The Privatization and Atomization of Espionage
"From 2nd from London # 5754. We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.
Of course, the actual message- read:
130 13042 13401 8501 115 3528…
...was authored in German, and was originally sent to Count Johan von Bernstorff, then in the unenviable post of Germany's ambassador to the United States. The "Zimmermann Telegram," so named for its author, Arthur Zimmermann, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, was forwarded via absurdly circumlocutious route on to Heinrich von Eckardt, Germany's ambassador to Mexico. There, it was intended to persuade Mexico to open a southern front on America's border, and thereby frustrate efforts to fight Germany on the continent, and elsewhere.
This, believe it or not, is the more drab part of the story. What happened to the telegram once sent is much more interesting, and draws a dark picture for certain emergent, postmodern players in the intelligence world. It is a dark, winding and overgrown path we brave to this end, perhaps even longer than most (or any) finem respice adventures heretofor, but, as ever, one endeavored to reward the indulgence of the curious (and patient) reader. And if tales of cables and codes and turn of the century machines of war take some little while to evolve into the more current aether of the digital, do not fret. It is a short distance, really, from one to the other, once the path is known.
High Tension Cables
For years the English cable ship Telconia was credited with cutting five German, transatlantic cables, conveniently bottle necked through the English Channel. It was, in fact, the British Post Office Ship CS Alert that cut the critical cables, though the Telconia later cut other German lines, occasionally even pulling them up and repurposing them for use by the Allies.
The original cables, bound for Brest, France, Tenerife, Africa, Vigo, Spain along with two that ran via the Azores to New York, were the primary communication links Germany had with the outside world, and therefore the appendages of her diplomatic corps. A single transatlantic cable running from West Africa to Brazil was left to the Germans, and this was substantially under American control, meaning that it too was eventually made unavailable to the Germans. Instead, Germany was forced to use a wireless transmitter just outside of Berlin at Nauen, a broadcast channel that might as well have fed directly into British Naval Intelligence.
As one might imagine, the British quickly began to display a keen interest in the design, construction and operation of radio intercept gear, and a host of electronic ears trained intently on the distant tonal soprano singing into the skies surrounding Berlin, quietly and quickly sprang up along the English coast.
The loss of German undersea cables meant that in 1917, and somewhat quaintly, diplomatic communiques from Germany to her proxies and agents were frequently sent via the glaringly insecure Western Union, their security being entrusted instead to the strength of the cipher used to encrypt them- a vanity that proved, as will be seen presently, quite costly to Germany at the time.
The Americans also permitted Germany to piggyback on their communications infrastructure for a time, ostensibly so that President Wilson could maintain open communications with Germany and broker peace (indeed, so many American presidents have aspired, some quite cynically, to the title of "peacemaker") between the waring states of Europe. But the Germans also relied on physical couriers and the like in order to assure timely (or at least competent) delivery for critical communications. This meant that, by the time the Zimmermann telegram was being authored, it was (or, rather, they were) destined to take three parallel paths. First, via the transmitter in Nauen, second via a Swedish cable to South America and then the German embassy in Buenos Aires, and finally via a clerk at the American embassy, then over the transatlantic cable operated by the Untied States Department of State and then by hand to the German embassy in the United States, and finally to Mexico. It is this last route that proved, to borrow a turn of phrase, most fortuitous.
Of course, as both the Swedish and American cables passed over British soil, all three copies were in the hands of British codebreakers almost as soon as they were sent.
Three years earlier, the German merchant ship Hobart had casually steamed into Port Phillip Heads in Australia. "Casually" because the Hobart was apparently unaware (as many German merchants were) that war had been declared between Germany and Great Britain seven days earlier on August 4th, 1914. Having anticipated some of the confusion, the Royal Navy had ordered many British controlled ports to avoid any overt displays of war activity so as to potentially catch a few German ships with their guard down.
Having arrived in port only hours earlier, Captain J. T. Richardson of the Royal Australian Navy watched with interest as the German merchant ship blissfully sailed into port. (A girl taken in her youth with tales of British wartime romances almost imagines the calm, but steely blue-eyed gaze of the lightly starched Captain Richardson, slowly panning to follow the languid path of the merchant ship over the fine porcelain lip of the cup of tea presented to him the moment he came aboard- but your mileage here may vary). He then ordered a midshipman and six signalmen into civilian clothes quickly borrowed from a harbor pilot crew, swapped his naval cap with a bowler hat (you can't make this stuff up- even in British wartime romances) and draped an overcoat over his uniform before rowing the party right up to the Hobart.
