WikiLeaks, State Repression and the Limits of the ‘New Media’

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For releasing a flood of secrets of state diplomacy, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange are being furiously pursued by the US government, its allies and the right-wing media. This highlights an intensification of the global cyberwar and a struggle for control of the new cyber-media. JUDY BEISHON reports.

THE INTERNET PUBLICATION of batch after batch of classified US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks has had a massive impact, showing leading politicians and ruling elites around the world in a light that they desperately wanted to avoid. As Henry Porter put it in the Observer (12 December 2010): “We have been given a snapshot of the world as it is, rather than the edited account agreed upon by diverse elites, whose only common interest is the maintenance of their power and our ignorance”.

The information leaked so far has been described as ‘underwhelming’, as it fits in with what people imagine is being said by the diplomats of the world powers. But although the reports are not completely reliable, they are generally in keeping with previously known facts and have included revealing details of corruption and cover-ups in government and big business circles, including information on torture and killings by state institutions,.

A few months before these ‘cablegate’ reports started being released in November 2010, WikiLeaks published secret US military files and images on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that revealed lies, atrocities – including thousands of previously unreported civilian deaths – and a picture of crisis and defeat for US imperialism.

In the more recent releases, many world leaders and diplomats have been exposed for saying completely different things in public and private. For instance, Pakistan’s government complained in public about US military attacks in Pakistan on Taliban-linked fighters and yet were privately requesting assistance from those same US forces. Other cables throw insults around: that Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari is “clearly a numbskull”, president Medvedev of Russia is ‘Robin, to Putin’s Batman’, and German chancellor Angela Merkel is “rarely creative”.

Information of great public concern is being revealed or elaborated on, such as on nuclear weapons. For example, that the last 200 US tactical nuclear bombs deployed in Europe are kept at bases in Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. And that Pakistan is working on producing small tactical nuclear weapons that could be used against Indian troops. There is much more to come, as less than 1% of 250,000 US documents obtained by WikiLeaks has been released so far. Material to be released soon will include information that could lead the bosses of one of the world’s biggest banks to resign, according to WikiLeaks’ leader, Julian Assange.

That the leaks will have major consequences for US ‘diplomacy’ and intelligence seeking is not in doubt. America’s capitalist allies around the world are furious at the lengths the US has gone to in spying for information (for example, having a mole in the German government), its arrogant assessments and its failure to safeguard classified messages. How can they now trust the US government to keep secrets or be genuine in what its representatives say?

Many leaders have difficulties as a result of the leaks, such as some in Middle East countries who have been shown as being more in the camp of the western ruling classes than with Muslims and Arab workers in their own and neighbouring countries. US imperialism’s foreign policy has been the particular focus of WikiLeaks so far, but every regime in the world must fear future leaks being directed at themselves, because lies, secrecy and corruption are endemic in ruling circles everywhere.

Hounding Assange
REELING FROM EMBARRASSMENT and concerned about the damage that could be done to US interests, many top US politicians have reacted to WikiLeaks with fury and threats. Republican party ex-vice president nominee Sarah Palin wanted Assange hunted down “with the same urgency” as al-Qa’ida and Taliban leaders are pursued. Another senior Republican, Mike Huckabee, declared that “anything less than execution is too kind a penalty”.

The Wall Street Journal also sanctioned execution when it wrote of Assange: “If he were exposing Chinese or Russian secrets, he would already have died at the hands of some unknown assailant. As a foreigner (Australian citizen) engaged in hostile acts against the US, Mr Assange is certainly not protected from US reprisal under the laws of war”, and “the administration should throw the book at those who do the leaking, including the option of the death penalty”. (1 December 2010) This is just for the ‘crime’ of publishing factual material that has been carefully assessed by WikiLeaks as being authentic.

US Democrats did not hold back either, for instance vice president Joe Biden described Assange as a high-tech terrorist. On behalf of the federal government the US attorney general has begun a legal pursuit of him. But they are struggling to find legal tools to use against Assange and to stop further leaks. Use of the 1917 Espionage Act is being considered but it has never before been used against a publisher and has only ever achieved successful prosecution against US government employees. Assange is neither a spy nor a US citizen, and is not even in the US, so the US prosecutors would firstly have to secure his extradition.

