The Privatization and Atomization of Espionage (Sources)
"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."1
When we left our Wikiheroes last episode, they were facing multiplying accusations of left-leaning political bias, probably germinating with their decision to begin to release material with summaries or analysis attached, and, like some price-fixing, authoritarian sovereign, to manufacture scarcity by selectively withholding the release of documents. For a time Wikileaks attempted to defend itself from charges like these by, for example, touting Climate Gate, ACORN and Tony Rezko disclosures:
Right wingers should know we originated Climate Gate, ACORN censorship and docs on Tony Rezko/Blagoyevich corruption.2
But such disclosures have become rare and even their terminology ("Right Wingers") betrays an "us versus them" slant that Wikileaks seems pained to suppress. (What about libertarians who want to know why ClimateGate saw literally no activity on the Wikileaks Twitter stream while the Collateral Murder video dominated it for weeks- and, in fact, still does?)
Videos like "Collateral Murder," the Iraqi "farmers" analysis and the "Peace Flotilla" video resemble a quantum system in that the observer is part of the system and the nature of the observation influences the results. Depending on the preconceptions of the viewer, the Collateral Murder video is either evidence of heinous war crimes that should carry the death penalty carried out by outraged citizens of some (unspecified) sovereign, or an example of the tragic reality that "war zones are dangerous" for those civilians that tread therein. Indeed, one otherwise progressive publisher archly titled its review of the Collateral Murder video and the Wikileaks coverage thereof: "Wikileaks Releases Video, Proves War Can Be Fatal." (The piece was later removed).
Certainly there are any number of videos such that, where shown without context, have the potential to spark more violent reaction3 but that have simply received far less exposure than those fortunate enough to attract the attention of Mr. Assange and, consequently, find their release attended by a full court Wikileaks public relations press.
Nor, as it happens, is the Collateral Murder video the "scoop" it is often touted to be. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a much more complete account of the incident could be gleaned months earlier by anyone reading David Finkel's book "The Good Soliders." Finkel is a Washington Post journalist who was embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion and was present during the attack depicted in the "Collateral Murder" video. It would be interesting to discover which account produced more revenue.
It is a common thread on finem respice that the only battle worth paying attention to in the years to come is the battle between revealing or distributing knowledge and concealing or repressing it. From this perspective Wikileaks the document clearing house is an unambiguously good thing.™ There is, however, another side of Wikileaks, a sort of second personality, probably best understood by watching its consistently self-referential and self-promoting Twitter feed. A stream that is sure to keep you up to date on "56 great quotes from Wikileaks!" entertain you with pithy, motivational poster prose ("Trivializing heroic human motivations is common among those who are incapable of them") or even the latest lament on why the Knight Foundation didn't send the site half a million dollars. (The horror... the horror).
This Wikileaks presents as a direct feed into the stream of consciousness of an immature research analyst, possessed only of a short attention span, the kind of infantile bravado that the first few years out of university usually manage to cleanse away, and engaged in the sort of high-school attempts at inter-clique espionage that would be harmless if the stakes were not so high- usually, as it happens, for others.
This is somewhat alarming.
The (Subsidized) Costs of Advocacy
By planting itself firmly in the "activist" or "advocacy" camp, even confidently taunting intelligence assets of the United States at every turn4 Wikileaks has endeavored to make the stakes as high as possible whenever possible. This, of course, has the effect of sensationalizing everything Wikileaks does (though precious little new material makes its way to the site's front pages these days and its "secure submission" link on this page has been non-functional for at least a week), and at least suggests that there is some attention whore DNA wound up in the genetic code of "The Sunshine Press," (which appears to be at least one of the Wikileaks holding entities).
Indeed, increasingly an ever-present feature on interview video clips and in magazine articles everywhere, Julian Assange's recent publicity blitz (he has, for instance, appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera and the Colbert Report) would seem something of a philosophical departure for an organization that theoretically began by hoping to keep all its managers darkly anonymous and its releases "completely neutral." Perhaps it would have been better if it had, lest the color of personality politics ruin the composition of Wikileaks' other important work.
