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Ten Thoughts About Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

1.  Since its founding in December 2006, WikiLeaks, which was established as, essentially, a secure information clearing house for whistleblowers around the world to provide sensitive information, some of which would then be released to the public, and which was reportedly set up by “Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa,” has declared that its “primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations.” From the release of a single document in December 2006 — a “secret decision,” signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a Somali rebel leader for the Islamic Courts Union, which “had been culled from traffic passing through the Tor network to China,” and which “called for the execution of government officials by hiring ‘criminals’ as hit men” — WikiLeaks has received millions of documents, and has, amongst other achievements, exposed corruption in Kenya, made available the Standard Operating Procedure for Guantánamo from 2003 and 2004 (and compared the changes), attacked Scientology, exposed Sarah Palin’s emails, and published a membership list of Britain’s far-right BNP.

In the last eight months, however, since WikiLeaks began focusing on major stories involving the United States, there are concerns that Julian Assange the figurehead has been taking over from WikiLeaks the organization in perceived importance, and that both are overshadowing the importance of the whistleblower who leaked the information in the first place — by many accounts, Bradley Manning, a 23-year old junior US army intelligence analyst. who is facing a court martial and a 52-year prison sentence for leaking the 251,287 US diplomatic cables that are currently being published, as well as the army field reports from Afghanistan and Iraq (released in July and October), and “Collateral Murder“, the 39-minute video showing an Apache helicopter gunning down a group of armed men, civilians and two Reuters journalists in Baghdad, whch was released in April, and which started the global focus on WikiLeaks as the foremost exposer of American secrets.

As Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker explained in an article in June this year, the leaked video “was digitally encrypted, and it took WikiLeaks three months to crack.” Assange told Khatchadourian that unlocking the file was “moderately difficult.” Bradley, increasingly overlooked in media reports, may not have a company philosophy like WikiLeaks, but it is important that he is not forgotten, and it is also important to recognize his own reasons for embarking on the biggest leak of secrets in US history. “God knows what happens now,” Manning apparently wrote after the release of the “Collateral Damage” video. “Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms. If not … then we’re doomed as a species. I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.” He also wrote, “I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Assange must certainly be credited for his work on encryption. Khatchadourian called him “a cryptographer of exceptional skill,” his “near-genius IQ” has been noted on many occasions, and this has played an enormously significant role in preventing WikiLeaks’ security from being breached. In the New Yorker article, Khatchadourian also explained how WikiLeaks’ security works:

The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network [one of the inspirations for WikiLeaks, in which Assange was involved, which dealt with millions of secret transmissions], which sends Internet traffic through “virtual tunnels” that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but “this is vastly more secure than any banking network.”

However, troubling stories about Assange’s leadership style were circulating in summer, before the “Cablegate” revelations, with complaints by former employees about “what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood,” as the New York Times explained in an article in October. The Times “spoke with dozens of people who have worked with and supported him in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, Britain and the United States. What emerged was a picture of the founder of WikiLeaks as its prime innovator and charismatic force but as someone whose growing celebrity has been matched by an increasingly dictatorial, eccentric and capricious style.” Smari McCarthy, an Icelandic volunteer, said that “‘About a dozen’ disillusioned volunteers [had] left recently,” and over the summer, Assange also “suspended Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German who had been the WikiLeaks spokesman under the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt, accusing him of unspecified ‘bad behavior.’”

2.

Reinforcing this notion of imperiousness, WikiLeaks made a grave error in summer, when the Afghan war logs were published, in not redacting the names of Afghans who may have suffered reprisals because of it. As the New York Times reported, “Several WikiLeaks colleagues say [Assange] alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops.” Birgitta Jonsdottir, a core WikiLeaks volunteer and a member of Iceland’s Parliament said, “We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards. If he could just focus on the important things he does, it would be better.” As Shiraz Socialist pointed out in a recent post, the following exchange took place in July, when Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer interviewed Assange, who was furious that the (London) Times had falsely accused him of contributing to the death of a man who had, in fact, died two years earlier:

What about these named sources? Might he have endangered their lives?

“If there are innocent Afghans being revealed, which was our concern, which was why we kept back 15,000 files, then of course we take that seriously.”

But what if it’s too late?

“Well, we will review our procedures.”

Too late for the individuals, I say. Dead.

3.