After boarding the ship looking quite like the respectable chief of a pilot crew, Richardson removed his bowler hat, replaced his naval cap, handed his overcoat to the midshipman, produced a concealed pistol and politely told the Hobart's stunned master that his ship was now a prize of war.
That very evening, having astutely remained on board with a squad of reserve sailors as guard, Richardson caught the Hobart's master sliding back a secret panel that was found to contain the Hobart's Handelsschiffsverkehrsbuch (merchant ship codebook).
Nine days later, the German light cruiser Magdeburg ran aground off the Estonian coast and was abruptly scuttled as the Russians closed in on the frantic German crew. Though the Germans had endeavored to destroy all of them, the Russians recovered one of the warship's Signalbucher der Kaiserlichen Marine (signal/codebooks of the Imperial Navy). The Russians immediately ferried the book to the British, it being personally handed to the then Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
In October of that same year, the British sunk four torpedo boats off the coast of the Netherlands that had been heading to mine the mouth of the Thames and the southern coastal waters in Britain. A month later a British fishing trawler netted a captain's safe that had been tossed over the side of the "S119," the torpedo squadron's flagship, by Captain Theile, who had been commanding the group at the time. It contained a German Verkehrsbuch, containing the code the Germans used to communicate with flag officers, naval attaches, warships and diplomatic missions, particularly overseas embassies.
Of course, these three codebooks provided the core of early signals intelligence developed by "Room 40," the British code-breaking operation that would decades later become Bletchley Park's famous (or infamous) Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Throughout the war, and in a development that would be negligently repeated three decades later, Germany reviewed the security of its communications practices, including the potential loss of codebooks, but failed to find fault, even while specifically noting the fact that some codebooks had been unaccounted for.
Room 40 had partially broken "Code 0075" in which the two cable bound copies of the Zimmermann telegram were enciphered. Possessing two copies enciphered at different times helped them piece together the gaps their incomplete break of Code 0075 had left open. Despite this, using the telegram was a problem. Code 0075 was yielding a great deal of intelligence and tipping the Germans off that it was broken would mean starting over. Equally, it wasn't entirely clear that the Germans (or the Americans or the Swedes) were aware that American and Swedish cable traffic was being intercepted. A bit of plausible deniability was required.
Admiral William Hall, then Director of Naval Intelligence and head of Room 40 came up with the answer. A spy in the Mexico City telegraph office provided the British with the ciphertext copy of the telegram that had been destined for the German Embassy and sent from the German embassy in Washington. The date on this telegram, moreover, was different from the others, making it possible for the Germans to pinpoint which version had been intercepted. Finally, this version was enciphered with "Code 13040," which had been in use since 1907 and was almost completely broken by the British.
These circumstances permitted the British to reproduce exactly the original text of the Mexico City version and thereby make it apparent that the plaintext itself had been betrayed, rather that the cables or Germany's codes. The ruse worked brilliantly. From a post-incident German report:
Finally, it is definitely improbable that the American government possesses code 13040, for then the text of the Mexico dispatch would certainly have been made public with the serial number and notations "decipher yourself' and "acknowledge receipt," as well as with the serial number of the Washington embassy and the signature of Count Bernstorff, because in so doing its genuineness would have been made even more believable from the very beginning. Further, it should be borne in mind that code 13040 has been used for many secret messages, among them for an exchange of telegrams between Mexico and New York regarding the delivery of equipment for the wireless receiving station in Mexico. It can be assumed that if the American government knew of these telegrams, they would have now made them public.
It is more probable that the text of the Mexico dispatch was betrayed.1
It was this bit of extra work, after the intelligence discovery, that obscured the tracks of the sources and methods of Room 40, even protecting the human source at the Mexico City telegraph office, who had only seen the encoded text. But then, it was such an innocent era:
It should be clearly emphasized that for all officials on whom suspicion could fall from this point on, the best evidence is given by their superiors as well as that officials who have been interviewed declare it to be out of the question that one of their colleagues could have committed such an act.2
Rumors of War
The United States was in no mood for war in 1917. President Wilson's name is most often encountered in proximity to the word "neutralist" during this period, and the American public (a constituency whose consent was far more essential to war mongering than the populations of the European states of the day) had no taste for what founding father Washington famously termed "foreign entanglements."
Wilson, in fact, had recently won reelection under the slogan "He kept us out of war." Despite Britain's ceaseless urgings for American involvement, it would be difficult to identify a victorious presidential candidate with a stronger anti-war record, though admittedly Wilson didn't have access to predator drones in 1917.
