Wikileaks Has Challenged Entrenched Power To Reveal Evidence Of State Crimes, Political Dirty Dealings, And Other Deep Dark Secrets.
The year was 2008. Italian investigative reporter Stefania Maurizi had lost contact with one of her sources; the source believed they were being wiretapped illegally. The source was spooked and failed to even show up for one last meeting.
Following Maurizi’s source’s cutting off ties, the journalist began to research the best ways to protect a source. Given her background in mathematics, she became particularly interested in encryption. An expert on the subject told her about an upstart media outlet — WikiLeaks. “You should take a look at those lunatics,” he told her.
Today, many major media outlets use encryption to allow sources to anonymously submit information. But when WikiLeaks launched in 2007, no one else was doing so. WikiLeaks wasn’t just technologically savvy — it was bold. In late 2007, the site published the operating procedures for the American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which depicted psychological torture and methods for keeping certain prisoners from communicating with the Red Cross. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had attempted to uncover this same information through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request but was blocked. The Pentagon demanded WikiLeaks take down the documents; WikiLeaks refused.
Months later, WikiLeaks published the secrets of Swiss bank Julius Baer. The bank pursued an aggressive legal strategy to purge the information from the internet, and an American judge issued an order to shut down the WikiLeaks website. But WikiLeaks set up mirrors of the site containing the forbidden knowledge. Traditional civil libertarians, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), came to the aid of the digital upstart, arguing that the First Amendment protected what they were doing. Ultimately, the First Amendment saved the day. But Julius Baer would be only the first in a long line of powerful actors who would pursue the destruction of WikiLeaks at all costs.
Maurizi begins her masterful book Secret Power: WikiLeaks and Its Enemies by recounting these episodes, capturing the immense excitement and potential that accompanied WikiLeaks as it published what no one else dared to. At a time when many were skeptical of corporate media’s ability to challenge entrenched power, Wikileaks’ defiance of powerful corporate and state actors was inspiring — especially coming as it did at a time when the democratizing and liberatory potential of the internet dominated the conversation, rather than its deleterious impact on democracy and the human psyche as it does today.
Maurizi has very likely produced the definitive version of the WikiLeaks story, and it’s a page-turner to boot. But the book is not merely a history of WikiLeaks’ war on secret power and secret power’s subsequent war on WikiLeaks. Maurizi was the media partner for nearly every WikiLeaks disclosure. (She was also the Italian partner for the Snowden disclosures). Through intertwining her own experiences as a journalist with the larger history of WikiLeaks, Maurizi debunks misinformation about WikiLeaks.
EXPOSING THE SECRETS OF POWER
Maurizi was looking for WikiLeaks, but WikiLeaks found her. In the summer of 2009, in the dead of night, Maurizi was awoken by a phone call from someone from the site who claimed to possess an audio recording of an Italian official alluding to mafia and intelligence involvement in an Italian garbage crisis. They needed her help verifying its authenticity. She had one hour to download the file.
After Maurizi published a story based on excerpts of the recording for L’Espresso, Maurizi again pursued communications with WikiLeaks, but struggled to contact them. During this early period, Maurizi writes of WikiLeaks, “like a band of rebels, that conducts a raid, they would strike and then vanish. They changed contacts and were keenly aware of the surveillance which police forces, armies, secret services, use against journalists they perceived as a threat.”
Then, from 2010 to 2011, WikiLeaks rocked the world of journalism and diplomatic relations.
An Army private, Chelsea Manning, horrified by the impact of the Iraq War on civilians and the corrupt backroom deals of American foreign policy, gave WikiLeaks a massive cache of government secrets. This included the shocking “Collateral Murder” video, which depicted an American airstrike that killed two Reuters journalists and wounded multiple children. WikiLeaks didn’t merely release the video. They sent Kristinn Hrafnsson, then an investigative journalist with Icelandic public television, to Baghdad to investigate, and Hrafnsson interviewed the children who survived the attack. (Hrafnsson is now editor in chief of WikiLeaks.)
“Collateral Murder” was only the start. Over the next two years, WikiLeaks would also work with other media partners, including a number of legacy outfits, to curate the release of secret files from the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the American State Department, and Guantanamo Bay. Wikileaks sought international publishing partners to report on its bombshell revelations; Maurizi was the Italian media partner for the publication of these files.
