Wikileaks, Cablegate, the media, and you.

Dec 07, 2010

I've been waiting to put together an article about Wikileaks and Cablegate (the gradual release of a quarter-million diplomatic cables written and archived by the United States diplomatic corps). Mostly, everyday life has prevented me from doing so: the holiday season is here once again and, all things being equal, work and cleaning up the apartment with Lyssa have taken priority. I also didn't want to vent my spleen on the Net without having a coherent idea of what I was going to say. Turing knows, enough of that is happening right now and I won't fall prey to it. This is not to say that I haven't been keeping a sensor array or two focused on Cablegate.

There seems to be a fantastic amount of sheer misinformation going around. First and foremost, Wikileaks is not a new thing, contrary to what many people seem to think. Word first started getting around in 2006 or therabouts, and the first I heard of it was early in 2007. The site didn't really find its way into the mass consciousness until this year with the release of the gun camera footage called Collateral Murder. Some of the remarks made at The Next HOPE make me wonder just how extensive the engineering of the system called Wikileaks was; it certainly would not have been a fast effort. Cablegate is far from the first thing they've released, they've been at it for quite a few years and if you're feeling brave it's not hard to find whole copies of the archives online (hint: BitTorrent is your friend; be careful because search engines are beginning to censor results). The posts about Assange personally cracking networks and downloading docs himself are jetwash because they ignore what whistleblowing is and why it's done. There are also lots of ad hominem attacks against Julian Assange and the most visible supporters of Wikileaks. It is important to note that attacking the perceived persona of a particular person is a flashy way of diverting attention and thus discourse from the issue at hand and is little more than sleight of hand. It is important to remember that some people try to get you riled up and responding with your emotions and not your brain when you can't beat them with facts and logic.

If you don't have the patience to wade through all the documents out there or you don't want it to get out that you've been reading things that the powers that be would much rather you not know here's the tl;dr version, with links to non-Wikileaks articles analyzing their content and subsequent fallout. Pound the refresh button for a while, you'll learn a few things.

There appears to be no shortage of theories floating around about the origins of Wikileaks. The most popular seem to involve Julian Assange being a CIA asset, or at least being manipulated to some extent by the Agency. While it is not my preferred hypothesis I must admit that I find some such theories plausible. The Agency has assets all over the place and in fact they are known to look for people who are well established in other fields. Just ask Valerie Plame. You also can't rule these hypotheses out because they've attempted some pretty wacky things in the past, with varying degrees of success. As for being manipulated, there really isn't any easy way to prove or disprove that Julian Assange has some puppet strings leading back to Langley but it could be done. On the other hand some of the documents leaked in the past four years gave the US government a black eye insofar as international politics are concerned, and I must confess doubt over whether making yourself look bad is a wise thing. There are also hypotheses floating around that Wikileaks is a Mossad operation, an NSA operation, a project by the Russian mob, the Builderberg group, Wikipedia, and the Illuminati. I'll not link to any of these news articles because you can find them on your own; I'll not waste your time because I wasted whole seconds of my life on them.

For what it's worth I think that Wikileaks represents a wildcard both online and in geopolitical politics. Speaking only as a United States citizen, the political climate here has become more authoritarian since the year 2000. Between 9/11, increasingly pervasive surveillance online and off, laws that are easily repurposed to be used against anyone for any reason, no-knock search warrants and executive letters have lead to the development of a culture of fear in this country. A lot of people (myself included) think that we lost the war on terrorism the moment we began reacting blindly rather than analyzing and plotting. That is, after all, the goal of terrorism as a concept, to frighten the people and jolt the powers that be into acting in ways more detrimental itself than the original stimulus. People always seem to underestimate how much a small number of determined individuals can accomplish when they realize that the rules of society are not hardwired into our genes but are instead cultural programming which can be rewritten or transcended once they are recognized as programming.


I'll not waste my time or energy posting dozens of links to authoritative news articles like I did when I was writing about the TSA. At one point I had a list of of nearly a hundred links to authoritative news articles and video footage collected from all over the place about the pornscanner-or-skinsearch not-choice, and going through a list of that size is not only exhausting but demoralizing. Get on Twitter if you care about this. Even if you don't set up an account you can follow arbitrary accounts with an RSS feed reader (I like Google Reader) and I'm pretty sure that you can do the same with hashtags. Alternatively, you can search for particular hashtags with a website like Hashtags (duh). The following hashtags should be trending at this time but strangely are not: #wikileaks, #savewikileaks, #iamwikileaks, #cablegate, #assange. More about this here. I strongy suggest that you follow the official Wikileaks Twitter feed.

