An exclusive investigation by The Grayzone reveals new details on the critical role Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands played in an apparent CIA spying operation targeting Julian Assange, reports Max Blumenthal.
“I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole.”
As the co-founder of a small security consulting firm called UC Global, David Morales spent years slogging through the minor leagues of the private mercenary world. A former Spanish special forces officer, Morales yearned to be the next Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder who leveraged his army-for-hire into high-level political connections across the globe. But by 2016, he had secured just one significant contract, to guard the children of Ecuador’s then-President Rafael Correa and his country’s embassy in the UK.
The London embassy contract proved especially valuable to Morales, however. Inside the diplomatic compound, his men guarded WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a top target of the U.S. government who had been living in the building since Correa granted him asylum in 2012. It was not long before Morales realized he had a big league opportunity on his hands.
In 2016, Morales rushed off alone to a security fair in Las Vegas, hoping to rustle up lucrative new gigs by touting his role as the guardian of Assange. Days later, he returned to his company’s headquarters in Jerez de Frontera, Spain with exciting news.
“From now on, we’re going to be playing in the first division,” Morales announced to his employees. When a co-owner of UC Global asked what Morales meant, he responded that he had turned to the “dark side” – an apparent reference to U.S. intelligence services. “The Americans will find us contracts around the world,” Morales assured his business partner.
Morales had just signed on to guard Queen Miri, the $70 million yacht belonging to one of the most high profile casino tycoons in Vegas: ultra-Zionist billionaire and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Given that Adelson already had a substantial security team assigned to guard him and his family at all times, the contract between UC Global and Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands was clearly the cover for a devious espionage campaign apparently overseen by the CIA.
Unfortunately for Morales, the Spanish security consultant charged with leading the spying operation, what happened in Vegas did not stay there.
Following Assange’s imprisonment, several disgruntled former employees eventually approached Assange’s legal team to inform them about the misconduct and arguably illegal activity they participated in at UC Global. One former business partner said they came forward after realizing that “David Morales decided to sell all the information to the enemy, the U.S.” A criminal complaint was submitted in a Spanish court and a secret operation that resulted in the arrest of Morales was set into motion by the judge.
Morales was charged by a Spanish High Court in October 2019 with violating the privacy of Assange and abusing the publisher’s attorney-client privileges, as well as money laundering and bribery. The documents revealed in court, which were primarily backups from company computers, exposed the disturbing reality of his activities on “the dark side.”
Obtained by media outlets including The Grayzone, the UC Global files detail an elaborate and apparently illegal U.S. surveillance operation in which the security firm spied on Assange, his legal team, his American friends, U.S. journalists, and an American member of Congress who had been allegedly dispatched to the Ecuadorian embassy by President Donald Trump. Even the Ecuadorian diplomats whom UC Global was hired to protect were targeted by the spy ring.
The ongoing investigation detailed black operations ranging from snooping on the WikiLeaks founder’s private conversations to fishing a diaper from an embassy trash can in order to determine if the feces inside it belonged to his son.
According to witness statements obtained by The Grayzone, weeks after Morales proposed breaking into the office of Assange’s lead counsel, the office was burglarized. The witnesses also detailed a proposal to kidnap or poison Assange. A police raid at the home of Morales netted two handguns with their serial numbers filed off, along with stacks of cash.
One source close to the investigation told The Grayzone that an Ecuadorian official was robbed at gunpoint while carrying private information pertaining to a plan to secure diplomatic immunity for Assange.
Throughout the black operations campaign, U.S. intelligence appears to have worked through Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands, a company that had previously served as an alleged front for a CIA blackmail operation several years earlier. The operations formally began once Adelson’s hand-picked presidential candidate, Donald Trump, entered the White House in January 2017.
In its coverage of the alleged relationship between the CIA, UC Global, and Adelson’s Sands, The New York Times claimed it was “unclear whether it was the Americans who were behind bugging the embassy.” Though he outlined work for an “American client” in company emails, Morales insisted before a Spanish judge that the spying he conducted in the embassy was performed entirely on behalf of Ecuador’s SENAIN security services. He has even claimed to CNN Español that he was merely seeking to motivate his employees when he boasted about “playing in the first division” after returning from his fateful trip to Las Vegas.
