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The ‘secret power’ that Stefania Maurizi refers to in this book is the ‘highest level of power, where secret services, armies and diplomats operate.’ That power jealously guards its privacy so that the ordinary citizen does not see their machinations and crimes, there is no public control or accountability and no public scrutiny.
Maurizi insists that the secret power is not a conspiracy, but the way that powerful groups pursue their interests through the various corridors of power. She is not specific what those interests are, but they emerge as the military industrial complex as well as financial interests, global corporations and data firms like Palantir.
As the book powerfully shows that ‘secret power’ is legitimised and preserved through an army of willing stenographers – the mainstream media and its journalists. It follows that journalists who challenge the secrecy also challenge the interests. And it follows again that the same ‘secret power’ will seek to silence those journalists.
This is the story of Wikileaks and the pursuit and torture of Julian Assange. Stefania Maurizi was a participant in that story and gives a comprehensive account of it from the moment her interest was first sparked in 2007. In that year Wikileaks published the infamous manual – ‘Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures’ – detailing what amounted to methods of psychological torture in use at the Guantanamo base.
Maurizi was a committed, investigative journalist with a degree in Maths which had included some theory of cryptography and experience and understanding of the fears of whistle-blowers. She was impressed: Wikileaks had published information that other organisations had tried and failed to obtain; it had done so while protecting its source – through the pioneering innovation of the anonymous ‘drop box’; and Assange had said No to the Pentagon when they asked him to remove the manual from the Wikileaks website.
From 2009 she became a media partner with Wikileaks to verify, research and publish reports based on its material. It began with a recording indicating state-mafia collusion in the Naples garbage crisis, but she then worked to report on subsequent Wikileaks releases including the Afghan and Iran war logs, the diplomatic cables and Vault 7 showing levels of surveillance by the CIA. Maurizi heads the chapter on the Iraq war logs “the database from hell” and writes that “It takes a thick skin to read the Iraq war logs with their endlessly described horrors”.
Starting on 28th November 2010 Wikileaks released 281,287 cables from and to US diplomats – known as ‘Cablegate’. While Assange was under house arrest in December 2010 Maurizi was invited to ‘a cottage in the English countryside’ and given access to the 4,189 cables on Italy and the Vatican. She writes that “The Italy unveiled by the by the cables was a democracy on a very short leash’.
Italy was subjected between 2001 and 2010 to enormous pressure by the US to become a launching pad for US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to neutralise the peace movement, and to ensure immunity from prosecution for CIA agents who had seized a Moslem cleric, Abu Omar, from the streets of Milan in broad daylight and rendered him to Egypt where he was tortured. Her reports were explosive but no politicians demanded enquiries: “The only thing worse than the CIA’s crimes was the apathy of the Italian public”. At least Italy had one journalist willing to do the work, and suffer the consequences, of publicising what was in the Wikileaks files.
The US authorities went after Wikileaks and Julian Assange with a vengeance. By 2015 Assange had become trapped in a legal ‘quagmire’ as the Swedish investigation into rape allegations which dates from 2010 seemed to be going nowhere. As Assange’s health deteriorated confined in the Ecuadorean Embassy since 2012, Stefania Maurizi was the ONLY journalist to try to find out what had happened. She doggedly pursued FOI requests to the authorities in Britain, Sweden and the US but getting information of public interest out of them was like squeezing blood from a stone. She had to sue the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for the few documents she has and found that a tranche of emails was supposedly destroyed apparently against the CPS guidelines on record retention. The Metropolitan Police had information but refused to release it.
Nevertheless, based on Swedish files she can confidently conclude that: ‘it was the British authorities with the Crown Prosecution Service who had advised the Swedes against the only legal strategy that could have brought the case to a rapid conclusion, namely questioning Julian Assange in London, rather than insisting on his extradition’.
The CPS was headed by Keir Starmer from 1st November 2008 to 31st October 2013 during the crucial years that Assange’s case could have been brought to a speedy conclusion. Each time that the Swedish authorities might have dropped the case the CPS lawyer involved, Paul Close, warned them not to get ‘cold feet’. Why?
In refusing permission for Assange to leave the Ecuadorean Embassy for medical treatment, the CPS wrote to the Swedish prosecutor about Assange’s weight loss and said: ‘there are many people of my acquaintance (obviously not just women) who would always welcome this.’ If this remark were made by a concentration camp guard one would not be surprised. That a senior British civil servant should express such ‘humour’ in writing to a foreign official raises serious questions about the culture in Keir Starmer’s CPS. The actions of the CPS in this period lead in 2019 to his arrest and imprisonment in Belmarsh.
The book is a very useful survey of the crimes revealed in the Wikileaks releases, the pursuit of Assange and the hidden power of determined and courageous whistle-blowers and journalists like Chelsea Manning, Assange and Maurizi. Its defining contribution is the story of Maurizi’s FOI ‘trench warfare to unearth the truth’ of Assange’s detention. The details she gives are tantalising and I would hope that a more detailed account will form a future book.
Maurizi also has a common touch and pays fulsome tribute to the many supporters and campaigners who have been with Assange through every step of his journey, from court to court, from Embassy to Belmarsh. It is a truly campaigning book written with a journalist’s verve and a campaigner’s passion.