Journalist, Hacker, Spy, Racketeer

Posted on January 23, 2011 by

What if Wikileaks, from the start, had announced itself as an anonymous group of hackers whose work aimed at producing an open access archive of leaked, stolen, and otherwise illegally obtained and illegally reproduced documents? Chances are that in a conflict with the U.S. or any other government, Wikileaks’ activists would have found themselves in a “catch me if you can” game.

Instead Wikileaks has, from the start, identified a range of descriptive labels for identifying itself, and took the time to inform the press on the correct labels to use:

“WikiLeaks should be described, depending on context, as the ‘open government group’, ‘anti-corruption group’, ‘transparency group’ or ‘whistleblower’s site’.”

“WikiLeaks staff should be described, unless otherwise specified and depending on context, as ‘investigative journalists’, ‘analysts’, ‘technologists’, ‘open government activists’ or, especially in an African context, ‘anti-corruption activists’.” (source)

Beyond labeling practices, we witness the increased mainstreaming of Wikileaks, nestled within a cartel of mainstream media establishments, surrounded by lawyers, hiring a public relations firm, book deals, and soon a movie too (update: movies). Catch me if you can has become something similar, but bolder: catch me if you dare. Wikileaks is still on the run, but it’s now on a track littered with obstacles in the form of its many compromises.

(As for catch me if you dare, Julian Assange seems to have concluded that it would be “politically impossible” for the government of the U.K. to extradite him to the U.S. to face any possible criminal trial–which is why he worries about Sweden doing so instead. Prior to the sexual offense reports, he had said that he felt safer in Sweden, and he left the U.K. Assange might be misreading the political realities: Why is it politically impossible, for David Cameron? This the political leader who just privatized the U.K.’s entire higher education system, over and above massive, angry protests. What would “politically impossible” mean for the U.K., the U.S.’ leading NATO partner and close ally in Iraq and Afghanistan? What would make Assange so special that the U.K. government would not dare to touch him? Not only does it instead seem possible, but even with an extradition request already in place from Sweden, the British authorities could prioritize any request from the U.S. Meanwhile, Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt “has insisted his government will play no role in deciding whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the US.” When it comes to politics, nothing is impossible, and that includes the criminalization of entities that might otherwise be seen as respectable and mainstream. The reason there has been no extradition request yet from the U.S. may be because: a) there will never be one–the mere threat of one is an intimidating tactic; or, b) the U.S. is still preparing its case, and not just waiting for Assange to finally appear in Sweden.)

Wikileaks has undergone a very significant transformation over the past year, exemplified by the changes in its website, no longer anything like a collaborative site that until May of 2010 drew direct parallels between itself and Wikipedia (source, source, source). When it came to the prior ideal of crowd sourcing write ups of its documents, in April of 2010 Assange unconvincingly, wrongly, and harshly, declared it to be “all bullshit,” and that academics “don’t give a fuck” about writing up reports based on the leaked documents (see the video below). The launch of the Collateral Murder video was the pivotal point in this transformation, drawing the attention of the established mass media like never before, and paving the way for Wikileaks to soon develop working partnerships with several mainstream media outlets. This is what I refer to as the mainstreaming of Wikileaks. In direct response to U.S. accusations that Wikileaks was a criminal, terrorist organization comprising anarchist hackers, Wikileaks did not remain indifferent or even hostile–it became defensive, and asserted more than ever before that Wikileaks is a media organization, and that its documents were leaked from inside the U.S. national security apparatus.

We could say more about this “mainstreaming” issue–that Wikileaks has already gone to considerable lengths to become “sensible” and “responsible” as Evgeny Morozov would have it. The U.S. State Department also seems to be in cooptation mode, at least on occasion, as with Alec Ross’ celebration of “The Internet as the Che Guevara of the 21st Century” (link, link, link, plus see the video). Someone in the audience asked Ross if the U.S. would then also kill the Internet.

One of the defenses of Wikileaks has been that its material is obtained legitimately and legally, and that it cannot be sued (successfully). While most of the speculation surrounding the U.S. building a case against Wikileaks has focused–especially in the writing of Glenn Greenwald at–on the insinuations of Adrian Lamo that Assange somehow directly communicated with and conspired with Bradley Manning in facilitating leaks from the latter, which could be read as a violation of the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, and thus place Assange in grave legal jeopardy, it now seems that this concern was misplaced, or at least short lived. More of the speculation surfacing now is that the U.S. is building a case against Wikileaks that emphasizes that it is not due any of the protections afforded to media organizations, because it does not just receive leaked documents, it steals documents–indeed, that more than half of all the documents it ever had were stolen. If true, and given its spate of reactive compromises, Wikileaks may now be on much more perilous ground.