This investigation will further establish the U.S. government’s role in guiding UC Global’s espionage campaign, shedding new light on the apparent relationship between the CIA and Adelson’s Sands, and expose how UC Global deceived the Ecuadorian government on behalf of the client Morales referred to as the “American friends.”
Thanks to new court disclosures, The Grayzone is also able to reveal the identity of Sands security staff who presumably liaised between Morales, Adelson’s company, and U.S. intelligence.
According to court documents and testimony by a former business associate and employees of Morales, it was Adelson’s top bodyguard, an Israeli-American named Zohar Lahav, who personally recruited Morales, then managed the relationship between the Spanish security contractor and Sands on a routine basis. After their first meeting in Vegas, the two security professionals became close friends, visiting each other overseas and speaking frequently.
During the spying operation, Lahav worked directly under Brian Nagel, the director of global security for Las Vegas Sands. A former associate director of the U.S. Secret Service and cyber-security expert, Nagel was officially commended by the CIA following successful collaborations with federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. At Sands, he seemed to be an ideal middleman between the company and the U.S. national security state, as well as a potential guide for the complex surveillance tasks assigned to Morales.
When Adelson’s favored candidate, Donald Trump, moved into the Oval Office, the CIA came under the control of Mike Pompeo, another Adelson ally who seemed to relish the opportunity to carry out illegal acts, including spying on American citizens, in the name of national security.
Pompeo Outlines Attack on Assange
Pompeo’s first public speech as CIA Director, hosted at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank on April 13, 2017, was one of the most paranoid and resentful addresses ever delivered by an agency chief.
The former Republican congressman from Kansas opened his speech with an extended tirade against the “Philip Agees in the world,” referring to the CIA whistleblower who handed over thousands of classified documents to leftist publishers that revealed shocking details of illegal U.S. regime change and assassination plots around the world.
Alluding to Agee’s contemporary “soulmates,” Pompeo declared, “The one thing they don’t share with Agee is the need for a publisher. All they require now is a smart phone and internet access. In today’s digital environment, they can disseminate stolen U.S. secrets instantly around the globe to terrorists, dictators, hackers, and anyone else seeking to do us harm.”
The CIA director made no secret about the identity of his target. “It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is – a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” he rumbled from the podium.
For the next several minutes, Pompeo ranted against Assange, branding him as a “narcissist,” “a fraud,” “a coward.” The right-wing Republican even quoted criticism of the WikiLeaks publisher by The Intercept’s Sam Biddle.
Next, Pompeo pledged a “long term” campaign of counter-measures against WikiLeaks. “We have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us. To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for. It ends now,” he vowed.
Though Pompeo said he recognized that “the CIA is legally prohibited from spying on people through electronic surveillance in the United States,” he seemed to have already put into motion an aggressive program to spy not only Assange, but on his American friends, lawyers, and virtually everyone in his immediate vicinity. Carried out by UC Global, the campaign entailed recording private conversations of U.S. targets, opening their phones, photographing their personal information, and even stealing their email passwords.
The CIA’s apparent attack on Assange had been activated weeks earlier, when WikiLeaks announced the publication of the CIA’s Vault 7 files. It would not be long before Adelson’s security team began preparing space for Morales in Las Vegas.
Journey to ‘The Dark Side’
On Feb. 26, 2017, WikiLeaks announced the forthcoming release of a major tranche of CIA files revealing details of the agency’s hacking and electronic surveillance tools. One such spying application called “Marble” allowed agency spies to implant code that obfuscated their identity on computers they had hacked. Other files contained evidence of programs that allowed hackers to break into encrypted messaging applications like Signal and Telegram, and to turn Samsung smart TVs into listening devices.
Two days after WikiLeaks’ initial announcement, on Feb. 28, Morales was junketed from Spain to a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia – just a stone’s throw from CIA headquarters in Langley. Though UC Global had no publicly known contracts with any company in Virginia, court documents obtained by The Grayzone establish that Morales sent encrypted emails from an Alexandria IP address and paid bills from a local hotel for the next eight days.
From that point on, he traveled back and forth almost each month between Spain, the DC area, New York City, Chicago, or the Las Vegas base of Adelson’s operations.
When in DC, Morales sent emails from a static IP address at the Grand Hyatt Hotel just four blocks from the White House.