In trying to make sense of the latest releases — the 251,287 US diplomatic cables, of which just 1,344 had been released by December 12 — it is important to note a distinct difference between the release of the cables and the previous releases relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which can be seen as performing an important anti-war function, exposing intimate, day-to-day details of wars that are widely regarded as illegal and/or futile. While it has been, and will continue to be fascinating to have behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering, frank opinions about world leaders, and verbatim transcripts of these leaders’ own opinions exposed to public consumption, as well as a number of genuinely important stories — including, from my perspective, revelations that the Bush administration put pressure on Germany not to investigate US torture, and that Obama then did the same with Spain — the motives overall are not so clear-cut.

Assange’s motives, as described in an article in the Independent in summer, can be found in a document he wrote in 2006, entitled, “Conspiracy as Governance” (PDF), which “detailed how leaks could be an instrument for breaking down unrepresentative government that thrived on keeping information secret.” Others have discussed his anarchism. Following a BBC Newsnight broadcast last week, examining his personal blogs, the British anarchist Ian Bone wrote, “Assange quotes frequently from German anarchist Gustav Landauer and shares some of his thinking. Assange believes by exposing the hypocrosies of governments that faith in government will decline and individuals will take on more personal responsibilities for their lives which will in turn see the state row back on its own role. Not my kind of anarchism but anarchism nevertheless. Anarchists have tried to bring down governments but Assange is trying to bring down the lot at once!”

However, two additional factors also need to be taken into consideration when considering the release of the cables.

4.

The first of these is a US problem involving classification and accessibility. Ironically, had the US intelligence agencies not failed so spectacularly to communicate with one another before the 9/11 attacks, those terrorist attacks might have been thwarted. In response, the database pillaged so easily by Bradley Manning (or whoever leaked the documents, if not Manning) was established, and, although “top secret” information presumably remains as compartmentalized as ever, opened up all other information (including “secret” information) to a ludicrous extent, with the information that was leaked available to three million government employees — something that all but the most deluded officials would surely have concluded was a disaster waiting to happen. All that was required, as we have seen, was a disgruntled employee with a CD disguised as a Lady Gaga album.

5.

The second factor is that, unlike with the war logs, which Assange shared with a number of media partners — the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times — the “Cablegate” releases have been coordinated much more closely with these media partners (now including Le Monde and El Pais) than previously, to the extent that it is the media partners who appear to have been dictating what is released, and when, and WikiLeaks has followed, as the Associated Press explained in an article on December 3. This is worth reading in its entirety, and it includes a reference to New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller telling readers in an online exchange that the Times “has suggested to its media partners and to WikiLeaks what information it believes should be withheld.” Keller wrote, “We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good. Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity.”

Assange himself admitted as much in a Q&A session on the Guardian’s website, when he wrote, “The cables we have release[d] correspond to stories released by our mainstream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working.”

In addition, as Scott Shane explained in an article for the New York Times on Saturday:

[E]ven as the government seeks to rein in WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks is reining in itself. The confidential diplomatic cables it disclosed have unquestionably turned the discreet world of diplomacy upside down. But the disclosures have been far more modest than WikiLeaks’ self-proclaimed dedication to total transparency might suggest.

Had it chosen to do so, WikiLeaks could have posted on the Web all 251,287 confidential diplomatic cables about six months ago, when the group obtained them. Instead, it shared the cables with traditional news organizations and has coordinated the cables’ release with them. As of Friday, fewer than 1 percent of the cables had been released on the Web by the antisecrecy group, The Times and four European publications combined.

“They’ve actually embraced” the mainstream media, “which they used to treat as a cuss word,” [Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University,] said. “I’m watching WikiLeaks grow up. What they’re doing with these diplomatic documents so far is very responsible.”

When the newspapers have redacted cables to protect diplomats’ sources, WikiLeaks has generally been careful to follow suit. Its volunteers now accept that not all government secrets are illegitimate; for example, revealing the identities of Chinese dissidents, Russian journalists or Iranian activists who had talked to American diplomats might subject them to prison or worse.

In an op-ed essay for The Australian last week, Mr. Assange … declared his devotion to some core Western press values. “Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media,” he wrote. “The media helps keep government honest.”

