WikiLeaks' Julian Assange Is Accused of Endangering Whistleblowers

An attorney representing bank whistleblower Rudolf Elmer claims Assange threw his client ‘under the bus for the benefit of his own ego

WikiLeaks founder and leader Julian Assange is a polarizing figure. That was the case even before the 2016 US presidential campaign, during which WikiLeaks communicated with members of Donald Trump’s entourage, including his son, Donald Jr., and made public internal emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

In the wake of the US presidential election, Assange has continued to stoke controversy by attempting to cozy up to the right-wing victor of the US presidential election, Donald Trump — even offering to provide the Trump administration with alleged proof that Kremlin assets did not provide the DNC emails to WikiLeaks and also requesting that WikiLeaks be given White House press credentials.

A US intelligence report issued this past January concluded that a Kremlin intelligence agency “relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.”

“Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity,” the US intelligence community report states.

Many see Assange’s overtures to the Trump administration as a thinly veiled effort to cut a deal with Trump that ensures he will not be prosecuted by US authorities for his past activities — including WikiLeaks’ alleged role in enabling Kremlin interference in the US elections.

Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than half a decade to avoid facing a sexual-assault investigation in Sweden (which was recently dropped); a bail-jumping warrant in England, stemming from his efforts to thwart a Swedish extradition request; and what he claims are possible espionage charges in the US — although there is no public court record of such charges being filed.

During all of this, Assange has had vocal defenders, who see him as a persecuted messenger and champion of whistleblowers. But even on that front, it appears Assange’s “authenticity” is in question because, according to some, he has put his personal interests ahead of those of the whistleblowers seeking WikiLeaks’s help.

In at least one case, Narco News has learned, Assange put a whistleblower in harm’s way as part of a bizarre series of well-documented events that, to date, have not received attention in the US media.

“There are good things, and there are bad things [about my relationship with Assange and WikiLeaks],” said whistleblower Rudolf Elmer, who now lives near Zurich, Switzerland. “It’s that simple. Unfortunately, if WikiLeaks or Assange would have been journalists who protect their sources, then it would have been a different ball game.”

The Whistleblower

Rudolf Elmer is a former bank executive who oversaw the Cayman Islands subsidiary of private Swiss lender Julius Baer from 1994 until 2002, when he was fired by the bank. Subsequently, Elmer allegedly provided to Swiss authorities offshore-bank records from the Cayman Islands subsidiary that detailed suspicious activities he believed were evidence of money laundering and tax evasion.

When those disclosures failed to prompt the authorities to act, he went to the Swiss media with his story, and still there was no action — other than Elmer’s arrest in 2005 on charges that he violated Swiss bank-secrecy laws and attempted to coerce Julius Baer officials by threatening to release details on the Cayman Islands offshore accounts. Elmer spent 30 days in jail at that time, prior to being released with the charges still pending.

In 2008, hoping to draw international attention to his still-pending legal case and the abuses of the offshore-banking system, Elmer decided to release a small portion of the Julius Baer bank data to the public via WikiLeaks. That resulted in Julius Baer filing a motion in a US court asking a judge to issue an injunction to force WikiLeaks to shut down its US-hosted website.

The judge initially granted the bank’s request, which generated a storm of media coverage and outrage from free-speech and civil-rights groups. In the wake of that blowback, the US judge reconsidered his initial ruling and reversed the injunction against WikiLeaks.

“Of course, as soon as that case was filed [against WikiLeaks], a thousand other websites copied the [Cayman Island bank] documents [and] there was no way the judge could issue an order that would have any effect,” said Jack Blum, a former US Senate investigator, money laundering expert and Elmer’s US attorney. “And WikiLeaks immediately became a page-one story, and WikiLeaks, which no one had ever heard of before that, suddenly became celebrated. So ironically Ruedi [Elmer] was guy who put [WikiLeaks and] Assange on the map.”

The media attention to the Elmer case came more than two years before WikiLeaks parlayed that fame into greater attention by publishing a leaked US military video that it titled “Collateral Murder.” The video, shot from the air, showed an Apache-helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in an Iraqi suburb, including two Reuters employees. The month that video was released, April 2010, WikiLeaks raised some $440,000 in donations, according to a report by the foundation that managed much of WikiLeaks’ finances at the time.