Germany had begun unrestricted submarine warfare in February and had managed to kill a number of American citizens aboard British flagged passenger vessels targeted by the Germans. When the British shared the content of the telegram with the United States Embassy in Britain it was regarded at first with skepticism. Eventually, however, such sympathetic feelings for Germany as still existed among the United States Diplomatic corps and the White House quickly faded.
For a period it was believed in some circles that the telegram was a fake developed by British intelligence to pull the United States into the war. Shockingly, Zimmermann himself actually and publicly admitted authorship not once but twice in March 1917. The forgery rumors died in the womb.
It will be seen that the operational security (hereinafter "OPSEC") practices of the British were in almost all cases superior to those employed by the Germans. Zimmermann is perhaps the most obviously careless in this respect, but in the end the British were simply more sophisticated about these things than the Germans. This, perhaps more than anything, solidified the impact of the Zimmermann telegram and prevented it from scuttling other intelligence operations, sources and methods.
As a result, by the end of March Wilson was demanding authorization from Congress to arm ships against German submarine forces, and on April 2nd to declare war on Germany. Congress complied on April 6, 1917. Certainly, the sinking of a number of American vessels played a part, but outrage that American communications channels were shamelessly used to plot against the United States played a major role in turning the tide of sentiment once the telegram was deemed authentic.
High Tension Cables II
It will be observed that a lot of bother surrounds efforts to, paraphrasing Henry Lewis Stimson, "read other gentlemen's mail." Of particular interest are a sovereign's communications with itself. That is, the peripheral nervous system of states, signaling the arms, hands and fingers of the sovereign's body, in other words the diplomatic corps. These channels are highly sensitive because they convey the most precious intelligence: intentions. The gravity of the Zimmermann telegram was so significant precisely because it exposed the intentions of the German Empire so starkly, and lifted the suspension of disbelief that plagued the politics of the United States, but such communications need not be as dramatic as the Zimmermann telegram to do real damage.
On November 4, 1979, "Iranian militants" seized the Embassy of the United States in Tehran. The Americans were taken almost completely by surprise. President Carter penned in "Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President," that a CIA analyst report from August 1978 indicated that the country "…is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation." Consequently, the Iranians managed to capture the American Embassy along with whatever was in it.
Like Germans racing to scuttle a ship run aground, the Americans had endeavored to shred as many sensitive documents as possible, but the low-budget, simple strip-cut machines they employed were no match for thousands upon thousands of man hours available to the Ayatollahs in the form of former students gripped by the excitement and to-do of revolution, and idle Iranian woman who otherwise would have been weaving Persian carpets.
Thousands of shredded documents from the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency were painstakingly pieced together from the strip-cut confetti, assembled, and released together with those documents there had been no time to destroy as a 54 volume set entitled "Asnad-i lanih-'i Jasusi" ("Documents from the US Espionage Den") and published in 1982. Subsequent releases, under a cover page reading "In the name of Allah the most Compassionate and Merciful," have boosted the volume count to over 70. The entire set can be purchased in the United States for $400 or so. Says one retailer:
Each volume contains original documents along with Farsi translations and, for no extra charge, an inflammatory introductory essay.
At the beginning, England in order to expand its satanic domination , under the pretext of "efforts to establish a national Jewish government" along with the Zionists proceed to occupy a section of the lands belonging to Muslims. In reality, they established a base in the heart of the Islamic home land from which all satanic forces of the world could struggle against Islam and attack the Muslims or weaken the Islamic world through their plots and deception.
Basically, the main motive for the foundation of the racist Zionist regime was confrontation with Islam, for if Muslims achieve unity, they will undermine world arrogance. This is why Imam considers The Day of Qods as the day of Islam.
As the universal domination of England declined, a more power friend and ally, American imperialism, came to the help of Israel. The seemingly endless flow of American military and economical aid, increasingly encourage this small entity to instigate new plots and disasters everyday.
In general, America monitors and directs the line of events in the Middle East so the Zionist, racist elite which form the criminal government hierarchy of Israel can control the events of the region in all aspects and implement any plot and conspiracy they choose with the aid of the Great Satan.
- Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam3
It is difficult not to be disappointed in a movement with enough acumen to seize a country from the U.S. backed Shah (yes, yes, albeit during the Carter administration, we know, we know) even under the very noses of the Sazeman-e Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar (SAVAK) but somehow possessed of such weak propaganda skills that they were not better able to capitalize on the what was supposed to be the knockout intelligence find of the century.
