Wikileaks Addendum: Sex Charges

Just want to add – while I have srs reservations about the sex assault/rape charges against Assange, and the way in which they have been handled (which reeks of politicisation) and reported – I’m not in favour of minimising the allegations. Let the justice system do its work. Even if the handling has been awful, I have faith in the courts sorting stuff out effectively.

Smearing the complainants = not good.

Wikileaks: Infowar

It feels like a long time since I posted about Wikileaks five days ago. Things have gotten pretty serious, pretty fast.

It’s a complex business, and unsurprisingly, the main media channels aren’t keeping up. That’s part of the point, actually – d3vo commented to me in email that what’s driving the Wikileaks furore is the failure of the media over the last two decades. I think it’s undeniable that he’s right. Wikileaks has the power it does because the fourth estate has become part of the power apparatus; it is the culmination of the idea that distributed communications technology itself forms a fifth estate to keep the other four in check. Dylan Horrocks wrote a powerful open letter to journalists imploring them to step up and cover this effectively – definitely worth a read.

From my perspective, the main line of the story is the U.S-led assault against Wikileaks. It is many-pronged and conducted through back-door pressure or through outright illegality. Assange and his team have been preparing for this for a while and are fully prepared to exploit the internet to make a laughing stock of these shutdown attempts. But still, the scope of the attacks is shocking.

Greenwald gives a good overview. In just a few days, private companies and banks have withdrawn Wikileaks’ DNS record, site and file hosting, and bank and payment accounts. All of these have cited breaches of “terms of use”, while giving other clients a pass for the same sins. All are the result of backroom pressure, whether imposed from without or conducted voluntarily in solidarity with the wishes of power.

As Greenwald points out: Wikileaks has broken no laws. It has done nothing illegal.

More: sex charges against the face of Wikileaks. Charlie Stross goes over the evidence and makes it seem like these are trumped-up, to say the least; certainly the fact that charges were levelled, then withdrawn, then levelled again is cause for doubt. [EDIT: subsequent post about this]

And of course prominent political voices in the US openly using the word “assassination” in respect of Assange, or alluding that way with phrases like “any means necessary”.

This is a taste of a new kind of war – an information war, conducted on two fronts: within the global infrastructure, and within the court of public opinion. There will be more of these. (Some might predict that we’re heading towards a state of perpetual infowar. Lets hope not.)

This war is happening RIGHT NOW. It will have huge consequences not just for Wikileaks but for every organization that speaks up against power. Right now, the USA and other govts are training themselves to control information dissent. These lessons will not be forgotten. The next organization to make itself a target is unlikely to have the resources or wide support of Wikileaks – and it will be hard-pressed to survive this kind of assault.

Here’s another aspect of that infowar: the botnet. Wikileaks was hit hard by a botnet, which is a global network of infected “zombie” computers. Ordinary home computers with a virus are secretly using their internet connections and computing time to serve the goals of the botnet; mom-and-pop at home just wonder why their computer runs a bit slow sometimes. Usually botnets just send spam, but this one has been trying to destroy Wikileaks by overloading it. In the linked article it says this botnet wasn’t particularly large, but the possibility is certainly there that it was deployed by a state actor, perhaps even the US itself, to shut down Wikileaks.

Think about that for a second. There is a distinct possibility that right now your mum’s computer has been secretly weaponized by the United States of America.

(No, seriously. Here’s a 2008 article in the Air Force Journal saying that the USA should invest in a botnet. This response to that article says that if intelligence agencies don’t have botnets already, they really should. Google will reveal many more such discussions.)

If you’re only gonna read one thing about Wikileaks and related issues, then, make it this piece by Clay Shirky. Here’s the bit that both Dylan H and I identified as the money quote:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want

What’s going on with this matters. It matters far more than the latest juicy revelations in the diplomatic cables – those are, and always were, a sideshow. Really at stake is the landscape for international information freedom.

So, even more than usual, don’t accept the mainstream media framing of the Wikileaks story. There’s more going on, and there’s far too much at stake.

Wikileaks: No thoughts

Jon wondered why I hadn’t commented on the new Wikileaks “cablegate” affair. A fair question, especially given the last Wikileaks thing turned this blog into a genuine internet sensation (for about 3 seconds) (and not due to any editorial effort on my part, I literally just cut and pasted from their twitter feed, go figure).

Answer is: I don’t know what to make of it. This is clearly a more complex action than previous Wikileaks releases. My instinctive feeling is that this is a good thing as a one-off targeted at a country that rationalises itself as a global policeman, but in general this is a dangerous precedent. Diplomacy needs to function out of public view, and losing that assurance of discretion is certain to have a limiting effect on positive as well as negative efforts.

But I find it hard to feel bad about this if it puts the UK govt’s handling of Iraq in the pooh. My fury over that whole affair remains undimmed, seven years on.

So ultimately – I don’t know what to say. I’ll wait to see how things shake out. Assange is clearly a tosser, and yes he may be a sex criminal too but that doesn’t mean he’s not doing good work.

Jon’s own post on the matter is well worth a read – a good summary I think.

Making Light do some good coverage of the issues, particularly the response of the US media.

Glenn Greenwald has been getting a lot of attention for this firebreathing attack on the US media coverage of Wikileaks and what it says about the state of the fourth estate in the USA.

But the most interesting thing I’ve read yet is this article that looks at Assange/Wikileaks’ motives. Short version: Assange’s stated view is that authoritarianism must inevitably rely on a conspiratorial approach. The contradictions between authoritarianism and conspiracy provide a vulnerability that can be exploited by wikileaks. So the point of the cablegate affair is not the cables themselves, but the response they force in the US government.

All these articles give me some interesting starting points but I don’t feel I’m anywhere near understanding the depth of what this affair means. Too complex, too soon, too something. I dunno. Opinions & interpretations welcome.

