Who Bugged Julian Assange's Hideout?

Early Wednesday morning, Ecuador announced that it had discovered a listening device in its London embassy, the building which has been WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange's home for the past year. Those who have been watching the news of late might be able to identify a few likely culprits — if the bug even really exists.

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Early Wednesday morning, Ecuador announced that it had discovered a listening device in its London embassy, the building which has been WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange's home for the past year. A representative from Ecuador will announce later today the country it believes to be responsible. Those who have been watching the news of late might be able to identify a couple of suspects, nations with the word "United" in their names. Or, another possibility: it's from Ecuador itself.

Update, 7:10 p.m.: Still no word from Ecuador about the origin of the device. But Wikileaks appears to have tweeted an image of it.

According to Reuters, Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, told reporters in the country's capital that the microphone was found in Ambassador Ana Alban's office on June 16. On that day, Patino was at the embassy to meet with Julian Assange, though not in that room. Patino summarized the discovery: "We are sorry to say so, but this is another instance of a loss of ethics at the international level in relations between governments."

So whose bug is it? The most obvious guess is the United Kingdom. As has been noted repeatedly in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's leak to Der Spiegel that the National Security Agency spies on EU facilities, this is what countries do. Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to the revelation, pointed out that such suveillance is "not unusual for lots of nations." Including the U.K. The device was found in the ambassador's office and not, say, Assange's work space, which suggests that the target may have been broader diplomatic information rather than specific details of Assange's work. And using the traditional metric of identifying suspects — motive, method, and opportunity — no one had those three things in stronger combination than the Brits.

The other obvious guess is the U.K.'s partner in international surveillance, the United States. The entire point of the Der Spiegel revelations was that the U.S. bugs foreign installations to learn state secrets. It's entirely possible that the U.S. planted the device as part of that effort. Or: Both countries worked together. Among the leaks revealed by Snowden was documentation of how the U.S. and U.K. collaborate on surveillance activity. This could be another instance in which intelligence officers from the two colluded in an effort to track the activity of a third state, one with which relations have been rather chilly. (Perhaps the most ironic outcome in this situation would be the discovery, among Snowden's leaked files, that the NSA claimed responsibility for the device.) Update, 11:00 a.m.: A spokesperson for the National Security Council had "no comment" when asked about the device.

Ecuador's political opponents extend beyond the D.C.-London nexus, of course, and it's very possible that one of its regional competitors — or any other major international power — is the culprit. While China and Russia may have less immediate interest in knowing what's going on in the embassy than does the U.S., they do have an interest. That the bug was found at all may suggest that it comes from a less sophisticated intelligence operation.

Which brings us to Ecuador. The nation has not been shy about embracing its role as burr under the West's saddle. There are few easier ways to cast aspersions on other countries than to claim the unverifiable discovery of a device that any accused country would necessarily deny. Hold up a small microphone, point at the Pentagon, and very few people would even blink an eye in assuming that the U.S. did it. As nearly everyone is, in anticipation of Patino's revelation.

That assumption may be part of the reason for the delay between the announcement of the bug and the announcement of the responsible nation. Assume it was from China or Russia or Colombia. In the current political environment, Ecuador would probably be happy to have the world assume the worst about the U.S. and Britain for a few hours. A prickly little burr, however temporary.

We must note that the device — if it exists — could have come from another entity altogether. Mother Jones reported Tuesday on "Jester," a "patriot hacktivist" who was targeting Ecuador for its support of Assange and Snowden. Among his targets: the Ecuadorean embassy in London. While planting a bug requires physical access, Jester's focus suggests that it's not only other countries who are focused on the activity in the embassy. Such a possibility is, however, very unlikely.

We'll update this post when Patino announces the likely culprit. Place your bets while you can. But don't expect a big pay-off.

Update, Thursday: Still no word on who Ecuador thinks planted the bug. But experts have weighed in, as reported by the Guardian.

After analysing the images, one expert in covert techniques who has worked for UK law enforcement agencies told the Guardian: "We do not do plug sockets, that's old hat. It's the first place people look. The bug is one you can buy off the shelf. If we do something, most likely we would custom build it. My first thought [is] it would not be a state agency."

He said placement in a plug would make the risk of exposure would too great and would only be used as a last resort if installation time was very short.

Photo: Patino and Assange look out a window at the embassy on the day the bug was discovered. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.