Tag: wikileaks

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.

Hugo Llorens: U.S. Ambassador or Proconsul in Honduras?

New Wikileaks cables have surfaced on the role of U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens in the aftermath of the constitutional removal of Manuel Zelaya from power and the subsequent presidential election in that country. Written by Llorens himself, the cables show a disturbing pattern of interference and bullying from the U.S. diplomat in Honduras’s internal affairs.

The cables describe several meetings that Llorens had with Honduras’ president Porfirio Lobo after the general election of November 2009. In all instances, Lobo visited Llorens in his office or residence, not the other way around. During the meetings, they discussed the conformation of Lobo’s cabinet, as well as the circumstances under which Roberto Micheletti—who replaced Zelaya as president of Honduras—would leave power. Llorens insisted that Micheletti, whom he refers to as the “de facto regime leader,” had to depart “well before inauguration day,” even though he was the constitutional president of Honduras at the time. On a cable dated January 5, 2010, Llorens recalls telling then president elect Lobo that “if Micheletti continued to thumb his nose at the United States… there would be repercussions.” He specifically threatened to refuse U.S. visas to Micheletti and his supporters ever again.

Unfortunately, Lobo played well his role of subordinate leader of an otherwise independent nation. In a telling example, Llorens recalls how the president-elect asked him for suggestions on whom to appoint as Security Minister. Later, Llorens basically vetoed the appointment of Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, then head of the armed forces, as the new Defense Minister. Previously, Vásquez had been on Lobo’s “short list” of candidates for that position, but Llorens warned him of the “serious image problem” that his appointment would have since Vásquez was the head of the armed forces when Zelaya was removed from power.

In another cable dated February 16, 2010, Llorens describes another meeting in his residence where he pressed Lobo—already sworn in as president—“on the continued presence and participation in Lobo’s government of the regime [meaning, Micheletti’s previous administration] Minister of Defense Lionel Sevilla and Chief of Defense Romeo Vásquez Velásquez.” Llorens warned Lobo that “the clock was ticking” for the Honduran president to “make the needed personnel changes.” Llorens wanted any civilian or military figure from the Micheletti administration connected to the ousting of Manuel Zelaya out of the new government. It is later described how “Lobo appreciated the Ambassador’s straight forward and honest advice.” As to who should replace Vásquez as head of the armed forces, Llorens “discouraged” Lobo from appointing a general related to the ousting of Zelaya, and “suggested” the name of a different officer for that position. Llorens then told Lobo to make the changes in the armed forces “sooner rather than later.”

These revelations have created a great deal of controversy in Honduras. Columnist Juan Ramón Martínez of the Honduran daily La Tribuna wrote [in Spanish] about his country’s embarrassment after learning of President Lobo’s genuflecting attitude towards the U.S. Ambassador. Martínez says that “according to the reports sent by Llorens, the country’s sovereignty doesn’t lie on the people… but on the Ambassador of the United Sates, who has turned the president elected by the Honduran people into a personal employee…”

Martinez is right. Hugo Llorens doesn’t act as a U.S. Ambassador, but as a U.S. proconsul in Honduras.

The FCC Should Not Regulate the Internet

The FCC moves forward with a proposal to regulate Internet service today. It’s a bad idea.

The one thing that pleases me about the ongoing debate over Internet regulation is the durability of Tim Lee’s November, 2008 Cato Policy Analysis, “The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality without Regulation.” My introduction of it is a good synopsis.

The arguments against government regulation in the name of “net neutrality” have not changed: A good engineering principle is not made better if dogmatized and given to lawyers and bureaucrats to enforce as law. The FCC and its regulatory regime are almost sure to be captured by major ISPs and turned to their benefit, used to suppress competition and blunt innovation.

A premise of net neutrality regulation—and much other regulation—is that consumers can’t be relied on to defend their own interests. Taking that premise, which I don’t, it follows that regulators must step in. But that syllogism skips over an additional premise: that regulators can do a better job.

The Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy) recently published a terrific paper by Slavisa Tasic (a former Cato intern) that applies the insights of behavioral economics to regulators. Academics have typically used behavioral economics to illustrate the fallibility of market actors, but Tasic turns the tables. The paper is called “Are Regulators Rational?”, and it examines the cognitive biases that are likely to produce flawed decision-making on the part of regulators.

Yes, it’s tit-for-tat to the attack on markets implicit in behavioral economics, but it’s a sound and fair paper that opens new insights onto regulation. This is a good time to do that. Too many take it as an article of faith that the FCC will do better than consumers at protecting consumers’ interests.

This is also a good time to remember that the FCC is our national censor. The U.S. government’s censorious reaction to l’affaire WikiLeaks should serve as counsel to people who would subject Internet service providers to even greater federal regulation. Regulated ISPs will be more compliant with government speech controls.

It’s a point worth emphasizing: Regulated ISPs will be more compliant with government speech controls.

For these reasons, in addition to the ones that have come before, federal regulation of the Internet is a bad idea.

Wikileaks: Galvanizing ‘Cyber-Conservatism’?

Mercatus Center senior research fellow (and Cato alum) Jerry Brito has an interesting Wikileaks post on Tech Liberation Front.

The most vocal and strident reaction against Wikileaks has come from folks we can identify as neocons. Aside from demanding that the U.S. hunt down Julian Assange, Charles Krauthammer wrote, “Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage — and the laws to punish and prevent them.” Meanwhile Marc Thiessen, ignoring the distributed nature of WikiLeaks, called for the U.S. to “rally a coalition of the willing to defeat WikiLeaks by shutting down its servers and cutting off its finances.” And William Kristol, for his part, asked rhetorically, “Why can’t we disrupt and destroy WikiLeaks in both cyberspace and physical space, to the extent possible? Why can’t we warn others of repercussions from assisting this criminal enterprise hostile to the United States?”

Jerry is kind to these commentators, who will find fighting the Internet like fighting the wind. From the right, they join voices on the left who argue for limitations on Internet communications in the name of privacy and human dignity.

Where do libertarians stand? (Or “cyber-libertarians,” if we must.)

Says Brito,

To me, libertarians simply have a narrower view of what information control is desirable, with harm to individuals as the relevant standard. They also prefer individual choices and self-regulation to state control. And to the extent that state control is unavoidable, they want to ensure robust due process and protection of individual liberties.

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.

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.

WikiLeaks, the Law, and Common Sense

With the third WikiLeaks dump now before us, and more promised down the road, two questions that arise are whether prosecutions of those responsible are possible and what can be done to better protect classified material. Neither question admits of easy answers. One can start, however, by noting that overclassification is a perennial problem in government, and correcting that problem would go far toward more open government better able to protect classified material.

That said, whether in families or foreign affairs, confidences are necessary, and the need to keep those confidences is inescapable.

Accordingly, one can say with certainty that any  government official who knowingly downloaded and then released classified documents to a person unauthorized to see or possess them, as Private First Class Bradley Manning is alleged to have done, can be prosecuted  under any number of federal statutes. With respect to someone like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, however, the issues are more complex. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Justice and Defense Departments are conducting a criminal investigation, presumably under the Espionage Act of 1917. That is a vague statute that may be broad enough to enable the president, under his foreign affairs powers, to go after someone who disseminates such documents.  But it has rarely been used, and never against a publisher.

The larger question, however, is how all of this was allowed to happen. Speaking from personal experience, during two brief stints at the State and Justice Departments during the Reagan administration I held a Top Secret clearance, which gave me access to highly classified materials. At that time, however, just to see those materials we had to go to the inner sanctums at State and Justice—areas that were shielded from any kind of eavesdropping—and then the materials were brought to us by agents who stayed with us while we read them.  In light of that experience, I find it incredible that a young Army PFC could download this material and go undetected for long enough to disseminate it and boast about it afterward. More than anything else, this is one more government failure. Heads should roll, but mostly the heads of those who enabled so lax a system to exist.