Wikileaks and Julian Assange

This was originally entitled: War of Wikileaks: secrecy vs. anonymity.

Click on WikiLeaks for the WikiLeaks home page. [Added 7/7/11]

Click on WikiLeaks | Media for current articles in The Guardian. [Added 7/14/11].

Click on Media Fix for links to updates on Julian Assange and Wikileaks. [Added 4/14/11]
Click on In Conversation with Julian Assange Part I  and Part II  for Julian Assange’s philosophy and view of the world.  [Added 7/7/11].

Julian Assange and the Wikileaks crew are not spies.  They have not revealed the secrets of the United States government or any other government to a hostile foreign power, unless the government regards the American people itself as an enemy

They are not hackers.  Their investigative reporting is limited.  They are more like publishers or syndicators.  They provide a venue in which you can send secret documents and expect to see them published.  They are doing what the New York Times did in 1971 when it published the secret Pentagon Papers.

But they are doing more than trying to inform the public.  They are waging a nonviolent form of warfare against governments and institutions whose functioning depends on secrecy.  They do this by attacking their ability to keep secrets.  These institutions are then faced with a dilemma: (1) cease honest communication internally, in which their operations are hampered, or (2) risk having their real purposes and activities know, in which case their operations are hampered.

Assange regards the U.S. military-diplomatic-intelligence establishment as the equivalent of a terrorist network.  It operates by means of violence concealed by lies.  From his standpoint, inhibiting internal communications within the U.S. State Department is a feature, not a bug. In his words:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

Via Interesting Question

A government or any other organization needs free and frank internal communication to function well.  But if an organization engages in criminal activities, open communication creates a risk that its activities might be revealed.  An organization that says one thing in public and does another in private risks disillusioning its members when it tells them the truth, and risks losing touch with reality to the extent it doesn’t.  Assange’s aim is to heighten these contradictions.

Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve.

But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

via zunguzungu.

Some thuggish politicians and commentators have openly called for Assange’s murder. That such things can be said in public is a measure of how barbaric our political discourse has become.  But I don’t think his enemies will try to assassinate him. What I expect the United States government and his other opponents to do is to fight him in terms of information – and disinformation.

As much as Wilileaks’ targets rely on secrecy, Wikileaks relies on anonymity.  Wikileaks reportedly has about 40 core members and 800 key supporters, most of them unknown to the public.  They go about their business while the semi-fugitive Julian Assange functions as the public face of Wikileaks.

My guess is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies will strike back by trying to discover just who they are, and then, if they can’t bring criminal charges against them, try to smear their reputations and hound them out of their jobs.  I don’t know enough to guess whether Assange’s legal troubles in Sweden are an example of this.

Another tactic would be to plant bogus information and use it to discredit Wikileaks.  The Pinochet dictatorship in Chile once planted false atrocity stories on Amnesty International and then, when Amnesty published them as true, used them to discredit the human rights organization.

The foundation of Wikileaks is its ability to guarantee anonymity to whistleblowers.  It could survive the unmasking of some of its own members, but it could not survive the loss of that absolute guarantee.  So I am sure intelligence agencies are working overnight to penetrate Wikileaks’ security.

Wikileaks’ effectiveness depends on public trust that it has the integrity and competence to assure the documents it publishes are authentic.  Trust is hard to gain, easy to lose and easy to undermine.  It would take one big foulup to undermine that trust. Of course, foulups can occur without sabotage or subversion.

As a newspaper reporter, I have written articles based on confidential documents leaked from Kodak, Xerox and other companies.  I never felt I was doing anything wrong; it was part of my job.  On the other hand, I only disclosed information that in some way affected the well-being of the readers of the newspaper.  I didn’t expose secrets just for the sake of embarrassing people.

Also, I sometimes was told things in confidence, and respected the confidence.  As a reporter, I sometimes was told things “not for attribution,” which meant that I agreed not to reveal who told me, and “off the record,” which meant that I could not refer to the information at all, although I was free to re-discover from independent sources on my own.

I’m not comfortable with a world in which any kind of private communication can be published, and subjected to the worst possible interpretation.  I’m thinking of the hacking by climate change deniers of the e-mails of scientists at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit, and the publication of e-mails circulated among members of Journolist, a list-serve for 100 or so liberal journalists.  The scientists and the journalists found their most thoughtless statements blown up and subject to the worst possible interpretation.  I would hate to have something like this done to me.

