Inside the WikiLeaks revolution, by Stefania Maurizi

By Stefania Maurizi

february 2019

Published in In defense of Julian Assange, edited by Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Tariq Ali O/R Books, 2019

When the telephone rang it was late at night. I struggled to get out of the bed, but in the end, I answered. “This is WikiLeaks,” a voice said on the line. I was barely cognizant when I was told that I had one hour to download an audiofile from the Internet, after which WikiLeaks would remove it to avoid the risk of its download by someone else. The file was a secret recording related to a major Italian scandal. “Could you please help verify whether it is genuine?” WikiLeaks asked me.

At that time in July 2009, I was working for what was one of Italy’s most aggressive media outlets: l’Espresso, a major progressive weekly with a notable tradition in investigative journalism. Because the audiofile was genuine and newsworthy, I published an article about it in l’Espresso (1) while WikiLeaks published the original audio on its website (2).

That was the first time I published something in partnership with WikiLeaks. This was before Assange’s organization revealed bombshells like the “Collateral Murder” video in April 2010. Few had ever heard of WikiLeaks. To say the least, it was the start of an intense professional experience.

Over the past decade, I’ve worked as a media partner with WikiLeaks, initially for l’Espresso, and then for my current newspaper, the major Italian daily la Repubblica. I verify, investigate, and publish stories based on all their secret documents, except the very few that WikiLeaks has handled themselves. The disruption and intrigue Julian Assange’s organization injected into my journalistic work that night has not yet come to an end.

That bunch of lunatics

But it all started the year prior to that phone call. Back in 2008, one of my journalistic sources had suddenly cut off all contact out of fear of exposure. That episode made me realize how vulnerable my communications with my sources were. Before going into journalism I had obtained a degree in mathematics, so it was natural for me to consider cryptography as a tool for protection. “You should take a look at that bunch of lunatics,” one of my sources in the crypto field advised me, with clear sympathy for WikiLeaks, which had been created just two years before.

That tip put “the lunatics” on my radar for the first time, prompting me to venture my first contact with them. They were pioneering a new model of aggressive journalism, in which cryptography was a crucial element. After WikiLeaks exploded into global renown with the publication of “Collateral Murder” and then the Afghan War Logs—91,920 secret files revealing the true face of the war in Afghanistan—I booked a meeting with Julian Assange in Berlin.

I met Assange on September 27, 2010. The Pentagon was furious with him and his organization for publishing those secret documents. The heroic whistleblower who had leaked the secret files, Chelsea Manning, had been arrested just a few weeks after the release of “Collateral Murder.” WikiLeaks’ founder arrived at my hotel in Berlin around 11 p.m. A few minutes later, Kristinn Hrafnsson—then WikiLeaks’ spokesperson and now its editor—joined us in the hotel lobby.

Assange had no luggage; it had disappeared in his direct flight from Sweden. I later learned that the missing baggage didn’t just contain socks: it held encrypted laptops, which never surfaced again.

The next morning, Assange, Hrafnsson, and I walked to an Internet café in Alexanderplatz. Assange put two or maybe three mobile phones on the table, which he had kept disassembled most of the time. Suddenly one of the phones rang—it was his Swedish lawyer. The Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, had issued a warrant for his arrest to question him about rape allegations of two Swedish women. The case had been opened August 20, just four weeks following the publication of the Afghan War Logs, then immediately closed, and reopened again on September 1. I left Assange in Alexanderplatz that first day of September 2010. It was the last time I would see him as a free man.

Fearless journalism

Working with WikiLeaks as a media partner has never been easy, but it has always been compelling. What happens when a media organization has the full force of the State against it—when it publishes millions of secret documents about the “invisible power,” and does so consistently, not occasionally like all the other media outlets? That is what WikiLeaks has done throughout its twelve years of existence. There are different levels of power in our societies. The visible ones are obvious: officials who have a political role, for example, are often involved in crimes like corruption.

Usually, investigating the “visible levels” via journalistic activities is fully tolerated in our liberal democracies. Journalists may be hit by libel cases, and exposing political corruption may prove a liability for their careers, but it is widely accepted in our democracies. The problem arises when journalists touch the highest level, where states and intelligence services operate. Thick layers of secrecy protect this level of power from scrutiny and legitimate accountability; power doesn’t like the sunlight, it has a terrible phobia of continuous exposure.

WikiLeaks has published numerous secret documents from clandestine entities like the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA for years. We can imagine what it meant for the US national security complex to witness the disclosure of 76,000 of its secret documents related to the war in Afghanistan, and then 390,000 secret reports about the war in Iraq, followed by 251,287 US diplomatic cables and 779 secret files on the Guantánamo detainees.

We can imagine how it was perceived in an environment like the United States, where for years even the top US national security reporters didn’t dare publish the name of the head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, Michael D’Andrea, even though his name and the egregious abuses committed by his center were an open secret in journalist circles. His name was finally published by New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti. “People were scared of him,” US intelligence officials had told the Washington Post, “Roger [D’Andrea’s cover name] was ‘the undertaker.’”