Wikileaks: Video of journalists being killed

Just over a week ago, a post I made about Wikileaks (lifted directly from Dylan Horrocks’ twitter feed) went ballistic and garnered nearly 100,000 sets of eyeballs in a day. The events in question mentioned an upcoming video release about murder in Iraq and a Pentagon cover-up.

The video has now been released. It’s circulating all over the place, and Scoop has a good overview, with the short-form (17-minute) video embedded.

Basic story: a U.S. military helicopter identifies a group of men in a street as targets, and shoots them down. When others arrive to evacuate the wounded, they too are shot down. I don’t recommend watching the video lightly – it’s intense and emotional, and the video-game chatter of the U.S. soldiers is hard to listen to. But I do think it’s important, and if you intend to form an opinion on this, you should try to get through it. Warning: children are injured in the attack.

Now that you’ve watched that, here’s some essential reading: Keith Ng on this video, and the respionsibilities we have when making sense of primary sources such as this. Go read it, then come back here.

There’s lots of discussion happening all over the ‘net about what the video shows, and whether the U.S. military personnel involved were right or wrong to designate the men as targets and shoot them, and whether they were right or wrong to do the same thing when more people arrived to help the wounded. A lot of this discussion concerns the rules of engagement in play at the time, and whether the men in question were reasonably seen as carrying weapons.

The weapons are, to me, of greatest interest. You can hear in the spotter’s (gunner’s?) commentary as he sees the men and sees guns that he believes this is a legitimate military target. Look again at how exactly this happens:

At 3 mins into the video, the leaked footage begins as the spotters identify a group of people standing together.

At 3 mins 20 seconds, Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen is in the centre of the frame, hoisting his camera. The spotter says “That’s a weapon.” (With those words, Namir and companions were condemned to death.)

At 3’37, the spotter reports: “Have individuals with weapons.” Note the plural – one weapon has become several, without obvious cause.

At 3’40, two other men come into frame, and they both are carrying weapons, AK-47s apparently. (These are, again, legal to carry here.) Spotter, on seeing the first of this pair: “He’s got a weapon too.” Then, after seeing the other: “Have five to six individuals with AK-47s.” Three identified weapons (one erroneously) have become five to six. They’ve seen enough. At 3’50, permission to fire is sought, and soon after is received.

At 4’10, a long camera piece is identified as an RPG. Note, permission to fire has already been received at this point.

There’s a well-known perceptual/cognitive phenomenon called confirmation bias. This says that we interpret what we are seeing in terms of what we expect to see. This video captures confirmation bias in action. A camera became a gun, then two others with guns became proof of an attack squad, then the camera again became an immediate threat. The pattern is clear: there is no way for the spotters in the helicopter to step out of this chain of perceptions.

This is not a trivial matter. I’m not trying to diminish these events by pointing at a cognitive bias as an excuse or rationale. No, to me this is exactly where the scandal is. Fire orders are being made on interpretations that do not correct for this extremely common and well-understood bias. Lives are being taken and the system that authorizes this fails to account for decades-old research (and anecdotal understanding that goes back hundreds of years.) Instead, the whole apparatus operates in precisely the opposite direction; once the action is taken, it must be justified. The evidence is massaged and re-interpreted to support the initial confirmation bias. A perceptual error becomes truth.

Now, the target identification issue isn’t the only troubling thing here, and it isn’t the focus of Wikileaks’ interest. The assault on unarmed men (and children!) attempting to evacuate the wounded is horrific. The Pentagon’s stonewalling of Reuters trying to get this tape is appalling. The disengaged chatter of the U.S. military is disturbing, if completely understandable.

Regardless of those issues, the confirmation bias explanation for what happens is all I can think about right now. I probably won’t come back to the rest. I don’t think I want to watch that video ever again.

Wikileaks: Something is up

Sounds like the people behind Wikileaks are under some pressure. Since this is unlikely to turn up in your newspapers, I post it here to spread awareness.

Wikileaks has a mission of bringing hidden information to light, when it’s in the public interest. Wikipedia outlines their greatest hits, including Gauntanamo Bay procedure documents, scientology secrets, and net censorship lists. They come under fire sometimes for hosting material that probably isn’t much in the public interest, but overall they have contributed some compelling information to some fractious global arguments.

In the last 24 hours, their Twitter feed has contained some worrying content.

  • WikiLeaks to reveal Pentagon murder-coverup at US National Press Club, Apr 5, 9am; contact
  • WikiLeaks is currently under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation. Following/photographing/filming/detaining
  • If anything happens to us, you know why: it is our Apr 5 film. And you know who is responsible.
  • Two under State Dep diplomatic cover followed our editor from Iceland to on Thursday.
  • One related person was detained for 22 hours. Computer’s seized.That’s
  • We know our possession of the decrypted airstrike video is now being discussed at the highest levels of US command.
  • We have been shown secret photos of our production meetings and been asked specific questions during detention related to the airstrike.
  • We have airline records of the State Dep/CIA tails. Don’t think you can get away with it. You cannot. This is WikiLeaks.

All those came out in a rush, then silence for hours. Might just be a timezone thing, with people sleeping, or maybe there’s been no news, or maybe everyone with access to the Twitter feed has been detained. I await more information.

UPDATE: “To those worrying about us–we’re fine, and will issue a suitable riposte shortly.” 8.22am NZ time.

UPDATE: Just noticed that the first tweet quoted, “WikiLeaks to reveal Pentagon murder-coverup” is gone from the feed. Now I wish I’d linked to all of them individually. Anyway, it was definitely there, and I think Linda is right that it is this previously-referred-to video

UPDATE: commenter eru found the missing tweet. It isn’t visible in the ordinary feed for some reason.