[Lethally] Exposing Confidential Sources for Fun and Profit
A close friend, whose opinion I was otherwise inclined to trust in all matters with the propensity to be illuminated by wisdom or its many pretenders, once maintained that a curriculum of all one needed to know or to learn could be found within the works of Umberto Eco. True, substantial amounts of alcohol preceded this declaration. True, it was after two in the morning. True, I was too alarmed to ask him exactly what important life lessons were contained in Foucault's Pendulum (after some reflection, however, I suspect the answer might have been quite entertaining). These caveats having been duly read into the record, it bears mentioning that declarations of this sort either inspire or fade into the distant miasma of cerebral bit rot.
In some instances, these dusty, incongruent, and seemingly random catalysts trigger the sudden flash that lights up the prefrontal cortex and pulls to the fore recollections of early morning fiction philosophy. But, as it happens, the universe of Umberto Eco is not quite as eclectic or exotic a contemporary genre as might be believed. One would expect an author, and a scholar, with a 20,000 volume library in his home (down from 30,000 in his last abode) to have a particular appreciation not just for books and libraries, but for knowledge and the vagaries thereof. His 1980 work Il nome della rosa, delves deeply into all four, in addition to notions of truth, censorship, forbidden knowledge, and the rationales that drive not just the search for truth, but, perhaps far more keenly, its anti-particle: suppression. And, as it happens, on this topic, Eco has quite a lot to contribute (mandating a long, but entirely worthy, bit of quotation):
Un libro che contiene una saggezza diversa dalla nostra. Ma comprendi perché lo abbiano posto qui, dove stanno i leoni, i mostri. Ecco perché vi abbiamo visto quel libro sulle bestie mostruose dove hai trovato anche l'unicorno. Questa zona detta LEONES contiene quelli che per i costruttori della biblioteca erano i libri della menzogna.
"Vedi, hanno posto tra i mostri e le menzogne anche opere di scienza da cui i cristiani hanno tanto da imparare. Così si pensava ai tempi in cui la biblioteca fu costituita..."
"Ma perché hanno posto tra le falsità anche un libro con l'unicorno?" domandai.
"Evidentemente i fondatori della biblioteca avevano strane idee. Avran ritenuto che questo libro che parla di bestie fantastiche e che vivono in paesi lontani facesse parte del repertorio di menzogne diffuso dagli infedeli..."
"Ma l'unicorno è una menzogna? E' un animale dolcissimo e altamente simbolico. Figura di Cristo e della castità, esso può essere catturato solo ponendo una vergine nel bosco, in modo che l'animale sentendone l'odore castissimo vada ad adagiarle il capo in grembo, offrendosi preda ai lacciuoli dei cacciatori."
"Così si dice, Adso. Ma molti inclinano a ritenere che sia una invenzione favolistica dei pagani."
"Che delusione," dissi. "Mi sarebbe piaciuto incontrarne uno attraversando un bosco. Altrimenti che piacere c'è ad attraversare un bosco?"
"Non è detto che non esista. Forse è diverso da come lo rappresentano questi libri. Un viaggiatore veneziano andò in terre molto lontane, assai vicine al fons paradisi di cui dicono le mappe, e vide unicorni. Ma li trovò rozzi e sgraziati, e bruttissimi e neri. Credo abbia visto delle bestie vere con un corno sulla fronte. Furono probabilmente le stesse che i maestri della sapienza antica, mai del tutto erronea, che ricevettero da Dio l'opportunità di vedere cose che noi non abbiamo visto, ci tramandarono con una prima descrizione fedele. Poi questa descrizione, viaggiando da auctoritas ad auctoritas, si trasformò per successive composizioni della fantasia, e gli unicorni divennero animali leggiadri e bianchi e mansueti. Per cui se saprai che in un bosco vive un unicorno, non andarci con una vergine, perché l'animale potrebbe essere più simile a quello del testimone veneziano che a quello di questo libro."
