WikiLeaks Has Been Persecuted Mercilessly for Revealing the Secrets of US Empire

Since 2007, WikiLeaks has challenged entrenched power to reveal evidence of state crimes, political dirty dealings, and other secrets. Its efforts have provoked severe repression by the US government and its allies.

Hundreds of supporters of Julian Assange form a human chain around Parliament extending between Westminster and Lambeth Bridges on both sides of the River Thames to demand the release of the imprisoned whistleblower on October 8, 2022 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images)

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 US 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 a US 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 US foreign policy, gave WikiLeaks a massive cache of government secrets. This included the shocking “Collateral Murder” video, which depicted a US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 supersecret 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 US Army Counterintelligence Command wrote a thirty-three-page document describing the organization as a threat to US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.

Assange’s Fight Against Extradition

Maurizi, like many of us who followed WikiLeaks at the time, struggled to make sense of what was happening. When she had met with Assange in Berlin, it was shortly after the initial assault allegations were made. Assange had traveled directly from Sweden. Confused by the unusual circumstances, Maurizi engaged in what she called “trench warfare” in order to uncover the truth about these circumstances by filing public documents requests in multiple countries. Many of the documents she obtained were cited by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture in his own work. Most records about this high-profile extradition created by the British Crown Prosecution Service (then headed by Keir Starmer) were destroyed.

What Maurizi did uncover was that early on the Swedish government was considering withdrawing the extradition request — at which point the UK told it, “Don’t you dare get cold feet.” The UK government was working to draw out the process as much as possible.

Assange also agreed to an interview with Swedish prosecutors inside the embassy. Such a move could have resolved the standoff. Even though the British government was spending millions of pounds placing the embassy under virtual siege, it discouraged Swedish prosecutors from taking Assange up on his offer. Once again, British prosecutors were pushing to keep the extradition request alive. When Swedish prosecutors finally interviewed Assange inside the embassy, they closed the preliminary investigation a second time.

With no extradition request, Assange should have been able to walk out the door a free man. Yet the British were not done with Assange yet. They brought their own charges against Assange for bail jumping. By applying for and receiving political asylum from Ecuador, as opposed to allowing himself to be extradited to a country that refused not to turn him over to the United States, Assange had skipped out on his bail. Although bail jumping is a minor offense, the British continued devoting millions of pounds to surveilling the embassy with the aims of arresting Assange should he leave. (Years later, a Yahoo News investigation would reveal the bail jumping charge was thought up by “White House officials.” Such an arrest on the minor UK charge would give the United States time to file its own charges should Assange leave the embassy.)

Maurizi continued to visit Assange during his time at the Ecuadorian embassy. Her depictions of Assange’s increasingly isolated state and deteriorating physical health are heart-wrenching. Assange was unable to go out in the sun, being trapped inside. Maurizi therefore brought Assange a Venetian mask of the sun, made by the same shop that produced the masks for the film Eyes Wide Shut.

At another point, Maurizi describes her final visit with Assange. After meeting with him, she texted her editors, “Julian Assange is slowly dying and this is no exaggeration.” The war on WikiLeaks is not merely a story about press freedom in the abstract; it is also a human tragedy. Given the extent that Assange has been deprived of any semblance of humanity by most public portrayals of him, it is easy to forget that. But Maurizi’s firsthand accounts restore the human depth to his story.

US attempts to get Assange were aided by the fact that Ecuador elected a new government that warmed to the United States. After receiving an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of $4.2 billion, the new government allowed British police to enter its embassy and arrest Assange for bail jumping. (Many, including former Ecuadorian foreign minister Guillaume Long, have speculated that Ecuador’s turning Assange over was connected to the IMF loan.) The United States then followed suit by unsealing an indictment for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. Months later, the United States brought a second indictment, bringing seventeen charges against Assange under the Espionage Act.

The United States was poised to finally get its hands on Assange and prosecute him for exposing its war crimes.

“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.”