Monday, January 10, 2011

WikiLeaks - The month that changed the war on information

by Wally Cuddeford Works in Progress Jan. 2011

On a cold night in 1971, a group known only as the "Citizens' Commission
to Investigate the FBI" drove up to the FBI field office in Media,
Pennsylvania, broke in, wheeled every last file cabinet into their trucks,
and drove off into the night. Over the next several months, the documents
(over 1000 of them) were anonymously mailed out to major press
organizations, and eventually they were printed en masse by the War
Resisters League. It was one of the most significant classified documents
leaks in U.S. history.

Many of the documents were labeled "COINTELPRO." At the time, all people
could tell was this was some sort of mysterious acronym for something, but
not what it stood for, or what its relevance was. Only through public
revelation of the documents, and ensuing revelations from other sources of
information, did it finally come out that "COINTELPRO" was short for
"Counter-Intelligence Program," and that it was the codename for the FBI's
dirty little secret.

While the Pentagon Papers get much of the credit for exposing government
malfeasance in Southeast Asia, the "COINTELPRO Papers" exposed the
extensive and highly illegal activity the FBI was engaged in domestically,
going back decades, to undermine the civil rights, labor and anti-war
movements. Not limiting themselves to mere spying on law-abiding activists
(illegal as that was), disinformation campaigns were used to actively pit
Black nationalist groups against each other, and to alienate them from
their support base. Paid infiltrators were sent to disrupt organizing
efforts, and false evidence was planted to secure convictions. Field
agents were even scolded for not misreporting their observations in such a
way as to justify more government repression of free assembly.

In the wake of these revelations, Congress formed the Church Committee to
investigate abuses of power by the FBI. Fundamental changes were proposed,
and some were implemented. COINTELPRO, by name, was discontinued (although
much of the same activities continued without the name). Most importantly,
the Freedom of Information Act was significantly expanded in the following
years (thanks in part to the COINTELPRO leak, as well as the Pentagon
Papers and the Watergate cover-up), to better enable open discovery of
government activity.

However, while the FoIA reaffirmed in written law the right of the public
to know what its government is up to (a position supported by the spirit
of the Constitution, if not the letter of it), like all
government-supervised sources of transparency, it was fundamentally
flawed. Government agencies themselves were at liberty to redact whatever
portions of whatever documents they deemed "sensitive." Often, applicants
would receive whole pages of endless black bars. And as it has since been
discovered, this privilege of secrecy has been abused to withhold
information not sensitive to "national security" (as it is commonly
defined), but information unflattering to individuals in power. Another
ironic flaw is that, while FoIA was expanded to address COINTELPRO, nobody
could have requested documents on COINTELPRO because nobody knew
"COINTELPRO" by that name even existed.

The actions of the Citizens' Commission were perfectly tailored to their
era. However, the rise of the surveillance state ensured that the days of
heisting your local FBI office had long since passed, or so it was
thought. But now, the growth of information technologies - many of which
are still largely undefined in their potential applications (as well as
their vulnerabilities) - has brought this era back, bigger than ever. And
while Daniel Ellsberg had to Xerox each and every one of the Pentagon
Papers by hand, now whistleblowers can download reams upon reams of
"sensitive" documents onto a small thumb drive in seconds (or, as in the
case of Bradley Manning, burn them onto a mock-up of a Lady Gaga CD).

As creative individuals and collectives continue to explore the potential
uses of the Internet and related technologies, thus shaping the face of
the still-budding Information Age, so too do they shape the landscape on
which wars of information are waged, and the tools and tactics with which
the battles are fought. And the last 30 days have been, perhaps, the most
pivotal 30 days ever in setting the tone for what's to come.

Proving ground

While WikiLeaks was not the first website to publish government documents,
it has come to define the genre. In April 2010, the site rose to
prominence through the release of the "Collateral Murder" video from 2007,
showing U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq killing targets, civilians, and
even Reuters journalists indiscriminately. (Reuters had requested that
video through the FoIA, but was unsuccessful.)

