The Guardian today published a blockbuster, instantly viral story claiming that anonymous sources told the newspaper that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort visited Julian Assange at least three times in the Ecuadorian Embassy, “in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016.” The article – from lead reporter Luke Harding, who has a long-standing and vicious personal feud with WikiLeaks and is still promoting his book titled “Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House” – presents no evidence, documents or other tangible proof to substantiate its claim, and it is deliberately vague on a key point: whether any of these alleged visits happened once Manafort was managing Trump’s campaign.
For its part, WikiLeaks vehemently and unambiguously denies the claim. “Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper’s reputation,” the organization tweeted, adding: “WikiLeaks is willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange.” The group also predicted: “This is going to be one of the most infamous news disasters since Stern published the ‘Hitler Diaries.’”
(Manafort denies it the claim as well; see update below.)
While certain MSNBC and CNN personalities instantly and mindlessly treated the story as true and shocking, other more sober and journalistic voices urged caution and skepticism. The story, wrote WikiLeaks critic Jeet Heer of the New Republic, “is based on anonymous sources, some of whom are connected with Ecuadorian intelligence. The logs of the embassy show no such meetings. The information about the most newsworthy meeting (in the spring of 2016) is vaguely worded, suggesting a lack of certitude.”
There are many more reasons than the very valid ones cited by Heer to treat this story with great skepticism, which I will outline in a moment. Of course it is possible that Manafort visited Assange – either on the dates the Guardian claims or at other times – but since the Guardian presents literally no evidence for the reader to evaluate, relying instead on a combination of an anonymous source and a secret and bizarrely vague intelligence document it claims it reviewed (but does not publish), no rational person would assume this story to be true.
But the main point is this one: London itself is one of the world’s most surveilled, if not the most surveilled, cities. And the Ecuadorian Embassy in that city – for obvious reasons – is one of the most scrutinized, surveilled, monitored and filmed locations on the planet.
In 2015, Wired reported that “the UK is one of the most surveilled nations in the world. An estimated 5.9 million CCTV cameras keep watch over our every move,” and that “by one estimate people in urban areas of the UK are likely to be captured by about 30 surveillance camera systems every day.” The World Atlas proclaimed that “London is the most spied-on city in the world,” and that “on average a Londoner is captured on camera about 300 times daily.”
For obvious reasons, the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London where Assange has been living since he received asylum in 2011 is subjected to every form of video and physical surveillance imaginable. Visitors to that embassy are surveilled, photographed, filmed and recorded in multiple ways by multiple governments – at least including both the Ecuadorians and the British and almost certainly by other governments and entities. Not only are guests who visit Assange required to give their passports and other identification to be logged, but they also pass through multiple visible cameras – to say nothing of the invisible ones – on their way to visit Assange, including cameras on the street, in the lobby of the building, in the reception area of the Embassy, and then in the rooms where one meets Assange.
In 2015, the BBC reported that “Scotland Yard has spent about £10m providing a 24-hour guard at the Ecuadorean embassy in London since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claimed asylum there,” and that “between June 2012 and October 2014, direct policing costs were £7.3m, with £1.8m spent on overtime.”
Meanwhile, just a few months ago, the very same Guardian that now wants you to believe that a person as prominent as Manafort visited Assange without having you see any video footage proving this happened, itself claimed that “Ecuador bankrolled a multimillion-dollar spy operation to protect and support Julian Assange in its central London embassy, employing an international security company and undercover agents to monitor his visitors, embassy staff and even the British police,”
This leads to one indisputable fact: if Paul Manafort (or, for that matter, Roger Stone), visited Assange at the Embassy, there would be ample amounts of video and other photographic proof demonstrating that this happened. The Guardian provides none of that.
So why would any minimally rational, reasonable person possibly assume these anonymous claims are true rather than waiting to form a judgment once the relevant evidence is available? As President Obama’s former national security aide and current podcast host Tommy Vietor put it: “If these meetings happened, British intelligence would almost certainly have video of him entering and exiting,” adding: “seems dubious.”
