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A War on Wikileaks?

In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of Wikileaks’ many financial donors. I have downloaded their entire Afghan War Diary, and numerous other documents in the past, and I have shared them. I am also one of the critics of some aspects of the Wikileaks review process. Some might rush to conclude that this puts individuals such as myself in a difficult position. Not from our standpoint. Instead the difficult positions are owned by the U.S. State Department and Pentagon, whose emissions have been chock full of absurd assertions, twisted logic, while appealing to us with as much charm as that of a delinquent about to commit date rape: first the appeal to our good side (ethics), then the threat of destruction (prosecution).

The past week has seen a mounting cascade of legal threats against Wikileaks, launched first via the mainstream media, which along with its patron state is clearly smarting from the lash of uncontrolled information access. A Pentagon official reportedly exclaimed, with obvious joy: “It’s amazing how [Wikileaks’ Julian] Assange has overplayed his hand. Now, he’s alienating the sort of people who you’d normally think would be his biggest supporters.” In one step, three fallacies: one, that this story is all about Julian Assange, thus reducing the complex to the personal; two, that supporters of Wikileaks have become antagonistic toward what is an amorphous transnational movement without clear boundaries of membership or location; and three, the implication that support has shifted toward the Pentagon, as if it now has some sort of green light of legitimacy to commit any acts against Wikileaks that it wishes. It’s only at these big historical moments, with so much at stake, with everything seemingly up in the air, that one finds so many people who are so wrong about so much.

Let’s review the strategy of intended intimidation. The first step involved the military threatening its own—not in itself illogical, since the leaks emanate from within its ranks. However, the military threatened its own to avoid looking at what is now public. The Department of the Navy, in a message titled “Wikileaks Website Guidance,” issued the following statement as reported on August 5th:

“personnel should not access the WikiLeaks website to view or download the publicized classified information. Doing so would introduce potentially classified information on unclassified networks. There has been rumor that the information is no longer classified since it resides in the public domain. This is NOT true. Government information technology capabilities should be used to enable our war fighters, promote information sharing in defense of our homeland, and to maximize efficiencies in operations. It should not be used as a means to harm national security through unauthorized disclosure of our information on publicly accessible websites or chat rooms.”

A similar message was issued by the Special Security Office of the Marine Corps Intelligence Department addressed to ALCON (all concerned), which threatened to discipline offenders:

“By willingly accessing the WIKILEAKS website for the purpose of viewing the posted classified material—these actions constitute the unauthorized processing, disclosure, viewing, and downloading of classified information onto an UNAUTHORIZED computer system not approved to store classified information, meaning they have WILLINGLY committed a SECURITY VIOLATION. Not only are these actions illegal, but they provide the justification for local security officials to immediately remove, suspend ‘FOR CAUSE’ all security clearances and accesses. Commanders may press for Article 15 or 32 charges, and USMC personnel could face a financial hardship as civilian and contractor personnel will be placed on ‘Administrative Leave’ pending the outcome of the [criminal] investigation.”

The threat to military personnel is one thing, but it has been done in a manner that threatens a wide array of actors, which theoretically could include independent bloggers, journalists, university librarians, and scholars. Sumit Agarwal, the former Google manager who—take note of the military-new media complex at work—is now serving as the Defense Department’s social media czar, asserted to Wired’s Danger Room that many of us may be guilty of illegal information trafficking (as I said in my last article, we are all hackers now):

“I think of it as being analogous to MP3s or a copyrighted novel online—widespread publication doesn’t strip away laws governing use of those. If Avatar were suddenly available online, would [it] be legal to download it? As a practical matter, many people would download it, but also as a practical matter, James Cameron would probably go after people who were found to be nodes who facilitated distribution. It would still be illegal for people to make Avatar available even if it were posted on a torrent site or the equivalent. With minor changes to what is legal/illegal re: classified material vs a copyrighted movie, doesn’t the analogy hold? One person making it available doesn’t change the laws re: classified material. Our position is simply that service members ought not to use government computers to do something which is still completely illegal (traffic in classified material).”

Also on August 5th, the Pentagon issued an outlandish demand, so bizarre that it could not possibly be met with anything less than scorn. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell ordered Wikileaks to “return” all documents (which are not paper documents, but digital copies, of which countless copies now exist in circulation):

“These documents are the property of the U.S. Government and contain classified and sensitive information. The Defense Department demands that Wikileaks return immediately all version [sic] of documents obtained….Wikileaks’ public disclosure last week of a large number of our documents has already threatened the safety of our troops, our allies and Afghan citizens….The only acceptable course is for Wikileaks to return all versions of these documents to the U.S. government and permanently delete them from its website, computers and records.”

At the same time this indicates one of the main lines of argument that the U.S. would begin to pursue against Wikileaks in earnest, and it is by far the weakest: that the leaked records threaten the safety of its troops and allies.

Fox News was eager to dedicate its time and energies to looking for legal loopholes by which to hang Wikileaks. It demonstrated no such concern for the finer points of international law, let alone another country’s domestic laws, when it came to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, here is Fox on Wikileaks’ trail in Sweden. On August 6th Fox was happy to have surfaced with this report: “But the law [protecting freedom of expression and the anonymity of sources] only applies to websites or publications that possess a special publishing license granting them constitutional protection, and WikiLeaks has not acquired the requisite paperwork.” Fox’s headline was “WikiLeaks Website Not Protected by Swedish Law, Legal Analysts Say”—no legal analyst was named or quoted in the article. The only reason Fox issued this piece is as part of an effort, combining old media, social media, and the national security state, to draw a tighter noose around Wikileaks’ collective neck. At a time when many “patriotic Americans” are publicly calling for Wikileaks’ people to be hunted down and shot, it is interesting to note that Fox is only too happy to reveal the name, location, and photograph of the person hosting Wikileaks’ server in Sweden.