Moreover, it is also apparent that the media partners have been liaising with the US government beforehand, and that Assange himself attempted to reach out to the US. The Associated Press reported that “US officials submitted suggestions to the [New York] Times, which asked government officials to weigh in on some of the documents the newspaper and its partners wanted to publish,” and that these redactions were then shared with the other media partners, and with WikiLeaks. “The other news organizations supported these redactions,” Bill Keller of the New York Times explained. “WikiLeaks has indicated that it intends to do likewise. And as a matter of news interest, we will watch their website to see what they do.”

As for Assange, the AP reported that “Days before releasing any of the latest documents, Assange appealed to the US ambassador in London, asking the US government to confidentially help him determine what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released. The ambassador refused, telling Assange to hand over stolen property. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called Assange’s offer ‘a half-hearted gesture to have some sort of conversation.’” However, as was reported in the Washington Post, “Assange then wrote another letter to State, reiterating that ‘WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.’ In that second letter, Assange stated that the department’s refusal to discuss redactions ‘leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful,’ and then indicated that WikiLeaks was undertaking redactions on its own.”

This cooperation wth the US government, in turn, raises two additional questions: how can Assange and WikiLeaks be the prime villains in the “Cablegate” releases, when they have, in effect, acted as little more than a conduit between the original whistleblower (or whistleblowers) and the mainstream media, and what is the mainstream media’s agenda? On this latter point, I would have to conclude — and this is not meant to sound uncharitable — that they have seized on “Cablegate” as a way of using both the initial whistleblower(s) and WikiLeaks as the basis for what, at the current rate, could be at least a years’ worth of front-page or otherwise significant stories.

6.

Discussions about Julian Assange’s alleged sex crimes are unwise unless, or until he has been extradited to Sweden and officially charged.

7.

Discussions about Julian Assange’s possible extradition to the US are, however, extremely important. In light of the above, it is somewhat inexplicable that, in announcing “an active, ongoing, criminal investigation” into WikiLeaks’ releases, Attorney General Eric Holder “declined to equate WikiLeaks to traditional news organizations that enjoy certain free-speech protections,” as the AP described it. “I think one can compare the way in which the various news organizations that have been involved in this have acted, as opposed to the way in which WikiLeaks has,” Holder said, although he “did not elaborate on the distinction he sees between WikiLeaks and the publications.”

Nevertheless, the latest reports suggest that the US government is indeed looking at ways to extradite Assange to the US. Its basis for doing so is the Espionage Act of 1917. This criminalizes the communication of “information relating to the national defense,” which “the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States.”  However, as Peter Kirwan noted on Wired, although the Espionage Act “theoretically makes criminals of Julian Assange, the newspaper editors working with WikiLeaks and anyone who reads, or even Tweets, about the contents of a classified cable, [t]he law’s sweeping nature has troubled judges for the best part of a century. As a result, administrations have become reluctant to deploy it.” Kirwan added, “A civilian recipient of classified data has never been convicted under this law. Nor has someone like Assange, who will claim to be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

This is certainly true. Although the Nixon White House pursued “The Pentagon Papers” whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg under the Espionage Act, it is Bradley Manning, and not Julian Assange, whose position corresponds to that of Daniel Ellsberg. Assange’s position is more analogous to that of the New York Times in Ellsberg’s case (publishing the leaked papers), and, of course, Nixon refused to pursue the Times, accepting, as the courts have since 1917, that part of the media’s function, in a society with free speech, is the ability to draw on information produced by whistleblowers. As Peter Kirwan also noted, however, to pursue Assange, the Obama administration “may be forced to argue that WikiLeaks isn’t a media organisation, but merely a web site, devoid of editorial functions, that publishes raw data,” although “The argument that only ‘established’ media outlets can count on First Amendment protection is profoundly at odds with the reality of media production and consumption in the 21st century. Any prosecution on these grounds will provoke storms of criticism and ridicule.”

In addition, Assange’s close working relationship with WikiLeaks’ media partners further undermines the US government’s argument, as do comments made by defense secretary Robert Gates, described in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week as “a savvy Washington veteran” by former federal prosecutor Baruch Weiss, who made a point of noting Gates’ comments on the supposed WikiLeaks scandal.  “I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon, but added, crucially, “I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought … Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

8.