Wikileaks' fascination with self-promotion has not gone unnoticed elsewhere. In only the latest of an increasing number of critical musings, Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, and whom Wikileaks even approached when looking for board members5, notes the possibility that Wikileaks has squandered what goodwill it possessed and wonders if the Knight Foundation neglected to give Wikileaks the grant which was the website's god given right to receive because it had failed some basic standard of Knight Foundation due diligence.6
In what should have been one of the earliest ClimateGate warning signs, critics who dared to even suggest weaknesses might exist in theories of man made global warming received the loudest, most dismissive and most condescending rebukes- along with outright attacks directed at careers and personal lives. Unfortunately, Wikileaks now exhibits similar warning signs.
Assange apparently responded to Aftergood's post in the comments section on the FAS blog by alleging that criticizing Wikileaks is a blow to the cause of some undefined notion of world betterment. To wit:
You could have used FAS’s resources to criticize policies that cover-up state sanctioned killings and other abuses carried out by titanic institutions, but instead you squandered FAS resources to criticize a fledgling non-profit trying to make the world a better place. You have caused us to squander our resources defending ourselves, here, rather than doing our job.7
It is striking the degree to which this excuse resembles the same basic argument used by governments everywhere against a free press (that the sapping effort of blunting, and making, critiques harms the war effort at home). Who would have expected Wikileaks to re-brand the "criticism is unpatriotic" argument for its own public use? Wikileaks appears to favor wide ranging discussion- as long as it is not critical of Wikileaks or the world-saving narrative promoted by same. Remember, no matter what your political leanings, you too might be giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or (gasp!) contributing, even unwittingly, to the "right-wing reality distortion field" with your impudent questioning.
It was not so long ago when, referring to ClimateGate, I quipped:
Politics, however, is not about the search for truth. It is about the building of consensus. It is easy to see how quickly politics becomes anathema to truth by considering the basic fact that in order to get elected to national office in the United States one must at some level convince a sizable portion of the population that, though you may never say it out loud, you really believe that god hates fags, or perhaps that ethanol subsidies are simply a splendid idea. So what exactly happens when data conflicts with politics? I think the CRU has just shown us.8
It is not difficult to see that one should regard any consensus building effort delivered with the volume set over a certain dB threshold with the deepest suspicion. Wikileaks now appears to meet this test. Is it possible that sometime around 2008 Wikileaks mutated from secret sharer to secret keeper? Must we now list Wikileaks on the "information suppression" roster for the big game between Knowledge and Ignorance?
Atomizing Espionage Sources (And Not in a Good Way)
The "quest for ratings" has other consequences, however, not all of which are easily dismissed as the mere social agonies of those only recently possessed of the age of consent.
Eventually, it came to pass that PFC Bradley Manning was fingered by "former hacker" Adrian Lamo as the source of the "Collateral Murder" video, first to the feds, and then to Wired Magazine's Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen, who quickly published the entire affair neat as you please. The fact that Poulsen and Lamo have more then some history together9 and the small detail that Lamo apparently represented himself as a journalist to Manning (and seemingly told him the conversations were legally protected under California's shield law or as confession, since Lamo apparently also claimed he was an ordained minister- again, you just can't make this stuff up)10 add the requisite seediness to the entire affair.
Manning also claimed to have siphoned some 260,000 classified cables from the diplomatic corps of the United States and passed them to Wikileaks as well. Wikileaks released at least one document that would seem to fit Manning's description (related to Iceland) in February of 2010. What else Wikileaks has in its possession isn't clear, though a number of Pentagon investigators in the United States are apparently concerned enough to have publicly expressed their interest in speaking with Mr. Assange about the leaked materials.
