Wednesday, June 5, 2013

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks [2013]

MPAA (R)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks [2013] (directed by Alex Gibney) is a somewhat uneven, though given the circumstances IMHO a rather admirable documentary about perhaps the most controversial website to have thusfar existed -

I confess that I've had a lifelong preference for openness.  Back in 1989, I was one of the primary instigators in the creation of the USENET newsgroup "soc.rights.human" which had a similar mission in the pre-World-Wide-Web days: Anyone from anywhere who wanted to post anything about a possible human rights violation could do so there.

The idea wasn't completely original.  I had been inspired to propose the creation of this USENET newsgroup after following what was being posted by Chinese students in the U.S. and Western Europe on the already existing USENET newsgroup soc.culture.china.  Being a son of Czech immigrants and named after an uncle who had been jailed by the Communists in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, I proposed to the USENET community (then basically computer programmers and computer sci majors working at universities and other research institution across the western world) that a generalized USENET newsgroup entitled soc.rights.human be created so that all people concerned about human rights in various parts of the world would have a place to news about human rights abuses.  And so it was, after following the USENET procedures for creating a newsgroup (there had to be at least 100 people on the USENET in favor of creating the group and, in fact, there needed to be 100 people more in favor of creating the group than there were opposed to it).  After making the appropriate appeals over a couple of months, tabulating the votes and followed by a couple of days of embarrassed inaction by the good people at CERN who were back then responsible for creating such groups for the USENET ... voila' soc.rights.human (or s.r.h. for short) came online about October, 1989 -- just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall ;-) 

The one thing that s.r.h. could not offer was absolute anonymity (though there were various nominally anonymous posting services available at the time ... and back then it seemed easier to create a more or less random/anonymous e-mail address).  On the other hand, soc.rights.human was truly "open source."  There were no "gatekeepers" (no moderators in USENET-speak) hence no problematic figures like wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Today, soc.rights.human is buried among thousands upon thousands of other USENET newsgroups and conspiracy theorists of all stripes have more or less taken the group over.  So today the signal to noise ratio is very, very low indeed.  (Though having checked the group just now, there are serious postings about human rights controversies in Burma and Nepal/Tibet as well as Israel/Palestine on soc.rights.human. as well.  It's not all "scientology," "the feds are brainwashing us via radiowaves" etc... That there are still a fair amount legitimate postings about human rights issues being made onto the group is kinda nice to see ;-)

However, the truly heady time for s.r.h. was in the months and years immediately after its founding, between the Fall of 1989 (when the Berlin Wall came down) and the Summer of 1991 (when the last-ditch Soviet Coup occurred).  One of the proudest moments of my life (again, I was one of the original founders of s.r.h.) was when in the midst of the Soviet Coup, while I was still a grad student at U.S.C. in Los Angeles, I telephoned the L.A. office of Amnesty International to ask them if they knew about all that was being posted on s.r.h. at the time (computer programmers from all over Soviet Union had figured out how to post on s.r.h. and were posting more or less real-time news about what was happening all over the Soviet Union on the group).  The person on the phone responded, "Oh sure we know about s.r.h.  We're reading the same posts right here in our office."

Since then I've more or less assumed that s.r.h. has outlived its purpose (though I mention above, perhaps not ;-).  In any case, I would recommend to anyone reading this article who's concerned about human rights issues or has information about human rights abuses to try to report human rights violations directly to Amnesty International ( or even send them along (on an appropriately secure/anonymous cell phone....) on twitter with the appropriate #, like #Syria ...).  Still if s.r.h. remains useful to you (and it may honestly be!), please use that means as well.

Given that quite reputable organizations like Amnesty International exist and they are now generally computer savvy, I don't necessarily understand the need today for a separate organization called "wikileaks."  Yes, wikileaks promised to be a more generalized site for "whistle blowers" and did promise absolute anonymity.  However, to be honest, even at its best, wikileaks could offer no more than what a reputable organization (like Amnesty International) or a reputable investigative periodical could offer (like The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel on which wikileaks ended up depending anyway...).  And at its "less than best," wikileaks became the inevitable target of the Goliaths of this world, who IMHO have just eaten Assange's tiny organization for lunch.

So then the current documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks [2013], while also generally sympathetic, chronicles the rise and the inevitable demise of wikileaks (or at least wikileaks1.0) And honestly folks, if there is to be a wikileaks 2.0, then please "reach out" to an organization like Amnesty International.  This is because the "universal whistle-blower" cause that wikileaks has tried to embark on doesn't really need hackers (except perhaps as actual whistle-blowers).  Instead, the cause needs LAWYERS (to protect the whistle-blowers) and that's what Amnesty International (which was FOUNDED BY concerned/activist LAWYERS) can provide.

