Tag: julian assange

Cyber-Intrigue and Miscalculation

If you haven’t been following the intrigue around Wikileaks and the security companies hoping to help the government fight it, this stuff is not to be missed. Recommended:

The latter story links to a document purporting to show that a government contractor called Palantir Technologies suggested unnamed ways that Glenn Greenwald (author of this excellent Cato study) might be made to choose “professional preservation” over his sympathetic reporting about Wikileaks. A later page talks of “proactive strategies” including: “Use social media to profile and identify risky behavior of employees.”

Wikileaks has no employees. I take this to mean that the personal lives of Wikileaks supporters and sympathizers would be used to undercut its public credibility. Because Julian Assange hasn’t done enough…

While we’re on credibility: This may well be Wikileaks’ rehabilitation. Wikileaks erred badly by letting itself and Julian Assange become the story. We’re not having the discussion we should have about U.S. government behavior because of Assange’s self-regard.

But now defenders of the U.S. government are making themselves the story, and they may be looking even worse than Wikileaks and Assange. (N.B.: Palantir has apologized to Greenwald.) That doesn’t mean that we will immediately focus on what Wikileaks has revealed about U.S. government behavior, but it could clear the deck for those conversations to happen.

The concept of “miscalculation” seems more prominent in international affairs and foreign policy than other fields, and it comes to mind here. Wikileaks and its opponents are joined in a negative duel around miscalculation. The side that miscalculates the least will have the upper hand.

Wikileaks and ‘Economies of Repression’

My onetime professor Jorge Castañeda—later better known as Mexico’s foreign minister under Vicente Fox—used to speak with grudging admiration about the “Economy of Repression” practiced by the long-reigning Partido Revolucionario Institucional. He used the phrase in a dual sense: It was repression carried out by economic means, as papers that strayed too far from the PRI line would suddenly find their lucrative government advertising revenue drying up, state-controlled suppliers jacking up prices, and PRI-linked union workers threatening strike. But it was also an economical (that is, a parsimonious)means of repression, operating indirectly and relatively invisibly, and allowing more heavy-handed mechanisms—the censor’s pen and the truncheon—to be used more sparingly.

Castañeda’s phrase has crossed my mind more than once over the past week, as we’ve witnessed an array of digital intermediaries and financial institutions cutting ties with Wikileaks in the wake of attacks on the controversial site by prominent politicians. Amazon booted the whistleblowing organization from its hosting service shortly after receiving a concerned call from the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman. Amazon officials say the timing is purely coincidental, but the company still won praise for the decision from a group of prominent senators. Visa and MasterCard—both recent beneficiaries of lobbying by the Obama administration—blocked donations to Wikileaks, as did online payment processor PayPal, explicitly citing a recent letter to Wikileaks from the State Department declaring the organization’s activities illegal. (Donations to the KKK, by contrast, are still allowed.)

Like many who generally favor greater transparency, I have serious reservations about the way Wikileaks operates. While it is clearly false to claim, as some have, that the site is dumping classified material online “indiscriminately,” I have serious doubts that the news value of much of the released material outweighs the potential security risks or the chilling effect on diplomacy. Nor do I have much sympathy with what appears to be Julian Assange’s “heighten the contradictions” strategy of forcing governments to clamp down on internal information sharing.

It would be far better if we didn’t have a system of endemic overclassification, so that genuinely sensitive material were not mixed in with routine reports available to thousands of contractors and fresh-faced junior military personnel. It would be better if whistleblowers within the Defense Department who tried working through internal channels did not face reprisals, as an oversight report recently found they too often do. And it would be better if traditional media outlets had been quicker to fill the niche Julian Assange’s organization now occupies.

Whatever concerns I might have about Wikileaks, however, I’m still more troubled to see political actors pressuring intermediary firms in an effort to throttle a media organization that has been convicted of no crime. Indeed, the State Department’s assertion notwithstanding, it’s not clear that Wikileaks could be convicted in light of the strong precedent set by the Pentagon Papers case. As a recent report from the Congressional Research Service put it:

We are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.