Assange couldn't have asked for better press. He loudly canceled several appearances in the United States and elsewhere, and at least one Wikileaks associate (also, in what is obviously just a coincidence, a Wikileaks investor) speculated that Assange's life or freedom was in danger (apparently not so much in danger, however, that Assange was unable to appear at an EU Parliament hearing on internet censorship in Brussels, Belgium, a country that has a rather firm and readily enforced extradition treaty with the United States and where Assange claimed his attorneys had advised him not to travel to the United States). One can be forgiven for thinking that the Wikileaks Twitter stream would trigger a DSM-4 diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder:
WikiLeaks speaking on freedom of expression to EU parliament, June 21 (June 11 11:06 AM)
US might assassinate WikiLeaks founder (June 11 10:22 PM)
Register now to hear WikiLeaks/IMMI speaking at EU Parliament/ADLE Jun 21 (June 15 3:24 AM)
If these sorts of antics merely seem like rank amateurism at this point it is because one hasn't yet explored the Wikileaks response to the exposure of their source, Manning. From the Wikileaks Twitter account:
Those interested in assisting the solider Bradley Manning write to savebradleyatsunshinepress.org (June 7 3:56 PM)
Save Bradley Manning facebook group: (June 7 5:18 PM)
Alleged chat transcript from Manning/Lamo/CID-heavily edited, but for whose agenda? (June 14 4:46 PM)
Manning's disclosures, if true, were BEFORE his demotion; i.e fighting injustice, NOT revenge. (June 15 9:12 PM)
Write to Iraq massacre whistleblower, Bradley Manning, who is detained in Kuwait without charge (June 16 10:18 PM)
Correction: "alleged whistleblower". Dropped during edit for space. (June 16 10:38 PM)
Apparently they were challenged on this overt support:
We defend everyone accused of being a source, since picking and choosing would send signals. (June 16th 11:22 PM)
For the "editor" of Wikileaks, a man who confidently declared "The chance of your source getting run over by a car are vastly higher than they are of being caught,"11 this seems like awfully bad business. At the very least it is deeply sloppy.
Given the gravity of Wikileaks' self-defined mission, and given the sensationalistic, attention-dependent approach to that mission (complete with the invocation of right-wing reality distortion field enemies to flail against) it would behoove Wikileaks to be setting the standard for the care and feeding (not to mention protection) of sources. This concept is still, after all, in the very first sentence of their current post-modification charter:
WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public.
That hardly includes "non-confirming" a source by publicly hiring lawyers for the accused12 while Tweeting:
WikiLeaks commissions lawyers to help defend alleged source - help us
Recall for a moment:
We defend everyone accused of being a source, since picking and choosing would send signals.
Indeed. It sounds like all one need to do get a bit of free legal work is arrange to be accused of being a Wikileaks source. This makes for a wonderfully interesting denial of service attack against Wikileaks as well. If true, millions in legal bills could bankrupt the site quite quickly. The Wikileaks cash crunch begins to make sense.
Still, it does not, we suspect, make for good reading when Assange emails members of the media (or their sources) in an effort to shape the story, as in this passage from an email to Adrian Lamo:
In addition, it would be helpful if you described Mr. Manning, as a “whistleblower”, who had already lost his access over an unrelated issue, held no data, and was of no meaningful threat to anyone. In particular Mr. Manning was not an “alleged spy”, and it is wrong for you to describe him as such, or to suggest that there were no other approaches to resolving the situation.
It would also be helpful to all concerned if you stopped trying to justify your behavior by whipping up sentiment against Mr. Manning in other ways. Your most effective personal strategy is to say you were scared due to your previous experiences, unthoughtful due to recent drug problems, and made a decision which you now bitterly regret and would under no circumstances repeat. Going around like a poor man’s Tsutomu, constantly drawing attention to yourself through the destruction of a young romantic outlaw figure, will leave you permanently reviled by history–and me.13
It becomes, in fact, quite difficult to credit Wikileaks' non-confirmation in this context. And how, exactly, was it that Assange, usually quite paranoid, lacked the judgment to expect that this exchange would eventually be printed? All of this has the collateral effect of shedding doubt on other Wikileaks claims. For instance:
Wikileaks claims to be "800 strong" and possessed of annual costs of $600,000, or $200,000 if staff is not paid. Indeed, somehow, despite claiming to have raised over $150,000 on more than one occasion, the site continues to complain about budget woes14 and document releases have slowed to a crawl or stopped entirely.
Not to mention, these figures are almost an order of magnitude over the costs of other grassroots sites (like Zero Hedge for example). One might speculate that all this international travel (e.g. to speak at the EU Parliament) and being forced to retain defense counsel for the defense of a not-really-a-source-source might contribute to the high cost of maintaining a website like Wikileaks. Spending a bit more time with such an important source might have paid off, even if it distracted from the publicity press for a little while.
Then there is this:
Allegations in Wired that we have been sent 260,000 classified US embassy cables are, as far as we can tell, incorrect.15
It is hard to avoid noticing that "...as far as we can tell, incorrect" is a decidedly obscure and Clintonesque sentence structure. Who, exactly, Wikileaks thinks it is fooling or protecting with disclosures like this is unclear.
Moreover, assuming some sort of "student of the Clintonesque school of modern non-denial composition" it fails to discount the possibility that Wikileaks was sent some 250,000 classified US Embassy cables. Or 300,000 for that matter.