Elmer concedes that his interaction with WikiLeaks in 2008 proved to be a positive one, in that it succeeded in drawing international attention to his case and the alleged corruption enabled by Swiss bank-secrecy laws — which require those working for Swiss-regulated lenders to keep customer information confidential. Elmer contends, however, that the good accomplished by WikiLeaks in his case in 2008 was primarily the result of Julius Baer’s miscalculation in seeking a court order to censor WikiLeaks.

Elmer also insists that Swiss bank-secrecy laws do not apply to him because he was not employed by the parent Swiss-regulated bank, but rather by a Cayman Islands-based bank subsidiary. His case is still pending on appeal before Switzerland’s highest court.

Elmer’s legal odyssey in the Swiss court system over the past dozen years includes spending a total of some seven months in jail, much of that in solitary confinement, and enduring what he claims was harassment and persecution by Swiss authorities directed against his family members. That persecution was made worse, Elmer insists, by Assange’s actions in January 2011, when Elmer once again attempted to provide WikiLeaks with additional Julius Baer bank records. Elmer made that move only a few days in advance of a Swiss court date related to charges stemming from his 2005 arrest. 

The CDs

With the help of his U.S. lawyer, Blum, and a former Scotland Yard detective and bank-compliance officer, Martin Woods, Elmer staged a press conference on Jan. 17, 2011, at the Frontline Club in London. The press conference was an effort to rekindled international attention on Elmer’s case. The goal, in part, was to shine a public spotlight on Swiss authorities to ensure they could not easily commit an injustice against Elmer by doing the bidding of Julius Baer, one of the largest banks in Switzerland. Elmer also hoped to spur further investigation into the bank’s offshore-account activity.

Assange was present at the press conference [video link here] and as part of the agenda was provided two CDs in front of the assembled press and cameras that reportedly contained records from offshore accounts maintained by Julius Baer’s Cayman Island subsidiary.

“I initially organized the event through contacts at the Frontline club and upon request from [Elmer],” Woods said in an interview with Narco News. “As I saw it David [Elmer in this case] wanted to throw a final punch at Goliath (Julius Baer), before all of this came to an end.”

Two days after the press conference, upon returning to Switzerland, Elmer was again arrested for violating Swiss bank-secrecy laws in reaction to the London press conference, and he was thrown in jail.

The Gulag

Elmer said he was kept in solitary confinement in what he described as the “gulag of Switzerland” for some six months following the Frontline Club press conference, from mid-January 2011 to late July of that year, adding that his wife also was accused of being complicit in the alleged crimes, preventing her from visiting him in jail. In addition, he said his house was raided by Swiss police multiple times, even his mother’s home.

The actions of the Swiss authorities at the time, Elmer contends, created great mental anguish for his family, particularly for his young daughter, whom Elmer said even attempted suicide as a consequence of the ordeal visited upon them.

During his entire time in solitary confinement, Elmer claims prosecutors repeatedly invoked Assange’s name and the banking data Elmer allegedly provided to him as a rational for continuing his imprisonment.

Assange, for his part, made multiple statements to the media during Elmer’s imprisonment indicating that WikiLeaks was examining the data provided on the CDs and planned to make it public soon.

As early as Jan. 23, 2011, some four days after Elmer’s arrest, Assange made statements to the Swiss media indicating that there was offshore-bank information on the CDs. A Swiss newspaper quoted him as saying the following:

“Elmer’s arrest makes it more urgent to examine his banking data and publish them as soon as possible,” Assange said. “Switzerland is putting itself into the spotlight with its actions,” he said.

In an April 2011 interview with an Indian TV personality on the topic of the Swiss bank records, Assange claimed that there were “Indian names in the data.” And in December of that year, another Indian news outlet reported the following:

Mr. Assange … told the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit through video-conferencing that whistleblower Rudolf Elmer, who gave the CDs containing information to him, is undergoing trial and it would not be proper to make disclosures at this juncture.

