Assange Book Owen Bowcott

Secret Power: The War on WikiLeaks

Owen Bowcott on Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi’s new book documenting attempts to demonise and destroy Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and her seven-year battle to access government information.
Julian Assange at the Stop the War Coalition rally in London, Oct. 8, 2011. (Haydn, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Owen Bowcott / Declassified UK

When the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was dragged out of Ecuador’s London embassy in handcuffs three years ago, he was clutching a book given to him by the Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi.

Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State argues that America’s “military-industrial-security complex” exploits fear of the enemy in order to generate vast state subsidies. The Australian reinforced the message by shouting: “U.K. must resist.”

Maurizi had brought the volume to help the fugitive Assange keep his mind active during the six years and 10 months he spent inside his cramped diplomatic sanctuary. It was one of many visits she made.

A journalist with a maths degree, she has written about cryptography. Her first contact with WikiLeaks was in 2009 when she received a call in the middle of the night asking for help verifying and interpreting a leaked audio file which hinted at Italian state-mafia deals during a rubbish collection crisis.

The following year Maurizi met Assange in Berlin. She had gone to talk to WikiLeaks about their Afghan War logs which contained secret files detailing Italian military participation in the war.

Assange had flown in from Stockholm where Swedish police had just opened an investigation into allegations against him of rape and sexual molestation; his luggage had gone missing when he arrived in Germany.

Her book, Secret Power, is a passionate and well-paced defence of WikiLeaks and Assange published as the 51-year-old continues to resist extradition to the United States. If convicted of offences under the U.S. Espionage Act, he faces prison sentences of up to 175 years.

This is not the first book about WikiLeaks but it is a comprehensive account —enlivened with eyewitness reporting — which follows the twists and turns of Assange’s life, WikiLeaks’ revelations, media falling-outs, the Swedish criminal investigation, court hearings, surveillance of his embassy bolt-hole, alleged plots to kill him and detention in Belmarsh high security prison. 

CIA Rendition

The narrative is bolstered by historical asides on such diverse matters as the first publicly available email encryption programmes; Assange’s conviction in 1996 for hacking (he was fined AUS$2,100); and the Guantanamo Bay detainee held because he lost a village lottery. The whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden inevitably feature prominently.

One well-chosen example is the February 2003 rendition of the imam Abu Omar. Snatched off a Milan street in daylight, he was first taken to an American air base in Aviano, near Venice, then removed to Egypt where he was subjected to torture involving, he later said, sexual assaults and electric shocks.

Despite 26 U.S. citizens, many of them C.I.A. agents, eventually being convicted for their part in the abduction, none have ever been returned to Italy to serve any of their jail sentences. Some were even pardoned by Italian presidents.

That pattern of immunity from serious punishment for senior officials has been all too frequently repeated. When U.S. General David Petraeus gave his lover and biographer eight notebooks full of classified material from his Afghan campaigns, he reached a plea bargain resulting only in two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.

Demonisation

By contrast the pursuit of Assange has involved “demonisation” of the Australian, according to Maurizi who catalogues repeated attempts to destroy WikiLeaks that have allegedly gone as far as plans to kidnap and murder its members.

Accusations that WikiLeaks has put lives at risk by publishing leaked military and diplomatic documents have, she suggests, been a way of distracting the public from revelations about killings carried out by U.S. troops.

Maurizi, who works for the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, has for the past seven years also been waging a solo freedom of information (FOI) battle seeking to establish why the sexual-assault allegations against Assange were stalled at a preliminary stage for so long.

She submitted FOI requests in Sweden, Britain, the U.S. and Australia requesting files on the legal investigation and correspondence between prosecutors in the four countries.

Sweden — the first country, in 1766, to pass freedom of information legislation — was the most responsive. The documents she obtained showed that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London had advised against questioning Assange in the U.K., suggesting it would be better to interview him once he was returned to Stockholm. With Assange resisting extradition that effectively created years of legal paralysis.

Maurizi had to appeal to an information tribunal and contribute to costs out of her own pocket in order to extract relevant files from the CPS. Many, it turned out, were heavily redacted; other key exchanges between London and Stockholm had been deleted.