WikiLeaks has won in every legal attack made on it so far, but the US government is determined to improve its chances of prosecution, so has set in motion the creation of new laws with this purpose in mind. Federal prosecutors in Washington are also looking for evidence that Assange helped the army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning who is suspected of providing WikiLeaks with classified cables. Manning is being held in harsh conditions, including 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, and faces life imprisonment if the present US regime has its way.

Many people in the US and worldwide do not view him as a criminal, however. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 during the Vietnam war, is widely viewed as a hero for exposing US military strategy and government lies, boosting the groundswell of opposition to that war. He has said of Assange and Manning: “To call them terrorists is not only mistaken, it’s absurd and slanderous. Neither of them are any more terrorists than I am, and I’m not”. (nationaljournal.com)

Attempts were also made to stop WikiLeaks from functioning, by exerting pressure on internet service companies. Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks were organised on the internet service providers (ISPs) hosting WikiLeaks. This is often done by flooding the target websites with traffic, to overload them and force them offline. Then EveryDNS withdrew its domain name system (DNS) services from WikiLeaks. After Amazon then became WikiLeaks’ web hosting company, it subsequently pulled the plug on it too. WikiLeaks was also denied services by Ebay, PayPal, Mastercard and Visa.

These decisions to withdraw facilities from WikiLeaks shows the close links and common interests between the US political elite, the finance chiefs who control the banking system and the owners of the internet service companies. Amazon ended its link with WikiLeaks 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the US Senate homeland security committee. (Guardian, 30 November 2010)

So much for president Obama’s pledge to be “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government”! (www.whitehouse.gov) He even said during his campaign in 2008 to become president: “Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal”. He went on to prosecute more whistleblowers than any previous president had done, and generally to continue with the attacks on democratic and legal rights of the Bush era. These attacks were stepped up after the 9/11 attacks, which were used as a pretext to increase the powers of the state, not just in the US but in many countries worldwide.

However, stopping access globally to the information leaked by WikiLeaks has proved impossible so far, not least because its website material can now be accessed on over 2,000 other websites that have voluntarily copied it.

Nor can governments stop leaks from happening in the first place. The US White House sent out a memo at the start of January 2011 to federal government departments on how to counter leaks. Just two days later the memo itself was leaked to the US media! The memo indicated the wild and futile gestures being made. It said that employees who have access to classified information should be psychologically monitored to “detect behavioural changes”, such as “despondence and grumpiness”. It even asked if lie detector tests are being used.

Around 2.5 million people, including civilian, military and private-sector personnel had access to the classified cables (The Times, 6 December 2010). The idea that potential leakers can be spotted and weeded out is clearly pie in the sky. Press reports suggest that Bradley Manning was motivated by his experiences in Iraq leaving him disillusioned with US foreign policy. Many more workers with access to classified information are likely to be similarly disillusioned.

Nevertheless, an inevitable consequence of the exposures will be attempts by governments and corporations to sanitise what is sent through electronic media and to limit the number of people who have access to sensitive information. But no matter how far they go on improving security, there will always be people who can and will leak hidden information.

The US authorities have been closely watching the attempt of the Swedish justice system to extradite Assange from Britain to Sweden to be questioned about allegations of sexual misconduct. A number of prominent individuals, including the left-wingers John Pilger and Ken Loach, have condemned these allegations as being politically motivated.

Pilger pointed out in an article in the New Statesman (17 January) that Assange stayed in Sweden for more than five weeks after an allegation of rape was first made. The chief prosecutor in Stockholm dismissed the allegation but it was subsequently taken up by a second prosecutor, Marianne Ny, “following the intervention of a politician”. Pilger adds that Assange tried repeatedly to meet Ny, without success. Ny then gave Assange permission to leave the country, only to later issue an international arrest warrant for his capture.