You need incredible bravery to reveal thousands of secrets about these powerful individuals and entities for over a decade. You need incredible bravery both as a leaker of those secrets and as a publisher with the guts to make them public—and take massive heat.

Risk

During my time as a media partner, I have seen Assange and his entire team of journalists and tech people at WikiLeaks take immense legal and extralegal risks. To protect himself and his organization, Assange has always avoided revealing the inner workings of WikiLeaks, its resources and vulnerabilities, to powerful entities like the CIA or the Pentagon, which see WikiLeaks as an existential threat. This approach has helped project an aura of mystery and menace over WikiLeaks; many media outlets have crafted and used that peculiarity to fuel a vitriolic campaign against Assange and his organization, framing them as James Bond-style villains with something despicable to hide. What is beyond the veil, however, is a willingness to take on powers no other media organization could even begin to shoulder.

We have seen what happened with Edward Snowden, one of the mostimportant journalistic sources of all time. Had it not been for Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks investigations editor at the time, Sarah Harrison, who flew to Hong Kong to assist him, and who remained in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for 40 days until he obtained temporary asylum in Russia, Snowden would be in the US right now—in a maximum-security prison.

Journalism and beyond

The impact of WikiLeaks has been considerable. It pioneered a model so effective that it has been copied by many. It started a platform for the anonymous submission of secret or otherwise restricted documents, a concept that has since been adopted by almost all major media outlets. It also established cross-jurisdictional collaborative reporting, now a model for major organizations like the Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which published the Panama Papers.

The publication’s strategy has proved successful: the exiled islanders from the Chagos Archipelago, for example, have been using the US diplomacy cables disclosed by WikiLeaks in court to support their struggle to return to their homeland (3). A German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, used the cables to support his case at the European Court of Human Rights against his extraordinary rendition (4), while the Washington Post recently used the Hacking Team emails to shed light on the assassination of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi (5).

Making millions of secret documents fully available to anyone is a very challenging operation. In fact, no other media partnerships have done so. The Consortium of Investigative Journalists has never made the full documents of its prominent scoops like the Panama Papers available to the public. Unfortunately, it must be admitted that on some occasions WikiLeaks has performed this task very poorly, publishing personal information which should have been redacted and has allowed critics to say that the organization just dumps stuff on the Internet. But it doesn’t.

The kremlin’s useful idiots?

The talent and bravery of Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks journalists have been tarnished by repeated allegations that they have, willingly or unwillingly, acted as pawns for the Kremlin—that they are Russia’s useful idiots. These allegations have been regurgitated by the media without any solid evidence. Reports always quote anonymous intelligence officials, who have an obvious interest in destroying WikiLeaks’ reputation.

I remember the first time this smear surfaced prominently in the press. It was 2012. Assange appeared on his TV show, The World Tomorrow, and the London newspaper the Guardian fiercely attacked him for broadcasting it on the Russian state-owned TV channel, Russia Today—currently RT. In reality, the broadcasting license for The World Tomorrow was acquired by my newsgroup as well, which publishes la Repubblica and l’Espresso. In fact, we broadcasted the show. As far as I know, that program was not the product of any unique collaboration between WikiLeaks and RT.

Nonetheless, it has been trumpeted endlessly in press reports as produced in direct cooperation with the Kremlin. It is true that Assange and his staff have appeared on RT many times, but I have only heard of one instance in which RT partnered with WikiLeaks in the publication of confidential files: The “Spy Files (6)”, a leak consisting of the brochures of private companies selling surveillance technologies. When WikiLeaks collaborates with traditional media, the partners know each other and share the workload.

Though to my knowledge RT was a media partner of WikiLeaks’ just once, it is true that RT quickly jumps on whatever WikiLeaks publishes, running articles on the organization’s publications based on press releases and reporting on every development in the Assange/WikiLeaks saga. Why does Russia ensure Assange receives such wide coverage?

Clearly, the Kremlin enjoys some of the WikiLeaks releases, like those exposing the Pentagon or the CIA. For Russia is happy to stick a finger in the eye of the West by highlighting the contradictions in our democracies, which, while preaching aggressive journalism, have put Chelsea Manning in prison, forced Snowden to seek asylum, and kept Assange arbitrarily detained in one way or another for the last nine years.

In bed with donald trump?

The allegations against WikiLeaks intensified during the 2016 US elections, after Assange and his staff published the Democratic National Committee emails (7) and those of the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, John Podesta (8). Many newspapers have accused WikiLeaks of being part of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign. Once again, no evidence whatsoever has been made public in support of this.

I was a partner in the publication of the Podesta emails. I don’t claim to know the truth about what happened. I can only relate the facts as I have witnessed them. As I write, Robert Mueller’s investigation into so-called Russiagate is still ongoing. As of today, I have not seen any evidence of conspiracy, and some of the details of the Russiagate narrative clash with what I saw and what I know.