I would be remiss in not stating that Cablegate has far-reaching implications for all of us, from Julian Assange down to 16-year old J. Random Tweeter because the powers that be are watching us like a hawk, and have been since the announcement of Cablegate last week. The Library of Congress is archiving Twitter, Google is indexing it in realtime (or nearly so), and the powers that be are monitoring it to keep an eye on who is saying what about them. The TSA certainly is. Also, the US State Department warned the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs saying anything about Cablegate might be hazardous to your future employability and capacity to hold a security clearance because so doing deals with classified information (though the on-campus backlash caused them to eat their words). It might potentially cost you your job if whomever you work for thinks you can't be trusted because you're reading the leaked classified diplomatic cables.

That's something else about Cablegate: technically, all of these diplomatic cables are classified information. All of the cables top out at SECRET, and the fact that they are being distributed does not automaticaly declassify them; quite the contrary, in fact. Executive order 13526,, published 29 December 2009 states:

...
(c) Classified information shall not be declassified automatically as a result of any unauthorized disclosure of identical or similar information.
...
(2) "Secret" shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.

In short, reading any of the cables constitutes spillage of classified information. Typically, if this happens, the system onto which the information was stored (yes, merely looking at it with a web browser counts) is seized, analyzed, and a detailed report is written up (and classified) about what you were doing on that system and the nature of what was found. While this is happening you and anyone nearby are marched to conference rooms of some kind and questioned at length by people with a) no sense of humor, b) a burning desire to get every last bit of information about what you saw, what you were doing with it, what you planned to do with it, and how you got your hands on it, and c) the capacity to ruin your life. They might be FBI; they might call in the FBI; they will certainly make you wish that you had suck started a shotgun before you felt that hand on your shoulder. The computer you had, if it's not used as evidence in your trial if you're not brought up on charges will be destroyed. If you held a security clearance of some kind you won't have it anymore, nor will you be likely to get one ever again. If you say anything to them about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, they will chuckle a little inside and then bring the pain because they don't care what you think, they are there to enforce the law of the land, and what you think of that law is irrelevant.

This does not apply to reading news articles about the spilled information, say, at http://www.guardian.co.uk, but there are some organizations who are beginning to lock out as many news sites as they can to prevent their workers from doing just that.

Before moving on, I feel that there is one more thing that I need to get off of my chest: the world needs some secrets. Period. Full stop. I've got 'em, you've got 'em, your neighbor down the street has 'em, and the powers that be have them. I feel that at least some of them should be kept; the details of weapon systems, network architectures, identities of field operatives, passphrases, and other things of that nature really do need to be kept under wraps and away from prying eyes. However, some hideously unethical, immoral (if you care about such things), and outright illegal things are also being perpetrated with our tax dollars in the name of our country, and thus at least some of the rest of the world is beginning to look at us as if we're a dog foaming at the mouth. For crying out loud, our operatives were picking innocent people off the street, locking them up and torturing them for information and then forcing other governments to help us cover it up. How many of you out there just broke into a sweat while thinking "Holy shit, that could have been me?"

Go hug your significant others and kids, if you have any. I'll wait.

The backlash against Wikileaks has been severe. They've been under DDoS attack since pretty much the get-go, starting with a systems cracker calling him- or herself TheJester. The flood of traffic started at 2-4 gigabits per second and at one point consisted of several different attacks in parallel. Full mirrors of the Cablegate archive have been forced offline by US government political intervention including one on Amazon's network. Senator Joseph Lieberman has taken the opportunity to introduce a bill which would make it a federal offense to publish the name of a source of intelligence for the US government (too bad, Valerie Plame). There is also a bill called COICA (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act) which would make it legal to seize any registered domain implicated in copyright infringement or counterfeiting.

What should scare you is that this is already being done, over seventy domains were taken offline last week by US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Many of the domains seized can't be apologized for because they were openly hawking fake goods, designer and otherwise. However, some of the sites involved involved neither piracy nor fake goods, such as RapGodFathers (now RapGodfathers.info) and OnSmash, which showcased original work. Your opinion of rap music aside, the fact that people who decided to make their own works freely available suddenly had their service of choice yanked out from under them because somebody decided that it must be done should give you a moment of pause. If they can have their domain names confiscated without due process, what about anyone else? I might lose virtadpt.net because I've been openly critical of many things; you could lose your domain because you post MP3s of music you've written and performed, for example. Laws like this are too easy to use to censor writings that express sentiments that the powers that be disagree with. It should come as little surprise to the cynical twenty-first century that most of the senators who voted for this pro-censorship bill campaign against net.censorship in other countries, like China or Australia.