"Ma come avvenne che i maestri della sapienza antica ebbero da Dio la rivelazione sulla vera natura dell'unicorno?"
"Non la rivelazione, ma l'esperienza. Ebbero la ventura di nascere in terre in cui vivevano unicorni o in tempi in cui gli unicorni vivevano in queste stesse terre."
"Ma allora come possiamo fidarci della sapienza antica, di cui voi ricercate sempre la traccia, se essa ci è trasmessa da libri mendaci che la hanno interpretata con tanta licenza?"
"I libri non sono fatti per crederci, ma per essere sottoposti a indagine. Di fronte a un libro non dobbiamo chiederci cosa dica ma cosa vuole dire, idea che i vecchi commentatori dei libri sacri ebbero chiarissima. L'unicorno così come ne parlano questi libri cela una verità morale, o allegorica, o anagogica, che rimane vera, come rimane vera l'idea che la castità sia una nobile virtù. Ma quanto alla verità letterale che sostiene le altre tre, rimane da vedere da quale dato di esperienza originaria è nata la lettera. La lettera deve essere discussa, anche se il sovrasenso
rimane buono. In un libro sta scritto che il diamante si taglia solo col sangue di capro. Il mio grande maestro Ruggiero Bacone disse che non era vero, semplicemente perché lui ci aveva provato, e non c'era riuscito. Ma se il rapporto tra diamante e sangue caprino avesse avuto un senso superiore, questo rimarrebbe intatto."
"A book containing a wisdom different from ours. But you understand why they put it here, where the lions, the monsters, are. This is why we saw that book on the monstrous animals, where you also found the unicorn. This area called LEONES contains the books that the creators of the library considered books of falsehood."
"You see, among monsters and falsehoods they have also placed works of science from which Christians have much to learn. That was the way they thought in the times when the library was built...."
"But why have they also put a book with the unicorn among the falsehoods?" I asked.
"Obviously the founders of the library had strange ideas. They must have believed that this book which speaks of fantastic animals and beasts living in distant lands was part of the catalogue of falsehoods spread by the infidels...."
"But is the unicorn a falsehood? It's the sweetest of animals and a noble symbol. It stands for Christ, and for chastity; it can be captured only by setting a virgin in the forest, so that the animal, catching her most chaste odor, will go and lay its head in her lap, offering itself as prey to the hunters' snares."
"So it is said, Adso. But many tend to believe that it's a fable, an invention of the pagans."
"What a disappointment," I said. "I would have liked to encounter one, crossing a wood. Otherwise what's the pleasure of crossing a wood?"
"It's not certain the animal doesn't exist. Perhaps it's different from the way it's illustrated in these books. A Venetian traveler went to very distant lands, quite close to the fons paradisi of which maps tell, and he saw unicorns. But he found them rough and clumsy, and very ugly and black. I believe he saw a real animal with one horn on its brow. It was probably the same animal the ancient masters first described faithfully. They were never completely mistaken, and had received from God the opportunity to see things we haven't seen. Then this description, passing from auctoritas to auctoritas, was transformed through successive imaginative exercises, and unicorns became fanciful animals, white and gentle. So if you hear there's a unicorn in a wood, don't go there with a virgin: the animal might resemble more closely the Venetian's account than the description in this book."
"But did the ancient masters happen to receive from God the revelation of the unicorn's true nature?"
"Not the revelation: the experience. They were fortunate enough to be born in lands where unicorns live, or in times when unicorns lived in our own lands."
"But then how can we trust ancient wisdom, whose traces you are always seeking, if it is handed down by lying books that have interpreted it with such license?"
"Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means, a precept that the commentators of the holy books had very clearly in mind. The unicorn, as these books speak of him, embodies a moral truth, or allegorical, or analogical, but one that remains true, as the idea that chastity is a noble virtue remains true. But as for the literal truth that sustains the other three truths, we have yet to see what original experience gave birth to the letter. The literal object must be discussed, even if its higher meaning remains good. In a book it is written that diamond can be cut only with a billy goat's blood. My great master Roger Bacon said it was not true, simply because he had tried and had failed. But if the relation between a diamond and a goat's blood had had a nobler meaning, that would have remained intact."
