Three extraordinary books—an activist’s memoir, a journalist’s eyewitness account and an academic’s lockdown project—are deeply interlinked. Former Australian Army intelligence analyst Clinton Fernandes draws from sources including documents Chelsea Manning trusted Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to publish. Manning and Assange have lost years of their lives hoping that intellectuals and journalists would use the information just as Stefania Maurizi and Fernandes have here, to help the public better understand how power actually works. These specialists have laboured hard to distil and demystify complex legal cases, political ideas and primary source material in concise and engaging form.
In Subimperial Power, Clinton Fernandes explains why public engagement is so muted on foreign and defence policy. Australians could easily understand big policy questions using common sense, he argues, and would respond rationally to facts, but these are simply not discoverable. ‘No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets’, states a New York Times piece in 2019, and Fernandes provides detailed examples to support this claim. The Australian public is not callous or indifferent, but rather deceived.
A bipartisan consensus withholds information about what happened in East Timor and Afghanistan. Our democratic structures suppress and overlook, more than they oversee, what Australians did in Chile and Iraq. An army of ‘experts’ amplifies the consensus of the powerful, disparaging and punishing genuine questions while politely failing to mention that six Australian Prime Ministers and four US Presidents have spent trillions of dollars over 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The dead, mutilated and traumatised are rendered invisible, and forgotten. It is second nature for these accredited experts to ignore the long and brutal history of coups and invasions while projecting US power as benign and inevitable. When government insiders speak frankly with each other, however, they reveal Australia’s primary objective to be not its own security, but its relevance to the United States. One secret Australian Army study of the Iraq war describes the true strategic intent of Australian involvement as being ‘to improve relations with the United States’. Fictitious WMDs and the creation of democracy in Iraq were merely ‘mandatory rhetoric’, while the ‘true centre of gravity from Canberra’s perspective was to not jeopardise the Washington alliance’.
These examples serve Fernandes’s central argument that Australia is not a middle power but a subimperial one, subordinate to the imperial US centre but able to project considerable influence in its own region. Australia is therefore not a victim or lackey, but an active and eager participant in maintaining US rule. The internal costs are high: our economy is controlled by foreign interests and remains an undeveloped quarry feeding global supply chains, our defence decisions consider US election cycles over our actual security, and our democratic accountability structures are far inferior to those even in the US itself. But we also prosper from being on the winning side.
In Subimperial Power, Fernandes reveals how international law based on multilateralism has been conflated with the phrase ‘rules-based international order’, first used by Kevin Rudd and mentioned 53 times in his 2016 Defence White Paper. In the same sentence, that paper also managed to mention the Five Eyes and Pine Gap, entities that make us constant co-belligerents in flagrant violations of international law. While he savages the history and cynical use of this phrase, which is code for ‘obey the Americans’, his slim volume would have benefited from more examples of the redeeming features of multilateralism, including the rare but significant instances of nations uniting in defiance of the US and its allies. While there is a brief mention of the power of culture, another short chapter could also have been added on the role of Murdoch and the media.
Subimperial Power rehabilitates the language of imperialism vandalised by Cold War fatigue, providing a new conceptual framework for understanding Australia’s relationship to the imperial order. This book, and the term subimperialism, should replace the ‘Lucky Country’ of Donald Horne: it is a clearer articulation of history, and accounts for the riddle of Australia’s parliament, courts and policy being so often anti-Australian interests. Besides, Horne’s words are often misunderstood as an endearment.
In README.txt, Chelsea Manning provides an eyewitness look into the US empire, desperate for soldiers during the Bush ‘surge’ in Iraq. Almost immediately upon walking into a recruitment centre to ask for pamphlets, she was driven to Fort Meade for aptitude tests, offered a $20,000 bonus for signing up on the spot, and picked up the next day for a physical. A few days later, she was given one day for goodbyes and shipped off to Fort Leonard. She observes, ‘They specialised in offering a way out for people who were way down on their luck—people like me’. For survivors of family violence, poverty and homelessness, the US military is seen as a way of solving a few problems. And for Manning, ‘If I died in Iraq, I wouldn’t die in a way that would embarrass my dad. I also wouldn’t die of the targeted violence so many queer people like me fear and experience. Instead, I’d die for equally pointless reasons overseas. I could live with that’.
Manning could only just live with the brutality of basic army training and culture, which she believes mimic the effects of PTSD. Her firsthand account of it is vivid, but it’s the impact of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy layered on top of that PTSD that is devastating. Manning is raped by an officer met in a bar, which the ‘’’’policy renders unreportable. With every hour of every increasingly stressful day of training to become an intelligence analyst, followed by ferocious workloads within tense and tired teams in Iraq, Manning is ‘structurally obligated to be emotionally isolated’, unable to be her true self. What she can’t live with, ultimately, is the random and relentless slaughter. The civilian deaths occurring on screens all day every day form a cumulative load, with a haunting incident on Christmas Eve leading to a 2010 New Year’s resolution to ‘do some shit … I wanted to see if I was ready to transition … I wanted to see if I could change the world, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the things I found awful about it’. Manning, who held responsibility for other people’s lives in her hands every day, felt a duty to try to save lives by making ‘the world understand what I knew about what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan every day, to understand what the true casualty numbers were’.
