Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Unanswered Question

What puzzles me most about the whole Wikileaks uproar is that nobody seems to have asked: were all these leaked documents authentic? Did anybody verify any of them? All of them?

Note that the govt. didn't have time to even read all those thousands of documents, let alone verify them, before it started on its galumphing attack on Assange and Wikileaks. Yet it carried out its attack quite swiftly and comprehensively, as if it had planned all these tactics in advance and had only been waiting for a fitting target.

What this spells to me is that the govt. has been planning for years to censor the Internet, and used Wikileaks' leaks as an excuse.

Given the retaliation that the "Hacktivists" of the world have pulled off -- on every company that bowed to govt. pressure and abetted its attack on Wikileaks -- I'd say the govt. made a truly serious mistake.

For one thing, the govt. assumed that the hackers it had in its hire were all the best of the breed, which isn't necessarily the case; I've known plenty of hackers who, having worked for govt., swore off in disgust and vowed never to work for it again. Second, the govt. simply assumed that everybody would, knee-jerk automatically, agree that Wikileaks' leaked documents were "unpatriotic" -- which, again, isn't true; the people who have actually read some of the documents report that they simply reveal cases of corruption and incompetence, not military secrets, which nobody cares to defend. Third, it assumed that nobody was prepared for this, which is way off; computer nerds have been expecting the govt. to try something similar for more than 30 years -- and had made plans accordingly.

Now the Cyberwar is on, and it looks as if the nerds are winning. The various companies whose websites the Hacktivists shut down understood the message -- that the hackers could just as easily have hacked directly into their cash accounts -- and some of them have been retreating from their govt.-pushed positions. A bank that froze Wikileaks' account quietly released $80,000 to Assange. For every server that cut Wikileaks out, hundreds have sprung up to support it. Sympathizers have raised more than $200,000 for Assange's legal defense. Volunteer nets have been gleefully transferring the Wikileaks package all over the 'net. The govt. managed to catch exactly one of the pro-Wikileaks hacktivists: a 17-year-old boy who made an amateur's mistake in forwarding an email.

Obviously the govt. isn't stopping the hacktivists worth...ah, spit. The nerds have the skills, the numbers and the experience to win this cyberwar, and I expect they will.

But lost in all the scuffle is that basic question: were all those documents accurate? Everybody on both sides simply assumes they are, but quite simply, nobody has had the time to check out all of them. This whole eruption could have started over next to nothing.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(


Ori Pomerantz said...

The government could check whether the leaked documents are authentic or not fairly easily. Many of the documents start with what appears to be an identifier (see, for example, the identifier VZCZCXYZ3859). With access to the source material, it is trivial to verify whether those are identical to the original.

I think WikiLeaks wanted to undermine the confidence of government employees in general. It did not appear to have exercised editorial control, a lot of the leaked cables don't expose corruption (see, for example, http://wikileaks.as50620.net/cable/2008/06/08USNATO208.html).

Aya Katz said...

If there were sensitive documents involved, the government can't be expected to verify their authenticity.

Ori Pomerantz said...

The government can't be expected to tell us if they are authentic or not. But the government itself does know which documents are authentic and which aren't.

Of course, this all might be an elaborate hoax to get some disinformation into enemy hands. But I doubt it - it would presume a level of competence in secret keeping that is above and beyond what we'd expect.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Ori! I take it you've seen one or more of those documents. What's your take on it? Yes, it should indeed be trivial to check those identifying numbers and see if they're valid or not. So, is there any evidence that the govt. actually did that with any of the documents, let alone all of them?

More than one military or ex-military expert I've talked to says that the real problem is the govt. agencies' tendency to label everything, from weapons sales to bills for toilet paper, as tippy-top secret. Besides clogging the clerks' files and communications, this does nothing but provide an excuse for going hammer-and-tongs after anybody who reveals such trivialities as what the colonel paid for toilet paper.

I haven't been able to look up that leaked cable you mention. What does it say?

--Leslie <;)))><

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Aya! In that case, the best thing the govt. could have done was to claim in public that these were all fake, an elaborate hoax, and to laugh at Julian Assange for being a sloppy editor and a prize patsy. That would have discredited him and Wikileaks thoroughly.

Considering how much fuss the govt. made over Abu Ghraib (which really was a hoax), I have to wonder if the Wikileaks case is likewise a hoax, intended to accomplish nothing better than giving the govt. an excuse to censor the Internet. For all we know, Assange's "source" might have been a clever govt. agent who fed him a lot of BS for the express purpose of setting him up.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Ori Pomerantz said...

Hi Leslie,

To see one of the documents, either click this link or (if it fails) cut and paste it into your browser's URL window:


The cable basically says that the UK Labour conference in the spring of 2008 was a joke, and that the party is very demoralized. If would be embarrassing if the author (the US ambassador to the UK, I think) will have to work with the UK Labour Party in the future. No big deal.