In the heady days of the 1990s, it was widely assumed that the global Internet was, by its nature, an anarchic zone of untrammeled speech inherently immune from the control of governments quite apart from any formal legal constraints on censorship. But as political scientist Henry Farrell, among other scholars, has observed:

[A] small group of privileged private actors can become “points of control”–states can use them to exert control over a much broader group of other private actors. This is because the former private actors control chokepoints in the information infrastructure or in other key networks of resources. They can block or control flows of data or of other valuable resources among a wide variety of other private actors.

The freedom of the global Internet comes with an increased dependence on globalized intermediaries, over whom political actors in large and valuable markets will typically exert enormous leverage. A dissident publication running its own press may have an incentive to resist that political pressure—but a multinational credit card company or hosting provider, for whom the publisher is a relatively insignificant source of revenue—will often find its bottom line better served by compliance. As Farrell notes, we’ve already seen a similar strategy pursued against offshore gambling sites, whose payment processors were threatened with litigation by ambitious prosecutors.

It’s a sobering validation of Friedrich Hayek’s famous dictum that to be controlled in our economic pursuits—perhaps now more than ever—means to be controlled in everything. Whatever you think of Wikileaks, the idea that a controversial speaker can be so effectively attacked quite outside the bounds of any direct legal process, thanks to the enormous leverage our government exerts on global telecommunications and finance firms, ought to provoke immense concern for the future of free expression online.

Keeping WikiLeaks in Perspective

As the WikiLeaks story unfolds, it draws forth many themes. Two such, seemingly unconnected and even at odds, are national security and privacy. Yet they are intimately connected.

Set aside issues I discussed here briefly last week – the overclassification problem, the complex prosecutorial issues concerning Julian Assange, and the government’s abysmal failure to better protect classified material – the national security issues were brought out nicely this morning by Gordon Crovitz in his Wall Street Journal column. Take it as given that the main function of government is to secure our rights: In a dangerous world, after all, we abandoned the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution precisely to better protect ourselves. To do that effectively, however, intelligence is necessary; and intelligence that is ample and useful requires confidentiality.

But as Crovitz writes, WikiLeaks will result in less intelligence – and that, he argues, is Assange’s express intention. Thus,

Mr. Assange is misunderstood in the media and among digirati as an advocate of transparency. Instead, this battening down of the information hatches by the U.S. is precisely his goal. The reason he launched WikiLeaks is not that he’s a whistleblower—there’s no wrongdoing inherent in diplomatic cables—but because he hopes to hobble the U.S., which according to his underreported philosophy can best be done if officials lose access to a free flow of information.

Drawing from a pair of essays Assange wrote in 2006, one entitled “Conspiracy as Governance,” a title sure to appeal to anarchists, Crovitz notes that Assange “sees the U.S. as an authoritarian conspiracy.” Not that there isn’t ample evidence, to be sure, for the misuse of that authority, but Assange would cripple even the government’s legitimate functions. As he wrote:

We can marginalize a conspiracy’s ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to its environment… . An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself.

Anarchists may rejoice at that thought, but the implications, not least for privacy, were brought out nicely last week by Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the City Journal. After noting how unremarkable, and even useful, some of the revelations have been, Dalrymple writes that “WikiLeaks goes far beyond the need to expose wrongdoing, or supposed wrongdoing: it is unwittingly doing the work of totalitarianism.” And he adds:

The idea behind WikiLeaks is that life should be an open book, that everything that is said and done should be immediately revealed to everybody, that there should be no secret agreements, deeds, or conversations. In the fanatically puritanical view of WikiLeaks, no one and no organization should have anything to hide. It is scarcely worth arguing against such a childish view of life.

Yet he does, and he argues well.

The actual effect of WikiLeaks is likely to be profound and precisely the opposite of what it supposedly sets out to achieve. Far from making for a more open world, it could make for a much more closed one. Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness. WikiLeaks will sow distrust and fear, indeed paranoia; people will be increasingly unwilling to express themselves openly in case what they say is taken down by their interlocutor and used in evidence against them, not necessarily by the interlocutor himself.

Indeed, alluding to life in Eastern Europe not that long ago, Dalrymple envisions that “a reign of assumed virtue would be imposed, in which people would say only what they do not think and think only what they do not say.” And he reminds us that “the dissolution of the distinction between the private and public spheres was one of the great aims of totalitarianism.”