The tribunal eventually rejected her appeal for more documents but, significantly, did describe WikiLeaks as a media organisation — a journalistic status that U.S. prosecutors refuse to acknowledge. The Swedish investigation was only finally dropped in November 2019. [It was dropped three times, the first time just days after the allegations were made.]

Prosecutors said that, although the complainant’s evidence was credible, after nearly a decade the witnesses’ memories had faded. Assange always denied the allegations against him.

The blame for unedited documents [with the names of U.S. informants] being inadvertently released online in 2011, Maurizi maintains, lies with others [two Guardian journalists]. Her experience of WikiLeaks, she says, was that they checked and authenticated documents before publication. And it was a WikiLeaks editor, Sarah Harrison, she points out, who rescued Edward Snowden from Hong Kong and the threat of U.S. prosecution.

This book provides fresh insights into a ferociously complex and controversial saga. After more than three years in Belmarsh prison, Assange has lodged an appeal against the decision approving his removal made by the former Home Secretary Priti Patel. The legal and political fight continues.


Secret Power: WikiLeaks and its Enemies is published by Pluto Press.


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Owen Bowcott
Owen Bowcott

Owen Bowcott was on The Guardian for more than 30 years, most recently as legal affairs correspondent. he has also worked for BBC Panorama and The Daily Telegraph.

4 comments

  1. It is vital that USA dominion not be allowed imprison a truly conscientious global free press. This man has suffered greatly because he was one of the most effective news reporters in human history. This is the battle to keep a free investigative news capable of informing our democratic reality and free speech. Julian Assange is a valiant hero for our democracy.

  2. Thank you, Robert, for sharing this brand new book about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Julian may be an imperfect hero, but he’s a true hero nonetheless and, as I wrote in my Monsanto book (see below), the people of the world owe Assange a huge debt. In the last weeks I see that Edward Snowden is speaking out again. Now if only they would each tie their own situations to each other: Assange, Mumia abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Edward Snowden and speak out publicly in each other’s defense!

    What Wikileaks exposed with regard to Monsanto and the genetic engineering of agriculture has been getting lost in the shuffle, so please let me re-post it here:

    Key pieces of information regarding the U.S. government’s worldwide advocacy (including the threatened use of its military) on behalf of Monsanto’s patented seeds exploded onto the internet via thousands of cables published by current political prisoner Julian Assange.

    Those cables revealed massive U.S. government attempts on behalf of Monsanto, and its patents, to arm-twist countries throughout the world, along with its attempts to squelch opposition to GMOs. The cables showed U.S. diplomats applying financial, diplomatic, and even military pressure on behalf of Monsanto and other biotech corporations.

    In a 2007 cable marked “confidential,” Craig Stapleton, then U.S. Ambassador to France, advised the U.S. to prepare for economic war with countries unwilling to introduce Monsanto’s GM corn seeds. He called for retaliation, to “make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices. In fact, the pro-biotech side in France . . . [has] told U.S. retaliation is the only way to begin to turn this issue in France.”(43) The U.S. diplomatic team recommended “that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits.”(44)

    The idea of U.S. government officials wanting to “cause some pain” to other countries is hardly a revelation. Ambassador Stapleton and his team’s remark echoed a similar directive by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger vis à vis Chile in 1970-73. Nixon’s deputy CIA director, Thomas Karamessines, wrote in a secret memo: “It is firm and continuing policy that [the elected President of Chile, Salvador] Allende be overthrown by a coup. . . . It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG [the U.S. government] and American hand be well hidden.” Under Henry Kissinger’s managerial influence, President Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” in Chile to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.”(45)

    In another cable, this one from Macau and Hong Kong, a U.S. Department of Agriculture director requested $92,000 in U.S. public funds for “media education kits” to combat growing public resistance to GMO foods. It portrays attempts to mandate the labeling of GMOs as a “threat” to U.S. interests, and seeks to “make it much more difficult for mandatory labeling advocates to prevail.”