We know for a fact that they were sent at least one, for instance, as Wikileaks has already released it. Given this, and the great detail with which PFC Manning appears to have described his access to the cables, the manner of their theft and his apparent glee in anticipating their release...
(12:21:24 PM) Manning: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war... from 2004 to 2009... with reports, date time groups,lat-lon locations, casualty figures... ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?
(1:00:57 PM) Manning: theres so much... it affects everybody on earth... everywhere there's a US post... there's a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed... Iceland, the Vatican, Spain, Brazil, Madascar, if its a country, and its recognized by the US as a country, its got dirt on it16
(01:52:30 PM) Manning: funny thing is… we transffered so much data on unmarked CDs…
(01:52:42 PM) Manning: everyone did… videos… movies… music
(01:53:05 PM) Manning: all out in the open
(01:53:53 PM) Manning: bringing CDs too and from the networks was/is a common phenomeon
(01:54:14 PM) Lamo: is that how you got the cables out?
(01:54:28 PM) Manning: perhaps
(01:54:42 PM) Manning: i would come in with music on a CD-RW
(01:55:21 PM) Manning: labelled with something like “Lady Gaga”… erase the music… then write a compressed split file17
Hillary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public18
...it is actually quite difficult not to credit Wikileaks with their possession. And this brings us full circle.
Diplomatic communications are among the most sensitive and jealously guarded of secrets held by sovereigns. If Wikileaks is indeed in possession of these, and it seems more than reasonable to assume that it is, there is very little doubt that they can do some real damage. This, may in fact, be quite as serious as the Zimmermann telegram.
If indeed communications from or to the likes of President hopeful Hillary Clinton are among the finds, and likely they are, then her political career, along with many others, is decidedly over a barrel. This presents a rather daunting series of dilemmas for Wikileaks. For instance:
To the extent Wikileaks has a political agenda (and it seems clear that it has) will it release cables damaging to its political allies?
To the extent the cables and any other disclosures make the treason charges against PFC Manning more serious and tend to suggest his guilt, will Wikileaks suppress these?
And if PFC Manning, or his attorneys, request that Wikileaks not release these documents, will Wikileaks comply?
What if PFC Manning, or his attorneys, request that Wikileaks release only select documents beneficial somehow to PFC Manning's defense from its potential archive?
Given the seemingly indelible anti-war leanings expressed by Wikleaks,19 if the release of a Zimmermann like document is likely to cause more armed conflict, will Wikileaks distribute it anyhow?
Will Wikileaks employ an ombudsman?
To what extent is Wikileaks already engaging in selective disclosure under the guise of budgetary limitations or the need to create "summaries." PFC Manning, for instance, already noted the lag between submission and publication at Wikileaks:
(02:54:53 PM) Lamo: submission where?
(02:55:07 PM) Manning: wl.org submission system
(02:55:23 PM) Lamo: in the massive queue?
(02:55:54 PM) Manning: lol, yeah, it IS pretty massive…
(02:55:56 PM) Manning: buried
(02:56:04 PM) Manning: i see what you mean
(02:56:35 PM) Manning: long term sources do get preference… i can see where the “unfairness” factor comes in
(02:56:53 PM) Lamo: how does that preference work?
(02:57:47 PM) Manning: veracity… the material is easy to verify…
(02:58:27 PM) Manning: because they know a little bit more about the source than a purely anonymous one
(02:59:04 PM) Manning: and confirmation publicly from earlier material, would make them more likely to publish… i guess…
(02:59:16 PM) Manning: im not saying they do… but i can see how that might develop
(03:00:18 PM) Manning: if two of the largest public relations “coups” have come from a single source… for instance
(03:02:03 PM) Manning: you yeah… purely *submitting* material is more likely to get overlooked without contacting them by other means and saying hey, check your submissions for x...20
The explosive potential of the material Wikileaks actively solicits and (apparently) receives places a high burden on the organization. It has the potential to wreck lives and rain havoc on any number of institutions and organizations. This is, by Wikileaks' own admission, by design.
PFC Manning (for example) is already in water about as deep as it is possible for a citizen of a functioning democracy to be in today, to wit: Incarcerated in a military facility outside of the United States (Kuwait to be specific) without (as of this writing) charge and faced with what, if his descriptions of the material he purportedly liberated are accurate, might well be the most damaging intelligence lapse in the history of the United States (and if you think this hyperbole you haven't been paying close attention).