Oddly, the releases, often in random order or with documents missing pages entirely, have been mostly ignored by the public and the press. While it is possible to point to the obvious bias and agenda driving the releases, if one thing can be said for the "Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam," it is that they are not remotely shy about disclosing their predispositions up front.
In reality, while the Iranians had assumed, or been led to believe by the Ayatollahs, that the Embassy of the United States was a charged nerve center of nefarious and cunning espionage, dedicated to the destruction of the revolution and the restoration to power of the hated Shah, they were likely giving the United States far too much credit.
In retrospect it is difficult to imagine that any agency, least of all an intelligence agency or one with any foreign policy responsibility, would have been described as "cunning" during the Carter administration. Indeed, researchers and authors including the likes of Mark Bowden suggest that what intelligence capabilities the Embassy in Iran possessed were routine, ineffectual and otherwise flaccid. This position is somewhat difficult to disagree with given the massive width and consuming black depths of the abyssal trench that separated America from the reality on the ground in the Iran of 1979. Bowden in particular cites the fact that none of the three CIA agents eventually held along with the other American hostages in Iran even spoke Farsi.
Though much was made politically of the find ("The the greatest loss of classified information since World War II" is the most common superlative, likely a reference to the capture of a large archive of Soviet documents at Smolensk by the German Army in 1941 that were then captured again by the Americans), browsing through the texts in Documents from the US Espionage Den reveals far more tedium than scandal. To wit:
September 2, 1979
L. Paul Bremer III, Esquire
Deputy Executive Secretary
Department of State
I have been very busy lately and I'm a bit behind on my correspondence. You've been having your hands full moving into a new job, too, I suppose. I hope Francie and the kids are settling in all right. Sharon, I gather from her letters, is beginning to pace a bit in Michigan; if she can't come out here fairly soon, she will move to Washington when school is out next year. Don't say it: you told me so.
Things are quire exciting in Tehran. Not surprisingly. I am spending about 85% of my time helping American businessmen distinguish between revolutionary rhetorical form and back-to-business substance. The Khomeini crowd really seem to want to get people back to work and they are willing to take the necessary steps (and make the necessary compromises in revolutionary terms) to do it if Americans will modify contracts to reflect the changes wrought by the revolution. I've had some successes, and my problem most often is to convince some of the American players that if they come out here to talk, they won't go up against a wall.
The Zimmermann telegram it is not.
Despite the presence of much tedium and toil, since it seems clear that the Iranians were at least somewhat selective about what they published, it is unusual that, if more damaging material existed, it did not somehow find its way into the published documents.
The "most damaging" material was generally archive analysis housed in Iran but generated outside the country and pertaining to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the like. Though Iran was something of a regional center for United States intelligence (unsurprising given the close relationship America maintained with the Shah at the time) even these documents lack the sort of punch one would expect from such a cache today. Consider the sorts of revelations that are often touted as the most significant as revealed by the documents:
The United States spies on Israel.
It is difficult to imagine anyone so naive, even in a year that saw Blondie's "Dreaming" on Billboard's Top 40, as to imagine that the United States (or any sovereign) failed to spy on allies.
Soviet Oil Production was Over Reported in the 1970s.
No! Get out!
None of this is to say that no damage was done. Indeed at least one American intelligence source was apparently executed in response to the disclosures, but to a neophyte-laden regime with little experience in statecraft or intelligence analysis, and in an era where public understanding of intelligence and the product of the modern intelligence analyst was only beginning to mature, the collection was a much more dramatic find in terms of its novelty and propaganda value.
It is this last point that is controlling, and that plays a large part in the remainder of our literary expedition. The real potential for harm (or opportunity for gain) following revealing and novel intelligence "disclosures" is tied to the attention and sensation of the novelty. Imagining that the United States, for example, never spies on the United Kingdom, historically one of its most steadfast allies, seems a quaint and naive fantasy to anyone even remotely versed in the field. Certainly, MI5 would not find such a revelation even remotely shocking. Instead it is the horrified public reaction and the indignant horror expressed by the Fourth Estate in response to such revelations that drives the "I am shocked, shocked to find that espionage is going on in here!" reaction. Embarrassing revelations call for outraged reactions by shocked politicians. The public expects nothing less than blood, no matter what Stewart Baker says.
Even the most lowly ranking fool in the Department of State is aware that the United States thinks and (when it thinks no one is listening) says unflattering things about friends, allies and enemies. That same fool still must profess shock and awe at their revelation, or risk exposing the ugly truth that sovereigns spy on each other to an American public very attached to its willful blindness when it comes to intelligence matters.