An article from Bloomberg on 20 January 2011 reveals that Tiversa Inc. has been conducting an investigation for the U.S. government and claims that it has “evidence that WikiLeaks, which has said it doesn’t know who provides it with information, may seek out secret data itself, using so-called ‘peer-to-peer’ networks.” Tiversa’s CEO Robert Boback apparently told Bloomberg that “it discovered that computers in Sweden were trolling through hard drives accessed from popular peer-to-peer networks such as LimeWire and Kazaa. The same information obtained in those searches later appeared on WikiLeaks….WikiLeaks bases its most important servers in Sweden.” That evidence is, at best, circumstantial, but quite attractive nonetheless. As Boback explained: “WikiLeaks is doing searches themselves on file-sharing networks. It would be highly unlikely that someone else from Sweden is issuing those same types of searches resulting in that same type of information.” The article then focuses on how information about sensitive U.S. defense secrets was lifted from these networks, and posted on Wikileaks. Much of the article focuses on distancing Wikileaks’ claims to being an electronic drop box, and instead aggressively hunting for information through hacking:

The U.S. investigations could provide authorities an alternate path for prosecuting WikiLeaks and Assange, said Paul Ohm, an expert in cyber crime at the University of Colorado in Boulder….

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Warma in Seattle, who successfully prosecuted similar cases of unintended searching, said the systematic pillaging of computer contents through peer- to-peer networks could be pursued under federal anti-hacking statutes.

Even if not criminal, such conduct, if traced to WikiLeaks, would contradict its stated mission as a facilitator of leaked material by insiders, whose identities, Assange has said, the group takes measures not to know. The group provides an encrypted drop box on its website that it said prevents any tracing back to the source of documents.

“If their information gathering doesn’t consist simply of being a receptacle for leaks but of this more aggressive effort to go out and cull this information, then you’re moving a clear step further from anything that resembles traditional journalistic practice,” said Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director for the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The evidence could also be used by congressional committees, which Boback said are pursuing a separate inquiry to undermine WikiLeaks’ claim that it’s a legitimate media organization with protections under the First Amendment.

“There is a difference between being given information that may have been obtained in violation of some agreement or law versus the media itself violating the law or an agreement in order to obtain information,” said Sandra Baron, the executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York. “The media is not allowed to steal.”

WL Central immediately posted a rebuttal to the article in Bloomberg arguing that it “belays [sic] a credulity that could only come from a lack of acquaintance with the technologies involved.” The counter-argument against the Bloomberg report is that it assumes that because the searches were done from Sweden, where Wikileaks has its servers, and the documents then appeared on Wikileaks, that does not mean that Wikileaks stole that data itself. This same counter-argument is made by Andy Greenberg at Forbes. The problem is that this purported activity fits in with a broader historical pattern.

No friend of Wikileaks, anti-secrecy advocate Steven Aftergood reported the following:

WikiLeaks published the “secret ritual” of a college women’s sorority called Alpha Sigma Tau. Now Alpha Sigma Tau (like several other sororities “exposed” by WikiLeaks) is not known to have engaged in any form of misconduct, and WikiLeaks does not allege that it has. Rather, WikiLeaks chose to publish the group’s confidential ritual just because it could. This is not whistleblowing and it is not journalism. It is a kind of information vandalism.

In fact, WikiLeaks routinely tramples on the privacy of non-governmental, non-corporate groups for no valid public policy reason. It has published private rites of Masons, Mormons and other groups that cultivate confidential relations among their members. Most or all of these groups are defenseless against WikiLeaks’ intrusions. The only weapon they have is public contempt for WikiLeaks’ ruthless violation of their freedom of association, and even that has mostly been swept away in a wave of uncritical and even adulatory reporting about the brave “open government,” “whistleblower” site.

On occasion, WikiLeaks has engaged in overtly unethical behavior. Last year [2009], without permission, it published the full text of the highly regarded 2009 book about corruption in Kenya called “It’s Our Turn to Eat” by investigative reporter Michela Wrong (as first reported by Chris McGreal in The Guardian on April 9). By posting a pirated version of the book and making it freely available, WikiLeaks almost certainly disrupted sales of the book and made it harder for Ms. Wrong and other anti-corruption reporters to perform their important work and to get it published. Repeated protests and pleas from the author were required before WikiLeaks (to its credit) finally took the book offline.

Then there is this:

Some WikiLeaks documents were siphoned off of Chinese hackers’ activities.

The author of that statement is none other than Wikileaks itself.

Wired also reminds us that,

“The site published data in 2008 that a hacker obtained from the private e-mail account of then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. And, according to a New Yorker story published last year, the site also possesses a cache of more than a million documents that were grabbed by a WikiLeaks activist in 2006 after they traveled through the Tor anonymizing network. At least one of these documents was published on the WikiLeaks site, according to the magazine.”

