The Guardian Walks Back Disgraced Reporter’s Story on Manafort-Assange Meeting

© REUTERS / Axel SchmidtJulian Assange, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks speaks via video link during a press conference on the occasion of the ten year anniversary celebration of WikiLeaks in Berlin, Germany, October 4, 2016.
Julian Assange, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks speaks via video link during a press conference on the occasion of the ten year anniversary celebration of WikiLeaks in Berlin, Germany, October 4, 2016. - Sputnik International
The Guardian is walking back an explosive claim it published on Tuesday: that one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, convicted this year of charges related to financial fraud, held secret talks with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange around the time the organization was releasing internal emails of the US Democratic National Committee.

Meanwhile, CNN reported on Tuesday that a "source with personal knowledge of the matter" told them US special counsel Robert Mueller's team is probing a 2017 meeting between Manafort and Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno. That meeting was reported by the Associated Press originally in November of that year. Mueller is looking into allegations of collusion between members of the Trump team and the Russian government.

Both Manafort's meeting with Moreno (reported to have focused on trade with China) and the alleged meeting with Assange were jammed into the news cycle one day after Mueller charged on Monday that Manafort lied to the special counsel's office and the FBI after his guilty plea in September, as Sputnik News reported.

Since publishing the story, The Guardian has updated the copy with a number of qualifiers indicating that the outlet cannot confirm the authenticity of its sources' allegations. Initially, the publication opted to report its anonymous sources' charges straight, but later characterized the testimony as a "claim" and therefore not necessarily factual.

The report, authored by journalists Luke Harding and Dan Collyns, cites sources saying that Manafort met with Assange in 2013, 2015 and the spring of 2016. However, his visits to the Ecuadorian embassy in London were "not logged" according to the Guardian's sources in Ecuador, despite that fact that "visitors normally register with embassy staff." Harding and Collyns have previously reported on visitors Assange has received, but never mentioned Manafort.

The third meeting is "tentatively" dated to March 2016, as Manafort was joining the Trump team but prior to him being named campaign chairman.

Harding cites an Ecuadorian intelligence agency document which calls "Paul Manaford [sic]" a prominent Assange visitor. However, the agency, Senain, is being disbanded by the Moreno government.

Assange was offered asylum under former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who has publicly denounced Moreno's hostility towards the WikiLeaks founder and even Moreno's meeting with Manafort. Correa now has an arrest warrant issued against him in Ecuador. (The former president now lives outside the country.)

In a statement, Manafort called The Guardian's story "totally false and deliberately libelous," adding that he has "never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him" or WikiLeaks.

Manafort, who may spend the rest of his life in jail, floated legal action against the paper, which he said "proceeded with this story even after being notified by my representatives that it was false."

WikiLeaks also vehemently denies Harding's piece, tweeting that it has launched a "legal fund to sue the Guardian for publishing [an] entirely fabricated story… which spread all over the world today."

An attorney for Assange that appeared in federal court in Virginia on Tuesday to represent his client said he didn't know whether The Guardian's story was "accurate or not," CNN reported. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was also present, asking for inadvertently, partially leaked secret charges against Assange to be unsealed, Sputnik News reported.

While Harding's reporting on an alleged Assange-Manafort meeting is flimsy, it is not atypical of the Guardian reporter's track record. Harding has long feuded with WikiLeaks, and his book "Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House," "presents no evidence, documents or other tangible proof" of its thesis — that there collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials — journalist Glenn Greenwald noted Tuesday.

Moreover, the Ecuadorian embassy in London is heavily surveilled, meaning that if Manafort did truly meet with Assange, it would have been captured on video, Greenwald pointed out.

"Obviously everybody who went into that Ecuadorian Embassy all those years was being carefully documented, and Manafort would not have, in his wildest dreams, have imagined that he could lie… about having met with Julian Assange," former FBI special agent turned activist Coleen Rowley told Radio Sputnik's Loud & Clear.

"I think everyone who has gone into the Ecuadorian Embassy since Assange has been in there has been noted, duly noted, by surveillance," she said. There "would be ways to verify that."

Harding himself struggled to back up his assertions when pressed by reporter Aaron Maté in a widely-mocked video debate. At one point, Harding told Maté, "I do understand your skepticism, but I think maybe you might just go to Moscow for a couple of weeks, talk to human rights people… meet Alexei Navalny, who's the main, kind of, opposition candidate there."

Navalny, a blogger with a history of making racist remarks about Muslims, consistently fails to poll higher than single digits or even more than a single percentage point despite being the subject of considerable promotion by Western media.

Harding cut off the interview with Maté after being pressed for evidence of collusion, telling him again to go to Russia to meet with the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Harding has previously been accused of plagiarism. Journalists with the now-defunct eXile newspaper Yasha Levine and Mark Ames pointed out that Harding lifted a number of passages from an article they had authored two months prior nearly word-for-word.

Harding is "heavily invested in this paranoid Russiagate conspiracy theory," journalist and author Daniel Lazare told Loud & Clear hosts John Kiriakou and Brian Becker. "I regard him as far less reliable than WikiLeaks or Manafort," he said, adding that "it's possible we'll see a retraction."

Hannah Jonasson, who is a member of Assange's legal team, tweeted out a picture on Tuesday of Harding and Collyns with the US-funded journalist Fernando Villavicencio, saying the Guardian's duo had previously bylined other bogus stories with Villavicencio. According to a documentary produced by the Venezuelan-funded news organization Telesur, Villavicencio was among a group of CIA informants in Ecuador.

Jonasson's Twitter account was "temporarily restricted" after the tweet, which appears to have been deleted.

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