In July, WikiLeaks published the "Afghan War Diary" - 75,000 documents
(with more pending) - which at the time was the largest ever leak of
classified government documents in U.S. history. In October, the release
of the 391,832-paper "Iraq War Logs" broke that record. And in November,
WikiLeaks broadened the scope, by releasing the first set of a
251,287-document cache of U.S. State Department communication cables. At
the current rate of about 80 documents a day, the "Diplomatic Cables"
releases will provide new revelations on geopolitics every week from now
through July 4, 2019. (Let's hope they find more vetting volunteers and
pick up that pace a little.)

More than the other releases, the Diplomatic Cables compelled our first
significant discussion on unauthorized publication of classified material
in the public sphere in decades. Having crossed that bridge, the future of
whistleblowing in the Information Age would depend on this one battle.
Would it be seen as dangerous and fruitless? Or would democracy and the
freedom of information prevail?

Public discourse

WikiLeaks quickly garnered a broad range of support, from people as
diverse as Daniel Ellsberg, Republican Congresspeople Ron Paul and Connie
Mack, and President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez. A staff editorial in the
Atlantic wrote, in part, "Wikileaks is a powerful new way for reporters
and human rights advocates to leverage global information technology
systems to break the heavy veil of government and corporate secrecy that
is slowly suffocating the American press." On the other hand, condemnation
of WikiLeaks by some has been sharp. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
said the release was "an attack on America's foreign policy" and "the
international community," while Congressperson Peter King said WikiLeaks
should be labeled a terrorist organization. Newt Gingrich called
WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange an "enemy combatant," and former Nixon
aide G. Gordon Liddy said Assange should be put on a "kill list."

As in many conflicts, when the first salvo was fired depends on your
perspective. Those who defend tyranny and government secrecy surely see
WikiLeaks' publication of these files as the opening volley against
authority, and the ensuing repression as an inevitable response. However,
for those of us who value accountability and courageous journalism, the
first shot was fired on December 1, when Amazon suspended service for
WikiLeaks hosting on its servers.

WikiLeaks had already been forced to relocate to Amazon from its original
hosting due to ongoing "denial-of-service" attacks, a phenomenon common to
politically-charged websites. But in dropping WikiLeaks, Amazon made it
clear the decision was not based on technical concerns. Instead, Amazon
cited a number of highly specious political arguments, including the
implication that human rights groups have condemned WikiLeaks' actions.
(In fact, only one human rights-related criticism has been levied - that
civilians' names may not be adequately redacted; otherwise, WikiLeaks
enjoys universal support from human rights groups, including awards.) The
world learned about Amazon's maneuver when Senator Joe Lieberman first
bragged that the company had dropped WikiLeaks, which it turns out
happened not long after one of his aides had contacted the company.

Amazon was the first domino in a chain of corporate isolation of
WikiLeaks. PayPal suspended WikiLeaks' account, claiming that they were
engaged in "illegal activity." The Swiss bank PostFinance followed suit,
and later on, Bank of America, MasterCard and Visa all announced they
would not process any transactions believed to be intended for WikiLeaks.
Apple removed a WikiLeaks application from its App Store. Even Tableau
Software withdrew WikiLeaks' license to use its graphing software. It was
also no secret that various world governments - including the United
States, China, France and Australia - were directly involved in efforts to
isolate WikiLeaks from online services.

The result was, successive channels of funding were all frozen, and
WikiLeaks had lost use of its trademark domain name ""
These are the traditional tools of people in power in their war on
information: intimidate the source, divide them from their support base,
sever them from their resources, and lastly, suppress the service they

Although this was all very disappointing for WikiLeaks supporters
worldwide, it should come as no surprise. Corporations may be as
ubiquitous as the government, and often more powerful, but they've never
claimed to champion free speech - except for their own right to lie to the
public. Still, the justifications provided, that WikiLeaks' activity was
"illegal" or "subversive," and agents of the government pursuing this
isolation on those terms, is especially chilling. WikiLeaks is innocent,
if for no other reason, because they have not yet been proven guilty in
court. And unlike the Citizens' Commission, nobody is contending WikiLeaks
broke into any secured area to steal these files; the files were provided
to them, and having analyzed them, they've now begun providing them to the
public in accordance with the public's need to know, as respectable