Even now, no charges have been issued against Assange. If evidence of any serious offences does emerge, the alleged victims should not be criticised for seeking a court trial and Assange should be given all the necessary means and procedural safeguards to defend himself. However, the information reported so far has fuelled suspicion that the motive of a section of the Swedish authorities is to punish Assange for his leadership of WikiLeaks and, possibly, to inflict a ‘holding charge’ until US prosecutors can prepare a legal case against him and request extradition to the US.

Pilger quoted an online news editor in Sweden, Al Burke, who pointed out: “Documents released by WiliLeaks since Assange moved to England clearly indicate that Sweden has consistently submitted to pressure from the United States in matters relating to civil rights. There is ample reason for concern that if Assange were to be taken into custody by Swedish authorities, he could be turned over to the United States without due consideration of his legal rights”. One of these leaked documents showed how Sweden’s foreign policy “is largely controlled by Carl Bildt, the present foreign minister, whose career has been based on a loyalty to the US that goes back to the Vietnam war – when he attacked Swedish public television for broadcasting evidence that the US was bombing civilian targets”.

Exposing secret diplomacy
WIKILEAKS IS A not-for-profit organisation, relying heavily on volunteers worldwide to provide and edit material “to bring important news and information to the public… based on the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history”. (WikiLeaks website) It rightly recognises that the prospect of public scrutiny can reduce “conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression”.

Answering the accusation that its leaks place lives in danger, WikiLeaks points out that edits are made to protect vulnerable people and no one has yet produced any evidence of loss of life as a result of the leaks. It also says that not publishing the leaks would conjure up the “vastness of the invisible”, a reference to the suffering and loss of life that would be the consequence of keeping its material away from public scrutiny.

Certainly the information it has revealed is welcomed by vast numbers of people, including the victims of the abuses, torture, corruption, etc, that has been brought out into the open. It also helps to arm socialists and trade unionists with useful information that can be used in building labour movements. And whatever the consequences of releasing the secret cables are, the overwhelming blame for needless deaths in the world today lies with US and British imperialism and the other imperialist powers that are responsible for slaughtering well over one hundred thousand people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other wars.

Exposing the secret deals and decisions of corporations and politicians has always been done by the media as part of investigative journalism in countries where enough media freedom has been won to do this. Throughout history, important exposés have often been initiated by leaks. WikiLeaks has not done anything different, except in the sheer scale of the information obtained – a consequence of new technology, US government incompetence, unprecedented disillusionment in that government and the dedication and technical skills in cryptography, etc. of the WikiLeaks volunteers.

But, however much information is leaked, it will never include everything that the ruling classes and their representatives want to hide. The secrets that they are most keen on keeping private are more tightly protected than the information that WikiLeaks has obtained so far. Also, the reliability of leaked information is always questionable. Mistakes can be reported and misinformation can be deliberately leaked.

We should not have to rely on leaks in order to get access to vital information. A demand of the Socialist Party is that the records of governments and large companies should be open to public inspection so that leaders of these institutions can be held to account regarding their decisions, dealings and actions.

In November 1917, the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky wrote a statement to accompany the publication by the new Soviet government, led by the Bolsheviks, of the secret treaties of previous regimes. His statement is very apposite today, as this extract shows: “Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests. Imperialism, with its dark plans of conquest and its robber alliances and deals, developed the system of secret diplomacy to the highest level. The struggle against the imperialism which is exhausting and destroying the peoples of Europe is at the same time a struggle against capitalist diplomacy, which has cause enough to fear the light of day… The workers’ and peasants’ government abolishes secret diplomacy and its intrigues, codes, and lies”.

Censorship of information, images, ideas, etc. is a class question. Whose interests is it in? If anything is to be withheld, people’s personal information for example, it should be elected and accountable representatives of working-class people who make the necessary decisions, in the interests of the overwhelming majority of people in society, not those of the chief executives of multinational companies and government cabinets. As long as the capitalist system exists, conspiracy, corruption, lies, exploitation and oppression will exist too, as part of the armoury used by the ruling class to maintain its power, profits and privileges.

