“Neither raving about espionage laws nor trash about Assange’s sex-life questions the underlying assumption that what Wikileaks is about is “expose,” “disclosure,” or “transparency.” Neither hints that it might really be about surveillance, disinformation, and cyberwar.”
By Lila Rajiva STAFF WRITER
In my earlier post at VT (The Case Against Wikileaks – I) I recapped the main problems I’ve had with media phenomenon Wikileaks and its co-founder, chief editor, and public face, Julian Assange.
I identified the problems as follows:
Wikileaks’ content – for tending to simply confirm what most experts have already suspected and directing most of its damaging revelations toward the US and the Islamic world, but not toward Israel
WL’s objectives – for demanding full transparency from even private outfits, and encouraging hacking to achieve it
WL’s modus operandi – for being megalomaniac, sensationalistic, unilateral, and ( in a most hypocritical way) secretive
WL’s strategy – for catering to the Zionist line on 9-11 and employing mainstream/establishment platforms that further Zionist goals
Assange’s theories – for pseudo-libertarian posturing, betrayed by the authoritarian tendencies of JA’s life and work
But, first, let me play devil’s advocate. All these problems with Wikileaks might have a perfectly reasonable explanation.
- The documents released so far might just be a preview of coming attractions; Assange might be holding back the really big stuff.
- The media blitz might signal marketing skill, not a sell-out.
- The deference to Zionist sensibilities might be a tactful acknowledgment of power, not servility to it.
- The philosophical contradictions could arise from complexity and growth, not deception.
OK. Let’s say that’s the case. So what? Does that put Julian Assange in the clear?
Unfortunately, no. Even if you accept the most benign explanation for every issue I’ve raised so far, Wikileaks still poses problems.
Problem one. Where did WL get so many documents so quickly and how did they vet it so fast with their small volunteer staff?
Wikileaks was launched as a website in 2006. The domain name was registered on October 4, 2006 and its first document was published in December 2006. It was apparently founded by Chinese dissidents, with a number of other activists, journalists, start-up technologists, and mathematicians from “the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa” (per Wikipedia, as well as Atlantic.com and Cryptome.org). There were also a number of other people registered as volunteers.
By 2007, according to information at Cryptome.org WL was claiming that its database had grown to over 1.2 million documents, none directly from Western governments, but some of it sent from the United States to other states.
This claim seems to be contradicted in an article by Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at Atlantic.com. He writes that “by 2008” the repository held 1.2 million documents. I don’t know if this is just a thoughtless error or something else. A Now Public post (January 3, 2007) indicates that Wikileaks was already claiming more than a million documents in its data base by January 2007.
If Madrigal’s statement is a mistake, it’s easy to see why he made it. For an outfit that began in October 2006 to acquire and thoroughly vet a million sensitive documents in three months or less, with a handful of unpaid activists headed up by an obscure Australian hacker, is quite a feat. In fact, I would say it’s impossible.
Incidentally, it was on August 15, 2007 (seven months after the Now Public post) that I first heard of Wikileaks. I got a letter in my Inbox from Julian Assange, and his letter made the same claim – that the outfit had a million plus documents in its database.
Does that make sense? A million plus documents get uploaded and vetted between October 2006 and January 2007. And then, apparently, nothing happens the whole of the next year up until 2008, since, per Madrigal, there were still only a million plus documents in the data base in that year?
If Wikileaks could upload and vet that many documents in three months, then, over the next year or two, with more people on the team and more publicity and income, you’d assume that they’d have added at least four 0r five million more documents to their files.
If not, then we have to think that they came into possession of that first cache of one million sensitive secret documents by some other means than leaking. Logically, the most obvious place would be some kind of intelligence or espionage outfit. The benign explanation for that kind of connection would be that WL was used as a tool by some agency, unknown to Assange and the others. The more malignant explanation would be that WL works with, or for, an intelligence outfit.
That suspicion grows when you look at the complexity and range of the issues Wikileaks deals with in its reports. Here are two in which it was involved, according to letters sent to me from their press office in 2007-08.
- Reports on Stasi (East German secret police) infiltration of research into Stasi files to prevent public exposure of the actions of Stati informants prior to the reunification of Germany (http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Stasi_still_in_charge_of_Stasi_files)(10/04/07)
- A major 2008 November RAND corporation study confidentially prepared for the Joint Forces Command on intelligence and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, involving 300 interviews of officers at all levels (03/02/09)
To a layman, it would seem that checking reports of this sort would require all kinds of contacts and clearance from officialdom, as well as a great deal more specialized knowledge than a random group of activists and technologists would likely have. Just sourcing and vetting one of these reports would have taken months of full-time expert attention. And these are only two out of dozens of equally challenging reports.
Note: Steve Rosen, former associate director of Rand and long-time head of foreign policy issues at the pro-Israeli lobbying behemoth, AIPAC, was indicted, along with others, by the Justice Department in 2005 for espionage on behalf of Israel, a case that was finally dropped in 2009, because of political pressure. Some insiders suspect that the AIPAC case is the source of at least some of the material in Wikileaks’ possession.