Before we even get to her book’s dedication to, ‘brave trans kids who struggle to live as themselves in a hostile world’, a note from the US Department of Defence indicates that the text has been cleared. A note from Manning then explains that she is limited in what can be put on the record: ‘I know this can be annoying. However, I have already faced serious consequences for sharing information that I believe to be in the public interest’. There are three redactions in the book, each directly following descriptions of WikiLeaks releases of the Iraq War Logs and the State Department Cables: Manning has taken control of her story within the limits imposed by the conditions of her release. While it’s a painful story of much suffering, it is told with humour, generosity and patience, and skilfully restates what was so entirely clear in her court martial: that despite the US having every incentive, it could not establish that her actions had caused harm.
The press expressed surprise that this US Army intelligence analyst was ‘outgoing, careful and articulate’ when she was finally heard in court. Given the silence imposed by isolation in a stainless steel mesh cage and then military prisons, perhaps that surprise was understandable. But it was also because Manning had became a symbol for many, ‘a silent-film actor onto whom people projected their love and their hate, their politics and their fear’. No one reading Chelsea Manning’s memoir can doubt her sharp intellect and strength. No one following her return to jail in 2019–2020 for refusing to testify to a Grand Jury investigating Julian Assange could doubt the strength of her principles. I wish her brief references in the book to Assange had been kinder, but she may well argue she that mild criticism of his leadership is small change compared to another year spent in jail. It is curious that this courageous act of defiance is not discussed in the book.
Stefania Maurizi’s Secret Power: WikiLeaks and its Enemies is in its seventh Italian and second English printing. Even long-term WikiLeaks supporters will learn new facts in this book, and new ways to explain the power and courage of the WikiLeaks revolution that ‘ ripped a gaping hole in secret power … By leveraging the power of the internet and encryption, WikiLeaks offered advanced technical solutions to protect whistleblowers and … has shown that the battle against secret power can be won’.‘
The story of WikiLeaks has been told in several other books. But Maurizi isn’t just expressing opinions here: this is a firsthand account, which lends her more authority. She was there as the Italian media partner in all of the major WikiLeaks releases in 2010 for which Assange faces 175 years in prison in the United States. She was on the receiving end of information before it was made public and obliged to obey the strict security protocols for its protection and redaction, which she describes in detail. She was the person Assange first met in Berlin upon leaving Sweden. Her visits to Assange in the Embassy were filmed and recorded by the CIA, her phones seized and photographed. She was there observing every court hearing and instigating several of her own in Sweden, the United Kingdom and Australia in Freedom of Information disputes.
Maurizi was there as a journalist, but also as a trained mathematician—certainly a rare combination and one that gives her a similar skillset to Assange. But it is her outrage at the ‘sinister attack on the press’s power to reveal state criminality at the highest levels, and on the public’s right to know about it’ that shines through in Secret Power. Given that she has participated every step of the way but has not been arrested, imprisoned or intimidated, she feels an ethical duty to report what she has seen. And what she has seen is that ‘The war criminals are free as the wind, and the journalists and whistleblowers who exposed their atrocities are in prison, on the brink of suicide or in exile’. She has also seen that, ‘Right from the start, all public discussion has focused on [Assange’s] personality … I have come to know him well enough to say that he is a profoundly different person to how he is portrayed. I am not the only one to say this’.
As a feminist, a survivor of sexual violence and a friend of Assange, I sympathise and share with Maurizi a strong impulse to correct the record on the Swedish allegations. Over the years more and more facts have come to light, revealing the grave misuse of both legal process and concern about violence against women that was skilfully instrumentalised by the enemies of WikiLeaks. Maurizi demolishes any lingering doubt about the cynical deployment of those allegations.
As I write, Julian Assange is in his third year in Belmarsh Prison for publishing materials Chelsea Manning uploaded one cold night using the open wifi of a Barnes and Noble bookshop. Despite winning his case against extradition in January 2021, Assange continues to be caged due to the United States appealing the decision. The campaign to free him builds: despite concerted misinformation and media campaigns, despite the spying on his legally privileged meetings and the theft of his legal papers, despite even the CIA’s assassination plots, the chorus of voices calling for his freedom only grows. Many thousands joined hands in London to demand his release on 10 October, completely surrounding the UK Parliament. Exactly 12 years after the release of the US diplomatic cables, the five media partners that benefited from the courage and labour of Manning and Assange—The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País—joined to demand that Joe Biden drop the prosecution. Latin American heads of states are joining the call for Assange’s release, and even Australia’s Prime Minister is speaking in public about what he has been saying in private to the US administration: Enough is enough. There’s something in all three of these books for people of good heart who want to see this Australian freed.