Asked if names of Indians holding Swiss accounts will be revealed in the coming year, he said, “yes.” Information about such accounts “which will affect India” will be revealed in the coming year, he said.

Greater Harm

In reality, however, the CDs provided to Assange at the press conference did not contain any bank data, according to Elmer, Woods and Blum. Elmer said Assange was not aware of this fact the day of the press conference, but clearly would have realized it after examining the CDs.

“I knew they [the CDs] were blank,” Woods said. “We determined to embark on a course of action to create an optical presentation of data being handed over and knowing full well that those discs [the CDs] contained no data, but with the genuine belief that the data would be provided soon to Assange.”

Following is Woods account of what happened after the Frontline Club press conference, with respect to Assange and the CDs:

I went to see Julian [Assange] at Vaughn Smith's estate [Vaughn founded the Frontline Club] later that week, and after Ruedi [Elmer] had been arrested. … I recall asking Julian what was on the discs [the CDs]. He replied with some surprise that one of the discs was blank. He added the other was difficult to decipher, but they (WikiLeaks) were getting information from the disc.

I told him there was nothing on the discs, because I had arranged for fake discs to be handed over at the event. Julian responded I had to give him the information because he had been “kidnapped.” I said, “Who,” and he replied, “Ruedi.” I stated that Ruedi had been arrested, and if he [Assange] published any data, it would likely convict him and see him imprisoned for a long time.

Julian replied that publishing was essential as it was what Ruedi wanted. I stated Ruedi and his family did not want to see Ruedi in prison for a long time.

I asked Julian about how he was protecting his whistleblowers, given [what happened to] his two highest-profile whistleblowers, Ruedi and Chelsea Manning [previously Bradley Manning, who was imprisoned after leaking classified State Department cables to WikiLeaks in 2010]. Julian retorted that WikiLeaks had never acknowledged Chelsea was a whistleblower.

I replied everyone knows and added, “Where on your webpages do you advise whistleblowers how to protect themselves?” He replied they (WikiLeaks) were dealing with the Arab Spring, and they did not have time. I replied, “You have had months, years.” I told Julian he would not be receiving any information from Ruedi and left.

Blum is blunt in claiming Assange’s statements to the media during the time Elmer was imprisoned were “lies” that caused great harm to his client at the time.

Blum told Narco News the following in a recent interview:

What Ruedi [Elmer] wanted out of that press conference [at the Frontline Club] was for people to pay attention to the insanity and charges that Zurich [Swiss] prosecutors had brought against him, but the whole thing spiraled out of control because prosecutors then went after him for what turned out to be nothing, because there was nothing on the discs [CDs].

So, they raided his house … and hauled off his computer and his wife’s computer, and all kinds of documents, and arrested him and put him in solitary confinement, which apparently in Switzerland they can do while an investigation is pending. And he was locked up for in excess of six months.

And so, here’s my client sitting in what is essentially solitary confinement based on things and information he had allegedly given to Assange, and instead of Assange doing anything to protect him or minimize what the Swiss were going after him for, he threw fuel on the fire. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s despicable.

Legal Implications

Elmer said Assange’s statements to the media indicating that there was bank data on the CDs definitely hurt his legal case. He adds that if Assange would have told the truth about the CDs, and the fact that there was no bank data on them, then the prosecution’s case would have fallen apart much earlier, and he likely would have been released from jail.

As it is, years after the fact, because the prosecution has been unable to prove what is on the CDs, and no information from the CDs has ever been published by WikiLeaks, Swiss prosecutors have had to drop claims against Elmer related to the CDs because of a lack of evidence, Elmer said. The charges that he violated Swiss bank-secrecy laws remain in play, however, and are now based in the main on the alleged limited disclosures Elmer made to regulators and later to WikiLeaks in 2008.

“Assange put himself in a position to make my situation even worse [in 2011] because the judges even referred to Assange during … their verdicts to keep me in custody,” Elmer said. “There were five rulings during [my time in prison], and the judges used Assange’s statements [against me].