In the traditional venue, there was little ordinary people of good
conscience could do about these maneuverings. A lawsuit would take years,
and the burden of proof would be on the plaintiff. The law in a capitalist
society protects the right of corporations to provide their services
discriminately, even when an effective cartel prohibits access to those
services for someone across the board. The public good doesn't come into
that equation, especially when that public good is in stark contrast to
both government and private enterprise. Traditionally, the status quo is
mutually reinforcing.

However, this battle of information was far from "traditional."

Guerilla tactics

Concurrent to the fight for logistics, an innovative form of Internet
conflict was being waged. The primary weapon in this conflict was
"distributed denial of service," or DDoS. DDoS is an updated version of a
"black fax" campaign, in which the fax machine of an offending agency is
flooded with as many all-black faxes as possible. (Maybe some of those
fully-redacted FoIA documents were put to good use). With DDoS, several
hundred computers can simultaneously annoy a chosen website with as much
garbage data as possible, overloading their system. When enough computers
are involved, any website, no matter how high-profile or sophisticated,
can be made inaccessible.

For years, DDoS shutdowns have been used for commercial purposes - to shut
down competitors' websites, or in extortion schemes. But more recently,
DDoS has become a routine occurrence in the grassroots fight over Internet
piracy. The collectivist hacker group "Anonymous" has conducted several
DDoS attacks against the websites of the Motion Picture Association of
America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the websites
of their lawyers, all in response to anti-piracy crackdowns. Anonymous has
also employed DDoS against white supremacist groups, the Church of
Scientology, Hustler, the U.S. Copyright Office, and various world
governments involved in Internet censorship.

As one member of Anonymous stated, "While we don't have much of an
affiliation with WikiLeaks, we fight for the same reasons. We want
transparency and we counter censorship. The attempts to silence WikiLeaks
are long strides closer to a world where we can not say what we think and
are unable to express our opinions and ideas."

Anonymous' established base of support was quickly mobilized to conduct
DDoS attacks against several websites suppressing WikiLeaks. Amazon was
shut down throughout Europe for close to an hour. (Amazon blamed this on
"hardware failure.") Visa was also shut down for close to 2 hours,
MasterCard for 7 hours, PayPal for 8 hours, and PostFinance for 11 hours.
The websites for the Swedish government and the Swedish prosecutor's
office were also shut down for several hours.

Unlike some other targets of Anonymous, none of these sites were actually
hacked into and altered, and none of their secure data was accessed, so
the attacks likely did not result in any significant financial
consequences in the long-term. Nonetheless, the message was much louder
than the cost, and that message was that the people do have power after

While DDoS can be conducted through a coordinated popular campaign, as in
the case with Anonymous, it can also be done through exploitation of
others' resources. A malware program can be installed on someone's
computer, designed to silently conduct a function like DDoS without the
user's knowledge. This program could even be made to be self-replicating.
Thus, relatively few people could conduct DDoS operations using the
computer power of many, against their will. It's believed this method was
used for several DDoS strikes against WikiLeaks, both just prior to the
release of the diplomatic cables and just after.

Nothing is stopping Anonymous from engaging in this exploitive form of
DDoS as well. However, the targets they predominantly choose, and the fact
that they openly solicit volunteers to run the DDoS software consensually,
signify an ethos contrary to exploitation. On the other hand, nothing is
also stopping the U.S. military or other government agency from conducting
exploitive DDoS against WikiLeaks, though no evidence has yet surfaced to
prove they have.

