Posts Tagged ‘Secrecy’

Leakers of secrets who won’t be punished

August 12, 2013

[Update 9/24/13.  The “leak” may have been disinformation.  No such conference call seems to have taken place.  Either the information came from other sources or it was bogus.]

Somebody leaked to The Daily Beast, an on-line newspaper, that the reason the U.S. State Department is closing embassies throughout the Middle East is information revealed in a conference call between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the top leader of al Qaeda, and more than 20 al Qaeda affiliates.

Al Zawahiri thought his communications were secure, but, because of the information leak, he now knows they aren’t.  If that information hadn’t been leaked, maybe it would have been possible use to continue eavesdropping and figure out the locations of al Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders.

Why then was the information leaked?  My guess is that the leakers’ purpose was to silence critics of the Obama administration who claim that the closing of the embassies was intended as a distraction from the controversy over Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance program.

Unlike Snowden and others who leak information embarrassing to the government, these leakers will not be tracked down and punished, any more than earlier leakers who have revealed information about successful intelligence operations against al Qaeda.

The U.S. government has always been concerned about the leaking of information to the public that makes the government look bad, even when the information happens to be well-known to America’s enemies.  Since 2001, it has seldom if ever been concerned about leaking of information that may be helpful to America’s enemies but makes the government took good.

These leaks make me skeptical of the claim that the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping has thwarted plots that the agency can’t reveal because of national security considerations.  If there were successes, the information would be made known.  The pattern I see is that public relations trumps national security.


Secrets and lies

July 2, 2013

A British blogger wrote that the reason governments have so many secrets is that they tell so many lies.

Every credit has its debit, every positive its negative.  So for every secret there must be a lie, and every lie must be kept secret.

061813ClassifiedThis is the currency of power today.  Fiat truth.

We are not allowed to have any secrets any more.  And yet those who insist they must know the truth about us, who spy upon us to extract our secrets, tell us. in return, only lies.

It is a dangerous, corroding imbalance of power, because lies, like debts, compound.  […]

The private dealings of the ordinary citizen are considered suspect and must, we are told, be rooted out.  The secrets and outright lies of the corporate and governmental worlds, however – they are confidential.  They are protected – behind razor-wire threats of legal action and closed door tribunals of hand picked experts.

via Golem XIV – Thoughts.

Lies, like crimes, compound.  You have to tell more lies to cover up the initial lies.  That’s what brought down President Nixon in the Watergate scandal.

Click on Secrets and Lies for the full post.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Why is the TPP draft treaty such a big secret?

June 20, 2013

President Obama in his last State of the Union address said that he hopes to see the United States ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an proposed treaty among at least 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific that would set rules of what members governments could and couldn’t do in regard to financial regulation, intellectual property rights and much else.

But the Obama administration refuses to disclose precisely what is in the draft treaty or what the United States is asking for.  That’s classified information.

That is to say, the classification system, whose original stated purpose was to make it a crime to disclose military secrets to foreign enemies, is being used to make it a crime to reveal the government’s proposed trade treaty to the American public.

Government bodies have held closed and secret meetings from time immemorial, and journalists and legislators have found out about them as best they could.  But making it a crime to reveal what goes on in those meetings has historically been regarded as unconstitutional.

At some point, of course, the text of the treaty will have to be disclosed.  The Obama administration’s intent seems to be to keep everything secret until the last moment, and thus rush the treaty through Congress on a “fast track” vote with a minimum of discussion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the outspoken Massachusetts Democrat, courageously voted against Michael Froman to be U.S. trade representatives because of his refusal to answer simple questions about the TPP.  Here’s what she said about it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren

I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Trade Representative’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant.  In other words, if people knew what was going on, they would stop it.  This argument is exactly backwards.  If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States.

I believe in transparency and democracy, and I think the U.S. Trade Representative should too.

I asked the President’s nominee to be Trade Representative — Michael Froman – three questions: First, would he commit to releasing the composite bracketed text? Or second, if not, would he commit to releasing just a scrubbed version of the bracketed text that made anonymous which country proposed which provision. (Note: Even the Bush Administration put out the scrubbed version during negotiations around the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.)

Third, I asked Mr. Froman if he would provide more transparency behind what information is made to the trade office’s outside advisers.  Currently, there are about 600 outside advisers that have access to sensitive information, and the roster includes a wide diversity of industry representatives and some labor and NGO representatives too. But there is no transparency around who gets what information and whether they all see the same things, and I think that’s a real problem.

Mr. Froman’s response was clear: No, no, no.

via naked capitalism.

The outside advisers, by the way, reportedly include 500 representatives of industry and finance, and 100 from all other groups; they, too, are sworn to secrecy.  Senators and Representatives have been forbidden to share what little they know even with their own staffs.  Recently Rep. Alan Grayson, an outspoken Florida Democrat, was allowed to see a version of the draft treaty.

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) told HuffPost on Monday that he viewed an edited version of the negotiation texts last week, but that secrecy policies at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative created scheduling difficulties that delayed his access for nearly six weeks.

The Obama administration has barred any Congressional staffers from reviewing the full negotiation text and prohibited members of Congress from discussing the specific terms of the text with trade experts and reporters.  Staffers on some committees are granted access to portions of the text under their committee’s jurisdiction.

“This, more than anything, shows the abuse of the classified information system,” Grayson told HuffPost.  “They maintain that the text is classified information.  And I get clearance because I’m a member of Congress, but now they tell me that they don’t want me to talk to anybody about it because if I did, I’d be releasing classified information.”


