study of alleged "fake news" or "disinformation" has ever adequately countenanced. Still, while the lawmakers clearly weren't interested in seriously probing the trio's assertions, hacker and activist MC McGrath was, and submitted a detailed, withering assessment to the Committee in response.

McGrath "scrutinized their testimony, along with other publications about Russian interference in Catalonia" the Spanish trio supplied. This included articles published by El País and Elcano Institute. They identified "numerous instances of misinterpretation of data sources, use of inaccurate information, lack of attention to detail, and poor research methodology," which resulted in "exceptionally misleading" conclusions being presented to the parliamentary panel.

The sheer scale of the lies, distortions, exaggerations, misrepresentations and "exceptionally poor attention to detail" uncovered by McGrath is quite extraordinary. For example, numerous El País reports alleged there was a "suspiciously large" number of tweets about Catalonia from Russian bots and trolls, in particular retweets of RT and Sputnik, as well as Julian's personal account.

However, McGrath's analysis of 23,418 retweets of Julian's posts discussing Catalonia in September and October showed just 2.1% emanated from accounts located in Russia. This was entirely in line with world population ratios, and in no way indicated "disproportionate interest in the situation in Catalonia" from Moscow. In fact, those retweeting Julian were overwhelmingly based in the US.

Even more damningly, McGrath found Julian featured in just 17 of 596 stories about Catalonia published by RT and Sputnik from September - December 2017. Meanwhile, of the 1,508 tweets shared by the pair's English- and Spanish-language Twitter accounts on Catalonia within this timeframe, a mere 22 - 1.46% - mentioned him. Ironically, El País published considerably more stories referencing Julian than Sputnik and RT combined during this period. McGrath concluded:
"Claims about fake news, especially those published in the media and brought before legislative bodies, need to be more thoroughly scrutinized. It is important to conduct further research to understand how widespread of an issue fake news about fake news is and how these unfounded allegations come about. It is necessary to explore how claims of fake news can themselves be used as a manipulative tactic and understand the impact this has on society."
'Escalation of Tensions'

Despite this savage indictment of the trio's credibility, the Committee appeared unmoved, issuing an interim report in July 2018 quoting them at some length. It asserted unequivocally:
"During the referendum campaign, Russia provoked conflict, through a mixture of misleading information and disinformation, between people within Spain, and between Spain and other member states in the EU, and in NATO."
Even more significantly, in March that year the Initiative-manufactured controversy led to Ecuador cutting off Julian's internet access and preventing him from receiving any visitors other than his lawyers. It was argued that his social media activities "put at risk the good relations [the country] maintains with the U.K., with the other states of the European Union, and with other nations."

As Glenn Greewnald documented at the time, this resulted from "serious diplomatic pressure being applied" to Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno "from the Spanish government in Madrid and its NATO allies." Greenwald:
"The escalation of tensions with Spain, which has strong diplomatic ties to Ecuador, threatens Assange's asylum in a way that the longstanding pressure from the U.S. and U.K. could not. Ecuador is being forced to choose between maintaining their relations with other states and upholding Assange's asylum."
That same month, Foreign Officer minister Alan Duncan had a one-to-one meeting with then-Prime Minister Theresa May, in which he was instructed to "butter up" Moreno, to facilitate Julian's removal from the embassy. This precipitated a year of diplomatic schmoozing, including state-funded trips to London for high-ranking Ecuadoran officials and visits in the opposite direction by British security and intelligence figures. A month after Julian's dramatic arrest in April 2019, Trade Minister George Hollingbery flew to Quito to sign London's Andean Countries Trade Agreement.

Recall the words of Nils Melzer, on how Julian was "systematically slandered to divert attention from the crimes he exposed." And how once he'd been "dehumanized through isolation, ridicule and shame...it was easy to deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide."

The Initiative's actions went an enormous way to isolating Julian, severely curtailing his already limited access to the outside world, laying the foundations for his removal from the Embassy and resultant incarceration, and consigning him to daily misery and physical and psychological torture.

This egregious saga is a particularly pitiful example of the ease with which Western intelligence agencies can flood corporate media with outright fiction on the flimsiest of bases, in the knowledge credulous, pliable "journalists" will peddle their fallacious lies as fact in the manner of religious conviction, and never face consequenceso.

If and when their lies are exposed, they can pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened, safely clinging to their legitimizing awards, sanitised Wikipedia entries, and plaudits. Meanwhile, Julian is approaching the fifth anniversary of his arrival in "Britain's Gitmo". Each and every day since, his mental and physical health has deteriorated.

Now, his only path to liberation from that hellish structure may be a 175-year sentence in a supermax prison, situated not far from the headquarters of a spying agency that not long ago drew up elaborate plans to murder him in cold blood.