Ecuador has spent at least $5 million over the last five years on a "secret intelligence budget" for the surveillance and protection of Julian Assange in its central London embassy, according to documents seen by the Guardian.
All visitors, embassy staff and even the British police are surveilled as part of the spy operation, which employs an international security company and undercover agents to monitor everyone who has stopped by to say hi to Assange - from Nigel Farage to Pamela Anderson, to journalist Cassandra Fairbanks, who visited Assange in March shortly before he was denied use of the internet and telephone (and now guests) as a result of controversial political comments over Twitter.
Documents show the intelligence programme, called “Operation Guest”, which later became known as “Operation Hotel” – coupled with parallel covert actions – ran up an average cost of at least $66,000 a month for security, intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence to “protect” one of the world’s most high-profile fugitives.
[D]ocuments show an international security company was contracted to secretly film and monitor all activity in the embassy. The company installed a team who provided 24/7 security, with two people on shift at a time, based at a £2,800-a-month flat in an Edwardian mansion building round the corner from the Knightsbridge embassy. -The Guardian
Assange's daily activities have been recorded in "minute detail," including his interactions with embassy staff, his legal team and his visitors. "They also documented his changing moods," according to the report.
The team consulted Assange about each person seeking to visit him. Guests would pass through a security zone, leaving their passports with staff there, according to sources, and documents seen by the Guardian.
The passports were used to create a profile that described the visit and gave background details of all his visitors.
The operation was approved by then-Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, as well as former foreign minister Ricardo Patiño, according to the Guardian's sources.
"From June 2012 to the end of August 2013, Operation Hotel cost Ecuador $972,889, according to documents belonging to the country’s intelligence agency, known as Senain."
The program was kept so confidential that former Ecuadorian ambassador to the UK, Juan Falconí Puig was apparently unaware of the operation until a "council tax bill" for the apartment rented by the private security company was presented to the embassy in may 2015. A confused Puig was straightened out by Patiño.
Ecuadorian officials also hatched a plan to smuggle Assange out of the embassy in a diplomatic vehicle in the event that British authorities would use force enter and seize him.
They included smuggling Assange out in a diplomatic vehicle or appointing him as Ecuador’s United Nations representative so he could have diplomatic immunity in order to attend UN meetings, according to documents seen by the Guardian dated August 2012.
The plan to smuggle Assange out if necessary wasn't exactly unfounded - after a photo was snapped of a British MP holding a clipboard which read "Action required: Assange to be arrested under all circumstances."
There should be no escape, the note suggests, ordering that Assange is arrested if "he comes out with dip [presumably a diplomat] ... as dip bag [which allows immunity from search for diplomatic communications, and which could be as large as a suitcase, crate or even a shipping container], in dip car .... in dip vehicle." -The Guardian
Funding for PR
Ecuador also provided funds to help Assange's public image - hiring a lawyer to help him devise a "media strategy" for the "second anniversary of his diplomatic asylum," in a leaked 2014 email exchange seen by the Guardian.
This included a joint press conference with him and Patiño in London, and the publication of an opinion piece for the Guardian. The fee including other costs would be $180,960 for a year’s media consultancy.
Unfortunately for Assange, however, his relationship with Ecuador has deteriorated a bit - starting with the time he hacked into the embassy's communications system and had his own satellite access, according to an anonymous source. In doing so, Assange was able to read the both personal and official communications over the network, the source claimed.
In 2014, the company hired to film Assange’s visitors was warning the Ecuadorian government that he was “intercepting and gathering information from the embassy and the people who worked there”.
The cost of keeping Assange in the embassy has also been a point of contention between government officials. In March 2013, Ecuador's comptroller general, Carlos Pólit, wrote to former intelligence chief, Pablo Romero, asking how $411,793 ended up being spent on special expenses over a five-month period with no receipt.
Over half of it - $224,699 - was spent on undercover agents for the operation; a colonial, a counter-intelligence operator and a captain in the Ecuadorian navy - who were usually given monthly cash payments of around $10,000, according to official accounts - for providing services considered to be "intelligence and counter-intelligence operations."
Ecuador’s comptroller is investigating how Senain spent $284.7m between 2012 and 2017, the majority of it on special expenses such as activities connected to Assange. About 80% of the overall budget went on such expenses last year, according to a statement on the comptroller’s website.
That said, "Operation Hotel" constituted a fraction of the "Senain" intelligence agency's budget for special expenses.
In Assange’s first two months in the embassy, Senain spent $22.5m on 38 other operations with codenames including “undercover agents”, “counter-intelligence” and “Venezuela”, according to official documents.
Ecuador's new president, Lenín Moreno, shut down Senain in March due to what he called the "ethical outcry of citizens," as well as to "guarantee the security needs of the country" - possibly referring to the resources spent by the agency on Assange, a person with very little to do with Ecuador's national security.
With Assange's internet cut off the same month as Moreno dissolved Ecuador's clandestine agency, one has to wonder if his comments on his country's "security needs" will include eventually giving Assange up to Britain - where he faces an outstanding arrest warrant for jumping bail to seek political asylum on now-abandoned rape allegations in Sweden.