The War On Wikileaks

Hello there, Bloggers: welcome to your front-row seat. Getcher peanuts here.

Reports are coming in, that the Western democracies are trying to kill Wikileaks: kill it fast and kill it dead, and they’re not too fussy about doing it in the open, either. Isn’t that interesting?

Well, if you don’t think it’s interesting, I guess there’s every possibility that you’re not reading this…possibly also, there’s every possibility that you’re the sort of person who doesn’t invite me to your Christmas parties…

And I actually have quite a lot to say about it, but I’m still working it up, so consider this an abstract, rushed out in the hopes it’ll beat the next wave to the shore. Have you heard the stories? You can donate to the KKK through Mastercard if you want to, but you can not donate to Wikileaks; if you want to put your money in a Swiss bank you can do it if you are a dictator, but not if you are Julian Assange. Wikileaks on Twitter? You can, again, find the KKK there…but Wikileaks, no way. Check out this guy, who says PayPal’s frozen his account because he’s donated to Wikileaks. Check out this story, of the CIA placing a Wikileaks mirror site online hoping to gather data on you if you’re curious about Wikileaks. Which, as the link tells us, did not happen…but who among us doesn’t find such a thing plausible?  If this is a tempest in a teapot, it’s a mighty big teapot still, and there’s still a tempest in it…and it’s gaining strength.  Internet businesses seem oddly emotionally-engaged with the idea of Julian Assange being a troublemaker, and the thing’s just starting to smell kind of funny, you know?  The Orange Revolution found a home on Twitter, but Assange can’t;  one wonders how Amazon, recent defenders of your right to buy a How-To guide for pedophiles if you want, looks on the great whistleblowing controversy of our times…

[EDIT:  Oh no but wait…one doesn‘t wonder that…]

And so:  is it all orchestrated? It is certainly beginning to look as though it is massively orchestrated. You’ve got the somewhat suspicious legal pursuit of Assange by Swedish authorities, you’ve got his incarceration without bail in the UK. You’ve got U.S. talking heads invading your living room each night telling you it’s all about national security. They’re calling it cyberterrorism, and who can blame them? They’ve probably been waiting years to call something cyberterrorism; the word “cyberterrorism” is probably like Viagra for journalists, slightly better than that for Republicans.

But, it’s the wrong word. “Terrorism”: that’s an inapt metaphor for what we’re seeing here. If you were in London recently, you probably already know what the better metaphor is.

What we’re witnessing here is a riot.

A slow-motion virtual riot, and we’re all inside it: you and me and the NYT.

And the funny thing about that is, that the Western democracies have rather a lot of online instruments that operate as virtual analogues for grabbing someone off the street and arresting them, but not too many for dispersing crowds…in fact they’re only got one each, and only one of them has one that can be deployed with anything like swiftness and anything like quiet. That’d be, of course, the United States and its Patriot Act — the only thing like a fire hose and a tear-gas cannon in the online world as of this moment. Oh, those Internet analogies, all the “virtual X” metaphors and the “cyber-Y” similes…everyone’s always racing to bang them out on the anvil, it’s a game, it’s a contest, it’s a sport, it’s a job…in some rare cases, like the whole “copyright infringement is not theft” argument, it’s a series of combat manoeuvres played out on a very small piece of active ground surrounded by a vast no-man’s-land of people flicking channels after work and not really caring…but now, right now, it’s something else as well.

Right now, it’s a recruitment drive. It’s a guilt trip. It’s a personal appeal from Jimmy Wales. Please let us do this. The Western democracies have an enviable record of success with the whole “requiring and securing assent from citizens” thing, because all they’ve ever had to do to get it is yoke your interests with theirs and then apply the necessary leverage. “You must put up with an X while I enjoy a Y because otherwise neither of us get anything”. It’s the Prisoner’s Dilemma reconstructed as extortion, through the mere addition of whatever amount of force it takes to bend it into that shape. Everybody knows it. Everybody’s used to it. I’ll drive my Porsche while you take the bus; by the way the fares are going up and the hours are being cut; but it is necessary.