While DDoS is effective in shutting down a centralized establishment, it's
ineffective against decentralized operations. An increased number of
targets requires exponentially more resources to effectively shut them all

It was in this limitation that WikiLeaks found its solution. Just as
momentum was highest, both in the grassroots fight to save WikiLeaks and
the government campaign to shut them down, WikiLeaks organizers called on
its supporters worldwide to mass-mirror the site. Anyone could add a copy
of WikiLeaks to their own website, or set up a franchise (so to speak)
with a new URL. In two weeks time, over 2000 mirrors of WikiLeaks sprang
up across the Internet, and across the globe. These mirror-sites are
routinely updated by the central organizing core of WikiLeaks, independent
of its founder Julian Assange (who had been in jail during most of these

While this is old news to many, it bears consideration how this
complicates governments' war on free information. Everything about
WikiLeaks, outside of its trusted core of organizers, has now been
decentralized. And much the way wide distribution of their services over
thousands of locations has made WikiLeaks invulnerable to any future DDoS
shutdowns, their distribution over several hundred legal jurisdictions,
and several hundred webhosting services, has made them nearly invulnerable
to any concentrated government campaign - at least any campaign that won't
be immediately rebuked by the courts. Plus, while the services of
WikiLeaks have been decentralized, so too has their information cache,
protecting it from deletion as well.

It should be noted that this solution, while perfectly tailored to
WikiLeaks and other sources of free speech, would do little good to
businesses like PayPal or Amazon - not unless they want customers' credit
card numbers and personal information strewn across the web.
Mass-mirroring would also do little good for, say, the website of the
Swedish Prosecutor's Office, who is unlikely to garner the same upswell of
grassroots support. It's a tactic befitting popular resistance and freedom
of information, and one to which a high-tech response has yet to be

Meanwhile, the private sector has developed a response of its own.
E-retailers have begun taking out new insurance policies for
politically-motivated Internet attacks, thus insulating their profit
margins from what nominal financial consequences DDoS does inflict.

Hearts and minds

Where attacks on logistics aren't enough, and where technological
dominance fails to produce results, power turns its attention to the fight
for legitimacy. And with the mainstream media relying on government
spokespeople for the foundation of its coverage, WikiLeaks' opponents have
unmatched capacity to craft the dominant narrative.

A common method of discrediting someone is to define them solely by one
aspect of their operation, and then to characterize them as lacking depth.
WikiLeaks is a multi-purpose whistleblower site, and has published leaks
from various world banks and other private institutions, and is expected
to publish leaks from BP and Bank of America in 2011. All leaks have been
vetted prior to release. (In fact, WikiLeaks asked the State Department to
aid the vetting of the diplomatic cables, to ensure individuals were not
put at risk; the State Department declined their offer.) Yet, government
critics have labeled them as "anarchist" and "treasonous," and as having a
personal vendetta against government in particular.

Dismissal of the organization is supplemented with character assassination
of the individual. Open speculation by law enforcement as to whether
Assange can in fact be charged with anything at all has been spun into the
message that he's a "fugitive" and a "wanted criminal." This narrative has
been further fueled by the Swedish government's pursuit of Assange over a
rape allegation - a case which was considered closed right up until
Assange's political actions embarrassed government leaders, and they
needed something to charge him with. (If all these government officials
cared half as much about women's sovereignty as they opportunistically
claim to, we might see some real change as opposed to this circus.) At the
same time, while exerting pressure on companies to drop WikiLeaks aids the
fight over logistics, it also feeds into this narrative; if all these
companies say WikiLeaks is involved in "illegal activity," it must be

There should be no mistake that the mischaracterizations, the repeated
references to "illegal activity," and the selective pursuit of rape
charges by law enforcement are all part and parcel of the information war,
every bit as much as political pressure and DDoS attacks. In many ways,
COINTELPRO was a concentrated campaign to isolate political threats by
delegitimizing them in the eyes of the very people who should be
supporting them. Many of the same tactics still work today, 40 years

What wasn't around 40 years ago however, is the ubiquitous spin media
establishment. Instead of putting these events into the rich historical
context of whistleblowing and government secrecy, mainstream outlets
severed Wikileaks from that history altogether by portraying the
organization as a groundbreaking curiosity. Viewers were also riddled with
such vague philosophical questions as "Does this really count as
journalism?" That WikiLeaks cannot be significantly differentiated from
other recognized journalistic outfits (outside of a stated focus) doesn't
matter; just by asking the question repeatedly, the media calls WikiLeaks'
creditability unduly into question.