PFC Manning may well be facing the death penalty, but surely will be looking at life without parole if the facts bear out the details illuminated by the Wired chat logs. Manning seemed to appreciate, and even revel in, this, in one of the most damning of his apparent electronic confessions:
(1:13:10 PM) Manning: i just... dont wish to be a part of it... at least not now... im not ready... i wouldn't mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn't for the possibility of having pictures of me... plastered all over the world press...21
As a consequence of the attention these disclosures have shined on Manning, it is also entirely possible that he has been outed as a transgender.22
Surely, for someone already averse to the possibility that his picture might be "plastered all over the world press" (even if ironically comfortable with the concept of life imprisonment or execution) this is simply a nightmare, particularly now that he languishes in the custody of the United States military- an institution not known for its good graces in the context of handling the "sexually non-conforming." To call the impact of these disclosures on PFC Manning "devastating" would be among the more dramatic understatements of the modern era.
All of this suggests the conclusion that Wikileaks (and Wired, as it happens) capitalized (wittingly or not) on a deeply conflicted and pained individual, for what amounts to the ill gotten gains of personal (or corporate) gain and sensationalism. Wired, in particular, is deserving of something akin to the ice floe treatment23 for employing the likes of Adrian Lamo as a proxy to protect itself from accusations of journalistic malfeasance.
If indeed Manning is in the midst of gender transition, this detail makes revelations that Lamo used the promise of the confessional seal to extract Wired's all important big scoop beyond reprehensible. In fact, it is awfully easy (though admittedly with the benefit of hindsight) to perceive the almost ever present menace of sinister manipulation lurking shallowly beneath the surface of Lamo's chat with Manning:
(12:52:33 PM) Manning: Hilary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats
around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one
morning, and finds an entire repository of classified foreign policy is
available, in searchable format to the public... =L
(12:53:41 PM) Manning: s/Hilary/Hillary
(12:54:47 PM) Lamo: What sort of content?
(12:56:36 PM) Lamo: brb cigarette
(12:56:43 PM) Lamo: keep typing <3
(1:45:00 PM) Lamo: what kind of scandal?
(1:45:16 PM) Manning: hundreds of them
(1:45:40 PM) Lamo: like what? I'm genuinely curious about details.
(1:48:20 PM) Manning: the scope is so broad... and yet the depth so rich
(1:48:50 PM) Lamo: give me some bona fides ... yanno? any specifics.
(1:51:25 PM) Manning: i'd have to ask assange
(1:51:53 PM) Manning: i zerofilled the original
(1:51:54 PM) Lamo: why do you answer to him?
(1:52:54 PM) Lamo: i've been considering helping wikileaks with opsec
(1:53:13 PM) Manning: they have decent opsec... im obviously violating it24
(6:07:29 PM) Lamo: What’s your MOS?
(3:16:24 AM) Manning: re: “What’s your MOS?” — Intelligence Analyst (35F)
(01:56:36 PM) Lamo: from a professional perspective, i’m curious how the server they were on was insecure25
At least to one reading, Manning is seriously losing a battle to a skillful, and quite artful, social engineering attack. Lamo's replies are a small fraction of the text in these transcripts, as he alternately flatters, chides, challenges and placates his quarry- all the while drawing him out into the open. (The ascii heart "<3" is a particularly despicable touch given what we now know of Lamo's intentions). Of course, we only have the benefit of the logs Wired, in its infinite editorial wisdom, deemed worthy of publication. That even these are unambiguously sleazy is telling, as is the mentality that must have driven the choice of one mocking Wired title: "I Can't Believe What I'm Confessing To You."
But Wired isn't alone in its muckraking. For all its anti-corporate "justice" rhetoric, in this context is Wikileaks not just as perverse as the feelingless corporate juggernauts it assails with its "justice" motivated disclosures?
PFC Manning appears to have been regarded with no more consequence by either "journalist" than a sheet of tissue paper, used and then thoughtlessly discarded... or perhaps sheepishly picked up from the sidewalk after the admonishment of a beat cop writing littering tickets, only to be discarded again into a street-side trash receptacle, and left to the dumpster divers of the world.