Making matters even murkier, and no less intriguing, is a very recent and abrupt statement from Icelandic Member of Parliament, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the same person whose Twitter account has been subject to a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice–last night she declared: “Spy computer in a room next to my office – could not be placed by WikiLeaks, no one from WL in Iceland at the time it logged into network.” A spy computer? Wikileaks? Nobody from Wikileaks in Iceland? Few answers follow from Jónsdóttir herself. It appears that there is suspicion of espionage in Iceland’s parliament, Althingi, where employees found an active computer in an empty room and called the police. All identifying numbers on the computer had been removed, and when the computer was disconnected it began a self-destruct program that deleted the hard drive, and erased any information that could be used to trace it to its owner. Another report indicated that the computer was used to spy on parliamentary communications, and was housed in a room reserved for the political party to which Jónsdóttir belongs. Wikileaks was mentioned in one of Iceland’s newspapers as a possible perpetrator–the denial from the Wikileaks representative in Iceland, Kristinn Hrafnsson, was that Wikileaks is not involved in hacking, and that such claims are part of a U.S. smear campaign aimed at damaging Wikileaks’ reputation (and note again that “hacking” is cast in negative terms, as disreputable, further evidence of the mainstreaming of Wikileaks where it now ends up playing the game the U.S. wants it to play). Adding to the confusion is Jónsdóttir’s statement that nobody from Wikileaks was in Iceland, at a time that was left unspecified. Hrafnsson himself is in Iceland, but he has not been implicated. Formerly with Wikileaks, Herbert Snorasson is also in Iceland. What is interesting about his case is that he is one of those who worked with Wikileaks but who, for whatever reason, was not included in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Twitter subpoena.

Depending on one’s view of the nature and role of free news media in a democratic society, it may be that it is in the role of information trafficker, with Wikileaks forming part of a financially valuable racket, that the organization comes closest to resembling established corporate media. Recently Vanity Fair published details of Assange threatening to sue its media partner, The Guardian, after someone had leaked the diplomatic cables to it, freeing it from any agreement to publish only when Assange gave his permission. Assange reportedly asserted that “he owned the information and had a financial interest in how and when it was released.” It is doubtful that the person(s) who leaked these documents to Wikileaks in the first place, did so to enable Assange’s capital accumulation. Today The Independent, with an instructive deadline, tells us that the “race is on to cash in on Wikileaks,” with now two feature films being considered for production by Hollywood. In the past, Wikileaks offered its documents for sale, putting Venezuelan government emails up for auction. Not unrelated, last year Wikileaks shut down access to its own site, until the public coughed up $600,000 for documents–intended for the public–to once again be viewable, for a time (they have now been archived). Some thus accuse Wikileaks of keeping information hostage–it uses the slogan, “it’s time to open the archives,” but never actually does so. It boasts of sitting on a vast treasure trove of documents, but the promises to release documents outnumber the times anything is released. Since August of 2010 we have been waiting for the final release of 15,000 Afghan war documents–they are not even mentioned by Wikileaks anymore. Also never mentioned again is the promised release of a video of a NATO air strike in Afghanistan that resulted in dozens of civilian deaths. As for the much vaunted release of Russian files? Who knows. One loses count now of the various promised releases that have never materialized, but that one may assume remain in Assange’s personal possession. Wikileaks released an “insurance file,” but not the encryption key, deciding if and when the public really has a right to know, a right which is now becoming a limited privilege. Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who defended the Wikileaks cable release, said he had heard that Assange and The Guardian had together decided not to release remaining cables dealing with Israel, as they are “too damaging.” “Harm minimization” –that Pentagon-style newspeak that euphemizes death, sounding like something invented by apologists for the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System–has become the new encryption key for closing access to the public (whose actions can be predicted, a public to be feared, incapable of exercising good judgment unlike the new gatekeepers). Cablegate is now just gate, through which an occasional dribble of documents can be detected, at a pace that would take 16 years to complete the full release. One unfortunate soul has committed himself to “live blogging” an event that is much like watching a snail on morphine.

I have to agree with Miriam Marks in her article in the Stanford Review (“WikiLeaks: Not Open, Simply the New Closed“) that, “the transformation of WikiLeaks from a completely user-generated and governed forum to a secretive and perhaps autocratic organization is worrisome regardless of the supposedly unchanging intentions of the site.” In the meantime, those who would call Julian Assange the Che Guevara of “our generation” may be unwittingly saying something particularly damning about this generation, its politics, and its ignorance of the values and sacrifices of a real revolutionary. Assange is still at the stage of claiming that he is neither of the left, or of the right. His theories about how information releases are like energy flows that mechanically trigger political reforms, would not pass the smell test either with social scientists or revolutionaries, in spite of Assange’s claim to have crushed a Swiss Bank “like a bug,” revealing that its CEO committed suicide, boasting of the “scalps” Wikileaks has taken, and now taking credit for the Tunisian revolution (and, strangely, wondering why the State Department had not led the overthrow of the Tunisian regime, again betraying that familiar Eurocentric prejudice that we bring change to less capable others). Some of us continue to hope that not for much longer will we have to suffer the lectures on geopolitics by infantile techno-geeks still with the scent of their motherboard on them. It seems clearer now that for there to be a meaningful and lasting Wikileaks revolution, we will have to forget about defending Assange, and move beyond Wikileaks and the fetishizing of information.