On top of this, WL claims it has never been tripped up by fraud and has always managed to elude censors and lawsuits, even though in 2008 it was “yet to officially launch”:
Email from press-office, Wikileaks.org, 11/23/08:
Sunshine Press seeks your advice.
Over the last year, Wikileaks has catalyzed thousands of investigative reports in the mainstream press, over 60,000 blog posts and millions of web pages. We have changed national electoral outcomes and political platforms, exposed hundreds of assassinations, arms sales, many significant human rights abuses and billions of dollars worth of corruption. And we have “uncensored” numerous books and newspaper articles from around the world, taking on the legal risks that others would not, or could not. We have never lost a source, never lost a case and have never been successfully censored. Yet the project is still in its infancy and has yet to officially launch. We hit the ground running because we knew that the only way to understand how to approach our difficult goal, was to try.
Problem two. WL’s professed areas of interest coincide with Anglo-American imperial interests around the world.
In his August 2007 letter, Assange described Wikileaks’ goals this way:
“Wikileaks is developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact; this means our interface is identical to Wikipedia and usable by non-technical people. We have received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissident communities and anonymous sources.”
What struck me when I read the letter was that “oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East” are precisely the areas the US government is most avidly interested in and monitors. It occurred to me at the time that Wikileaks might be some kind of surveillance effort that used foreign-born activists on its masthead to lend it credibility among the populations it was monitoring
Problem three. WLs recruitment of activists seems to be haphazard and information about staff is vague.
In August 2007, almost a year had passed since I’d published a book on the media coverage of Abu Ghraib. I’d experienced at first hand how difficult it was for activists to get a story heard in the way they wanted to tell it. Interviews were pulled or vanished from sites, chapters were cut out of books, articles went unpublished, or if they were published, seemed to get buried via social media manipulation. From research as well as personal experience, I’d found that on crucial issues the establishment media operated to conceal and manipulate truth, rather than to disclose it. The undeniable inference was that the government was conducting a gigantic, almost continuous, psy-op directed not simply at foreign audiences, but also, and perhaps principally, at the home population. Stories that undermined the government in a radical way simply didn’t get major media attention.
Knowing this, I found it rather odd that my name was familiar to an activist in Africa of all places. (At the time, I thought Assange himself was African, because of the French- sounding name). I also found the invitation odd, because the areas in which Wikileaks claimed to be interested weren’t places in which I had any special expertise. Another activist WL contacted, Tashi Namgyal Khamsitsang, a one time representative of the Dalai Lama, ended up on the roster of advisors, even though he too didn’t reply. He says he was never asked for advice or analysis. Noam Chomsky’s name was used as well, apparently without his permission. This also suggests that WL was more interested in marketing activists’ credibility than using their skills.
One could even conclude that the purpose of WL was not simply to keep an eye on overseas areas “of interest” but to keep an eye on overseas activists and see that they didn’t seriously obstruct US interests, while at the same time keeping track of activists in America and redirecting their energies. Maybe WL was a way to harvest IP addresses. I didn’t reply.
I already pointed out how astounding WL’s achievements are for a handful of no-name activists, with no apparent insider contacts (at least, in 2007-8). Since then, the money and the volunteers have grown considerably. Today, there seem to be over a thousand people working for WL. But the outfit is still as vague as ever as to who they are, what they do, and how they are vetted.
Problem four. Wikileaks’ own claims about itself have been reinforced uncritically by the major media.
Central to the understanding of propaganda in the US is the fact that major journalists/outlets are really acting as gate-keepers, doing damage-control for the government, or providing a cover…a limited hang-out…. when stories get out of control. They accomplish this by continually revising the framing narrative of events as they unfold so they fit into an acceptable story about “bad apples” that doesn’t really rock the overall conduct of a policy. One way this is done is by sexing-up the story, at one level, or making it interminably legalistic, at another.
I call the first type of revision, “the pulp drama” and the second type, “the forensic drama”. Keep these terms in mind. They serve as a useful short-hand to understand how propaganda works in general and how it has worked in the Wikileaks story.
Here’s a sample of the forensic drama (subtitle: espionage laws and secrecy in the age of the Internet) as it’s on display in this Atlantic piece, captioned without any irony whatsoever, “How to think about Wikileaks“.
And here’s a sample of the pulp drama (subtitles: leaker’s leaky condom, hacker in the sack, Julian gets his jollies etc. etc.) in this piece of gossip at The New York Post,
Notice that both treatments of the story leave Wikileaks’ claims about itself essentially untouched. They serve to focus the debate within the parameters already set by WL’s own claims about itself, on legal minutiae about secrecy and espionage over which conservatives and liberals can be relied on to play ping-pong until doomsday OR on sensational personal details that provoke polarization at a more lowbrow level – Assange as pervert/fink versus Assange as Scarlet Pimpernel.
Neither raving about espionage laws nor trash about Assange’s sex-life questions the underlying assumption that what Wikileaks is about is “expose,” “disclosure,” or “transparency.” Neither hints that it might really be about surveillance, disinformation, and cyberwar.
Problem five. Wikileaks markets its operation deceptively
From its inception, Wikileaks has been followed by accusations of both secrecy and deceptive practices.
