In the fourth installment of “Live on the Fly – Julian Assange: Countdown to Freedom” in collaboration with CovertAction Magazine, political satirist and civil rights activist, Randy Credico, spoke with internationally acclaimed investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, in an exclusive, in-depth interview about source protection, Julian Assange, fascism, and the fight against power. Maurizi currently works for La Repubblica after spending ten years with the Italian news outlet l’Espresso. She’s also worked with WikiLeaks extensively for over a decade after receiving an unexpected phone call during the summer of 2009, well before most people had even heard of WikiLeaks.
Source Protection and Cryptography
Prior to working with WikiLeaks, Maurizi was grappling with the same issue that plagues any responsible investigative journalist: Was she protecting her sources adequately? Source protection is as important now as it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. When Maurizi’s source stopped talking to her out of fear of being exposed, a natural reaction in a world seemingly hellbent on destroying whistleblowers, she knew she needed to be able to ensure the safety of her journalistic sources.
Although WikiLeaks was still in its early stages, Maurizi was advised to look into them because they were publishing documents using cryptography as a tool for source protection. Maurizi holds a degree in mathematics, so for her, it was a natural segue into cryptography, something she believes is critical in her work. She started looking into who Julian Assange was and the work that he was doing.
WikiLeaks was officially launched in 2007 by Australian journalist, publisher and activist Julian Assange, with the purpose of providing a platform for whistleblowers, journalists and activists to safely leak material:
Historically, the most resilient forms of open government are those where publication and revelation are protected. Where that protection does not exist, it is our mission to provide it.” – WikiLeaks
According to the WikiLeaks website, sources are in safe hands, “We have a range of anonymization and encryption techniques, in order to provide protection against companies, minor states and finally, major state intelligence agencies” and “WikiLeaks combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies…” In 2013, Assange wrote:
Cryptography was then the exclusive property of states, for use in their various wars. By writing our own software and disseminating it far and wide we liberated cryptography, democratised it and spread it through the frontiers of the new internet.”
“Cryptography can protect not just the civil liberties and rights of individuals, but the sovereignty and independence of whole countries, solidarity between groups with common cause, and the project of global emancipation. It can be used to fight not just the tyranny of the state over the individual but the tyranny of the empire over smaller states.”
Cryptography, the enciphering and deciphering of messages in secret code or cipher, is a “vital tool in fighting state oppression” and it has allowed WikiLeaks to publish some of the most explosive secrets in recent history. Maurizi:
Thanks to WikiLeaks, it has been possible to reveal the true face of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq (Afghan War Logs, Iraq War Logs Files and Collateral Murder), the identities of Guantanamo detainees (Gitmo Files), the scandals and embarrassing diplomatic deals contained in 251,287 U.S. diplomacy cables, such as pressure from the U.S. to neutralize Italian prosecutors investigating the extraordinary rendition of the Milan cleric, Abu Omar (Cablegate).”
In 2010, the Council on Foreign Affairs wrote, “WikiLeaks release of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents, and its collaboration with traditional news media like The New York Times for their publication have raised questions about the future of journalism.” Ten years later, WikiLeaks didn’t just raise questions about the future of journalism, it changed it entirely.
In addition to the use of cryptography in journalism, leaks today have become commonplace, as have media partnerships, all of which can be attributed back to WikiLeaks. On December 3, 2010, the Nieman Lab examined how the internet has changed the “very nature of the debate” over publishing secrets. Nikko Usher, the article’s author, noted that WikiLeaks “shows the power of one person to change the conversation,” how their database provides far-reaching access to information where “anyone can make their own interpretations,” and the “power of collaboration” between corporate media and “non-legacy forms of news content, production, distribution.” Exactly nine years later to the day, WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson stood in front of the Australian National Press Club and spoke about how WikiLeaks had been “out in front in understanding the implication of the internet for journalism…realizing new ways a ‘networked fourth estate’ could provide information to the public.”
There is no question that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks revolutionized journalism and how secret information is disseminated. We now know the real number of civilian deaths in Iraq, abuse committed by private contractors, how the U.S. routinely violated the Geneva Conventions and abused almost 800 prisoners “as young as 14 and as old as 89 at Guantanamo Bay.” After WikiLeaks published files such as Vault 7, Maurizi said it was the “first time factual information about something which is completely shrouded in secrecy” became accessible.