In contrast, ardent right-wingers (and the Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein) have looked idiotic in their hysterical condemnations of the leaks. Feinstein wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which, contradicting Secretary Gates, she argued that the “damage to national security” caused by the leaks “is beyond question.” Others, of course, called for Assange’s assassination, or described him, predictably, as a terrorist, but perhaps the most damaging response that is somewhat rooted in the real world came from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, who suggested that the New York Times and other news organisations, as well as WikiLeaks, should be investigated under the Espionage Act. Lieberman told Fox News, “To me the New York Times has committed at least an act of, at best, bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime is a matter of discussion for the Justice Department.” Lieberman is clearly pushing against 93 years of judicial refusal to prosecute traditional media outlets for their reporting — and their defense of free speech — but as has been made clear above, I think it is fair and appropriate to argue that WikiLeaks is more of a media outlet than anything else, and as Steve Vladeck, professor of law at American University, has explained, Lieberman’s angling for media prosecutions represents “crossing a proverbial Rubicon that even the most secrecy-obsessed, First Amendment-indifferent administrations have consistently refused to attempt to bridge.” The results, as Peter Kirwan noted, “would include a full-blown constitutional crisis.”

9.

Even more worrying, however, has been the extra-legal pressure exerted by senior officials in the Obama administration, who, it seems, have been directly responsible for putting pressure on companies hosting WikiLeaks, or companies accepting donations for WikiLeaks, to shut down those operations. Personally, I can understand that, when the US government whispers threateningly down the phone at senor executives of major companies, they do what they are told. As a result, I am unwilling to condemn unconditionally the cowardice of companies like Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard and others, who have been subjected to customer boycotts on a large scale since their capitualtion emerged. What does interest me, however, is how hackers — including, most notoriously, the group identified only as “Anonymous,” — have responded by taking down some of these sites. Again, I’m not convinced that this is the most appropriate course of action with regard to those individual companies, but as a demonstation of the power of hackers to throw down a gauntlet to a US administration which is clearly guilty of bullying and aggression that has nothing to do with its supposed legal compiants against Assange and Wikileaks — and fears that the US stance wil lead to attempts to clamp down viciously on the Internet — it is a powerful demonstration of quite what they are up against.

10.

My final point, briefly, concerns reports that Julian Assange has a secret weapon to be used if anything adverse happens to him, or to WikiLeaks, which his lawyer, perhaps ill-advisedly, refered to as a “thermonuclear device.” This is a 1.4 GB file, labeled “insurance,” which was uploaded onto the WikiLeaks website in late July, just after the publication of the Afghan war logs, and has been downloaded by tens of thousands of supporters, altthough the 256-digit code required to unlock it has not been released. Assange himself has stated, “We have over a long period of time distributed encrypted backups of material we have yet to release. All we have to do is release the password to that material, and it is instantly available.”

The “insurance” file reportedly includes all the diplomatic cables, plus some or all of the following, which are reportedly in WikiLeaks’ possession: unredacted military reports from Guantánamo, reports on BP and other energy companies, documents on the Bank of America, and an aerial video of a US airstrike in Afghanistan that killed civilians. While the notion of banking secrets being exposed strikes me as phenomenally important — and undoubtedly in the public interest — I am, of course, fascinated by the mention of the Guantánamo files, which I had been told about confidentially some months ago. Theoretically, these could be phenomenally revealing, although I doubt, with the present political climate in the US, that, if released, they would do anything other than reinforce calls for the prison never to be closed at all, which makes me deeply hesitant about the prospect of them being made available.

In conclusion, then, although my inner anarchist has a tendency to celebrate the sweeping disclosure of secrets, the more nuanced person that I have become prefers to occupy a place in which a certain amount of responsible editorializing takes place — as, indeed, as been happening with WikiLeaks and its media partners. What is also clear is that the US administration’s bullying is intolerable, and I have little time for its wailing about secrets that were so ludicrously unprotected in the first place. Moreover, although I have no particular allegiance to Julian Assange, and believe that Bradley Manning is being unfairly overlooked in all the focus on Assange, WikiLeaks itself — especially in its global context, shining a light on closed regimes, rather than just in its focus on the US — remains an extraordinarily useful organization, or perhaps, I should say, an extraordinary important concept, and one that others, if they have the necessary security skills, can and should consider emulating.

All secrets may, indeed, not be worth releasing, just because they can be, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that the majority of the secrets maintained by governments do anything to improve the lives of the majority of their citizens — or of those affected by their political maneuvering around the world — and on that basis this whole crisis is not just about free speech, but about the legitimacy — and the legitimate reach — of mechanisms available in the 21st century for exposing the wrongdoing of governments, on the part, generally, of those who want the world to be a better, fairer and more just place.

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