On August 9th, the Wall Street Journal claimed to have obtained a letter from five human rights organizations that was critical of Wikileaks’ failure to redact the names of Afghan civilian informants in the records that were publicly released. The WSJ’s Jeanne Whalen, in language that is strikingly close to that of the unnamed Pentagon official quoted above at the start, wrote: “The exchange shows how WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange risk being isolated from some of their most natural allies in the wake of the documents’ publication.” This could be a problem for Wikileaks, insofar as Julian Assange has effectively conceded the argument in an interview with, among others, The Guardian: “If there are innocent Afghans being revealed, which was our concern, which was why we kept back 15,000 files, then of course we take that seriously.” The problem is that many such identities are revealed in the files that have already been released. Assange argues that the U.S. military is ultimately to blame for having placed Afghan civilians in danger, and for recording identities that could be revealed. He is not wrong there, and the U.S. was overconfident that its database was beyond any danger of leakage, which is obviously wrong. Perhaps not wanting to engage in cold, bitter irony, Assange did not choose to give back to the state the words it often gives us: “Mistakes were made. We regret all loss of innocent civilian life. Unfortunately, the enemy chose to embed itself in the civilian population.” Wikileaks, via Twitter, was correct in noting that not once since the recent leaks exploded into public has the Pentagon said it was sorry about all the Afghan civilians it killed, or that it would stop.

Now, on August 10th, we are told that the U.S. is urging all of its allies, especially those in NATO and with troops in Afghanistan, to crack down on Wikileaks. An unnamed American diplomat has stated:

“It’s not just our troops that are put in jeopardy by this leaking. It’s U.K. troops, it’s German troops, it’s Australian troops—all of the NATO troops and foreign forces working together in Afghanistan. [Their governments should] review whether the actions of WikiLeaks could constitute crimes under their own national-security laws.”

Some U.S. allies, such as Canada, are likely to bolt out of the gate to be the first to do so. The day after the release of the documents, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon insisted, at first, that he would not comment directly on the leaked documents, saying they had “nothing to do with Canada.” Yet, as if he had suddenly received an automated statement transmitted to a secret implant buried in his head, he said: “Our government is concerned, obviously, that operational leaks could endanger the lives of our men and women in Afghanistan.” Again, three absurdly contradictory elements bundled together: 1) we are not commenting on the documents; 2) the documents have nothing to do with Canada; and, 3) the documents could endanger our troops.

The latter point is likely to be how the U.S. will impress upon allies the need to collaborate in persecuting Wikileaks. The endangering of Afghan civilians cannot, clearly, be a point on which to prosecute a case against Wikileaks, because the irony would be too immense for even the U.S. to try to keep inflated and aloft. The safety of troops is not much less ironic—after all, it was the state that placed those troops in harm’s way, not Wikileaks—but it does play better with a home crowd that has been sufficiently conditioned to thirst for the blood of imagined “traitors.” The leaders of the chief national security state of the West increasingly sound like angry and desperate bloggers, promising the wrath of god and total vengeance—and it may be because, one, the state is increasingly powerless to deal with transnational, decentralized, non-state phenomena that can fight back on cyber terrain (and win), and two because that crowd of angry, righteous patriots is the one the state is playing to.

It would be amazing if the U.S. or an ally ever got to try a case against Wikileaks on the grounds that troops’ lives had been endangered. It would be a massive fiasco. The state would need to show—and not just assert, as it does now—exactly how any troops were actually endangered. Which of the rounds received from small arms fire in Afghanistan is a regular “insurgent” round and which one is a Wikileaks’ inspired round? In a war zone, how do you calibrate safety levels such that you can tell when, with Wikileaks, the danger meter went deeper into the red? And since Afghan civilians are already, all too painfully, aware of the damage done by U.S. and NATO forces, how can the release of these records do any greater damage? Did Afghans need a reminder, in print, in another language?

If the state fails to make any sense—not surprising—it is because it is has no intention of doing so. The state is appealing to something more visceral with all of this posturing: fear. It wants to strike fear into the minds and bodies of people working with Wikileaks, or anyone else doing such work, and anyone contemplating leaking any classified records. Fear is its greatest weapon of psychological destruction, with proven success at home. And in this case, the danger lies at home. The outcome the state hopes for is greater self-censorship and greater self-monitoring.

Bullying Assange, or worse yet, actually capturing him and imprisoning him, will only make Assange into an international hero, the Che Guevara of information warfare. For all those who may be “alienated,” or who expressed any criticisms, they/we would clearly pick Assange over the Pentagon any day. The U.S. does not want this to be publicly proven on a world stage, so our answers to the question of what the U.S. is up to, and why it seems to have become so utterly unhinged, have to lie elsewhere. I contend that it is fear promotion, as part of a campaign of global counterinsurgency on psychological and emotional levels, to which the best answer is a combination of further tactical innovation, and greater humor.

MAXIMILIAN C. FORTE is a professor in anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He writes at Zero Anthropology. He can be reached at max.forte@openanthropology.org

 

 

 

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