As early as 2008, the media reported that the U.S. military “decried WikiLeaks as ‘irresponsible’ for publishing classified information” and that they were a “threat to the fabric of our society.” A year earlier, WikiLeaks had published U.S. operating manuals for Guantanamo Bay and “lists of U.S. munitions in Iraq, including stores of banned chemical weapons.”
You have to realize that we are in a situation which—The New York Times, for example…they didn’t want to publish James Risen’s revelations about the NSA spying on U.S. citizens. This is the reason why Edward Snowden didn’t provide his documents to The New York Times because he knew that The New York Times didn’t want to publish. So this is our media landscape…[WikiLeaks] takes the heat and that’s why the U.S. government wants absolutely to crush this organization.” – Stefania Maurizi
Although WikiLeaks’ unorthodox brand of journalism and source protection has allowed them to expose extraordinary secrets such as war crimes, gross human rights violations, spying, corruption, tax evasion, censorship and even corporate malfeasance if not deliberate criminal behavior, it has put their co-founder in grave danger. “They want to act in secrecy. Their power is shrouded in secrecy. So they absolutely want to crush WikiLeaks and they absolutely want to crush Julian Assange,” said Maurizi.
The Demonization of Julian Assange
Since 2006, WikiLeaks has published over ten million pristine documents and material including the infamous 2010 Collateral Murder video that exposed U.S. troops gunning down innocent civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists. Assange was already on the U.S. government’s radar at the time of publication, trailed around the world by secret agents and then accused of sexual misconduct and rape in Sweden in the fall of that same year—allegations that even the GCHQ called a “fit up.” He was jailed briefly in the U.K., bailed out, and arbitrarily detained under house arrest for the next year and a half without charge while fighting extradition to Sweden.
After losing his appeal, and under the well-founded belief that Sweden would turn him over to the United States, Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, seeking political asylum from the small Latin American country. He remained in the embassy until his arrest in April 2019, and Maurizi recounted how detrimental the confinement in the embassy was on his health:
It was really sad to witness how his health has been collapsing since 2010. I have seen this progressing, I’ve seen his health collapsing for the last ten years and so I realize how this confinement was devastating for his health. I realize how he was under enormous stress…how he was under tremendous pressure.”
“People don’t really know him… he’s a very talented, smart guy, he has a lot of courage… you need to be really bold to publish documents about the Afghan War,” she told Credico. Maurizi also believes that Assange’s character has been “demonized” over the years, something the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, has repeatedly reported on:
[T]here has been a relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation against Mr. Assange, not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Sweden and, more recently, Ecuador.” According to the expert, this included an endless stream of humiliating, debasing and threatening statements in the press and on social media, but also by senior political figures, and even by judicial magistrates involved in proceedings against Assange.”
“In the course of the past nine years, Mr. Assange has been exposed to persistent, progressively severe abuse ranging from systematic judicial persecution and arbitrary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy, to his oppressive isolation, harassment and surveillance inside the embassy, and from deliberate collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination.”
On February 5, 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Assange had been arbitrarily detained by both Sweden and the U.K. since 2010 and called for both countries to end his “deprivation of liberty, respect his physical integrity and freedom of movement, and afford him the right to compensation.” The U.K. appealed the decision, lost, and on December 21, 2016, the UN once again called on them to release him. And yet, as Credico pointed out, Melzer’s words have “fallen on deaf ears” and “They just ignore the UN decision, like it never happened,” says Maurizi.
Focused on Fighting Power
Maurizi’s fight for justice speaks through her exhaustive work. She spent ten years working for l’Espresso before moving to la Repubblica, where you can find a large collection of her work on Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Chelsea Manning. Her search for adequate source protection eventually brought her into WikiLeaks’ sphere and in July 2009 she got a late night phone call from the publishing outlet regarding documents they had received about her home country of Italy. She’s also co-authored two books entitled, “Dossier WikiLeaks. Segreti Italiani” and “Una Bomba, Dieci Storie.”
So what drives her work? According to Maurizi, during Benito Mussolini’s reign of terror, her family resisted the fascist movement, including her grandfather, who refused to join Mussolini’s Fascist Party. The right-wing political party advocated Italian nationalism while organized armed squads called “Black Shirts,” terrorized their political opponents. In 1925, Mussolini declared himself dictator and under his power, the country allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Although Mussolini’s army of fascist thugs never killed Maurizi’s grandfather, one night, after his daughter fell gravely ill, he called for a doctor to attend to her but he refused to come. Tragically, she died as a result. Maurizi:
This is fascism. They didn’t tolerate dissent. They hated people who were not with them. So I grew this obsession about dissidence. All my work as a journalist is really focused on dissidence and fighting power.”