The greatest crime in U.S. Intelligence is not missing a call. The greatest crime in U.S. Intelligence is drawing the public, kicking and screaming, into the realization that nation states are driven by self-preservation, rather than the need to be some altruistic clearing house for the export of surplus grain, foreign aid and the American Dream of Homeonwership™.
Understanding these implications requires of the individual some rather dramatic hypotheticals. For instance, imagine for a moment that a live audio stream of your inner monologue has been fed non-stop to your friends (and enemies) for the last two months.
Try that on for size briefly.
Imagine all your silent, mental critiques of Polly's new dress, revealed. The sneering "I bet I know why she's with him" thought that bubbled up from your id uncontrollably (even if it was ultimately, if barely, suppressed by the superego) transcribed and sent out to a wide email distribution list.
Almost certainly even your closest friends (if you had any left) would be enraged by your inner monologue. These silent offenses are not unique. They are pervasive. They are commonplace enough that 110 minute feature films about lawyers unable for some supernatural reason to lie command tens of millions in production financing. This truth is, however, caustic to the charming fantasy entertained by citizens (and some subjects) that their government is always on the side of right. Toil in this morass of sticky denial at your peril.
And this brings us to the focus of our attentions today.
Modern Intelligence Agencies
Specifically: Wikileaks. To wit:
WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public. Since July 2007, we have worked across the globe to obtain, publish and defend such materials, and, also, to fight in the legal and political spheres for the broader principles on which our work is based: the integrity of our common historical record and the rights of all peoples to create new history.
We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly - in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances - the internet, and cryptography - the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.4
On the strength of this text it is a tall order for even the most casual libertarian to label Wikileaks anything other than "a good thing"™. On paper the organization meets all the core value tests one expects of libertarian endeavors. A clearing house for otherwise suppressed information. A safe harbor for whistleblowers, with an audience characterized primarily by their self-imposed captivity. Possessed of a lapidary respect for anonymity, and dedicated to its preservation. All of this is not to mention a well developed sense of contempt for the complete failure of the modern Fourth Estate to hold up its commitment to the citizenry.
Despite this, Wikileaks was not without its rocky beginnings. Deliciously irreverent liberator of secret documents, John Young, founder of the tireless and unrelenting Wikileaks predecessor Cryptome, naturally, an early supporter and advisory board member of Wikileaks, turned on the organization early on. Said Wired of the break:
...in January 2007, John Young, a member of the Wikileaks advisory board and the founder of cryptome.org, an online depot for leaked documents, corporate rumors and government conspiracies, left Wikileaks, accusing the group of being a CIA conduit. After the split, he published over 150 pages of emails sent by members of Wikileaks on cryptome.org.5
The emails (some of which have been since redacted to remove list member names that were in the original disclosures) paint an interesting picture:
Date: Sun, 07 Jan 2007 06:58:04 -0800
From: John Young
Announcing a $5 million fund-raising goal by July will kill this effort. It
makes WL appear to be a Wall Street scam. This amount could not be
needed so soon except for suspect purposes.
Soros will kick you out of the office with such over-reaching. Foundations
are flooded with big talkers making big requests flaunting famous names
and promising spectacular results.
I'd say the same about the alleged 1.1 million documents ready for
leaking. Way too many to be believable without evidence. I don't believe
the number. So far, one document, of highly suspect provenance.
Instead, explain what funding needs there are and present a schedule
for their need, avoid generalities and lump sums. Explain how the funds
will be managed and protected against fraud and theft.
Instead, operate on a shoe-string for a few months, best, for a couple
of years, establish WL bonafides by publishing a credible batch of
documents for testing public feedback and criticism. Show how to
handle the heat of doubt and condemnation. Use that to support
At moment there is no reason to believe WL can deliver on its
promises. Big talk no action, the skeptics say.
BTW, the biggest crooks brag overmuch of how ethical their operations
are. Avoid ethical promises, period, they've been used too often to fleece
victims. Demonstrate sustained ethical behavior, don't preach/peddle it.
Date: Sun, 07 Jan 2007 07:21:34 -0800
From: John Young
The CIA would be the most likely $5M funder. Soros is suspected
of being a conduit for black money to dissident groups racketeering
for such payola.
Now it may be that that is the intention of WL because its behavior
so far fits the pattern.