But this is reality of the world we live in.  So far as I know, nobody asked for an injunction to stop publication of those e-mails.

And after all, if government agencies are free to read my e-mail, listen to my phone conversations, examine my financial records and find out what books I’ve bought and borrowed, why shouldn’t I have the right to know what they’re doing?   How can I perform my duty as a citizen of a democracy if the government’s significant decisions are made behind the veil of secrecy?

Peter Galison, a Harvard historian of science, estimated in a 2004 article that the U.S. government had 7.5 billion pages of classified documents on file – equal to all the books, periodicals and documents in the Library of Congress!  And this summer, Dana Priest and Bill Arkin reported in the Washington Post about the vast network of secret organizations that has sprung up in the wake of the war on terror – 1,271 top secret government organizations and 1,931 top secret contractors with more than 850,000 people with top secret clearances at more than 10,000 locations.  No single individual in the government knows exactly what they do.

Wikileaks is not an ideal answer to out-of-control growth in secrecy, but I don’t know a better one.   Under the circumstances, Julian Assange and his friends are heroes.

[Video added 12/13/10.  Hat tip to Zunguzungu.]

Click on Conspiracy as Governance for Julian Assange’s statement of his political theory.

Click on Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy and Wikileaks, Now for astute analysis by Aaron Bady on his Zungazunga web log.  My own thinking about Wikileaks is based largely on these two web log posts.  I recommend reading both of them in their entirety.

Click on Interesting Question for Julian Assange’s web log from 2006-2007.  It is worth reading as the product of an original mind, but the only part obviously relevant to Wikileaks is what I quoted above.

Click on Julian Assange answers your questions for a recent interview in The Guardian.

Click on TIME interview with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange for a recent interview in Time magazine.

Click on An Interview With Wikileaks’ Julian Assange for a recent interview in Forbes magazine. Assange said that one of his intellectual influences is American libertarianism, and that capitalism requires dissemination of accurate information to function well.

Click on “The Truth Will Always Win” for Julian Assange’s op-ed column in The Australian. [Added 12/7/10]

Click on Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency for a recent New Yorker profile of Julian Assange.

Click on Julian Assange Wikipedia biography for detailed biographical information.

Click on The culture of conspiracy, the conspiracy of culture for comments by “Doctor Science” on the Obsidian Wings web log.

Click on Overseeing state secrecy and After secrets for comments by Will Wilkinson in The Economist.

Click on Removing Knowledge for Peter Galison’s 2004 article in Critical Inquiry on classified documents.

Click on A hidden world, growing beyond control for the Washington Post series on the proliferation of secret intelligence agencies.  The site includes a web log on continuing developments on this question.

Leaked information is not necessarily more accurate or significant than public information.  A confidential State Department report published by Wikileaks does not necessarily contain better information than a good article published by the McClatchey newspaper syndicate or a peer-reviewed article in a political science journal.  In fact, secret information is more likely to be bogus than public information because it does not have to meet the test of criticism.

Nevertheless, leaked information of lesser significance is more newsworthy that public information of greater significance.  The economics and culture of journalism is oriented toward exclusive information.  The leaking of classified information plays into this.  In my opinion, much government information is classified as secret just so that it can be leaked exclusively to favored reporters.

Wikileaks is cleverly taking advantage of this syndrome.  Rather than posting all its State Department cables on the Internet for all the world to see, it has made deals with certain newspapers – The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais – to publish them exclusively.  That was smart. It gives these newspapers an incentive to make the most of the information; it gives them a vested interest in Wikileaks continued survival.  It also raises some delicate questions about conflicts of interest.

Sooner or later Wikileaks copycats will emerge.  Even if the original Wikileaks goes down, its model for disseminating information will continue, but the standards for evaluating information will inevitably decline.  Governments, corporations and even terrorist organizations will learn to use the weaker copycat  organizations, or even set up front organizations of their own, to disseminate false information.

We live in interesting times.

Click on The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy for comment by Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer and critic of Internet culture.  [Added 12/23/10]

Click on Wikileaks Exposes Internet’s Dissent Tax, not Nerd Supremacy for a rejoiner.  [Added 12/23/10]

Click on The Blast Shack for comment by SF writer Bruce Sterling, author of the non-fiction The Hacker Crackdown. [Added 12/23/10]

Click on Hacker Culture: A Response to Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks for a rejoiner.  [Added 12/23/10]

View Julian Assange’s spoof of a MasterCard commercial.  [Added 7/14/11].