What Maurizi would come to find out first hand is that the dismantling of democratic institutions didn’t die with Mussolini nor did the Stasi’s tactics with Nazi Germany.
Surveillance In the Ecuadorian Embassy
During a press conference held last year with Assange’s attorney Jennifer Robinson and WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, it was revealed that a private company hired to provide security within the Ecuadorian embassy, UC Global, had engaged in a large-scale surveillance operation of Assange — an operation later revealed to be conducted on behalf of the CIA while current U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was director of the agency. Maurizi explained that she and others expected some level of surveillance/cameras in the embassy but, in no uncertain terms, did she or anyone else anticipate the degree to which UC Global spied on herself, Assange and his visitors.
A special thanks to @MintPressNews for publishing this story because there's so much important stuff here. Buckle up everyone, we’re going to be here awhile. #Assange https://t.co/M1t8YQA9Np
— Llama (@jimmysllama) October 1, 2019
Maurizi told Credico that her cellphone had been unscrewed, they opened her USB sticks and other electronic devices and they kept pictures of work reports that had been written up about her. Listening devices were installed to spy on meetings between Assange and his attorneys and even his medical exams were secretly recorded. “They took my passport…they were aware I was a journalist, they were aware that others were lawyers, they were aware that others were doctors. So they knew what they were doing.” Maurizi went on to say:
This is really bad, we can’t tolerate this, Randy. We cannot tolerate that they do these kinds of things in our democracy. We expect this kind of situation, this kind of spying operation in authoritarian governments…you don’t expect this kind of problem if you go in an embassy in a democratic state.”
She doesn’t know if UC Global was able to bypass the encryption on her electronic devices or download material but she says that she wants to find out because as a journalist it’s crucial to her work:
For me, it’s crucial because I want to establish whether after 11 years of this kind of work to try to protect sources using cryptography, using advanced technology and techniques, I was actually able to protect my sources and my information… I want them to pay a price for what they did. This is completely unacceptable.”
“It’s frightening what they’ve done,” added Credico, who believes that Spain’s ongoing investigation into the spying operation which is being led by Judge Jose de la Mata could be used as groundwork to stop Assange’s extradition. According to recent statements made by Assange’s Spanish attorney, Juan Branco, it indeed looks like that will be happening, “We’ll use all this evidence to show that defense rights have been broken, that he should be freed, because of this only argument, it’s sufficient.”
Maurizi’s Groundbreaking Work
By far, some of the most important work undertaken by Maurizi has been the filing of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests in an effort to establish the true facts of the Assange case. In 2015, she realized at no point had any journalist attempted to obtain any documents related to the case, admitting, “This is the state of journalism.” Assange’s troubles began with the Swedish allegations and when he realized that he would be extradited to Sweden who would then likely turn him over to the U.S., he sought political asylum from Ecuador.
Although he was under investigation, for years Swedish prosecutors refused to travel to London to take his statement nor did they charge him with a crime or close the case, leaving him to spend seven years in a tiny, cramped room within the embassy in legal limbo; no charges, no decision, no dismissal. “It was a legal case that then became a legal and diplomatic quagmire,” explained Maurizi.
It’s not uncommon for prosecutors to travel the globe to question individuals under investigation but in Assange’s case there was no interview and the investigation quickly came to a standstill. Maurizi knew that something was wrong so she started filing FOIA requests, alone at first and paying legal fees out of her own pocket until she was able to obtain documents from Sweden. Her hard work paid off. The material given to her revealed that the U.K. Crown Prosecution Service had very much been involved in the Swedish investigation. Not only did they advise Sweden to keep the investigation open despite their desire to close it, they told Swedish prosecutors to stand down from traveling to London, advising them that they should only question Assange after he was extradited.
As Maurizi points out, if this was just an investigation into alleged sex crimes, why did the U.K. have such a special interest in it? When she tried to approach the U.K. about it, they told her that they had destroyed all of their documents. Deeply concerning to Maurizi is the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service is in charge of deciding whether or not Assange is ultimately extradited.
That’s why I’m trying to get all of these documents, it’s absolutely crucial.”
A month ago, Maurizi filed a new FOIA case about Assange and the Crown Prosecution and is waiting on a decision. In the meantime, U.K. authorities recently rejected her appeal for documents pertaining to Kristinn Hrafnsson, activist and WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison, and others. She says she’ll continue to pursue the right of the press to access the documents in London.