Anonymous retaliation
IF JULIAN ASSANGE (a former hacker) is extradited to Sweden, followers of the cyberguerilla group Anonymous have indicated that they will attack UK government computers. Coordinated attacks of this nature are not new, but the defence of WikiLeaks has taken them onto a new level, attracting new participants. When WikiLeaks was denied services by corporations like Mastercard, Paypal, etc, Anonymous retaliated by launching Operation Payback and Operation Avenge Assange. They used DDoS to attack the computer systems of those corporations, also the websites of officials and politicians who had attacked WikiLeaks.

Tens of thousands of people have downloaded the software tool LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Cannon) offered by Operation Payback (23,479 did so in the second week of December alone) to help these attacks. These protesters are all over the world and range from teenagers in their bedrooms to adults from all backgrounds. They can cause significant temporary disruption, bringing down target websites for a while, which can draw welcome attention to an issue.

But the success of this method of protest has been limited. Internet networks like Anonymous have little or no organisational structure, so there is no means for democratically debating what course of action to take and then everyone acting on it together. Instead, ideas are thrown into a pool of individual contributions and some of the most popular are acted on in a disorganised, chaotic way by those who choose to do so. With no elected, accountable leaders, it is almost impossible to make fast decisions about switching direction when necessary and utilising new campaigning opportunities.

Disunity is rife, as they have political aims ranging from right to left, and many see themselves as anti-political anarchists. A Guardian analysis of Anonymous (13 December 2010) said: “So unwieldy, reactive and vitriolic is the group that members often turn their weaponry on each other”. The report quoted one hacker as saying: “It is political activism to an extent, but lots of the people just do it for a laugh”.

Sometimes the use or public release of people’s personal information by hackers causes great distress and difficulty for the victims of such activity. Carrying out more far reaching internet protest campaigns than are done at present and ensuring they are progressive regarding the interests of the workers in the target companies and those of the wider working class and middle class, would require a democratic structure of discussion and debate, and the influence of socialist ideology.

Online forums and actions can play an important role in protest movements and struggles. But they need to be an adjunct to face-to-face discussions where people know who they are talking to, and to democratically organised mass protests in the ‘real’ world, including demonstrations, and strikes when necessary.

Cyberwar escalates
NEW TECHNOLOGY APPLIED to communications is a very fast moving picture today in type and take-up. Use of the internet has been increasing at a phenomenal rate, providing vast opportunities for people to pursue information and connect with others. An estimated 1.8 billion people globally are using it daily and billions more want access to it. Active users of Facebook totalled 633 million globally by October 2010. (Jemima Kiss, Guardian, 4 January)

There have been huge communication developments before, for example when printed type was first used, but the internet is unprecedented in the number of direct participants, the interactions between them and the pace of change. All this has happened in just 17 years, as the web only went mainstream in 1993. It is an almost instant form of communication and a relatively cheap one.

However, on the political arena, it is a tool for the right as well as the left. Government intelligence services can use it for surveillance purposes – of people’s emails, Facebook pages, etc. This is not confined to the most dictatorial regimes of the world. The British government is seeking access to the records of everyone’s web activity and, in the US, the Obama administration has said that “FBI agents have been requesting such information for years and that most Internet service providers routinely provide it”. (New York Times, 29 July 2010) A member of parliament in Iceland, who is a former WikiLeaks volunteer, recently said that the US justice department has ordered Twitter to hand over her private messages.

Governments have also turned to the internet and other communication technologies for propaganda and diversion purposes. For example, a Sunday Times article (2 January ) pointed out that the Russian Kremlin has moved beyond its control of television channels in Russia, to develop various entertainment websites in addition to its political sites. The article’s author says that this is because: “It is far better to keep young Russians away from politics altogether, offering them instead funny videos on RuTube, Russia’s own version of YouTube, or on Russia.ru”.

Some governments have resorted to the widespread sending or sponsoring of propaganda SMS messages, for instance, the Israeli military forces sent them to Palestinians in Gaza during the invasion two years ago, and pro-government messages have been sent out in Iran in an organised way, to counter the opposition movement.