The Wikileaks team has stated that its lines of funding are being frozen by the US government in an attempt to starve them out by making the team unable to pay for web hosting. Means of sending them money are slowly drying up and those that aren't are probably being monitored in realtime (without a warrant, mind you - that should become the tagline of this country), thus making agreeing with the organization's goals and deeds potentially hazardous. ISPs hosting copies of the Cablegate archive are being pressured to terminate service and DNS providers are being forced to stop providing authoritative DNS, though a grassroots movement to add A records which point to the IP addresses of Wikileaks sprang up almost immediately. There are also brave souls out there who are setting up direct mirrors of Wikileaks on their own servers for everyone to examine and potentially copy for themselves.

For those of you who are curious, this does not involve possessing copies of any Wikileaks documents. Anyone can add any IP address to their zone file with any hostname they like. For a time it was popular to maintain A records like microsoft-sucks.example.com pointing to the IP address of www.microsoft.com, and all sorts of funny uses of 127.0.0.1 can be found to this day. This is largely harmless.

It came as no surprise to discover that the amount of coverage of Wikileaks itself dwarfs the coverage of the content of the diplomatic cables. We now have confirmation of something that the infosec community has been cognizant of for a while, that the Chinese government ordered crackers to penetrate Google's network and rifle through the Gmail accounts of activists preferentially. Secret deals between the leader of Russia and Prime Minister of Italy, Spain was pressured by Bush to aid in kidnappings, US diplomats acted as spies, corruption in Afghanistan is spreading like a zombie plague, the mental health of the president of Argentina involved an official inquiry, and the Bank of England fights dirty. One of the aides for the Foreign Minister of Germany was spying for the United States and was fired for doing it.

There's a lot more out there if you dig a little.

However, the attitude of a lot of people seems to be "So the USA fights dirty, talks smack, kills, and spies on people. Big deal."

My question is "Why?" Why is this okay? Why is this considered ethical and excusable behavior by people chosen to represent the United States of America and act as liasons? Why do we excuse such things? Does this not reflect poorly upon the people of the United States of America? Could this not be one of the origins of the stereotype of the ugly American? More to the point, whatever happened to transparency in government?

Oh, wait - that promise was broken in August of 2010.

This brings us along to the next logical question, which is "What next?"

What do we do? What can we do? We can't push to have the President resign or be brought up on charges because a) many of the diplomatic cables date back to the mid-1980's, and b) that requires convincing the government of wrongdoing worthy of impeachment (we all know how well that worked with Bush and Cheney despite the evidence). Demanding that the people involved resign will probably not fix anything because they'll be replaced with other people who will keep on doing the exact same things, only more carefully. I'd love to see a third and maybe even a fourth political party become a credible alternative to the Democrats and Republicans but again, can we really be sure that things will change for the better (note: dodge the flying spittle in that article and consider the basic points; don't let uncontrolled emotion shut down that wonderful 750g of tissue inside your skull called the left hemisphere of your brain)?

The only things that I can unequivocally say are that they've brought matters of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and network neutrality to the forefront. We live during a time in which expressing a dissenting opinion can cost you your job, your website, and your domain name. We can reasonably expect to surrender basic dignity just to travel. Everything you say and do online can be recorded and analyzed along with your telephone conversations and there is nothing to suggest that anything has changed since Obama was elected. If someone thinks you're shady you might not notice the GPS tracking unit installed beneath your car. For crying out loud, groups of people who choose to avoid using animal products in any way, shape, or form are being infiltrated by police, just in case they're up to anything.

It's high time that we as a country started trying to fix our mistakes because we as citizens and taxpayers bear some of the responsibility for what our leaders have done. We cannot get it by force but we can demand accountability, demand reparations, demand transparency, and reverse the order of things. It is the government which serves us, not the other way around. We (ostensibly) elected our representatives and leadership, our hard-earned dollars pay their salaries, fund their projects, and help pay for their campaigns. Rather than making threats and trying to deflect attention away from misdeeds and onto the commenters, our leaders need to stop the attempts at censorship and answer for what has been done. They need to admit wrongdoing where appropriate and make whatever reparations possible where necessary; we already have the names and it's not a short list. We need to stop electing people who are ready, willing, and able to do these things in our name and then have the gall to pat us on our heads and tell us to be good little children and go back to sleep. We need to make this a time where the people of the United States of America return this country to its former glory as the bastion of freedom and liberty in the world, and not a schoolyard bully who's grown up and discovered what guns are.

Then maybe, just maybe, people on the inside will no longer feel the need to follow their consciences and take what they know to the world of the twenty-first century, a world which no longer forgives, no longer forgets, and can reach across the globe in the blink of an eye.

And now, I leave you with the words of John Perry Barlow, from A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

Let's get started. Beginning right now.