The Rise of Fascism as a Free Press Slowly Dies
90 percent of mainstream media is controlled by a handful of corporations who have given free rein to former intelligence agents whether it’s in the television studio or in the newsroom. It’s true that a war is being waged upon a complacent public that has grown increasingly susceptible to information warfare. But as leaks steadily increase, the silencing of whistleblowers along with corporate media’s steady stream of propaganda hasn’t stopped the deluge.
The rise of far-right governments, authoritarianism, and fascism, however, has put those who report on, or publish whistleblower material, directly in the crosshairs of those in power who not only want to crush the Snowdens, Mannings, and Assanges of the world, they want to wholly destroy oppositional, independent media and dissent. After Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno was elected on a liberal platform, he moved significantly to the right and then illegally yanked Assange’s political asylum, throwing him to the dogs in Washington. Assange’s associate, Ola Bini, was also arrested shortly after Assange and is still languishing in an Ecuadorian prison, fighting for his freedom.
Bolivia and India are both ruled by far-right political parties intent on stifling dissent while U.S.-funded fascist battalions in Ukraine are literally training American white supremacists. Meanwhile, embracing Israel’s apartheid state and extraordinarily brutal dark side has become a virtual prerequisite to run for office.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who in the past has worked with both Edward Snowden and Stefania Maurizi, was recently brought up on trumped-up charges by Brazil’s far-right government, and last summer, an Australian journalist’s home was raided over “alleged leaking of classified information.” The search warrant allowed authorities to search the journalist’s computer and mobile phone.
We have the CIA collaborating with a security company to spy on and secretly record every moment of a publisher’s life within a diplomatic building on foreign soil, and now the U.K., which is appallingly still led by Boris Johnson, is holding him captive in a London high-security prison while the U.S. fights to extradite him. At the same time, the Trump administration, including Attorney General William Barr, is putting increased pressure on tech companies such as Apple over encryption, going so far as to say that “increased encryption of data on phone and computers and encrypted messaging apps are putting American security at risk.”
Although we should have learned our lesson after Mussolini and Nazi Germany, authoritarianism, fascism, and tactics used by the Stasi like systematic surveillance, searches, repression, terrorism, crackdowns on the press and Zersetzung are still prevalent. Lest we’ve forgotten the mistakes of the past, Credico reminded us about the brutal oppression Italians faced during the 1800s and 1900s, especially under Mussolini, one of the most horrific mass murderers in history.
Credico opened his show with “Canto Di Matteotti,” a song based on the life of the Italian, anti-fascist journalist Giacomo Matteotti, who was head of the Socialist Party under Mussolini’s reign. After the 1924 election, Matteotti openly declared it a fraud and slammed the fascists for their strong-arm tactics, brutality, voter suppression and “everything you would see in a third world country on election day.” He was kidnapped and murdered a week later. He was only 39 years old.
That was a journalist that spoke out and gave up his life. Julian Assange is a journalist that has spoken out and his life is in danger at this point. His liberty definitely is in danger and has been for ten years.”
Despite Stefania Maurizi’s close proximity to Assange and WikiLeaks, she has never been arrested, confined, or questioned by authorities but is it only a matter of time?
The last time Maurizi saw Assange as a free man was in September 2010, and she says, “I want to live in a society where you can publish, you can reveal secret information about torture, secret information about crimes without ending in prison, without ending in prison for life, without being tortured like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, or without escaping to Russia like Snowden. For me this is really important…this is what makes democracy different from regime.”
The show closed with “Va, Pensiero,” a chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s revolutionary opera “Nabucco” that opened in 1841 and immediately became a theme for Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Risorgimento, an Italian political and social movement to unite Italy into one cultural and political entity. According to Credico, the opera itself was an allegory for what was going on in Italy and the song was meant to deliver the people of Italy, the civilians, away from oppression. Credico:
When I think of Julian Assange, that’s what he’s done. When you look at the work that he’s done, it’s about war. It’s about civilians, civilians being killed by this international war machine that starts right here in the U.S. That’s what he’s done, he’s spent his life trying to help children, civilians who are victims of war.”
Feature photo | Stefania Maurizi, left, and Julian Assange are pictured. Graphic by Claudio Cabrera for MintPress News
Jimmysllama is an independent researcher and writer who provides balanced, critical analysis with a focus on the Boston bombings, Magnitsky Act, and WikiLeaks. She is currently trying to stay warm in the Midwest. You can read more of her work at jimmysllama.com and find her on Twitter at @jimmysllama.