Tag Archives: Wikileaks

Assange essay reveals motivation behind Wikileaks

Yup, still talking about Wikileaks; even if the content of the leaks is boring you, their existence is one of the biggest sociopolitical stories of the moment, and as such it’s gonna be a while before I stop thinking about them. So here’s a link for those who’ve asked “what’s this Assange character’s motivation, anyway?”, via the double-Boing; Assange wrote an essay in 2006 entitled “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” [PDF link].

It’s the sort of document I’m going to need to spend some time with before I can offer my own opinions on it, but I’m immediately getting serious harmonic chiming with a lot of my own (admittedly far less thoroughly baked) theories on the-state-as-sytem. In the meantime, it is analysed in detail at ZunguZungu, offering an insight into the philosophies that inform Assange’s projects.

[Assange’s] model for imagining the conspiracy, then, is not at all the cliché that people mean when they sneer at someone for being a “conspiracy theorist.” After all, most the “conspiracies” we’re familiar with are pure fantasies, and because the “Elders of Zion” or James Bond’s SPECTRE have never existed, their nonexistence becomes a cudgel for beating on people that would ever use the term or the concept. For Assange, by contrast, a conspiracy is something fairly banal, simply any network of associates who act in concert by hiding their concerted association from outsiders, an authority that proceeds by preventing its activities from being visible enough to provoke counter-reaction. It might be something as dramatic as a loose coalition of conspirators working to start a war with Iraq/n, or it might simply be the banal, everyday deceptions and conspiracies of normal diplomatic procedure.

[…]

He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire…

[…]

Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets. The point of Wikileaks — as Assange argues — is simply to make Wikileaks unnecessary.

And as an added bonus (not to mention yet another reason for any right-leaning pro-nation types still reading to write me off as a mad raving lefty pinko), here’s arch-academic Noam Chomsky pointing out that the most interesting thing about the Cablegate material is the subtext [via BigThink]:

… the main significance of the cables that are being released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. The results are rather striking. They show the Arab opinion holds that the major threat in the region is Israel — that’s 80. The second major threat is the United States — that’s 77. Iran is listed as a threat by 10%.

With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority — in fact, 57 – say that the region would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. 80, 77, say the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. 10 say Iran is the major threat. This may not be reported in the newspapers here — it is in England — but it’s certainly familiar to the Israeli and U.S. governments, and to the ambassadors. But there is not a word about it anywhere. What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership and the Israeli political leadership. These things aren’t even to be mentioned. This seeps its way all through the diplomatic service. The cables to not have any indication of that.

When they talk about Arabs, they mean the Arab dictators, not the population, which is overwhelmingly opposed to the conclusions that the analysts here — Clinton and the media — have drawn. There’s also a minor problem; that’s the major problem. The minor problem is that we don’t know from the cables what the Arab leaders think and say. We know what was selected from the range of what they say. So there is a filtering process. We don’t know how much it distorts the information. But there is no question that what is a radical distortion is — or, not even a distortion, a reflection — of the concern that the dictators are what matter. The population does not matter, even if it’s overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy.

Cue lots more stuff about Israel/Palestine… you can say what you like about Chomsky, but at least the guy’s consistent, AMIRITES? 😉

But this all kind of underlines the point I’ve been trying to make about Wikileaks-as-phenomenon, which is to say that waving it off as “an attempt to embarrass the United States” is to engage in exactly the same myopic narcissism that it’s trying to destroy. Whether you think destroying that narcissism is a good thing is different question entirely, of course…

Free speech or frank speech? A Wikileaks counterpoint

Via Tobias Buckell, here’s a piece by Anne Applebaum at Slate that deflates some of the more optimistic rhetoric around Wikileaks, Cablegate and all that:

This is certainly embarrassing for those who made the remarks. I am less sure whether their revelation gets us anywhere: On the contrary, it seems that in the name of “free speech” another blow has been struck against frank speech. Yet more ammunition has been given to those who favor greater circumspection, greater political correctness, and greater hypocrisy.

Don’t expect better government from these revelations, expect deeper secrets. Will the U.S. ambassador to Country X give Washington a frank assessment of the president of X if he knows it could appear in tomorrow’s newspaper? Not very likely. Will a foreign leader tell any U.S. diplomat what he really thinks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he knows it might show up on WikiLeaks? I doubt it. Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail: Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.