Maurizi’s reporting revealed the extent of American interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. In the Italian state department cables Maurizi reviewed, the Bush administration expressed concern about Italy’s mild-mannered center left. As a NATO member, Italy was committed to sending troops to Bush’s war in Afghanistan. One State Department memo warned that a center-left victory “would bring unions and ‘social partners’ back into power with predictable demands for increased social spending that could erode foreign/defense commitments.”
Another memo discussed how the Italian government, at the behest of the United States, “neutralized” antiwar protesters who might have disrupted American weapons transfers on Italian soil. The means of this neutralization was not specified. Maurizi’s home country was a “democracy on a short leash,” she writes — a leash held by the United States.
Maurizi not only details what she published, but what is was like working with WikiLeaks. Anti-WikiLeaks forces portrayed the organization as having recklessly dumped information on the internet. But Maurizi’s description of the security requirements on which WikiLeaks conditioned her access paints a different story.
To gain access to the Afghan war logs, Maurizi had to travel to Berlin, where she met with Julian Assange and Hrafnsson in the dead of night. Assange gave Maurizi a flash drive with the relevant files. It was encrypted with a complicated password. The files could never be sent by email, and they could only be accessed on an “air-gapped” computer (i.e., not connected to the internet). Maurizi was forbidden from talking about the files over the phone or in emails. She could only communicate to WikiLeaks about them using encrypted devices. She had to sign a media partner agreement on behalf of the newspaper she worked for, agreeing to these terms.
Maurizi’s involvement with WikiLeaks was not without dangers. By exposing the secrets of the powerful, WikiLeaks was gaining influential enemies in the American government and elsewhere. While working with WikiLeaks about a highly sensitive set of files revealing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of world leaders, Maurizi had her backpack stolen. She was waiting for a train when an unknown individual snatched it from her person; Maurizi pursued them on foot but was unable to catch them. The backpack did not contain any information from her work with WikiLeaks or on the Snowden disclosures (which the thief or thieves almost certainly could not have known) but did contain information related to her other journalistic work. When she reported the incident to the police, they told her it was an “atypical robbery.” Who the thief was remains a mystery, as Maurizi never recovered her bag.
When Maurizi worked on the super secret revelations about the CIA’s hacking tools called Vault 7, she kept no notes and made no Google searches for terms mentioned in the files, acting out of an abundance of caution after what happened at the train station. When the files were finally released, then CIA director Mike Pompeo was livid. The CIA went to war against Assange — incredibly, going so far as to draw up plots to kidnap or assassinate him.
To carry out its plots, the CIA allegedly enlisted the help of a Spanish security firm, UC Global. UC Global was supposed to be providing security to the Ecuadorian embassy, but former employees allege they went to work for the CIA, surveilling Assange and his visitors. As a visitor to Assange, Maurizi left behind her electronic devices with UC Global security guards. A Spanish criminal investigation into UC Global’s ties to the CIA revealed how the employees took apart and photographed Maurizi’s devices while she was meeting with Assange.
These episodes highlight the dangers journalists challenging the national security state face. The biggest dangers, however, would be borne directly by WikiLeaks.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
In May 2008, well before WikiLeaks was a household name, the American Army Counterintelligence Command wrote a thirty-three-page document describing the organization as a threat to American national security. States like Russia, China, North Korea, and Israel had blocked the website. Feeling threatened by WikiLeaks’ revelations, a wide range of powerful states cracked down on the site.
Overtly authoritarian measures were not the only way to attack the organization. WikiLeaks depended on trust from “insiders, leakers, and whistleblowers’” that they would remain anonymous. If this trust could be destroyed through identifying, exposing, and prosecuting their sources, WikiLeaks’ well of potential sources would dry up. Two full years before the arrest of Manning, the American government already understood the way to destroy WikiLeaks was through targeting and terrorizing its sources.
The prosecution of Manning came in 2013 during the Obama administration’s unprecedented attack on whistleblowers. The liberal former constitutional law professor’s administration prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Yet even by the standards of this crackdown, the treatment of Manning was shockingly harsh.