“… If he [Assange] had stated publicly that the CDs were empty, then the prosecutors wouldn’t have had that much power in my case. [When it comes to] the protection of the source, WikiLeaks doesn’t do that professionally, in my view.”

Assange’s Ego

Elmer, Woods and Blum can’t say for sure why Assange chose to misrepresent what was contained on the CDs, or why he failed to disclose that Elmer had not leaked any bank data to him at the 2011 press conference. At the time, Assange was facing a sexual-assault investigation in Sweden, although he was still free on bail in England — and didn’t seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London until after a British court in 2012 approved his extradition to Sweden.

It’s possible Assange felt it would hurt his reputation and support for WikiLeaks globally if he were to admit publicly that there was no Swiss bank data to release. Or, maybe he thought maintaining the ruse that the CDs contained damning information about Julius Baer’s offshore-account holders would help keep his name in the public eye and afford him some insulation from a bad outcome in his own legal case.

Narco News made multiple attempts to get a comment from Assange for this story, but he did not reply to those queries.

In any event, Elmer argues Assange did great damage to the cause of whistleblowers, adding that it is clear there is no space between WikiLeaks’s mission and Assange’s personal and political agendas.

“Julian Assange did not receive any data [from me] because I was well aware he would not care if I am in prison or not,” Elmer told Narco News in an interview. “He must have known it [that there was no bank data on the CDs] more or less already on January 17, 2011, when he reviewed the data.

“However, he still told the public that there is data of Indians, etc., on the CDs. In other words, it is a clear indication that he does not really care about whistleblowers.”

Woods adds that the “stock and trade of whistleblowers” is the truth, adding that when Assange failed to tell the truth about the CDs not containing any Julius Baer data, “he actually falsely implicated Ruedi [Elmer].”

“Assange operates in his own tunnel and does not provide appropriate care and consideration for courageous whistleblowers,” Woods said. “He readily sacrifices them and does not care about the collateral damage he causes to the whistleblowers and their families. His ego and his drive take primacy over the welfare and well-being of whistleblowers.

“Assange is all about publishing, and … he never published anything [from Elmer’s CDs]. That’s the proof he had nothing. Therefore, he really frustrates me because he could be, and his organization could be, a force for greater good, if he stuck to the truth.”

Blum is even sharper in his criticism of Assange.

“My feeling is he will work with anyone that enhances his ego. He doesn’t care if its Russian intelligence, British intelligence,” Blum said. “If somebody will give him something that makes him important, he’ll run with it.

“And to make it worse, he’ll invent things, pull them right out of the sphere and start talking to the press about it. … Of course, [Assange] threw [Elmer] under the bus for benefit of his own ego, and I thought that was appalling.”

Elmer’s case is now before the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, where prosecutors are seeking to overturn a lower court ruling that determined Elmer did not violate the nation’s bank-secrecy laws. Prosecutors are seeking a 36-month jail sentence for Elmer — of which 24 months would be suspended. The Swiss high court is expected to make its ruling sometime this year, according to press reports.

***

Publisher’s Note:

From late July until mid-September of 2012, Narco News was provided access to leaked emails from the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor as part of its news-gathering efforts. The emails had been made public by WikiLeaks and collectively dubbed the Global Intelligence Files. 

In order to access the emails, Narco News agreed to participate in an investigative partnership organized by WikiLeaks that included media organizations, academics and human rights organizations. The Rolling Stone and the McClatchy news service also were part of that investigative partnership. 

Narco News investigative journalist Bill Conroy wrote three stories in August and September of 2012 focused on the drug war in Mexico that utilized information from the leaked Stratfor emails. Narco News and Bill Conroy have not participated in any project involving WikiLeaks since then. — Al Giordano

The 2012 Narco News stories:

Mexican Diplomat Traded Secrets with Private Intel Firm Stratfor, WikiLeaks Documents Reveal — August 9, 2012

US, Mexican Officials Brokering Deals with Drug “Cartels,” WikiLeaks Documents Show — August 20, 2012

 Mexican Special Forces Employed as Death Squads in Drug War, Email records released by WikiLeaks reveal — September 17, 2012


 

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