If fleecing the CIA is the purpose, I urge setting a much higher
funding goal, in the $100M range and up. The US intel agencies
are awash in funds they cannot spend fast enough to keep the
Congressional spigot wide open. Academics, dissidents, companies,
spy contractors, other nation's spy agencies, whole countries, are
falling over themselves to tap into this bountiful flood. But competition
is fierce, and accusations of deception are raging even as the
fleecers work in concert.
Chinese dissidents -- a brand name among many -- are already
reaping huge benefits from covert funding from the US and from
the PRC, along with others in the former Soviets, in Africa and
South America, inside the US, UK and Europe, in the Middle East
and the Koreas, who know how to double-cross ditzy-rich Dads
In solidarity to fuck em all.
From: John Young
Subject: Re: [WL] Funding / who is on this list.
Date: Date: Sun, 7 Jan 2007 11:47:00 -0500
Cryptome is publishing the contents of this list, and how I was induced to
serve as US person for registration.
Wikileaks is a fraud:
Fuck your cute hustle and disinformation campaign against legitimate
dissent. Same old shit, working for the enemy.6
According to Young, disagreements over fundraising (Young was suspicious of Wikileaks' desire to raise $5 million, apparently believing a raise of this size would corrupt the organization, or hinted that it was already corrupt) and the desire of the site's operators to remain anonymous (Young outed almost all of them, proving the point that long-term anonymity for the founders was probably impossible anyway) caused the rift.
Young and Wikileaks seem to have buried the hatchet since, but it is interesting to observe that, from the beginning, Wikileaks was not quite the opaque organization it aspired to be. Moreover, Young's early discourse sheds light on the nature of the organization. Let us revisit this passage:
Chinese dissidents -- a brand name among many -- are already reaping huge benefits from covert funding from the US and from the PRC, along with others in the former Soviets, in Africa and South America, inside the US, UK and Europe, in the Middle East and the Koreas, who know how to double-cross ditzy-rich Dads and Moms.
In solidarity to fuck em all.
Can it be that Wikileaks was insufficiently radical for Young?
Wikileaks probably enjoyed its most significant publicity boost in response to the release of gun camera footage from an Apache helicopter in Iraq filmed during 2007 action against insurgents that resulted in the severe injury and death of several civilians, including two Reuters employees.
Wikileaks, someone disingenuously in finem respice's view, labeled the video "Collateral Murder" and became the focus of an eagerly received deluge of comment and controversy on its release along side a shorter, analysis video produced in house by Wikileaks.
The Collateral Murder piece was hardly the first time gruesome gun camera video had made the digital rounds. In fact, to those familiar with Apache gun camera video the clip appeared remarkably commonplace. After all, such videos have been floating around since Gulf War I, and have become common menu items in video cafes like YouTube, LiveLeak and Vimeo. But it was gold for Wikileaks, which was concerned enough about funding, and flexible enough about ethics, back in 2008 to propose selling scoops to the highest bidder,7 and which was quick to tout its newly found financial success:
Raised >$150K in donations since Mon. New funding model for journalism: try doing it for a change.8
It was probably inevitable that publishing novel Apache gun camera footage should become a profitable endeavor. Be this it may, and while the concept is abused by defense attorneys everywhere, video footage, and particularly gun camera footage, is devoid of context, is inherently disturbing (the use of 30mm cannon in an anti-personnel role on seemingly unaware targets- no matter how hostile- is a tough watch indeed) and prone to deployment as keen propaganda.
Online video analysis of the sort employed by Wikileaks and the anonymous "technical analysis" producers can show the odd, the bizarre and the absurd. Wittingly or not, on-screen cues distract attention from the larger picture (or nearby men with weapons) and make the obvious obscure.
Is that Turkish Cavalry aboard the famous "peace flotilla?"
In 2006 an anonymous YouTube user published a widely viewed "technical analysis" of gun camera footage from a Fourth Infantry Division Apache helicopter attacking three armed insurgents north of Baghdad. The video was cut with a softly European accented voice-over that begins "Those five seconds were all the evidence the Apache crew needed to kill three unarmed men..." and continues "scientifically" "analyzing" the film via on-screen graphics and stop or slow motion playback to show that the U.S. Army had slaughtered three unarmed Iraqi farmers in cold blood.9
Unfortunately for the video's anonymous producers, the raw video from which the video was copy-pasted, taken in 2003, was also available online10, exposing a good deal of selective editing (including a segment where one of the "farmers" races to unwrap a weapon once the attack begins), outright timetable manipulation and generally making something of a mockery of the "technical analysis" the piece proffered.