Item. John Young of the disclosure site Cryptome.org, whom Assange claims is his “spiritual godfather,” says he was deceived by WL into registering the domain when WL began. Young called the operation a fraud and fought back by leaking his correspondence with it, even accusing it of being a CIA data-mining outfit, according to Mother Jones magazine. Young has since gone back on some of his criticism.
Item. Wikileaks uses the prefix wiki, in apparent emulation of the wiki model of collaborative authoring popularized by Wikipedia. But although Wikileaks’ early statements claim collaborative leaking and editing, the site currently doesn’t allow all documents to be published and doesn’t let anyone edit published documents.
Item. Former Chicago Board options trader and porn merchant Jimmy Wales, CEO of Wikipedia, has explicitly and furiously distanced himself from Wikileaks, saying he has nothing to do with its use of the prefix and that he doesn’t approve of its methods. It’s difficult to know what to make of this, since Wikipedia itself is seen by many as compromised by intelligence. Cabals of editors shade entries on politically sensitive topics like 9-11 so that they conform with US government/Zionist/neoconservative positions.
So are we to take Wales’ statement at face value or are they disingenuous? Especially, since, besides heading the not-for-profit Wikipedia and creating its porn-distributing parent company and public charity, Wikimedia Foundation, Wales is founder and president of the for-profit crowd-sourcing site, Wikia inc, which, – ta-da!– turns out to be the registrant for five Wikileaks domains. When this was pointed out by a reporter, Wales flat out denied the relationship, claiming the domains had been transferred “years ago,” although records show them to have been updated in late 2009, according to this Examiner piece.
Item. Wikileaks has made repeated claims about the complete protection it offers leakers:
“WL is an uncensorable version of wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface.” (from an internal mailing list published at Cryptome.org).
“To the user, WL will look very much like wikipedia. Anybody can post to it, anybody can edit it. No technical knowledge is required. Leakers can post documents anonymously and untraceably. Users can publicly discuss documents and analyze their credibility and veracity. Users can discuss interpretations and context and collaboratively formulate collective publications. Users can read and write explanatory articles on leaks along with background material and context. The political relevance of documents and their verisimilitude will be revealed by a cast of thousands. WL will also incorporate advanced cryptographic technologies for anonymity and untraceability.”
In fact, none of this is true.
(1) WL is no longer a wiki, if it ever really was, as the Wikipedia entry for Wikileaks states unequivocally:
“WikiLeaks was originally launched as a user-editable wiki site, but has progressively moved towards a more traditional publication model, and no longer accepts either user comments or edits.”
(2) Wikileaks is hosted at PeRiQuito (PRQ), a Swedish internet service provider, because, according to Assange, the Swedish constitution gives information providers total legal protection. But this too is not true.
[Added by Rajiva on Dec. 26, 2010:-
I blogged about this first on August 7, 2010 (“Wikileaks Sources in Sweden Unprotected,” Report Confirms), although I had first noted the misrepresentations about Swedish law in April, 2010, when an article in Euractiv.com had analzyed it. I had blogged about PRQ’s hosting of both Piracy Bay.org and NAMBLA (North-American Man-Boy Love Association, which is a pedophilia advocate.) ]
Assange omits the crucial point that this protection is only available for sites that possess a special publishing license that gives them constitutional protection. This Wikileaks does not have, and Swedish journalist Anders R. Olsson has commented that he finds it very strange that people at WL apparently do not know this. Even with the license, he notes, very sensitive information important to police, prosecutors, or defense, can be accessed.
(3) Wikileaks claims that the software it uses, principally Tor, is fail-safe. Tor, a privacy software invented by the US Naval Research lab in 1995, is promoted by the Tor project, which receives funding from corporations like Google, from non-profits like Human Rights Watch, as well as from the US military, which apparently sees it as important to intelligence work, according to this Rolling Stone profile of Jacob Applebaum. Applebaum is Tor’s public face and the magazine claims he is the only known member of WL who is American (I’ll return to this debatable statement in my third installment).
Now, while Tor does provide a degree of anonymity, it does not give users protection when they leave the Tor network, unless they also have end-to-end encryption. In September 2007, a Swedish security consultant Dan Egerstad intercepted user names and passwords for thousands of email accounts by monitoring Tor exit nodes. He was shocked to find that he was able to intercept messages from embassies, foreign ministries, and defense departments around the world and blamed this on the fact that most users didn’t know how to configure their computers correctly for Tor, thus leaving them vulnerable to being monitored. But, later, curiously, he abandoned this explanation and came to believe that the victims had not been using Tor at all.
Now think about it. The timing of Egerstad’s discovery fits extremely well with the huge cache of intelligence that was in the hands of Wikileaks in 2007.
Although no one so far has suggested it, I would like to raise the possibility here that this unidentified intelligence-gathering exercise that exposed so many diplomats, politicians, and officers, could well have been the same one that gifted Wikileaks its treasure-trove of confidential information.
It is, at least, a real possibility.
Continued at “An Intel Front: The Case Against Wikileaks, Part III”)