Perhaps the most reliable tool of power and hierarchy is good old
fashioned fear. While the government cannot force the people to stop doing
as they will, a culture of fear ensures the people will police themselves.

In an effort to suppress the leaks, the Library of Congress has banned
access to WikiLeaks, and the Commerce Department has reminded its staff
that, as government employees, accessing the files is unauthorized.
Military personnel have been ordered not to visit the WikiLeaks website,
and the Education Department instructed students hoping for a career in
diplomacy not to read or discuss the WikiLeaks cables.

This position has puzzled even pundits on the side of government. As some
have argued, the information is already out there; if "our enemies" can
learn from it, why is the U.S. not allowing their own personnel to learn
from it the same? The answer is twofold. First, the so-called "strategic
value" of the documents is overblown; they don't reveal American
vulnerabilities as much as they reveal the criminal acts of these
employees' bosses, thus there's nothing the government would want their
employees to "learn from." Second, it's part of a broader attempt at
establishing the study, discussion, or dissemination of WikiLeaks as
"thoughtcrime." Since many working people rely on the government for their
living, that's a large swath of the population that can be forced to
self-police, and that sentiment will permeate further.

As for the rest of us, government is looking to go after the source, as
punishment, and to make an example. The CIA has formed the WikiLeaks Task
Force (or "WTF"), and a secret grand jury has reportedly been convened to
look into ways Assange can be convicted. Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Peter
King also introduced the SHIELD Act in Congress, which would modify the
WWI-era Espionage Act to make it illegal for anyone to report "classified
information related to certain intelligence activities of the United
States." (The Act is currently in committee in both the House and Senate.)
It remains to be seen if such codified thoughtcrime would survive in the
courts on the basis of so-called "national security."

Meanwhile, on the electronic front, the government did to DDoS what it
does to all effective and irrepressible tactics of democratic
accountability - they made it arbitrarily illegal. In the United Kingdom,
the Police and Justice Act of 2006 specifically outlawed DDoS, with
violators potentially facing an excessive 10 years in prison for
participating in a DDoS attack. The U.S. is likely to pass similar
legislation in the near future.

The trump card

Usually, the combination of media spin, fearmongering, bullying and
collusion is enough for those in power to get what they want. But never
has an enemy of the state had a trump card quite like the one WikiLeaks
has. The entirety of the diplomatic cables, as well as unspecified future
releases, have all been compressed into one file, locked with a 256-key
encryption to prevent access. When the pressure first ramped up against
WikiLeaks, this file was distributed directly to supporters around the
world, then to anyone in the file-sharing world through bittorrent, and
later through the mass-mirror project. So it was declared, if anything
malicious happened to the WikiLeaks organization or to Julian Assange, as
a last resort the key to this file would be revealed, and the whole dump
of diplomatic cables would be released to the world, unredacted - as a
last resort.

It bears consideration just how the "insurance strategy" will change the
face of information war going forward. Information clearinghouses now have
the power to globally disseminate information in short order, perhaps even
surreptitiously, and yet withhold its announcement until that
dissemination is complete, thus eliminating the most vulnerable point in
the process. And unlike past leaks, which relied on major news
organizations to simultaneously print the news, and hence filter it (or
withhold it altogether), that information can be supplied directly to the
people. This is one example of new technologies (as well as new
applications for old techniques) democratizing the flow of information,
right before our eyes.

It's impossible to know how things would have played out differently if
WikiLeaks had not had this ace in the hole. Would the enemies of Julian
Assange have made good on their threats against him? Would governmental
abuse of power have crushed WikiLeaks in its infancy? All that can be said
for certain is, it would not be the first time U.S. law enforcement agents
broke all their own rules to meet their objective, allowing the courts
rebuke them years later, after the damage to free information had been
done. Finally, however, we the people have a freedom-of-information tactic
that even flippant dismissal of jurisprudence cannot address.