ABC eventually aired the original video with their own (far less caustic) analysis before it slipped once more back into the obscurity of YouTube archive servers- that is until May of this year when, in an absolutely incredible lapse in judgment and diligence, Wikileaks linked to the four year old and discredited "technical analysis" video via its Twitter stream, claiming:
New video suggests Apache killed Iraqi farmer ploughing field11
To the uninitiated the two videos take a remarkably similar path. "Suspicious" activity is discovered by the helicopter crew, ground forces or a forward air controller. Helicopter approaches to evaluate. Hostile intent or other rules of engagement criteria are tested (with varying levels of diligence). Authorization to engage is sought by the helicopter crew. It is granted. 30mm cannon fire and/or Hellfire missiles are dispatched with gruesome effect. To the old hand, these videos look similar because all such videos effectively follow the same script.
For the unwashed, however, two common threads of objection tend to emerge. Firstly, a sense of disproportion seems to offend some sense of fair play. Second, shock that so little due diligence appears to be performed before military forces open fire. The impact of the first is not lost on the military. The always excellent Frontline described the issue, with particular reference to the many videos beginning to emerge of helicopters gunning down individual soldiers, as it confronted the Bush administration in 1991:12
NARRATOR: If the allies were going to close the ring on the Republican Guard, the fighting would have to continue. But in Washington, Colin Powell was worried that further slaughter would stain the military's reputation.
Gen. COLIN POWELL: You don't do unnecessary killing, if it can be avoided. At some point, you decide you've accomplished your objectives and you stop. We owned Kuwait City. The question was how much additional destruction do we want to inflict upon the Iraqi army that was in the Kuwait theater.
NARRATOR: On the battlefield, Apache gunships designed to destroy tank columns were hunting down individual soldiers. Colin Powell had once said of the Iraqi army, "First we're going to cut it off and then we're going to kill it." The Iraqis were not completely cut off, but Powell decided there had been enough killing. He called Norman Schwarzkopf. It was 7:00 A.M. in Washington, 3:00 P.M. in the desert.
Gen. NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF: Colin said to me, "What are your plans?" My response to him was, "We plan to continue to execute the operation and continue to drive towards the sea, east towards the sea." And he then said to me, "How long would that take you?" And my response to him was, "It will probably take until- it will take until the end of tomorrow. So we could ceasefire tomorrow evening at dark and we would have completely accomplished the plan."
NARRATOR: Sitting in the Pentagon, Powell knew this meant another day of killing. The president had to make a decision.
[2:00 P.M. February 27, 1991]
Gen. COLIN POWELL: After talking to Schwarzkopf, I went over to the White House. I took the president through the situation on the ground. I pointed out that we're starting to see some scenes that were unpleasant and we were in the window of calling an end to it so that there was not unnecessary additional loss of life on the part of American and coalition forces or on the part of Iraqi youngsters.13
Of course, a sense that some invisible line of proportionality has been crossed underlies objections to the brutality shown in these videos. Certainly, high explosives and tissue do not play together well. But this too is a bit of naivete at work, specifically, that there is in fact a sort of virtue in affording the enemy a "sporting chance," rather than taking him by complete surprise, from a safe distance, and with such overwhelming force that he is unlikely to get up again after the first few rounds. The "sporting chance" approach is entirely incompatible with the fact that the United States public has absolutely no taste for causalities. Having the low KIA cake and eating it too is an impossibility.
The second inclination, that the rules of engagement fall some distance short of Fifth Amendment due process protections, is equally naive. Of course, the standard this sort of assumption imposes would require us to call any blue on blue fire "murder." Even one of the fatally wounded Reuters reporters knew well enough the danger presented to him by nearby American forces to conceal himself behind a wall as completely as possible while pointing a camera their way. He was well aware he was in the company of armed insurgents and that counter fire might head his way. (It did).
All this is a long and winding way to point out that there is something about Wikileaks that either intentionally or inadvertently demonstrates, enables and, to a very real extent, preys upon naivete. Sensationalism as a path to funding (see e.g., "Quest for Ratings,") is an ever present danger in the journalistic world. Wikileaks, however, was supposed to be above this sort of rank sell-outism.
Assange himself addressed this question defending against accusations that Wikileaks has shifted from releasing data to editorializing. Assange starts, ironically enough, by calling the notion "part of the right wing reality distortion field," and then continues:
...it was our hope, that initially, that because we had vastly more material than we could possibly go through, that if we just put it out there, people would summarize it themselves. That, very interestingly, didn't happen. Quite an extraordinary thing... Our initial idea was that, look at all those people editing Wikipedia. Look at all the junk that they are working on. Surely if you give them a fresh, classified document about the human rights atrocities in Falujia, that the rest of the world has not seen before, that, you know, it's a secret document.