The Podesta emails were published by WikiLeaks in several batches. I vividly remember that after intense criticism for publishing the full DNC emails dataset all at once, and with very little content curation, WikiLeaks wanted to do the right thing: this time the files would be published in waves so that journalists and the public could make sense of the information. Unfortunately, this choice was criticized too; it was perceived as a malicious attempt to make Hillary Clinton bleed for weeks throughout the month before the elections.

The first batch of Podesta emails was released on October 7, 2016, the day before the second presidential debate. Publishing before a crucial event for maximum impact is a typical WikiLeaks strategy. The first Podesta emails were made public shortly after the Washington Post published the infamous Access Hollywood tape in which candidate Trump made reprehensible remarks about women. Many newspapers reported this timing as one of the most suspicious indications of collusion between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign to counter the impact of the Access Hollywood tape, which had indeed been damaging for Trump. Because I worked on the Podesta emails, I know for a fact that the publication was not a last-second, opportunistic decision. I had been alerted the day before.

I did not appreciate WikiLeaks exchanging direct Twitter messages with Donald Trump Jr., or with Roger Stone, and I did not appreciate WikiLeaks re-tweeting some reactionary individuals connected to the Trump campaign. Regardless, I do believe that publishing the DNC and Podesta emails, which were widely covered by prominent news outlets like the New York Times, was the right thing to do. The documents revealed the sabotage of Bernie Sanders by party officials—a revelation which led the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to resign—and they revealed Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs behind closed doors. Even the Times editorial board had called for Clinton to release those “richly paid speeches to big banks, which many middle-class Americans still blame for their economic pain.”

The demonization of julian assange and WikiLeaks’journalists

Over these last ten years, I have been able to work on all secret WikiLeaks documents without fear of being arrested, threatened or detained for what I have published. For Julian Assange and his staff, on the other hand, things have gone much differently. As I have said, I never saw Assange a free man after that meeting in Berlin in 2010. I have met with him many, many times, but he remains confined; first, under house arrest with an electronic bracelet around his ankle, then within the Ecuadorian embassy in London beginning on June 19, 2012.

As I write, he is still buried in there, with no access to sunlight and no proper medical treatment. With no end in sight, this arbitrary detention would be a hell for anyone, but it is a unique hell for a man who is as rootless and as free like the air as Julian Assange.

He is the most demonized man on the planet. He is doubtlessly a complicated human being, but he is neither a hard man nor a cartoon villain. He is very talented and brilliant, a true strategist who understands power. He is brave and can be warm and funny. It is tragic to see him in seriously declining health, while he spends his days between four walls, most of the time completely alone.

If he and his former and current WikiLeaks journalists Sarah Harrison, Kristinn Hrafnsson, and Joseph Farrell—and many other journalists and tech people whose identities have never emerged publicly—end up imprisoned in the US, it is not hard to imagine how they will be treated. It will be devastating for their human rights and freedom, but also for press freedom; it will be the first time a publisher and a leader of a media organization has been imprisoned in the US for his work.

The prosecution of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks will be used as a picklock to seriously undermine the press’ role in exposing the highest levels of power (the CIA, the Pentagon, and the National Security State more generally), just as “fighting terror” has been used since 9/11 to justify erosion of fundamental rights around the globe, and to make them acceptable to the public.

I want to see Julian Assange and his team free and safe because I want to live in a society where journalists and their sources can expose evil without having to flee to Russia or to risk their necks. That is what freedom of the press is to me.

Stefania Maurizi

February 2019

(1) See Stefania Maurizi, “Dai rifiuti spunta lo 007,” la Repubblica, L’Espresso, August 6, 2009, http://espresso.repubblica.it/palazzo/2009/08/06/news/dairifiuti-spunta-lo-007-1.15163

(2) See Stefania Maurizi, “Dai rifiuti spunta lo 007,” WikiLeaks, August 6, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/wiki/Dai_rifiuti_spunta_lo_007

(3) “Public Library of US Diplomacy, HMG Floats Proposal for Marine Reserve Covering the Chagos Archipelago (British Indian Ocean Territory),” WikiLeaks, May 15, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09LONDON1156_a.html.

(4) “Case of El-Masri v. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” European Court of Human Rights, December 13, 2012, https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-115621%22]}.

(5) “How a chilling Saudi cyberwar ensnared Jamal Khashoggi,” The Washington Post, December 7, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/how-a-chilling-saudi-cyberwar-ensnared-jamal-khashoggi/2018/12/07/f5f048fe-f975-11e8-8c9a-860ce2a8148f_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a01d366aab15.

(6) “Spy Files,” WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/spyfiles/.

(7) “Search the DNC email database,” WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org//dnc-emails/.

(8) “The Podesta Emails,” WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/.

  • Last modified: 2020/07/12 14:51