One is stuck by the layered Socratic prose Eco uses. By imparting with just a shade of ignorance the figure of his protagonist, William of Baskerville, Eco gives us a sort of meta Socratic dialogue. The reader's modern knowledge of such apparently trivial details as the clearly fantastical nature of unicorns (at least of the non-krugerrand defecating sort) or the fons paradisi overlays the otherwise persuasive discourse of the Socratic Brother William with the Socratic stanzas of one's own inner monologue. The effect is to elegantly solidify even further, and in close sympathy with the novel's plot, Eco's telegraphed suspicion of textual authorities, and their authors. Extending the thread only slightly, Eco's careful prose convicts by association censors, who necessarily regard themselves first as authorities on textual authorities.
But even this is not sufficient for Eco, who continues to adroitly frame and illuminate the fluorescing arrogance and self-assured infallibility that emboldens the authoritarian censor through the vessel of Jorge, the Benedictine anti-hero monk determined to suppress all knowledge of the lost second book of the Poetics of Aristotle:
La prudenza dei nostri padri ha fatto la sua scelta: se il riso è il diletto della plebe, la licenza della plebe venga tenuta a freno e umiliata, e intimorita con la severità. E la plebe non ha armi per affinare il suo riso sino a farlo diventare strumento contro la serietà dei pastori che devono condurla alla vita eterna e sottrarla alle seduzioni del ventre, delle pudenda, del cibo, dei suoi sordidi desideri. Ma se qualcuno un giorno, agitando le parole del Filosofo, e quindi parlando da filosofo, portasse l'arte del riso a condizione di arma sottile, se alla retorica della convinzione si sostituisse la retorica dell'irrisione, se alla topica della paziente e salvifica costruzione delle immagini della redenzione si sostituisse la topica dell'impaziente decostruzione e dello stravolgimento di tutte le immagini più sante e venerabili - oh quel giorno anche tu e tutta la tua sapienza, Guglielmo, ne sareste travolti!
The prudence of our fathers made its choice: if laughter is the delight of the plebeians, the license of the plebeians must be restrained and humiliated, and intimidated by sternness. And the plebeians have no weapons for refining their laughter until they have made it an instrument against the seriousness of the spiritual shepherds who must lead them to eternal life and rescue them from the seductions of the belly, pudenda, food, their sordid desires. But if one day somebody, brandishing the words of the Philosopher1 and therefore speaking as a philosopher, were to raise the weapon of laughter to the condition of subtle weapon, if the rhetoric of conviction were replaced by the rhetoric of mockery, if the topics of the patient construction of the images of redemption were to be replaced by the topics of the impatient dismantling and upsetting of every holy and venerable image- oh, that day even you, William, and all your knowledge, would be swept away!
Indeed, in both reality and the worlds created by Eco (though finem respice recognizes that the distinction may be meaningless for some of our more eccentric readers), it is the sanctified aura of righteousness that manifests itself as the most essential of the pre-conditions required to plausibly project the censor's illusion of legitimate authority. Of course, such rationalizations are inevitably populated with legerdemain of the censor's own design. The censor's position of authority is always self-appointed, and her endorsement is always both positive and negative. Yes, the works embargoed by a censor are prohibited, but, even after the very first act of censorship, a manner of passive whitelist is also created. Even without the proactive publication of a list of explicitly endorsed works, those not explicitly forbidden carry thereafter the implicit endorsement of the censor.
The full weight of legitimacy in censorial authority is, it will be seen, not required when preaching to the faithful. The Benedictine Jorge need waste no time convincing the members of his own order of the import of crushing laughter and any text that might promote it. It is only the introduction of variant worldviews that requires the firming up of weak rationalizations that had, nonetheless, sufficed to silence dissent among the order's disciples. It is, of course, impossible to avoid a discussion of Journolist in this context.