Manning’s pretrial detention constituted torture. Prosecutors sought to convict Manning in a military court not only of violating the Espionage Act but also of aiding the enemy (including al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden). They planned to seek life in prison if Manning were convicted under the latter charge; aiding the enemy carries the death penalty, but prosecutors were unwilling to go that far. In June 2013, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy but convicted under the Espionage Act (she also pled guilty to additional charges). She received the longest sentence for giving information to the media in American history.
Assange himself would spend over a decade in captivity. He was the subject of on-again, off-again investigations into allegations of sexual assault in Sweden in 2010. Sexual assault is a very serious crime that all too often goes unpunished. But both the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Sweden to have engaged in serious violations of Assange’s human rights. The special rapporteur on torture accused Sweden of fifty due-process violations, including the “proactive manipulation of evidence.” The UK group Women Against Rape has criticized Sweden’s transparently politicized investigation of Assange.
None of these bodies have weighed in on the guilt or innocence of Assange. But they have all found considerable fault with the highly bizarre actions of investigators.
Although the investigation went on for nine years, Assange was never charged with any offense. In fact, the investigation never moved beyond a preliminary stage. Assange would be interviewed by Swedish officials twice. The first time would take place in Sweden in August 2010 after Assange extended his time in the country in order to be interviewed. After he left the country in September, Sweden sought Assange’s extradition for further questioning. Assange agreed to return if Sweden would agree not to transfer him to the United States.
Such a request is fully in line with the international principle of non-refoulement. It was also particularly necessary in this case. Sweden had previously violated the principle of non-refoulement when it turned individuals over to the CIA to be tortured during the early years of the “war on terror.” Sweden’s actions, which the UN Committee Against Torture condemned in 2005, were well known at the time. Sweden declined to agree to refrain from rendering Assange into American custody. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer commented in his own book The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution, “In the world of diplomatic relations, the fact that Stockholm refused to issue a non-refoulement guarantee to Assange spoke a clear language and left no room for misunderstandings.” The UK ordered Assange be extradited to Sweden, purportedly to be questioned in the preliminary investigation concerning sexual assault allegations.
Parallel to all this, the American government had convened a secret grand jury to investigate WikiLeaks. Around this time, WikiLeaks published leaked cables from Stratfor, a private intelligence contractor with close ties to the FBI and other intelligence agencies, in which Stratfor’s vice president for counterterrorism purports to have an FBI source telling him about the Manning investigation. He also on two occasions claims there is a secret indictment against Assange.
There’s reason to believe the vice president, who wrote gleefully about executing Manning and waterboarding Assange at Guantanamo for being a “peacenik,” was just blustering. But faced with the situation Assange was in, almost anyone would take the threat of American extradition seriously.
The Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa, recognizing the threat of extradition to the United States, granted Assange asylum in August 2012. The British government essentially refused to recognize this, making clear it would arrest Assange on sight. Assange now was living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London as a political asylee. The UK surveilled the embassy in London 24/7 with the intent of arresting Assange should he ever leave; Assange was trapped in the embassy. A UN Working Group would rule that by creating the circumstances trapping Assange inside the embassy, the governments of Sweden and the UK had arbitrarily detained him in violation of international law.
“THE BATTLE AGAINST SECRET POWER CAN BE WON”
Assange remains confined to a special medical wing at His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh, a particularly harsh prison notorious for its role in the “war on terror.” Assange awaits extradition to the United States, where the WikiLeaks founder has the unenviable distinction of being the first publisher of truthful information indicted under the Espionage Act.
And it isn’t just the prosecution carrying out this heavy-handed repression. Nearly all of the three-letter agencies — CIA, NSA, FBI — have been enlisted in a dirty war on WikiLeaks. UN experts have found Assange to have been a victim of arbitrary detention and psychological torture.
But Assange’s story isn’t just one of persecution. Assange helped to found WikiLeaks, one of the most daring and audacious journalism projects of this century. It has broken some of the biggest scoops of the twenty-first century, releasing primary source evidence of state crimes, political dirty dealings, secret trade agreements, and corporate misconduct.
“WikiLeaks has shown that the battle against secret power can be won,” Maurizi writes. “So long as WikiLeaks exists and is operational, that power will perceive it as a critical threat.”