How the government responds in the future to this "insurance" tactic has
yet to be seen, as pro-establishment think tanks are, no doubt, trying to
think of ways to put genies back into bottles.

The delusions of the powerful

Recently, in Olympia, WA, the Army concluded their investigation into John
Towery, an employee of military intelligence who for years had infiltrated
anti-war groups under the name "John Jacob." However, the Army has decided
to withhold the results of their investigation, for now. The reason given
is because there's an ongoing lawsuit against the military for their
illegal spying. Translated, this literally means, "We're not letting you
have this information because it might make us - the military or
individuals in it - look bad, and it might get us in trouble." Never mind
that if this information helps the lawsuit succeed, then it should
succeed. Never mind that many of us not affiliated with the lawsuit have a
right to know. This, after the Army assured the public in this specific
case that "our goal is transparency."

This is just one example of how unchecked entitlement has made those in
power lose touch with reality. Over the last several years, with the
government's monopoly on information becoming more and more absolute,
abuses of power have become more extreme, while justifications have become
more transparent. Some of the released cables, including the one that
falsely claimed Cuba was suppressing Michael Moore's film Sicko, show how
the State Department has even taken to fooling itself - a very dangerous
thing to do. And yet, those in power always think they can get away with

Until now, losing touch with reality hasn't caused their power to ebb,
because the old dirty tricks for suppressing dissent have worked just
fine. Successful strategies of suppression and bullying are
self-reinforcing. However, when such strategies fail, as we're now seeing,
the consequences for the bully are disastrous.

Panicked politicians are now flailing for an answer to WikiLeaks. Joe
Lieberman has suggested investigating the New York Times for violating the
Espionage Act, a course of action which is both unflattering and,
considering the Times' minimal involvement in reporting the leak,
ineffectual. Some lawmakers have even expressed what amounts to a
willingness to rip the Constitution to shreds, just to make this
defacement go away. All the while, day after day, breaking news on further
government attempts at suppression of free speech run concurrently with
breaking news of yet another scandal being revealed.

Assessing the aftermath

In the end, government was responsible for its own undoing. Their repeated
cover-ups of their own wrongdoings have convinced countless to side with
the exposer rather than the exposed. Their obsession with keeping secrets,
even unnecessary ones, resulted in the over-classification of documents,
meaning more people had to be given higher clearances, increasing the
chances that someone out there who doesn't see things in the same way is
given the key to the candy store. And as we have seen, the government's
attempts at suppressing the information - traditional and high-tech - have
only made the situation worse for them.

WikiLeaks has become stronger than ever. The original domain
is back, and the money-transfer service XIPWIRE has since opened a
donation account for WikiLeaks and waived the service fee, replacing the
services cut off by PayPal and such. What once was one website has evolved
into a phenomenon, inspiring a number of spinoff sites including
OpenLeaks, TradeLeaks and EnviroLeaks. There can be no doubt that
WikiLeaks won this battle. And while there's a push to criminalize the
concept of WikiLeaks, there's enough support for WikiLeaks within the
halls of government, legal protection for whistleblower journalism, and
court precedent protecting the rights of journalists to keep that from
happening. Eventually the push for criminalization will fade as
unstoppable mega-leaks become more and more commonplace.

New events and new innovations will continue to shape the landscape of
information war in ways we cannot foresee. The most likely result, for us,
is that the pendulum of governmental power will begin to swing the other
way. These latest revelations, as damning as they are, are just the tip of
the iceberg. Much as it did in the wake of the Watergate cover-up, the
COINTELPRO revelations, and the Pentagon Papers, so-called "liberal
democracy" will have to make a number of concessions soon if it wants to
maintain the myth that we live in freedom, that the government is
answerable to the people, and that it has our best interests at heart.

Wally Cuddeford is an independent journalist, anti-war and social justice
activist, and a US Navy veteran. He's a lifelong resident of Olympia, WA.

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