It is impossible to know what contact Wikileaks had with Manning after his arrest (if one can even call it an "arrest" considering the fact that no charges have yet been filed) but assuming that the United States military did not afford an organization they were actively investigating in connection with potential espionage visitation rights to Manning, it is difficult to imagine that Wikileaks was able to obtain Manning's proxy to hire defense counsel on his behalf. Possibly such an arrangement had been made ex ante, but this seems unlikely.
In fact, if PFC Manning were busy denying his association with Wikileaks to military interrogators on June 12, 2010, the news, widely broadcast by Wikileaks, that it had retained attorneys might have put a serious damper on his day.
It is also impossible to know the extent investigators were certain of the connection between Manning and Wikileaks before this Wikileaks slip. It is beyond obvious that they recognized the certainty afterwords. Wikileaks may have materially damaged Manning's defense in this fashion.
The libertarian leanings of finem respice forbid us favoring an affirmative legal "duty to rescue" as the concept is traditionally understood. Be this as it may, there is much to critique in the behavior of Wikileaks here.
Without a doubt, Wikileaks is poised to change the face of reporting. Clearly, a certain affinity for self-promotion has gripped the organization- most particularly manifested in its public face: Julian Assange. But this flash hype will fade quickly if Wikileaks fails to get serious quickly about the protection of sources. The management of sources, be they intelligence related, whistleblowers, journalistic or otherwise, is a precise and critical endeavor. For a site like Wikileaks, that lives and dies by the quality of its sources, the care and feeding of sources is an existential requirement.
Shame on Wikileaks for failing to have the expertise or acumen (or simply being too lazy) to manage PFC Manning properly. To inculcate Manning with some appreciation of the deeply significant find disclosures like these represented. To give Manning some basic sense of the dangers involved should he be discovered.
Clearly, Manning had some appreciation here, given his awareness that he was violating OPSEC and his acknowledged recognition of the potential for imprisonment and even execution. It is entirely possible, in fact, that Manning (like Zimmermann before him) was just self destructive enough that Wikileaks could not possibly have given him sufficient counsel to prevent his eventual self-imposed exposure. Still, there is something about Manning's chats with Lamo that exposes a tortured soul simply crying out for notice, attention, interaction, even just some sort of basic intercourse with a world less cold than that finally presented to him by Wikileaks and Wired.
Hiring attorneys at potentially inopportune times ex post doesn't really cut it when one regards matters from this "spilled milk" angle. After all, Room 40 managed to spend a lot of time protecting the manner in which they acquired the Zimmermann telegram.
We cannot say much about who Manning spoke to and why, but we do know that whatever solace communicating with Assange gave Manning, it wasn't enough to sate Manning's thirst for human socialization and understanding- why else would he bear his soul and tender his confession (fatally as it happened) to someone so distant, anonymous and disconnected as Lamo?
Was Wikileaks simply too dazzled by its remarkable find and the implications for its own self promotion to give Manning the attention he seemed so desperate to earn? Is Wikileaks simply unable to practice effective OPSEC? Insofar as the quest for publicity and ceaseless self-promotion is incompatible with OPSEC, to what extent is Wikileaks' DNA simply incompatible with the kind of OPSEC required to protect sources spilling such critical intelligence?
Welcome to the big leagues, Wikileaks.
Wikileaks had best acquire some rather extensive "source management and protection" skills post-haste. Sources are the lifeblood of the site. To the extent that they view Manning's fate critically Wikileaks is unlikely to appeal.
None of this is to suggest that Wikileaks is some sort of bad thing.™ In fact, finem respice considers the general concept (at least as expressed, if not followed, by Wikileaks) not just positive, but essential to the cause of freedom of information. But, and isn't this always the rub, execution is essential.
What Wikileaks has made clear is that the balance of power in the world of intelligence has shifted from secretive state funded agencies and large publishing organizations with their monopoly on printing presses and large scale print distribution (the war of subscribers) to small, agile and virtually managed organizations with a half dozen servers in Sweden (until its welcome even there grows worn).
This presents some difficult questions. When Nixon's White House goes to war with the Washington Post, well, that's just the nature of investigative reporting. What happens, however, when the White House goes to war with Julian Assange?