Hmmm. I see where that’s going – a forced return to state diplomacy of the old school – but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad direction. Secrets are inevitable; it’s the nigh-industrial scale of confidential information exchange that will suffer from diplomatic paranoia, rather than confidentiality itself, and I remain to be convinced that a world with less backroom dealing wouldn’t be a better one for everyone other than the backroom dealers.

However, Applebaum’s point about Wikileaks’ choices of targets is harder to pick holes in:

… the world’s real secrets—the secrets of regimes where there is no free speech and tight control on all information—have yet to be revealed. This stuff is awkward and embarrassing, but it doesn’t fundamentally change very much. How about a leak of Chinese diplomatic documents? Or Russian military cables? How about some stuff we don’t actually know, like Iranian discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons, or North Korean plans for invasion of South Korea Korea? If WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange is serious about his pursuit of “Internet openness”—and if his goal isn’t, in fact, embarrassing the United States—that’s where he’ll look next. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t.

I get the feeling that Assange and company would happily leak stuff from totalitarian regimes*, but it’s probably harder to come by; the great advantage of being a dissenter in a democracy – however flawed a democracy it may be – is that you’re less likely to pay the ultimate cost for your dissent. Indeed, you could probably argue that leaking Western secrets may encourage dissenters in totalitarian regimes to leak in sympathy… but I’m not sure that would hold a lot of water.

Perhaps it’s just that totalitarian nation-states are better at keeping their secrets… or simply shrewd enough to not let hundreds of thousands of people have access to a “secret” electronic network of diplomatic communications. Whether pointing out the dangers and consequences of global-scale hubris also counts as “embarrassing the United States” is left as an exercise for the reader. 😉

[ * At times like this I have to remind myself that Assange is as much a political animal as those he’s trying to unsettle. As a dissident of sorts myself, I want to believe what he says at face value… and that’s probably the best reason for me not to do so. Trust in nothing, beware of strangers bearing gifts, etc etc. ]

Cablegate: the morning after

Well, here we are: no one yet dead as a result of the latest WikiLeaks release, so far as I can tell, but a lot of egg on political faces. I remarked to a friend on Saturday that it’d probably contain depressing proofs of things we’d long suspected, and it looks like I wasn’t far off the mark… though that’s hardly an act of staggering insight and prescience on my part.

I’m going to leave the punditry and predictions to the professionals (or at least those with far more of the pertinent specialist knowledge than myself), but the one thing I’ll assert without any hesitation is that, while it may cause friction and difficulty in the political short- and medium-term, this leak – and others like it, past and future – is a good thing for us, the people of the world. Sure, nothing’s going to change overnight, and the removal of the public facades of diplomacy from the theatres of contemporary conflicts – be they physical, ideological, economic or all three – will certainly make things more difficult for all parties involved in them… but maybe that’ll mean said parties are less willing to start such conflicts in the first place.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” in other words. But what do you lot think?

Wikileaks and Anonymous

There are a few things worth noting about the latest Wikileaks document-dump, the first and most obvious being how utterly unsurprising (though still deeply saddening) the contents were; for me at least (and I suspect for many others) it’s more of a confirmation of long-held suspicions than anything else.

The second is the reaction from the US and UK governments, which have focussed on the supposed risk to military personnel that the leaks will create; we heard that warning last time, too, and it turned out to be hollow. But it’s proving a very effective distraction to career journalists and their readers, most of whom have overlooked one very telling fact – namely that the aforementioned governments have made no attempt to claim the leaked documents are false. “OK, so we lied… but we were doing it to protect you!” Oh. That has worked out well, hasn’t it?

Thirdly is an observation from Mike Masnick of TechDirt, who compares Wikileaks with everyone’s favourite internet-prankster boogiepersons, Anonymous. The common themes are that they’re both products of our newly-networked era, and that they’re both being underestimated by the very powers that they most threaten.

I’d argue that the time to take the concept of Anonymous seriously came quite some time ago, actually. Even as people dismiss the group as often immature and naive (at times, quite true), what’s impressive about it is that Anonymous is a perfect example of truly distributed, totally anonymous, ad hoc organizations. When the group puts out statements, they’re grandiose and silly, but there’s a real point buried deep within them. What the internet allows is for groups to form and do stuff in a totally anonymous and distributed manner, and there really isn’t any way to prevent that — whether you agree with the activity or not.

