Quiet pressure from the U.S. government played a role in Ecuador’s decision to block WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from using the internet at Ecuador’s London embassy, U.S. officials told NBC News.
“It was a bit of an eviction notice,” said a senior intelligence official.
Ecuador's government said Tuesday it had partly restricted internet access for Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, who has lived in the South American country's London embassy for more than four years. A source familiar with the situation says the Ecuadoran government has been frustrated with Assange and his presence at the embassy in London for months and has been considering how best to proceed.
The action came after U.S. officials conveyed their conclusion that Assange is a willing participant in a Russian intelligence operation to undermine the U.S. presidential election, NBC News has learned. U.S. intelligence officials believe Assange knows he is getting the information from Russian intelligence, though they do not believe he is involved in helping plan the hacking, officials told NBC.
“The general view is he is a willing participant in the Russian scheme but not an active plotter in it. They just realized they could use him,” said a senior intelligence official.
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“It was a bit of an eviction notice.”
WikiLeaks has been posting the private emails of Clinton adviser John Podesta and other Democratic officials that the U.S. says were hacked by, or on behalf of, Russian intelligence agencies. WikiLeaks said Assange’s internet access was cut off Sunday. In a statement, Ecuador said the decision was its own.
“Ecuador, exercising its sovereign right, has temporarily restricted access to part of its communications systems in its UK Embassy," the statement said.
"The Ecuador government respects the principle of non-intervention in other countries' affairs, it does not meddle in election processes underway, nor does it support any candidate specially."
A senior administration official said that the U.S. did not push Ecuador to cut Assange off from the internet: "Reports that the U.S. government, to include the Intelligence Community, pressured the Ecuadorian government to interrupt internet service within Ecuador's embassy in London are not accurate."
The State Department said it did not pressure Ecuador or play any other role in blocking Assange's internet access.
"While our concerns about WikiLeaks are longstanding, any suggestion that Secretary (John) Kerry or the State Department were involved in shutting down WikiLeaks is false," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
However, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC that a message was conveyed to Ecuador that it should stop allowing Assange to carry water for Russian intelligence agencies, and that Ecuador, though run by a leftist, anti-American government, was receptive.
The U.S. moves come as bipartisan concern is growing about the alleged Russian interference amid a daily release of Podesta emails.
Marco Rubio, who is running to retain his Florida Senate seat after losing the Republican presidential primary to Donald Trump, urged members of his party not to seek to capitalize on emails stolen by Russian spies.
"As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process, and I will not indulge it,” Rubio told ABC News. "Further, I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks: Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us."