Click on How Arab governments tried to silence WikiLeaks for an article in The Guardian about attacks on Arab newspapers that published WikiLeaks information. [Added 7/14/11]

Click on Dear Julian: It Was Not the Wikileaks for an Egyptian view of WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring.  [Added 7/14/11]

View the Southern Avenger’s view of Wikileaks on The American Conservative web site. [Added 7/29/11]


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7 Responses to “Wikileaks and Julian Assange”

  1. Ted Lechman Says:

    AS far as I can tell, Assange is the only journalist doing real investigative journalism anymore, and is not part of (i.e. the mouthpiece for) a major media corporation.


  2. Eli Vieira Says:

    I agree with Lechman.

    In Brazil we have major media enterprises commited to interests of few families. It became particularly ugly in the presidential elections months ago when a newspaper fired their ombudskvinna when she said she was relieved they published an editorial supporting the right-wing candidate; and criticizing those who were speaking ill of poor people voting based on their own interest as if higher classes did no such thing.

    Free media is a real preoccupation for emerging countries and I believe Wikileaks is an example of how to thwart the private-interest based selection of relevance.


  3. philebersole Says:

    Julian Assange (‘ll use his name as a proxy for Wikileaks as a whole) is not a journalist and does not claim to be a journalist. He is doing something more radical and more interesting than investigative journalism.

    He is providing a venue by which leakers and whistleblowers can safely reveal secret information to the public. This requires three things which would be difficult if not impossible for a conventional newspaper or broadcaster to do.

    1. Wikileaks has to provide an absolutely secure and untraceable means by which to receive information. I remarked in my post about the seeming paradox of the need to guarantee absolute anonymity in pursuit of the goal of absolute transparency. Pfc. Bradley Manning, by all accounts, was unmasked by his own indiscretion and not by any fault of Wikileaks, and it seems counterintuitive to think that he was the sole leaker of the State Department documents.

    2. Wikileaks has to be able to evade legal actions and illegal pressures to shut it down.

    3. Wikileaks has to be able to distinguish information from disinformation (and also to review information to prevent harm to innocent third parties). I think this is its greatest challenge. By Assange’s account, it has a skeleton staff – 40-some full-time workers and 800-some in all. If I was an evildoer, I would try to paralyze Wikileaks by overwhelming it with fraudulent leaks of bogus information.

    There are two ways to conceal the truth. One is to hide it and the other is to spread so many lies that it is impossible for the ordinary person to distinguish truth from falsehood.

    I don’t agree with you that real investigative journalism is not being done. Dana Priest of the Washington Post, as one example, is doing consistently excellent work. The problem is that investigative journalism has so little impact.

    Nothing that Wikileaks has disclosed is as shocking (to me) as the reports of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Yet what is the result of those reports? The result is that (1) the American political establishment, the purveyors of popular culture and a large segment of the American public accept torture as a normal and even manly activity and (2) cell phones and other picture-taking devices are banned from torture chambers.

    If you click on the links to Julian Assange’s writings, you will see that his primary goal is not a better-informed public (although that may be a by-product of his work). His primary goal is to drive the U.S. government and his other targets crazy.

    The uproar over Wikileaks is much less over the specifics of what Assange and his friends have disclosed as over the fact that he has compromised the power of the U.S. government to control information.


  4. Ted Lechman Says:

    1. Wikileaks is manifestation of the “openSource” concept of technology, proposed and promilgated by the technologists themselves. This entire movement deserves significant consideration – Wikileaks being a single manifestation of that trend. Other examples of this trend is “Linux” or open source Unix – which made a huge impact on, of all things, corporate IT. Another example is “OpenOffice”, available for both windows and linux platforms, which provides the exact same functionality as MS Office (i.e Word, Excel, Accss, powerpoint, etc) and full file/macro compatibility – but free and open source.

    2. The downside of Wikileaks is that it can be easily hijacked by governments themselves – to broadcast propaganda as a Wikileak expose – and thus give it a credibility it could get by no other means. Pakistan and others are doing this already – See ex below:


  5. philebersole Says:

    Secret information generally falls into three categories

    (1) Information a government wants to keep from hostile foreign countries, such as design of weapons, names of spies, etc.

    (2) Information a government wants to keep from its own people, such as Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia.