Surely, all those people that are busy working on articles about history and mathematics and so on, and all those bloggers that are busy pontificating about the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries and other human rights disasters who are complaining that they can only respond to the New York Times because they don't have sources of their own, surely those people will step forward given fresh source material and do something. No. It's all bullshit. It's all bullshit.
In fact, people write about things in general, if it is not part of their career, because they want to display their values to their peers who are already in the same group. Actually, they don't give a fuck about the material. That's the reality.
So very early on we understood from experiences like this that we would have to, at least, give summaries of the material we were releasing. At least summaries, to get people to pick it up, to get journalists to pick it up, to get them to dig deeper. And if we didn't have a summary to put the thing in context, it would just fall into the gutter and never been seen again.
In cases where I have understood the material is more complex, or other people in our group have understood that the material is more complex, especially military material which has lots of acronyms, you understand, it is not even enough to do a summary. You have to do an article, or we have to liaise with other journalists to give the material to them on some sort of exclusive basis or semi-exclusive basis to get them to extract it into easily understandable, human-readable form, otherwise it goes nowhere.14
Ah, yes. The step across the line between summarizing (to make sure your lazy, stupid audience understands how much more important Wikileaks is than Wikipedia) and editorializing is all too brief. But then, one man's summary is another man's inflammatory introductory essay, no?
This sounds to finem respice like code for: "Well, we didn't like the lack of analysis or interest in causes we think people should be interested in so we are going to provide the marketing element for these causes. Well, not all of these causes, but the causes our readers should be interested in."
Part of the frustration here seems to be rooted in Assange's impatience with the public, and the slow pace with which material he regards as important and earth shattering is taken up by the rest of an uncaring and unfeeling internet. Of course, this is likely tied up in no small part with a desperate need on the part of Wikileaks for attention. Consider the goals of enabling whistleblowing and engaging in unfettered disclosure when juxtaposed with this 2008 statement by Assange:
Given that Wikileaks needs to restrict supply for a period to increase perceived value to the point that journalists will invest time to produce quality stories, the question arises as to which method should be employed to apportion material to those who are most likely to invest in it.15
If Assanage was already engaging in selective disclosure and information rationing in 2008, what does this say about the site's conduct since then?
This is also a far cry from the original stated goal of Wikileaks, at least as expressed in its early (c. 2008) "About" pages (since removed):
Wikileaks is completely neutral because it is simply a conduit for the original document and does not pretend to be the author of the propaganda of a vested interest. But it further increases transparency in that those who make comments and contribute analysis make this readily available with the document but clearly distinguished from it.
Wikileaks will publish original documents that were never crafted to be media statements. The newsworthiness of that will be in the eye of the beholder rather than in eye of the public figure and the journalist.
The potential of Wikileaks is mass uncensored news. It may be more cumbersome than an online newspaper (or not, if you know what you're looking for!) but it's hard to imagine it being more propagandist than most of the media today.16
[Part II follows...]
- 1. "The Zimmermann Telegram," Cryptologic Quarterly (Declassified).
- 2. Id.
- 3. "Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den," Volume 11 (1982).
- 4. "Introduction," Wikileaks (July 2010).
- 5. "Exposed: Wikileaks Secrets," Wired (September 1, 2009).
- 6. "Wikileaks Leak," Cryptome (c. January 2007).
- 7. "Latest Wikileaks Prize for Sale to the Highest Bidder," Wired (August 27, 2008).
- 8. Wikileaks Twitter feed (April 7, 2010 9:40 PM).
- 9. "Technical analysis of Apache helicopter shooting Iraqis," YouTube (c. 2009). (The video has gone through several iterations of re-release, sensation and re-debunking since 2006).
- 10. "Apache helicopter killing insurgent," YouTube (c. 2009).
- 11. Wikileaks Twitter feed (May 29, 2010, 11:42 AM).
- 12. Ironically, collateral damage from Apache directed 30mm cannon fire can be quite limited. Notice the precision that enables this ASPCA friendly attack, for instance.
- 13. "The Gulf War," Frontline (February 4, 1997).
- 14. "Julian Assange: Is Wikileaks Biased?" YouTube (June 24, 2010).
- 15. "Latest Wikileaks Prize for Sale to the Highest Bidder" Wired (August 27, 2008).
- 16. Web Archive copy of Wikileaks "About" page. (c. March 2008).