The Instagram posts of Morales’ wife and travel partner, Noelia Páez, highlighted the frequency of his trips:
Fellow UC Global executives began to grow suspicious of Morales and his secretive dealings in the U.S.. According to their testimonies, he spoke constantly about his working relationship with the Americans. Yet UC Global had been contracted by Ecuador’s intelligence agency, SENAIN, to provide security to the country’s embassy in London – not to spy on its occupants.
It was increasingly clear to them that Morales was deceiving one client in Quito to serve a more powerful force in Washington.
“I remember that David Morales asked a person from the company to prepare a safe phone, with safe applications, just like an encrypted computer to communicate with ‘the American friends,’ to take his relationship with the U.S. out of the company’s range,” a former UC Global employee recalled.
A former business partner at UC Global stated in their testimony, “Sometimes, when I insistently asked him who his ‘American friends’ were, on some occasions David Morales answered that they were ‘the U.S. intelligence.’ However, when I asked him for a particular person from intelligence he was meeting with to give them information, Mr. Morales cut the conversation and pointed out that the subject was exclusively managed by him aside from the company.”
The ex-partner suspected that Morales was receiving payments from U.S. intelligence through a bank account managed by his wife, Páez. “On one occasion,” they testified, “I heard a conversation related to payments to that account from which Mr. Morales didn’t want to inform the rest of the company members about.”
Suspicion turned to rage when the former UC Global partner recognized the full extent of Morales’ subterfuge. “I started [lashing out] at him openly in violent discussions in which I reiterated to him that a company like ours is based on ‘creating trust’ and that he can’t ‘give out information to the opposing side,’” the ex-associate recalled. At the end of several such arguments, he said Morales tore open his shirt, puffed out his chest and exclaimed, “I am a wholehearted mercenary!”
One Camera Feed for Ecuador, Another for ‘The American Client’
Two former UC Global workers and the ex-business partner said Morales began implementing a sophisticated spying operation at the embassy in London in June 2017. His testimony was corroborated by emails Morales sent to employees who oversaw the surveillance.
Before that point, the cameras in and around Ecuador’s embassy in London were standard CCTV units. Their sole function was to detect intruders. Most importantly, they did not record sound.
To transform the cameras from security instruments into weapons of intrusion, Morales emailed a friend, “Carlos C.D. (spy),” who owned a surveillance equipment company called Espiamos, or, “We Spy.” He informed Carlos that “our client” demanded new cameras be placed in the embassy that were equipped with undetectable microphones.
On the 27th of the same month, Morales wrote to the same employee: “the client wants to have streaming control of the cameras, this control will have to be possessed from two different locations.” He requested a separate storage server that could be operated “from out of the enclosure where the recorder is located.”
By altering the cameras so they could be controlled from the outside, and outfitting them with hidden microphones, Morales put in place the mechanism to snoop on Assange’s intimate conversations with friends and lawyers. He also took steps to feed the footage to a separate, exterior storage server, thus keeping the operation hidden from Ecuador’s SENAIN. His marching orders came from an organization he described simply as “the American client.”
Every 15 days or so, Morales sent one of the workers to the embassy to collect DVR recordings of the surveillance footage and bring it to company headquarters in Jerez, Spain. Some important clips were uploaded to a server named “Operation Hotel,” which was later changed to a website-based system. In cases when the DVR size was too large to upload, Morales personally delivered it to his “client” in the U.S..
In December 2017, Morales was summoned to Las Vegas Sands for a special session with “the American friends.” On the 10th of that month, he sent a series of emails from a static IP address at Adelson’s Venetian Hotel to his spy team. The messages contained a new set of instructions.
“Nobody can know about my trips, mainly my trips to the USA,” Morales emailed his employees, “because SENAIN is onto us.”
To further limit the Ecuadorian government’s access to the surveillance system installed in the embassy, he instructed his workers, “We can’t give them access to some of the program’s services, so they don’t realize who has more log-ins or who is online inside the system… [but] everything must look like they have access to it.”
Morales sent his team a powerpoint presentation containing instructions for the new system. The aim of the instructions was to create two separate users: an administrator for the Ecuadorian client with no access to the log-in so they would not be able to notice the second user; and a separate security log-in for the Americans, who would be in full control of the system’s surveillance features.
Obtained by The Grayzone, the slides were composed in perfect English by a native speaker who was clearly not Morales.