Governments also have their own hacking and cyberwarfare operations. A US ‘business information provider’, Visiongain, has estimated that governments and armed forces worldwide spent over $8 billion on cyberwarfare in 2009 and that this will reach over $12 billion in 2011. (visiongain.com) Last May, the US Department of Defence launched Cyber Command, “to direct the operations and defence of specified Department of Defence information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full-spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries”. (US Strategic Command website)

The Times has reported that Israel is working on its cyberwarfare capability too. Journalist Jim Giles noted in the New Scientist (18 December 2010): “… it is becoming increasingly clear that governments must have a hand in many computer attacks”. He cited recent examples, such as the “highly sophisticated” computer worm Stuxnet that infected industrial computer systems including that of the Natanz and Bushehr nuclear plants in Iran, suggesting involvement of the Israeli state. Since Giles wrote his article, a journalist in the New York Times (15 January) has indicated that the creation of Stuxnet was a joint project between Israel and the US.

“More than 100 countries are developing defensive and offensive cyber weaponry”, noted Misha Glenny, writing in the Times (17 January). They include China. Google issued a statement on 12 January 2011 that said: “In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google… As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses – including the internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors – have been similarly targeted”.

Google thought that a primary goal of the attack was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. As is well known, the Chinese regime devotes great attention to internet surveillance and censoring access by people in China to any information on the internet that it deems a threat to its interests. Assange has commented: “China has aggressive and sophisticated interception technology that places itself between every reader inside China and every information source outside China. We’ve been fighting a running battle to make sure we can get information through, and there are now all sorts of ways Chinese readers can get on our site”. (New Statesman, 17 January)

Who controls new cyber-media?
IN COMMON WITH all sections of society today, trade union and labour movements internationally rely heavily on electronic communication, as do public-sector bodies, yet most of the means of communicating in this way are owned and run by private-sector companies. New Scientist declared: “WikiLeaks has handed unprecedented power to ordinary people”. (18 December 2010) However, this is overstating the case by a long way, not least because the multinational internet service companies are ready and willing to withdraw services from whoever is being targeted by their friends in big business and government, as the denials of service to WikiLeaks have showed.

Technology professor John Naughton explained in the Observer (1 August 2010): “The sad truth is that, in practice, it is now trivially easy to censor the web. In most jurisdictions all you need to do is pay a lawyer to send a threatening letter to the ISP that hosts an offending site. The letter can allege defamation, or copyright infringement or privacy violations or a host of other grounds. The details don’t matter because, nine times out of 10, the ISP will immediately shut down the site, often without bothering to check whether your complaints have any validity”.

Some computer experts are trying to develop technologies that can circumvent these threats. For instance, New Scientist (11 December 2010) reported that an anti-copyright activist in Sweden, Peter Sunde, has sent out a call on the internet to break the control of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the body that controls the internet’s domain name system and that enables people to access the web pages they want to view. Any domain that is deemed ‘illegal’ can be effectively removed by ICANN. Sunde wants to lead the construction of an alternative system that could be run by volunteers on their own computers.

Steps like this are bound to be popular with ordinary people, but the multinationals that own and control internet services will inevitably seek ways to sabotage and restrict such developments. There is also the problem that there would be no democratic control over the alternative providers. They can start off in the grassroots computing world but with successful innovations can quickly develop their own private companies that can become as exploitative and restrictive as other top providers.

The internet has opened up massive scope for the development of human society and relations. But, under capitalism, the links and interdependencies in ruling-class circles mean that the domain and other internet service providers will ultimately act in the interests of their own class and not in the interests of the overwhelming majority of people.

The situation would be entirely different in a socialist society, which would be based on democratic planning of production, resources and communication. The large internet service companies would be publicly owned, as would all other key sectors of the economy and services. Committees at all levels of society consisting of trade unionists, community representatives, young people, etc, all subject to the right of recall by those who elect them, would be able to democratically debate and decide how all new media should be developed. They would also be able to ensure that the news media is free and unrestrained, with a voice being granted to all minority opinions in society in accordance with their level of support. These measures would lay the basis for massive steps forward in freedom of information and communication and would enormously help the development of socialist planned economies and of human interests and talent within them.

This article first appeared in Socialism Today, monthly journal of the CWI in England and Wales