This time, though…the necessity isn’t too evident, is it?

Because whistleblowers may well constitute metaphorical WMDs to people in government, but to ordinary citizens they’re not explosive at all. In fact they make rather a jolly noise. Here we are, all of us, milling around in the street and beginning to tap our feet to that merry tune, just a little. Just unconsciously. At any moment we may begin to sing, and then what will anyone be able to do about us? No amount of state or corporate control of narrative will be able to convince us that singing’s not worth doing once we are doing it, and then the “terrorism” thing will stop working, it will be too late to deploy the online capabilities of the Patriot Act, we will all be living in an SF novel from the 1970s and they will be stuck with Wikileaks forever…!

So the only thing to do, is try to kill it now. Kill it fast and kill it deader than dead, do it in a hurry and don’t bother about being clever, don’t worry about code-names or plausible deniability, just get rid of it now, and then later we can make up some story, it won’t matter so long as the infodumps stop coming.

Like I said, you’d have to be blind not to see it. And I think we do see it, don’t you?

I mean, me personally…what I see…

…Is that it isn’t going to work.

But it is going to be interesting, it is going to be very interesting indeed, to see these governments bet their right to lie and then lose it. You know, I use Wikipedia every day, and I definitely find it a benefit…but I’m very happy to tell you that I will never be giving poor sad-faced Jimmy a single red cent to support it. Never. Just not going to happen. Basically, my position on that is: if it goes, it goes.

And this general principle of mine might be extended some fair little way beyond Jimmy, too. If you know what I’m saying.

So:  good afternoon to you, Internet!  How fresh and clean the world looks out there;  I have no idea why I’m sitting in here, when I could be out and about in it.


11 responses to “The War On Wikileaks

  1. It is interesting, and if I had any doubts before that we’re in a Crisis era (generationally speaking), I wouldn’t now. Plus I’ve been reading a lot of Matt Taibbi recently, and I’m starting to get the distinct impression that the United States (at least) is broken. Which is about what you’d expect to think at this point of the cycle. I dunno, is it fixable? Never say die, of course, but I hope at least that if it’s unfixable it doesn’t take Canada down with it, but I have my doubts about that too.

  2. I agree with all of the above, but this situation isn’t very surprising. It’s the latest iteration of the Pentagon Papers scenario — as Daniel Ellsberg himself has said — and if anything we were way overdue for a crisis of that sort to materialize.

    I knew someone who worked in intelligence during the Cold War — like, actual John Le Carre stuff running around behind the Iron Curtain, though obviously he couldn’t talk about it — and he often said the main point of government secrecy wasn’t to conceal information from foreign powers, but to keep information from its own citizens. (I’m not qualified to agree or disagree; I merely report what someone who was there and did the work believed.) When the Guardian reported that something like three million people (!) had clearance to view these diplomatic cables through SIPRNet, I thought of what that man said. Surely Russia or Britain or any other nation mentioned in those cables already knew what was being said about them; they had ample opportunity to find one person out of those three million to leak the info. The difference was that we didn’t know.

    (Another thing that fellow always said was that you got better and more reliable foreign intelligence from reading publicly available sources, academic journals, and newspapers than you did from wiretaps or informants or defectors. A lot of the items that came out in these diplomatic cables fell under the heading of “stuff we already knew but didn’t know if the State Department knew” — like, “Oh good, the U.S. realizes Putin’s government is corrupt too. I was afraid they hadn’t noticed.”)

    So yeah, I expect this isn’t about any harm being done to governmental or political interests — except possibly further eroding the myths I mention above — and is instead about trying to get the Internet itself under tighter control, using “security” as the sledgehammer to mash it with, since “copyright” wasn’t working.