    (3) Information a government wishes to restrict so that it can be leaked to friendly journalists.

    President Truman recognized these distinctions when he issued the executive order setting up the U.S. government’s present system of classifying information. The order said a classification was invalid if it was done primarily for the purpose of covering up misdeeds or mistakes. In my opinion, it is always legitimate to leak information that is classified for that reason.

    Historically U.S. courts have ruled that the government has the authority to punish those who have leaked information classified as secret, but not third parties who have received the information and published it.

    The unmasking of government secrets by journalists has been going on for a long time – the New York Times report that the National Security Administration is eavesdropping on Americans’ overseas phone calls, or the Washington Post’s report on the CIA’s secret torture sites.

    Probably the most massive publications of government secrets were the Bolsheviks’ publication of the Tsarist government’s secret archives, and the Khomeini regime’s publication of the secret U.S. embassy files (the U.S. embassy shredded all its documents, but Iranian students painstakingly reconstructed them from the shreds).

    We liberals try to decide things on the basis of neutral procedural rules, but this isn’t always possible. Sometimes it is a question of whether you think secrecy serves a good cause or a bad cause. Sometimes it is not a question of applying universal neutral principles, but of which side you are on.

    [12/12/10] comment edited for clarity.


  6. philebersole Says:

    An acquaintance of mine sent me this comment by e-mail, with permission to use it on my web log.

    I find your comments and the links very useful – keep up the good work. There is, however, one aspect of this that I think is somewhat unreported, perhaps because it is so large and so significant that it is hard to grasp its implications.

    That has something to do with the quantitative change in the scope of these revelations, which has produced a qualitative shift in all other considerations. To some extent, secret diplomacy and secret business dealings (to the extent that they are recorded on hard-media) are much the same as before. The same is true about personal confidences, personal medical information, private communications about third parties, and simple gossip in written form. (And, by the way, a lot of what attracted the most attention in the press was more on the level of diplomatic gossip than it was anything else – and this too our government wants to keep secret from foreign governments. Meaning: it falls under your category 1, below.) What has changed is the potential availability of those secrets, confidences, and communications.

    There is now a vastly expanded scale at which documents have been digitized and communicated. And here I’d insist upon an old-fashioned distinction: most information in the old sense is data in a format (literally “in-form”), often a bureaucratic contrivance and convenience, usually the result of some sort of process, and subject to various exigencies – erroneous or missing data, false signals, as well as timing problems, meaning data as of some specific time is merely data that has been collected as of that time. Of course, when we talk about “information” in the context of Wikileaks, we are talking about digitized documents and potentially digitized collections of what seems to be “data”, the “information” aspect of it is really the technical coding of the transaction, text, audio, or video, which allows for rapid communication and dissemination, or (reflectively) information about its encryption, communication, and dissemination.

    That there is a qualitative shift in our consideration of secrets and confidences is shown the notion that “Privacy is not what it used to be.” In the end, we rely (and this is mostly justifiable) on digitized storage and communication of information. There is always this tension in this: if you want instant credit, then your credit information is going to be stored on some database and accessible on some website. The natural tendency is to reduce the transaction time and cost. In any case, “fail-safe” security tends to be less safe from failure than we might hope. So, there is also the possibility that your credit identity will be stolen.

    On reflection, though, I’m wondering whether there are not relatively special conditions that must be met for the Wikileaks phenomena to flourish:
    1. There has to be some event or circumstance that makes data and data analysis critical: war policy, bank malfeasance, and environmental disaster seem to be the leading topics of the day.
    2. There has to be a willingness to create documents or collections of documents in digitized form and make them available, even if just to a limited audience.
    3. There probably have to be efforts at encryption or cover-up enough to attract the attention of leakers, and then journalists (the recipients of leaks) generally.

    I don’t have a real conclusion here, other than the obvious one that Wikileaks has very shrewdly taken advantage of a new and large niche that has opened up in the conflict between secrecy and disclosure. Still the phenomena will not in the end be unlimited. In the meantime, it is going to force us to think and re-think. My one point is this: we cannot afford to see this as just a simple extension of documents getting into the wrong hands, as in some Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allen Poe thriller about missing papers of state.

    Let me add: One branch of my family (they were architects) used to observe, “Some things are only possible on paper.” This is even more true of digital “truths”. So, we also have to remember that the scope for dissemination of misinformation has also increased.


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