Wikileaks has certainly managed to serve as a "proof of concept" for the private intelligence agency business plan (no doubt Russian, Chinese, and even European intelligence agencies would have fought, bled and killed for a source like Manning- and might have been somewhat better at instilling a bit of tradecraft into the upstart agent's operational tempo) but private entities have agendas as well, and insofar as Wikileaks is possessed of a political agenda it cannot separate from its working manifestation it holds ground no more elevated than the sovereigns it claims to want to "open"- and it certainly lacks the democratic mandate of developed nations with active intelligence services.
This granularization of media has some interesting implications. First, to the extent the forces of censorship in all their forms seek to silence outlets like Wikileaks, they now have far more numerous, if smaller, targets to challenge. In one sense, smaller organizations like Wikileaks are more agile and evasive (witness Assange's globetrotting to evade U.S. military investigators). On the other hand, they are far less resourced and, once cornered, cannot manage to put up the kind of legal and psychological battle that the New York Times, for example, simply lives to join. Wikileaks (if you credit their Twitter feed) struggles to raise the sort of six figure balances that would be required to even qualify for a heavyweight bout in federal court. In fact, the site appears even now to be in the midst of a rather serious collapse:
Would-be whistle-blowers hoping to leak documents to Wikileaks face a potentially frustrating surprise. Wikileaks’ submission process, which had been degraded for months, completely collapsed more than two weeks ago and remains offline, in a little-noted breakdown at the world’s most prominent secret-spilling website.
Despite a surge in mostly laudatory media portraying Wikileaks as a fearless, unstoppable outlet for documents that embarrass corporations and overbearing governments, the site has published only 12 documents since the beginning of the year, the last one four months ago. And on June 12, Wikileaks’ secure submission page stopped working after the site failed to renew its SSL certificate, a basic web protection that costs less than $30 a year and takes only hours to set up.26
Politically one wonders what the backlash will look like when the full weight of the United States federal government comes crashing down on a somewhat reticent, white haired, Australian former hacker (or similar). Attacks on the "press," by definition, have now become quite personal. The same sense of disproportion that makes 30mm anti-personal gun camera footage disturbing is likely to pull the heart strings of a Western public possessed of a noted affinity for (and cultural history almost literally defined by) rooting for the underdog.
It is little wonder that a number of "old establishment" entities feel threatened enough by internet publishers to gleefully sacrifice the First Amendment so as to squelch them. Wikileaks has suddenly become a case study in asymmetric information warfare, but the history of such battles is measured in decades, not simply years- and is often a battle of attrition and public relations. Is Wikileaks up to the task? Insofar as Wikileaks has descended into the depths of sensationalism, political agenda, fused at the hip to political bent of founder Julian Assange, and malfeasance (or at least negligence) in the handling of sources, probably not.
To meet the challenge, nay, the opportunity presented by the present state of affairs Wikileaks must evolve into a more honest, a more mature organization. It simply does not cut it to take sides in the release of data. It is unconscionable to archive submissions for weeks or months until a "summary" can be penned. It is even worse if such editorializing becomes excuse to publish selectively (as it apparently has with Wikileaks). Suffering a senior editor to decry a "right-wing reality distortion field" in public (in front of cameras no less) is beyond the pale. An alignment of this nature is likely to discourage any number of legitimate (if evangelistic) sources who will now see Wikileaks as just another liberal slanted rag (rendered in bits instead of pulp). If "justice" is the true motive of Wikileaks, it has damaged itself badly in the last several months by slanting itself.
One also wonders after budgets and it isn't difficult to call for Wikileaks to release theirs. To the extent a large portion of donor funds are used to fly around senior members of Wikileaks' staff in some attention-deficit driven attempt to avoid "the authorities," perhaps donors should be made aware of such.
One is tempted to set the way-back machine to 1979 and regard the relative purity of the Iranian disclosures in "Documents from the US Espionage Den." At the very least one notices that the inflammatory introductory essay doesn't even attempt to avail itself of the "neutrality" title once brandished by Wikileaks. It wholeheartedly embraces its purpose as an anti-western vehicle. Equally, it invites the reader to discard it as an introduction, and browse the raw material freestyle (as it were).
Though the authors probably engage in selective publication, the volumes vomit out such a wide swath of documents (in random order no less, how's that for a lack of editorializing?) that it is hard to level the accusation of "bias" without knowing what was withheld. For an effort that bears an Islamic dedication on the first page of every volume, that is an impressive feat of counterintuition. Can Wikileaks claim the same (if weak) distinction? After all, the "Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam" not only wear their heart on their sleeves, they also unflinchingly publish meaningless letters from L. Paul Bremer III and handwritten notes begging to reschedule meetings between junior State Department staffers in Stockholm. Perhaps a language barrier has caused our revolutionary publicists to err on the side of disclosure?