    I wonder if the mere fact that Assange was there helped the establishment, by providing a villain for them. If he wasn’t a widely known and seen public figure, if Wikileaks were just some faceless “hackers” somewhere, there wouldn’t be anything to show on the tv screen. If it doesn’t have a strong visual, it won’t be on the evening news. He gave them a face. Even though he’s almost completely irrelevant to the actual story, he becomes the Bond villain of their story. And of course, the fact that he looks just like Klaus Maria Brandauer as the computer game-obsessed baddie in Never Say Never Again definitely helped.

  3. Ha!

    I’ve been thinking about that too — does having Assange in the spotlight help the more authoritarianally-inclined make their case? I think it helps them make it, but I don’t think it’s the best case for them to make…and if Wikileaks were merely shadowy they could probably be made to disappear a lot easier. On TV last night I was treated to a couple of pundits on the CBC getting it drastically wrong, one in a well-meaning way and one in a less well-meaning way…that is: one talking about how constructing either heroic or villainous narratives about Assange was probably a little convenient to be of use, and the other trying to “celebritize” Assange as a fame whore. So, the first pundit just has the problem of trying to make his living from sober reflection so well that it all turns into very moderate jerking of the knee after a while, and the second has the problem of, well, being transparently full of shit in re: the holy office of journalism. In the same vein as the second pundit’s outrage, today I had the pleasure of reading possibly the WORST op-ed column I have EVER read in the Province newspaper (which is saying a lot), by somebody dismissing Wikileaks (not just Assange, but Wikileaks itself!) as a symptom of our decaying family values where everyone has to compulsively share on the Internet and no one suffers in silence anymore and when I was a kid we respected our elders and therefore ourselves, and were brave and clean and reverent, and so forget Wikileaks what about the children

    And I’m fairly confident that strategy’s a non-starter, or at least a non-finisher, but it’s probably going to be such a gloriously disastrous non-finisher that it may leave Wikileaks immunized against similar attacks in future. With Assange there, Wikileaks isn’t a shadowy anarchist cabal, it’s Greenpeace…Greenpeace that needs to switch to decaf, maybe, but Greenpeace. Without him it’s easier to paint things using a little bit more of that Al-Qaeda colour.

    Though it would help if he were just a little less Bond-villain-y…

    (Oh yeah, also noticing lots of right-wing newspaper people today harping on the old “I knew Daniel Ellsberg, and you sir are no Daniel Ellsberg” thing, which is…I mean, not effective, in the end, because it’s kind of a crap job of lantern-hanging. I think you notice the lantern more and more the more they hang it! “Okay, so how’s it different from the Pentagon papers, then? Since you know so much about it. Wait, let me just make some popcorn first, this oughtta be good.” Because of course all these people were not actually on the good guys’ side at the time after all, they’ve not got any freak flag to fly, there.

    (LOVE the “Catch-22” nature of intelligence work you describe there Richard, by the way! No surprise I love it, obviously…)

    I do think the governments have something serious at stake in this, though — it’s just, it’s not only serious but kind of dumb. In that the genuine threat to them is the loss of a fairly docile news media, or perhaps that’d be better put as “a standardized frame for debate”, that means they don’t have to work too hard to make problems go away, so long as they’re in the zone with working that structure, and of course they are. I’m sure foreign policy isn’t going to have any new serious problems because of Wikileaks, but successful spin efforts are probably going to end up costing more man-hours…which, I take it, is how Assange’s goal of “make it tougher for them to talk to each other safely” is ultimately to be accomplished. The “three million” number can’t (it seems to me) come down too much — these are just logistical matters, try to make that boat less leaky and it’s going to have to be a much smaller boat, and who can be bothered making all those changes and upgrades anyway?

    Aw, but I better watch the coffee-fuelled ranting, for now…

    It is nice to know that the U.S. State Dep’t is aware that Putin’s kind of a scary character, though, eh?