One cannot but be taken aback at the speed and finality with which Journolist's raison d'état imploded. The event horizon created by the list's gravitational collapse appears to be a frontier from which a number of careers and reputations are unlikely to emerge. The many rationales offered by and circulated among the list's members, all of which seemed to merit at least some measure of deference from the group at large, appear so faded and colorless once exposed to the light of day that one wonders that they were ever offered at all. Chris Hayes offers only the most convenient example:
Our country disappears people. It tortures people. It has the blood of as many as one million Iraqi civilians — men, women, children, the infirmed — on its hands. You’ll forgive me if I just can’t quite dredge up the requisite amount of outrage over Barack Obama’s pastor....2
Within the cabal this sort of "anything goes" justification likely played quite well. But once exposed to even the most basic scrutiny (the one million figure is inflated by 20% from the highest end of the 95% confidence interval figure presented in the since debunked Lancet study- the liability for every casualty is somehow attributed directly to the United States even before one starts wondering after the moral certainty behind verbed nouns like "disappeared"3 and so forth) the pogrom call falls to pieces before our very eyes. Even granting Hayes' dubious premise, those not "in the tribe" are unlikely to regard such offenses as justification for coordinated slander, character assassination, and the mounting of wholesale propaganda operations.
Such conspiracies are conducted in secret at least partly because the authority of their information management strategy depends on the absence of real scrutiny. This explains quite neatly (though not completely) the rash of apologies, resignations and evasions that accompany the almost daily revelations from the Journolist archives.
But it is one thing to understand the mechanics of the echo chamber once self-righteous rationalization takes hold. It is another thing entirely to explore its origins.
Of the origins of such fanaticism, unsurprisingly, Eco has much to say, but perhaps most economically only:
Erano minoriti con la mente accesa dalle stesse visioni di Chiara, e spesso il passo tra visione estatica e frenesia di peccato è minimo....
They were Minorites whose minds were aflame with the same visions as [Clare of Montefalco's], and often the step between ecstatic vision and sinful frenzy is all too brief....
For the founder and charter members of Journolist that last, brief step likely passed into the oblivion of gin-augmented memory loss some years ago. But because we enjoy an alarmingly full developmental record for Wikileaks, we can almost see the very step across the event horizon that transformed Wikileaks from an entity with some semblance of censorial authority to a partisan animal relegated to "energizing its base."
Precise records like this are quite rare. Christopher Hitchens draws our attention back to 1979 to a far more dramatic and caustic example in the form of a video taken of the actual purge of the Iraqi Baath Party leadership.4
As finem respice pointed out early this month, in March of 2008 the Wikileaks "about" page answered this frequently asked question:
Are you at all worried that Wikileaks might become a tool for propagandists?
Every day the media publishes the press releases of governments, companies and other vested interests without changing a line. And they often do this without telling readers what is happening.
In many liberal democracies, the present sequence of events is that people get their news about public affairs by politicians, for example, releasing a statement that is carefully crafted for the media (certainly no assurance against propaganda here). The media, which is supposed to be independent then choose to write stories based on the public statement.
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.
Not only is that passage missing today, but Assange himself has deigned to alternately deny:
Q. The question has to do with the shift, alleged shift at Wikileaks from simply posting the material, having it crowd sourced and people interpreting it and actually interpreting what it means for the view or for the listener. Is that a change?
A. No, that's part of the right-wing reality distortion field.
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.