But government is different, one hears. And it is. That’s why the presumption in the case of government, unlike in the private sphere, must be in favor of openness. That does not mean, however, that there is no place for secrecy in government, and for institutional measures to secure that secrecy. In fact, the point was well captured by Claire Berlinski at Ricochet, taking off from Dalrymple’s post:

The hypocrisy and double-standard of journalists, in particular, who fail to understand why the government must sometimes protect its sources of information is mind-blowing. Journalists, of all people, should understand this better than anyone else. Many sources would lose their jobs, their reputations, their liberty or their lives for talking to journalists on the record. If the people who spoke to us didn’t think we could keep their names out of the story, they would never open their mouths again. Would that make the world more transparent?

The only way you could argue that this logic doesn’t also apply to the US government is by assuming that all journalists only have good intentions and do only good things–all the time–and the US government only has bad intentions and does only bad things–all the time. This appears to be the justification offered by the Guardian, but I suppose that’s to be expected.

At some level, the post-WikiLeaks world was probably inevitable: as Crovitz puts it, it has “ended the era of innocent optimism about the Web.” But the world is still a dangerous place. Perhaps no one would better understand that, were he here today, than Benjamin Franklin, who in heading the Committee of Secret Correspondence during the Revolutionary War kept most of his dealings secret even from Congress. Come to think of it, even the debates of the Constitutional Convention, years later, were kept secret, and we’re doubtless the better for it.

Is Wikileaks Libertarian?

In response to Wikileaks’ complaints that Amazon.com will no longer host the whisteblower site’s activities, Chris Moody, over at the Daily Caller, writes:

Unfortunately for WikiLeaks’ argument, Amazon is a private company that can legally sever ties with anyone it wants. If anything, the company is exercising its right to free speech and association by choosing not to work with another independent organization.

That’s correct, though I would add that it was Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, who bullied Amazon into cutting Wikileaks from its server. Thus, it was partially government coercion, not private consent, that severed a business relationship.

As an aside, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said in a recent interview with Forbes that he is influenced by “American libertarianism, market libertarianism.” (Hat tip: Reason’s Matt Welch.) For more on Assange, check out his old website.

The Politics of WikiLeaks

In publishing a massive trove of government documents on the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks has done a useful thing. And because it often publishes information that is embarrassing to government, rather than dangerous to it, WikiLeaks is a good thing for democracy.

I say that to prevent the criticism below from getting me labeled as part of an effort to silence WikiLeaks or distract from the news it generates.

For starters – and this is more about the media than WikiLeaks – there’s the fact that thus far there is little new here. As we saw last week with the Washington Post’s Top Secret America blockbuster, the media fetishizes secret information, even when it merely elaborates on stories we’ve already heard.

My problem with WikiLeaks is its practice of stamping its politics on its leaked documents. For example, in April, when it released that gruesome video of U.S. Apache helicopter pilots in Iraq enthusiastically killing civilians that they mistook for insurgents, WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder,” despite the obvious efforts of the pilots to comply with the rules of engagement.

Now rather than simply put its documents on the web and let people draw their own conclusions, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a self-congratulatory press conference where he declares “it is our experience that courage is contagious” and compares the document release not just to the leak of Pentagon Papers but to the opening of the Stasi archive in East Germany. Certainly U.S. forces in Afghanistan have committed war crimes (it would be hard to run a war of this scale and avoid them completely) and spun the war’s progress. If these documents reveal more of those doings, that’s a good thing. But even the harshest critic of the war’s conduct ought to be able distinguish it from the activities of a Stalinist secret police force. I bet that the Stasi, faced with a similar leak problem, would have found a way to plug it by now.

Grandiosity is also evident in Assange’s recent response to transparency advocate Steve Aftergood’s critique of WikiLeaks seeming lack of privacy standards. In one paragraph, Assange irrelevantly brags that he spoke before European parliamentarians, asserts that “WikiLeaks not only follows the rule of law, WikiLeaks is involved in creating the law,” announces its opposition to “plutocrats and cashed-up special interests” (not secrecy?), and then claims to have inspired Senate legislation to make Congressional Research Service reports public, even though bills to that effect predate his organization’s existence by nearly a decade.

In the future maybe we can get Wikileaks’ product without its commentary.