  4. And oh yeah, Matthew and Marc…I don’t know if I think the States is broken, so much. (And only Canada can ruin Canada, God help us!) Say if McCain/Palin had won the White House, an impossible proposition, was never going to happen…but say it had, I think the harvest of that administration’s policies would’ve been so bitter it’s probably hard for us to imagine it clearly. America could have failed as a state, whatever that would’ve looked like for a First World behemoth…which is something we just don’t know, because we haven’t seen that happen before except in cautionary science fiction. But, it didn’t happen, and now it’s pretty plainly gonna be eight years of Obama. That could change a lot. Of course all his thinly-veiled “stay with me, people” speech-subtexts fell a little bit on deaf ears, and as I said to Marc on Twitter it’s clear that as a result the party he’s been trying to make compromises with all this time is the Democratic Party, and not the Republican Party…

    And as I’ve also said before, that nascent secret-police apparatus of W.’s needs some pretty public dismantling, and in many ways I think that’ll be Obama’s ultimate test, what he’ll ultimately be judged by…much as I maintain Clinton will ultimately be judged by how he held off a coup by the legislative branch with his veto pen…first time, I believe, that the Chief Executive has ever had to fulfill his primary political function?…and as long as that shit’s there we’ll always have the danger of…well, just what Richard’s saying, government’s temptation to fully exert those powers on the Internet for reasons that don’t really rise to the status of “national security”, but which are close enough to fudge. Nixon would’ve already collapsed the online economy, with those powers: I wouldn’t be buying a damn thing online, I wouldn’t even be going online anymore, in the world of the Nixonian Net. I dunno, it never really occurred to me before, but…you know what I was saying, that regulating anything to do with cell phones and related telegizmos is almost impossible because hand-held global telecommunications is the 21st century’s Big Oil, a Biblical-scale flood of money is getting set to come rushing down through those little sachets of lead and mercury…so God help you if you don’t like ’em! But even if I’m right about that, there is still one thing that could choke off that pipeline, and that’s the authoritarian motivations of the U.S. government, if only they were properly empowered. Much like Mussolini was capable of exiling the Mafia, the Patriot Act could strangle American e-commerce if it wanted to…

    Man, wasn’t I trying to say that the States is not broken, though?

    Hold on while I switch to decaf…

  5. Man, I wish I was that confident about “it’s pretty plainly gonna be eight years of Obama.” Or even that McCain/Palin would’ve been an impossibility! It’s feeling to me like we WOULD’VE gone Republican again, but Obama was just persuasive enough that everyone gave him a shot. But now it’s, “Hm, so you CAN’T fix EVERYTHING in the course of two years? Okay, just checking, worth a shot, BACK TO VOTING REPUBLICAN.”

    And part of that is just my own pessismism or maybe falling for the narrative of the moment, but things got really bad really quickly here in Wisconsin. In this last election cycle we not only lost Russ Feingold (the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in ’01), but we got a governor who turned down $810 million for high-speed rail projects. And this isn’t like we could do something ELSE with the $810 mil, or even that this could somehow get sent back to taxpayers. The federal government made it VERY CLEAR that this money is ONLY for high-speed rail, and if we don’t want it, it’s going to go to other states for the same thing. The money is just GONE. And he turned it down anyway!

    Sorry, ILL HUMOR TODAY. I was looking FORWARD to that train…

  6. Unsure how to see the implications of it all.

    Knowledge is power, but it is institutional power far more often than it’s individual power. Put that together with the Internet, I see it driving us into the territory of John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, where everyone has some shallow and transient knowledge about everything, but nobody knows what deep and indelible information some heavy agency may have about them. Brunner’s story ended in a global information dump which was supposed to make every anxious individual a member of the informed populace, but I thought it would probably leave people more paranoid than less.

    Wikileaks (as far I understand it) has exposed mostly things we might have suspected anyway if we’d been paying attention. The reaction against it exposes something different, i.e. who’s vulnerable to an official crackdown (Assange), who thinks they are (Paypal) and who thinks they’re immune (the New York Times, and about 1200 mirror sites). The differences in immunity worry me more than the official culture of secrecy. Checks and balances are bound to emerge eventually; if they aren’t in place already, that’s partly because the consequences of information technology change are hard to gauge while the change is happening, and legislation is slow to catch up. But the checks and balances could be stifled by timidity and self-censorship for a long time, if phone-tapping, data-mining security provisions are suspended over the heads of anyone who contests secrecy independently.