...the shift in philosophy. Both within the span of 5 minutes, no less.5
Interestingly, the "right-wing reality distortion field" defense has lost most of what little persuasive force it actually possessed in the wake of the Wikileaks release this week of not quite one hundred thousand documents, many classified "Secret." Specifically, the Clintonesque resort to the explanatory power of a secret right-wing conspiracy's influential tentacles is rather seriously undercut when the administration of a democratic president serving in the midst of a democratically controlled congress is just as quick to question the objectivity of Wikileaks as anyone else. To wit:
[I]t’s worth noting that WikiLeaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan.6
But what exactly did Wikileaks expect? The organization did, after all, give the New York Times, Der Speigel and the Guardian (not exactly the trifecta of journalistic neutrality) a head start of several weeks by favoring them with an early disclosure of the material, on the condition that none of the material be released until July 25, 2010. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this date falls some time after an Assange publicity blitz that included visits to the European Union Parliament in Brussels, the Center for Investigative Journalism in London and TEDGlobal in Oxford.
Wikileaks cheered on the Washington Post's recent core dump on United States contractors to the National Security/Intelligence community as a catalyst for "reformation" (of something or another- the near religious prose is, perhaps, illustrative):
Real change begins Monday in the WashPost. By the years end, a reformation. Lights on. Rats out.7
After much fanfare and hype, including intra-governmental warnings from the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, the disclosure seemed to many, including finem respice, not much more than an ex post inflation of the relevance of a number of months or even years of Washington Post research work with the addition of a sexy user interface and colorful maps. Wikileaks was not satisfied:
WaPo expose of the US shadow-state smothered. Time to take the gloves off if we want reform.8
Any semblance of objectivity once possessed has since been shed, and quite willingly shed, in favor of the rank polarity of "activism." In itself, this means next to nothing. Activists have the trappings of their own legitimacy, serve critical functions in free societies and make their way through the world much like the rest of us. This is all fine and good until they assert some degree of moral authority larger than their legitimacy warrants.
Once Wikileaks slipped across that frontier into the realm of Jorge, the filtering of material, its "vetting" and repression (passive or otherwise) is but a short step away. Are we to imagine that Wikileaks has (coincidentally) only received material overwhelmingly damaging to the United States? Claudia Rosett wonders:
So when does WikiLeaks get serious about that noble mission? Leaking American secrets is no great trick – it’s a regular event; staple fare at The New Yorker, The New York Times, or pick-your-source. America is where the in-house conversations of Gen. Stanley McChrystal are reported in Rolling Stone, and “Top Secret America” is featured on page one — with interactive search functions — by the Washington Post.
What’s rather more difficult, for those aspiring to confer transparency upon abuses of power, is to get hold of the document troves of America’s enemies – a collection of tyrants and terrorists who respond to unwanted leaks not simply by trying to spin, deny, or appease, but by threatening, jailing or murdering anyone discovered disclosing secrets to the world public. That makes it a lot more difficult to pry documents from their archives; but it also means that any success could be of extraordinary value.9
Another commenter points out:
Of course Assange expects to protect his own sources and methods from exposure. We aren’t supposed to ask where he got things, or even if one does, nobody is supposed to take them to task. Can this kind of asymmetry be sustained? If its open season on US military secrets, then why not open season on Wikileaks and Journolist information stores? Notice that one doesn’t have to be a fan of the War in Afghanistan or even of the US military to argue for the symmetry. It’s just a question of whether anyone, like Assange, can claim a privileged position or viewpoint. Why not all cards on the table? If you live by the rule that you can publish the secret stuff of your political opponents then why should it not apply to you?10
Against this backdrop, any number of questions about Wikileaks present themselves. For instance:
The United States is investigating the latest Wikileaks release as if it were a Bradley Manning disclosure.11 If Manning is, in fact, the source, one suspects this could be deleterious to his defense. If not, it might still shell his defense team if they are not able to pin the disclosures on someone else.