“What I saw was nothing that could possibly justify the secrecy that surrounds it,” Grayson said, referring to the draft Trans-Pacific deal.  “It is ironic in a way that the government thinks it’s alright to have a record of every single call that an American makes, but not alright for an American citizen to know what sovereign powers the government is negotiating away.”

via Huffington Post.


If you want to keep something secret … …

June 10, 2013

If you want to keep a secret, you shouldn’t tell anybody.   The more people you tell a secret “in confidence,” the greater the certainty that it will cease to be a secret.  Everybody knows this.

Everybody, it seems, except the Homeland Security agencies.  Dana Priest and William R. Arkin reported three years ago that there were at least 854,000 Americans with top-secret clearances—not just access to classified information, but access to top secrets.   It wouldn’t be surprising if the number now exceeded 1 million.  If the top secrets are known to hundreds of thousands of people, how secret can they be?

top.secretDaniel Ellsberg, who made public the Pentagon Papers, which outlined the secret history of the Vietnam war, was a member of the inner circle of government.  He was a consultant to Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, and helped write the Pentagon Papers.   A low-ranking person like Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden would not have had access to that information.

In the novels of John Le Carre, the fictional spy George Smiley never writes down any of his big secrets.   In the National Security Agency, the supposedly big secrets are put on slides for Power Point presentations.   It seems to me that when you disseminate information this widely, it is bound to leak out to the general public.

The alleged crime of Edward Snowden is to alert foreign terrorists to the fact that their electronic communications are being monitored.  But they already know that.  Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants stopped using e-mail or cell phones years ago, and communicated only by courier.   What Snowden did in releasing the PRISM slides is to provide proof to the public of what most well-informed people had believed all along.

The real way to keep secrets is:  (1)  Minimize the number of top secrets.  (2) Minimize the number of people who know the top secrets.


What Bradley Manning is accused of

June 7, 2013
Bradley Manning on trial.  Source: Slate

Bradley Manning at Fort Meade.   Source: Alex Wong / Getty Images

Here are some things the U.S. government has done that Bradley Manning has made known through Wikileaks.

  • During the Iraq War, U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape, and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers, according to thousands of field reports.
  • There were 109,032 “violent deaths” recorded in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, including 66,081 civilians. Leaked records from the Afghan War separately revealed coalition troops’ alleged role in killing at least 195 civilians in unreported incidents, one reportedly involving U.S. service members machine-gunning a bus, wounding or killing 15 passengers.
  • The U.S. Embassy in Paris advised Washington to start a military-style trade war against any European Union country that opposed genetically modified crops, with U.S. diplomats effectively working directly for GM companies such as Monsanto.
  • British and American officials colluded in a plan to mislead the British Parliament over a proposed ban on cluster bombs.
  • In Baghdad in 2007, a U.S. Army helicopter gunned down a group of civilians, including two Reuters news staff.
  • U.S. special operations forces were conducting offensive operations inside Pakistan despite sustained public denials and statements to the contrary by U.S. officials.
  • A leaked diplomatic cable provided evidence that during an incident in 2006, U.S. troops in Iraq executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence. The disclosure of this cable was later a significant factor in the Iraqi government’s refusal to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution beyond 2011, which led to U.S. troops withdrawing from the country.
  • A NATO coalition in Afghanistan was using an undisclosed “black” unit of special operations forces to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial. The unit was revealed to have had a kill-or-capture list featuring details of more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida, but it had in some cases mistakenly killed men, women, children, and Afghan police officers.
  • The U.S. threatened the Italian government in an attempt to influence a court case involving the indictment of CIA agents over the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric. Separately, U.S. officials were revealed to have pressured Spanish prosecutors to dissuade them from investigating U.S. torture allegations, secret “extraordinary rendition” flights, and the killing of a Spanish journalist by U.S. troops in Iraq.
  • In apparent violation of a 1946 U.N. convention, Washington initiated a spying campaign in 2009 that targeted the leadership of the U.N. by seeking to gather top officials’ private encryption keys, credit card details, and biometric data.

Via Slate

If we the people have a right to know these things, then Bradley Manning should be exonerated.

If there is a duty to report war crimes, then Bradley Manning is a hero.

Bradley Manning is a criminal only if it is wrong for you and me to know that the U.S. government is committing crimes.


Could Wikileaks send a rejection slip?

December 16, 2010

Wikileaks promises whistleblowers that (1) it will protect their anonymity and (2) it will make its best effort to assure maximum publicity for the leaked information.

Suppose a whistleblower gave Wikileaks information that the Wikileaks management decided was irrelevant, misleading or harmful.  Would Wikileaks sit on the information?  Would Wikileaks reject the information?

Some dissatisfied members of Wikileaks have formed a competing organization, Openleaks.  Will the two organizations compete for leaked information?

Wikileaks’ emerging business model has been to offer its leaked information on an exclusive basis to responsible publications such as The Guardian, and only to post on the Internet the information that its journalistic allies have decided to publish.

Now that Wikileaks has at least one competitor, will there be competing networks of newspapers and magazines based on which Wikileaks-type organization they choose to patronize?


Wikileaks: the documentary

December 13, 2010

This is an informative hour-long documentary produced by SVT, the Swedish public television service, which aired December 9 and became available in this YouTube version a couple of days later.


Wikileaks and Julian Assange

December 6, 2010

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.