Okay, what then about the rise and demise of wikileaks?  Well, the documentary presents wikileaks founder Julain Assange as an activist computer hacker from Australia.  The beginning of the documentary suggests that he (or a group affiliated with him) may have put a computer worm into the American Space Shuttle's computers to protest the highly controversial launch of the plutonium powered Galileo space probe.  The launch went fine and the Galileo space probe subsequently flew on to orbit and study Jupiter.  However, the concern was that if the launch itself went badly (and remember the Space Shuttle Challenger did explode and disintegrate on launch) then a fair amount of Florida and even the eastern seaboard of the United States could have been contaminated by "plutonium raining down from the sky" as a result of the disintegration of the Galileo space probe as well.

It was out of this hacker-activist background then that Julian Assange arose to found wikileaks, promising absolute anonymity to whistle-blowers of all kinds.  The documentary then points out that wikileaks did have initial success, exposing corruption and bad dealings within Iceland's banking system after Iceland's banks had suddenly collapsed near the beginning of the 2008 world-wide financial crisis.  It was at this time that Assange was becoming something of an international "rock star" and especially in Scandinavia for his site's success in exposing that corruption existing in Iceland.

This, of course, became "small potatoes" to what perhaps inevitably came next: A troubled American PFC named Bradley Manning, who somehow managed to get through basic training but was then deemed unfit to serve in a combat unit and so was assigned as an "intelligence analyst" at an utterly non-descript base outside of Baghdad began to freak-out as he was reading U.S. intelligence cables that he had access to.  Having been something of a "computer geek" in High School back in Oklahoma, Manning gravitated to the hacker-created wikileaks whistle-blowing site.  Eventually, he passed a staggering number of classified files (over 700,000 of them including some 200,000 U.S. State Department cables) on a stick-drive or two, to wikileaks.

It would seem that even Assange was staggered by the sheer number of files that were handed to his fledgling organization by Manning.  As a result, he did act with some responsibility.  He reached-out to The Guardian, NY Times and Der Spiegel).  The documentary claims that he even reached out to the U.S. Defense Department asking for help to try to clean the documents of sensitive names, etc, prior to their publication on wikileaks.  The U.S. Defense Department chose (perhaps understandably ... after all the whole episode was enormously embarrassing to the institution) to refuse.   What did happen with each of several "file dumps" onto wikileaks (after assistance of the three mentioned periodicals) was a coordinated media counter assault by the U.S. government on the person/reputation of Julian Assange.  He was portrayed as as an unhinged and rather scary freak.  (The documentary notes that the NY Times, et al were easily as complicit as Assange and wikileaks in releasing the various documents.  However, the U.S. government appeared to choose to target Assange)

It turns out that Assange had some skeletons in his closet, notably accusations by two women in Sweden of sexual impropriety from back in the days of his almost "rock-star-like" popularity in Scandinavia.  Ball-players and Rock-stars get into this kind of trouble all the time (no doubt in good part due to the corrosive effects on good judgement of the adulation they find themselves receiving - treated like "Gods" they start to think that they _are_ "Gods").   However, whereas ball-players and rock-stars making poor decisions generally pay for them monetarily and occasionally with jail time, Assange has found himself in a whole different level of trouble.   There are some really pissed off folks at the U.S. State and Defense Departments ...

So Assange perhaps finds himself correct in becoming "paranoid."  He's currently hold-up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Ecuador's government, often corrupt itself, having given him asylum in this way.  The coup de grace in his paranoia appears to have been that he tried to force the other volunteers and employees at wikileaks to sign a legally binding non-disclosure agreement ;-).  Gee, if the founder of wikileaks, found good reason to require his employees and volunteers to sign "non-disclosure agreements" perhaps the good folks at the U.S. State Department and Armed Forces would have good reason sanction "leaking" classified information as well ...

 This then appears to be the fundamental thesis of the documentary: Assange, cocky-idealist though he may have been and Bradley Manning, troubled as he appears to have been, were simply and utterly "out of their league," when suddenly faced with a file dump of 700,000+ of classified American documents.

As the documentary's best interviewee, Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and NSA noted: diplomacy is impossible without some concessions made for secrecy.  How much?  That becomes debatable.  But at least some secrecy in diplomatic communications, for instance, is absolutely necessary.  With regard to Manning, he noted that in the 200 year history of the U.S. military there have been "some really stupid PFCs."  It just happened to be that Manning found himself with post-9/11era access to millions of classified documents that previously would not have been available to him.  "Prior to 9/11 access to classified documents was made on a 'need to know' basis.  After 9/11 [in hopes of fostering better communications between intelligence agencies allowing them to better 'connect the dots'] virtually all documents of a given classification level were available to all intelligence personel with that classification level ..."  And with regards to Assange, Gen Hayden maintained that he's no more or less guilty (or only marginally more guilty) in this matter than the editor of the New York Times.

And so there it is: a tiny organization of anarchist leaning computer hackers found itself wildly "out of its depth" when faced with that enormous dump of 700,000+ classified American documents.  And even the U.S. government has found itself wildly embarrassed by a not-altogether-thought-through post-9/11 decision regarding classified material ...

We live in "interesting" indeed sometimes quite scary times ...

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