    The cables released by Wikileaks revealed that officials in the Obama administration, particularly in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, intervened at Monsanto’s request “to undermine legislation that might restrict sales of genetically engineered seeds.”(46) Under Hillary Clinton, the U.S. State Department was so gung-ho to promote GMOs that Mother Jones writer Tom Philpott called it “the de facto global-marketing arm of the ag-biotech industry, complete with figures as high-ranking as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mouthing industry talking points as if they were gospel.”(47) The New York Daily News reported that State Department officials under Hillary Clinton were actively using taxpayer money to promote Monsanto’s controversial GMO seeds around the world.(48)

    The fight against GMOs and Roundup is partly a propaganda war; U.S. officials recommended pro-biotech and bio-agriculture DVDs be sent to every high school in Hong Kong.(49) The cables reveal the joint strategic planning of Monsanto and the U.S. government. In one series, Monsanto and the U.S. government concluded that northern Thailand would be an ideal location to cultivate genetically engineered corn for export to other countries, due to the area’s very low labor and infrastructure costs.

    In this cable, one country, Peru, is designated as recipient, and the U.S. suggests that even with transportation expenses across two oceans included it would nevertheless be more profitable to grow and ship GMO corn from northern Thailand to Peru than from neighboring Argentina or Brazil. U.S. “diplomatic efforts” would be used to drive down the cost of production in northern Thailand and would press Thailand to drop its opposition to GM cultivation. In that scenario, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia lose out in the competition for those investments (though they gain in terms of human and ecological health).(50) The cables provide a fascinating (and terrifying) glimpse into the mechanisms of global imperialism on a very localized level, with Monsanto invoking the U.S. government’s formidable economic and military power to impose its strategies. (See “Genetic Engineering, Pesticides, and Resistance to the New Colonialism” (Chapter 15), which examines the revolving door of U.S. government corporate, regulatory, and foreign policy officials, eager to serve Monsanto’s interests and mold U.S. foreign policy around them.(51))

    Among the most revelatory documents Wikileaks “acquired” and published were the searchable and unabridged texts and database of the secret 2015 TransPacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and Trade in Services Agreement.(52) As the cables’ publisher, Julian Assange exposed the U.S. government’s pressure on other countries to purchase and plant Monsanto’s patented genetically engineered seeds, which required the concomitant purchase of Monanto’s patented pesticides in order to grow.

    The documents reveal in excruciating detail the tight interplay between government and corporate strategies on the most expansive but also on the most minuscule of levels. The treaties limited the ability of one country to legally challenge environmental depredation in trade with another, making it abundantly clear that environmental issues could not be successfully addressed in piecemeal fashion, but must be seen as integrated political, technological, economic, and scientifically packaged warfare. To succeed, movements would be compelled to not only examine the dangers of each pesticide du jour but, just as important, the underlying mechanisms by which corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Novartis, BASF and other pesticide and pharmaceutical manufacturers come to determine government policies, while masking the truth about their products.

    Environmental activists have always exposed the collaboration between government and corporate expansion, but the details exposed by Wikileaks’ documents are nothing short of astounding. They reveal the need for ecological movements to develop far more radical strategies for dealing with the immense destruction by capitalism in practice, and not just in theory. For this largely unknown contribution by Julian Assange, ecological activists, along with antiwar radicals motivated by Wikileaks’ “collateral damage” video (obtained from Chelsea Manning), owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid.

    Today, Julian Assange is locked away in a British prison, despite judicial findings in his favor, and is fighting for his life. The U.S. government seeks to bring this Australian citizen back to the United States for a show trial and then lock him up forever, if they don’t assassinate him en route.(53) The sacrifices Julian Assange has made are profound, and his contribution to ecological as well as antiwar movements are enormous. It is incumbent on all to demand an end to his incarceration and torment by the U.S. and British governments.(54)

    Mitchel Cohen
    from “The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides”
    (SkyHorse publishing, newly released edition 2022)

  3. If only more people knew about such books. This is the first I have heard of it. I need to become better informed. Thanks for providing the information

  4. I believe it is vital that USA dominion not be allowed imprison a truly conscientious global free press. This man has suffered greatly because he is one of the most effective news reporters in human history. This is the battle to keep a free investigative news media capable of informing our democratic reality and free speech. Julian Assange is a valiant hero for the facility and integrity of our democracy.

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