If Wikileaks is to thrive, rather than merely survive, it must evolve. To do so it must divide the "analytic" elements of the organization from the distribution network. There is no reason at all to permit submissions to languish for days, weeks, years waiting for review. Dividing Wikileaks into "disclosure" and "analysis" segments, the former spitting out any content submitted as quickly as it arrives, would defuse the already growing critique of bias and restore a great deal of credibility to the organization- but then, as Wikileaks presently needs no credibility boost among the far left, perhaps this is an expensive endeavor for the site that will bear little return in its chosen demographic. If it manages to alienate potential sources along the way, well, then even its political allies will shun it.
In 1917, Arthur Zimmermann was instrumental in sealing the peace with Russia that permitted Germany to refocus on the Western front and the new American threat. Zimmermann went so far as to give Lenin and his comrades safe passage through Germany to Russia by rail. Though Zimmermann redeemed himself in the eyes of Imperial Germany, he played what may be the most personal role in enabling the October Revolution and decades of misery stemming therefrom. Can Wikileaks turn a similarly hard corner without inflicting wholesale destruction on itself, and others?
- 1. From an archived version of the original Wikileaks mission statement.
- 2. Wikileaks Twitter feed (April 8, 2010 5:46 PM).
- 3. Without the knowledge that a forward air controller is directing this strike on dozens of armed insurgents headed to participate in an ongoing firefight against US Marines in Fallujah, any conclusion at all about the actions of the soldiers here can be reached.
- 4. "We have airline records of the State Dep/CIA tails. Don't think you can get away with it. You cannot. This is WikiLeaks." Wikileaks Twitter Feed (March 23, 2010 11:04 PM).
- 5. "Wikileaks and Julian Paul Assange," The New Yorker (June 7 2010).
- 6. "Wikileaks Fails 'Due Diligence' Review," Federation of American Scientists (June 28, 2010).
- 7. "FAS Blog Comments."
- 8. "Shocked, Shocked to Find That Fraud is Going on in Here," finem respice (November 22, 2009).
- 9. "Wired, Wikileaks and the Hacker-Journalist Complex," Gawker (June 18, 2010).
- 10. "The Strange and Consequential Case of Bradley Manning, Adrian Lamo and Wikileaks," Salon (June 18, 2010).
- 11. "Wikileaks: How Safe Are Confidential Sources?" FORA TV (May 1, 2010).
- 12. "Wikileaks Commissions Lawyers to Defend Alledged Army Source," Wired (June 11, 2010).
- 13. "Wikileaks Commissions Lawyers to Defend Alleged Army Source," Wired (June 11, 2010).
- 14. "Wikileaks Closes Operations Temporarily due to Budget Woes," Wired (February 1, 2010).
- 15. "Wikileaks Twitter feed (June 7, 2010)."
- 16. "Wikileaks: A Somewhat Less Redacted Version of the Lamo/Manning Logs," Boing Boing (June 19, 2010).
- 17. I Can't Believe What I'm Confessing to You," Wired (June 10, 2010).
- 18. US Intelligence Analyst Arrested in Wikileaks Video Probe," Wired (June 6, 2010).
- 19. "No Secrets," The New Yorker (June 7, 2010).
- 20. I Can't Believe What I'm Confessing to You," Wired (June 10, 2010).
- 21. "Wikileaks: A Somewhat Less Redacted Version of the Lamo/Manning Logs," Boing Boing (June 19, 2010).
- 22. "Was Alleged Wikileaks Leaker Bradley Manning's Crisis Also One of Personal Identity?," Boing Boing (June 20, 2010).
- 23. See e.g., Rolf Kjellström, "Senilicide and Invalidicide among the Eskimos," Folk: Dansk Etnografisk Tidsskrift, Volume 16/17 (1974/75).
- 24. "Wikileaks: A Somewhat Less Redacted Version of the Lamo/Manning Logs," Boing Boing (June 19, 2010).
- 25. I Can't Believe What I'm Confessing to You," Wired (June 10, 2010).
- 26. "With World Watching, Wikileaks Falls Into Disrepair," Wired (June 30, 2010).