There are other cables that are more sensitive. For example, in http://wikileaks.as50620.net/cable/2005/01/05CARACAS90.html the Archbishop of Venezuela says the US should criticize Chaves more. No big deal for the US that this got out, but it could get the Archbishop in hot water. Maybe literally if they use that kind of torture.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I think I see your problem. Cutting and pasting the URLs doesn't work, because they get chopped off. Just click on them.

Nathaniel said...

If those cables were false, then the government would have soon informed us - and even proved their case if their own rules allowed. But they didn't, and that is tacit comfirmation. The gov't complaint is not what the cables said, it's that we get to read them at all.

The Pakistanis tried some fake Wikileaks, and were slapped down.

Wikileaks have released less than 2000 of the more than 250,000 cables it has. That's less than 0.8%. It turns out that Assange _is_ a "responsible publisher": that is, he has kept the truly nasty stuff under wraps, as a deterrent against assassination.

Which pundits and Representatives have called for. Now, the 0.8% of the cables so far released are 'embarrassing', but hardly lethal. Evidently some of the 99.2% _is_ worth killing for.

Probably it's the bank stuff, coming out in January. You can leak POV videos of soldiers committing massacres; after all, everybody knows that's what soldiers do. You can leak snarky cables about diplomats lying, spying and plotting; after all, everybody knows that's what diplomats do. But don't you dare prove that bankers are banksters! For that might undermine confidence in the system!

PS: Infowar is a good name; I have also seen it called iWar 1.0. Assange is _not_ a 'terrorist', for the emotion he seeks to provoke is not terror but humiliation. Call him an "embarrassist". But like bin Laden, he _is_ an asymmetrical warrior. Assange uses revealing information; bin Laden uses random violence; therefore Assange is (despite geeky autism, massive ego, and unsafe sex) the holier of the two men.

Nathaniel said...

I mention holiness because that's how bin Laden bills himself. I think this is yet another example of the moral superiority of modernity over theocracy.

To continue the comparison of Asange with bin Laden: they both use objectively minor but psychologically intolerable attacks to provoke authority into self-defeating policy. They both bet that the system will mindlessly over-react.

Bin Laden bet that the US government will, by random counter-violence, damage its own reputation. This it has done, but unfortunately for us, disrepute does not hinder survival. Assange bets that the US government will, by idiotic self-censorship, damage its own competence. That too it will surely do, and unfortunately for it, incompetence _does_ hinder survival.

Therefore bin Laden fell for the Just World Fallacy (confusing 'ought' with 'is'), while Assange is wise to Heinlein's Law (the lethality of stupidity). The moral superiority of modernity over theocracy derives from its superior intellectual rigor.

Leslie Fish said...

So the leaks revealed so far are no worse than embarrassing, if that? That only gives impetus to Ron Paul's comment that the fed. govt. didn't do anything near like this to the WASHINGTON POST when it revealed the Pentagon Papers, so it has no justification for jumping on Assange now. Apparently some people in England are thinking along similar lines; the latest news I've heard says that an English judge allowed Assange bail (with some restrictions that are no more than annoying). This allows time for the groundswell of support for Wikileaks to grow, and it's growing fast.

What made the fed-govt. think it would get away with this? Was it counting on blind "patriotism", assuming that this would be common, given the outcome of the last election? If so, then it seriously mis-read the situation. Despite the assumptions of the mass media, the Tea Party is not a GOP nor Neocon shill; it's an anti-statist movement, with only superficial similarities to the Repubs or the Neocons -- as both of those groups are beginning to discover.

So Obama may have sold out to the Republicans on the tax-cut bill for nothing.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Nathaniel said...

Well, you could argue about hypothetical harm. Perhaps the leak about the Pakistani nuke might impede shutting it down. Maybe telling about US bombing Yemen (rather than Yemen bombing itself) might cause political trouble. And so on.

The Pentagon looked for evidence of people harmed by previous Wikileaks. None found.

But really this is not about "National Security". It is really about "Political Security", which I define as the job security of the political class. The political class tends to say that National Security is the same as Political Security, but the two are not the same. They are distinct, and sometimes even opposed, especially when the political class says they are the same.

Nathaniel said...

If the Tea Party came out for Wikileaks, then that would vastly improve its credibility for me. But I haven't heard a thing from the TP since the election; and with the tax cuts for the richest 1% still in place, the Republicans have betrayed the TP before even getting into office.

As for why the feds went so crazy, that's just the feds for you. Or any large bureaucracy. It's not possible for any large bureaucracy to keep calm given a large leak. When they keep secrets, they do so for genuine political-security reasons.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Nat. Actually, the various Tea Party local groups (the movement is totally decentralized, so there's no one controlling board that decides on policy) are arguing out the Wikileaks case right now. The arguments shift as more information on the leaks comes in, but at present the comments are running 60% pro-Wikileaks vs. 25% against, with 15% undecided. Last week it was 55% pro, 25% against and 20% undecided. Stay tuned!

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(