Some think that “a few arrests” of folks behind Anonymous would scare off others, but I doubt it. I would imagine that it would just embolden the temporary gathering of folks involved even more. Going back to the beginning of the post, if the US government really was effective in “stopping” Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack? It could be Anonymous itself, who continues on the tradition of Wikileaks, or it could be some other random group of folks who believe in the importance of enabling whistleblowing.

And yes, there’s a smattering of self-aggrandisement on my part here, because I made a similar suggestion back in July:

It’ll never be a big-bucks business, I’d guess, but the accrued counter-authority power and kudos will appeal to a lot of people with axes to grind. But what if they manage to make it an open-source process, so that the same work could be done by anyone even if Wikileaks sank or blew up? An amorphous and perpetual revolving-door flashmob, like Anonymous without the LOLcats and V masks? It’s essentially just a protocol, albeit one that runs on human and electronic networks in parallel.

Nowadays I flinch from making bold statements about profound change, but I find it very hard not to look at distributed post-geographical movements like Wikileaks and Anonymous and not see something without historical precedent. Whether it will last (let alone succeed in toppling the old hierarchies) is an open question that I’d not want to gamble on just yet, but what’s pretty much undeniable is that the nation-state is under attack by a virus for which its immune system has no prepared response.

#WarLogs: the beginning of the end for nation-state secrecy?

Well, now I understand why I was seeing Julian Assange and Wikileaks everywhere last week. Unless you’ve been under our oft-referred-to yet hypothetical news-proof rock for the last 48 hours, you’ll be aware that The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are busily publishing the contents of a massive batch of classified documents about the conflict in Afghanistan, which were apparently released to them by Wikileaks about a month back. It’s decidedly unpretty and embarrassing reading for the US government and other members of the “coalition of the willing”, but I think the saddest thing is how little of what’s being reported surprises me in the least. I think we all suspected it was happening that way, deep down; the only difference now is that denial and spin are weak options. The collective bluff has been called, and rather spectacularly.

As usual, I’m less interested in the leak itself than the larger implications. The next few months will be crucial in determining the shape of the political world to come, because Wikileaks have suddenly brought radical and deep transparency to the geopolitical process, and that cloak and dagger world has always thrived on the comparative ease with which it could obscure distant truths from the sight of its electorates. If Wikileaks and similar organisations cannot be squelched, and squelched quickly, dirty wars with hidden agendas are going to become much more politically risky… and it’s those wars and agendas that are the mainstay of the nation-state as power unit. I’m rather intrigued to see a pro-interventionist commentator like Thomas P M Barnett cautiously welcoming this new and uninvited transparency, even if not entirely approving of its source; either I’ve spectacularly misread his political stance – which is more than possible, I’ll grant you – or he’s seeing the same writing on the wall that I am. Other commentators seem to have been concluding that interventionism is all over bar the shouting, and that was before the leak; it’ll be interesting to watch the public approval ratings for overseas operations over the next few months.

I read somewhere (though I’ve lost the link) that Julian Assange is making a point of never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row; I suspect he’ll be spending as much time being publicly visible as possible, too, because he’s now the figurehead of something that is scaring the shit out of people whose long-term modus operandi has been the disappearing (or unvarnished assassination) of obstacles to their agendas. If they can bump him off and not get caught, the warning will have been sent: don’t lift the curtain, or the puppetmaster will rap your knuckles. If he stays free and alive, the warning goes in the other direction: we’re watching, and you can’t reliably stop us from doing so any more.That’s one hell of a responsibility to be walking around with – whatever you may think of Assange’s personal politics and motives, I think it’s safe to say the guy has solid brass balls.

It’s worth noting the language of the White House statement in response to the leak, with its talk of “threatening national security”. “National security” isn’t about the security of the nation’s population, it’s about the security of the nation-state as a political entity… and that is profoundly threatened by Wikileaks and the radical transparency it represents. This isn’t the end of the road for the nation-state, but it could well be the beginning of the end.

I can’t say I’m too sad about that, either.