There are, as I noted, multiple other reasons to exercise skepticism with this story. To begin with, the Guardian, an otherwise solid and reliable paper, has such a pervasive and unprofessionally personal hatred for Julian Assange that it has frequently dispensed with all journalistic standards in order to malign him. One of the most extreme of many instances occurred in late 2016 when the paper was forced to retract a remarkably reckless (but predictably viral) Ben Jacobs story that claimed, with zero evidence, that “Assange has long had a close relationship with the Putin regime.”
Then there are the glaring omissions in today’s story. As noted, every guest visiting Assange is logged in through a very intricate security system. While admitting that Manafort was never logged in to the embassy, the Guardian waves this glaring hole away with barely any discussion or attempt to explain it: “Visitors normally register with embassy security guards and show their passports. Sources in Ecuador, however, say Manafort was not logged.”
Why would Manafort visit three times but never be logged in? Why would the Ecuadorian government, led by leftist Rafael Correa, allow life-long right-wing GOP operative Paul Manafort to enter their embassy three times without ever once logging in his visit? The Guardian has no answer. They make no attempt to explain it or even offer theories. They just glide over it, hoping that you won’t notice what a massive hole in the story this omission is.
It’s an especially inexcusable omission for the Guardian not to discuss its significance given that the Guardian itself obtained the Embassy’s visitors logs in May, and – while treating those logs as accurate and reliable – made no mention of Manafort’s inclusion on them. That’s because his name did not appear there (nor, presumably, did Roger Stone’s).
The language of the Guardian story also raises all sorts of questions. Aside from an anonymous source, the Guardian claims it viewed a document prepared by the Ecuadorian intelligence service Senain. The Guardian does not publish this report, but instead quotes a tiny snippet that, as the paper put it, “lists ‘Paul Manaford [sic]’ as one of several well-known guests. It also mentions ‘Russians.’”
That claim – that the report not only asserts Manafort visited Assange but “mentions ‘Russians’” – is a rather explosive claim. What does this report say about “Russians”? What is the context of the inclusion of this claim? The Guardian does not bother to question, interrogate or explain any of this. It just tosses the word “Russians” into its article in connection with Manafort’s alleged visits to Assange, knowing full well that motivated readers will draw the most inflammatory conclusions possible, thus helping to spread the Guardian’s article all over the internet and generate profit for the newspaper, without bothering to do any of the journalistic work to justify the obvious inference they wanted to create with this sloppy, vague and highly manipulative paragraph.
Beyond that, there are all sorts of internecine battles being waged inside the Ecuadorian Government that provide motive to feed false claims about Assange to the Guardian. Senain, the Ecuadorian intelligence service that the Guardian says showed it the incriminating report, has been furious with Assange for years, ever since WikiLeaks published files relating to the agency’s hacking and malware efforts. And as my May interview with former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa revealed, there are all sorts of internal in-fighting within the government over WikiLeaks, and the most hostile anti-Assange elements have been regularly dumping anti-Assange material with Harding and the Guardian, knowing full well that the paper’s years-long, hateful feud with WikiLeaks ensures a receptive and uncritical outlet.
In sum, the Guardian published a story today that it knew would explode into all sorts of viral benefits for the paper and its reporters even though there are gaping holes and highly sketchy aspects to the story.
It is certainly possible that Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and even Donald Trump himself “secretly” visited Julian Assange in the Embassy. It’s possible that Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un joined them.
And if any of that happened, then there will be mountains of documentary proof in the form of videos, photographs, and other evidence proving it. Thus far, no such evidence has been published by the Guardian. Why would anyone choose to believe that this is true rather than doing what any rational person, by definition, would do: wait to see the dispositive evidence before forming a judgment?
The only reason to assume this is true without seeing such evidence is because enough people want it to be true. The Guardian knows this. They knew that publishing this story would cause partisan warriors to excitedly spread the story, and that cable news outlets would hyperventilate over it, and that they’d reap the rewards regardless of whether the story turned out to be true or false. It may be true. But only the evidence, which has yet to be seen, will demonstrate that one way or the other.
Update, 4:05 pm, November 27:
Manafort vehemently denies any meeting with Assange or WikiLeaks, issuing a statement on the Guardian’s report that reads:
This story is totally false and deliberately libelous. I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him. I have never been contacted by anyone connected to Wikileaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or Wikileaks on any matter. We are considering all legal options against the Guardian who proceeded with this story even after being notified by my representatives that it was false.