    I foresee it will get worse before it gets better. Expect overreactions, entrenchments and idiocies on all sides.

  7. Ha, Jonathan — you really have to feel for poor Jimmy Wales, he thought he was playing out The Shockwave Rider, but Assange has made him scientifictionally obsolete! Point well taken about the “immunity gap”, though — I think what we’re seeing there is an interesting difference in how state power is conceived of by different people, perhaps signifying…what? Philosophical literacy? Different degrees of cynicism, or apathy?

    Different kinds of cynicism or apathy?

    Assange is not immune, but certainly seems to know he stands somewhere rather than nowhere: one imagines him not uncomfortable (if not exactly happy) relying on the democratic guarantees of political liberty, legal standing…the Rules of the system, that its operators can’t just arbitrarily do away with so long as he positions himself in such a way as to be able to access them. Paypal, Amazon, Twitter, Visa and Mastercard and the rest don’t seem to count that factor, though: they’re just right out of it, they’re walking away and they’re getting in their car and they’re driving. You’ve got to wonder how to parse that, are they happy to do it? Were they asked to? Or are they merely sensitive corporatists, sniffing the wind and then doing what they figure is expected of them. Meanwhile the NYT figures…I’m not sure, do they just figure “whatever, we’re the NYT”, or what’s going on there? High time the NYT was the subject of some analysis themselves, but natural experiments like this one come along so rarely! Yeah, I’m very curious to see what happens next, just today I was telling my mother to keep an eye out — she figured “oh, it’s just more news, more stuff happening” because that’s the message she’s getting about it from her news sources, she expects it’s about 90% over at this point and so will just vanish from the main stage of media focus in pretty short order. Of course she might be right, and I might look rather foolish for being so sure we’re only one-third of the way into this…

    And Justin: honestly, seen from space the McCain/Palin pairing was just INSANE, McCain the oldest and most gut-shottedly compromised Presidential candidate ever, and Palin…well, you know, PALIN. Plus they didn’t do one thing that wasn’t unforgivably stupid and dead wrong, eh? If they’d won, I think the whole world would’ve been both tremendously shocked, and deeply horrified.

    Oh my God, sorry, huge blood sugar crash, gotta run for the kitchen…

    • And man, I really should rewrite a bunch of this, because on the one hand I didn’t do enough research before writing it, and on the other updates and clarifications are coming so thick and fast that it makes what research I did do look incredibly sloppy. What it’s like to be in the world of Breaking News, I guess…your fundamentals gotta be rock-solid at the beginning or you’ll end up looking like an idiot.

      But oh well. It’s just a blog.

  8. — Wikileaks (as far I understand it) has exposed mostly things we might have suspected anyway if we’d been paying attention.

    I don’t think that’s true. Every morning for the last week the Guardian’s come through my door with information I’d not known. This morning, for instance, it was about the McCann child abduction (not a big deal outside the UK, I’ll admit), and how the UK police had been putting together a case against the parents, even though the media line was that only the beastly Portuguese police thought such a thing. There’s probably months of this to come, and my feeling is it will be the most important information leak of all time.

  9. The sticky situation of the world needs good creators willing to pass along the stories with just as much controversy as they have in real life.

    What I find most fascinating is the way a charge by Wikileaks, not one accusation implicit in a single leak, is being refuted. Is Wikileaks that accurate?

    Is it absolutely necessary one site stay integrally the same while leaking these documents (resulting in, as a side effect, some great degree of notoriety for Julian Assange), or could leaks spread randomly, if their information is correct, be considered, by the public, to be as verifiable as these Wikileaks seem to have?

    When will history start trying to rewrite these revelations as false? Will it be too late? Who will be discussing it and how will people come to terms with the option to believe and know
    their governments and businesses with greater transparency, as the quality of the literacy of the populace grows?

    Lue & Marc :-D

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