Wikileaks has been more than slippery about the nature (or existence) of its support for Mr. Manning. We have alternately heard that Wikileaks has sent a legal team to Kuwait to represent Manning,12 that Wikileaks has merely "committed funds" to Manning's legal defense, though it is his military-appointed legal team that has been offered (apparently fruitlessly) the funds to hire private counsel should they so desire,13 or that no team has been sent and that Manning is represented by counsel appointed by the military.14
Of course, any number of more innocent explanations might dim the bright spotlights now glinting off Wikileaks' wide forehead. Perhaps Manning's interests have so diverged from Wikileaks' that accepting counsel (or funds) provided by Wikileaks would represent an impossible conflict of interest. Gee, what ever could that conflict be?
But even multiplied by some arbitrary factor, the sum of these problems barely begins to touch those raised by the content of the Wikileaks Afghan disclosure. The London Times reports today that, after a mere two hours of searching the Wikileaks documents, they were able to uncover the names and even the names of villages and relatives, of dozens of Afghan informers who cooperated with the United States Military.1516 This despite assurances by Assange that the content contained no damaging details. One wonders what the $1 million purportedly raised by Wikileaks17 is being used for if not legal temp workers retained in the service of redaction, or, as seems obvious, a robust server infrastructure (the site seems to be overloaded on a regular basis now that it actually has something new to release).
As with Eco's anti-hero Jorge, and the poisoned and forbidden book he seeks to repress, it seems that, far from being merely the bane of governments everywhere, Wikileaks is most effective at damaging, perhaps fatally, confidential sources- not just its own either, rather every one it touches, directly or indirectly. One wonders, if Manning ultimately proves to be the source of the latest material, how his sentencing will go if it comes to pass that an informant or three, or three dozen wake up with their throats cut in the near future.
This should rightly be the end of Wikileaks, or at least of Mr. Assange's involvement therein. Still, if you might wish to support the ongoing self-aggrandizement operation being conducted by Mr. Assange (and surely legions of contextually challenged fanboi clusters will so desire) you may take note of the fact that the Wikileaks Twitter feed helpfully provided a "Media Bookings" number for you yesterday.
- 1. i.e. Aristotle.
- 2. Johnathan Strong, "Documents Show Media Plotting to Kill Stories About Rev. Jeremiah Wright," The Daily Caller (July 20, 2010).
- 3. Technically, anyone in the witness protection program was "disappeared" by the country.
- 4. Ironically, Jimmy Carter's "Malaise Speech," widely considered to personify the nadir of potency in the history of executive power in the United States and cited to this day as an example of presidential powerlessness, was filmed on the same day as Saddam's political influence arguably hit its Zenith.
- 5. "Julian Assange: Is Wikileaks Biased," Fora TV (June 24, 2010).
- 6. Mike Allen, "W.H. Condemns 'Irresponsible' Leaks, Dismisses Stories," Politico (July 25, 2010).
- 7. Wikileaks Twitter feed. (July 17, 2010).
- 8. Wikileaks Twitter feed. (July 23, 2010).
- 9. Claudia Rossett, "A Wishlist for Wikileaks," The Rosett Report (July 26, 2010).
- 10. Unknown Commenter "Dancing in the Dark," Belmont Club (July 25, 2010).
- 11. Julian E. Barnes, "Pentagon Eyes Accused Analyst Over WikiLeaks Data," The Wall Street Journal (July 27, 2010).
- 12. Kevin Poulson, "Wikileaks Commissions Lawyers to Defend Alleged Army Source," Wired (June 11, 2010).
- 13. Julian E. Barnes, "Pentagon Eyes Accused Analyst Over WikiLeaks Data," The Wall Street Journal (July 27, 2010).
- 14. Brian Baxter "Who Are the Lawyers Representing Wikileaks?" The AmLaw Daily (June 22, 2010).
- 15. "Web Disclosure Exposes Sources," The London Times (July 28, 2010). (Subscription Only)
- 16. Drew M "Wikileaks Afghanistan Dump Not So Harmless After All," Ace of Spades (July 28, 2010).
- 17. Jeanne Whalen, WikiLeaks Founder: Documents Suggest Evidence of War Crimes," The Wall Street Journal (July 27, 2010).