Extraordinary Popular Delusions

"Men… think in herds … they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

Tag: wikileaks

A response to James Ball

In a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free published on Saturday 16th July, James Ball suggests that Bradley Manning’s arrest over a year ago can be primarily attributed to the inherent shortcomings of electronic methods of source protection – rather than, say, the duplicitous and highly unethical conduct of Adrian Lamo.

This is a point of view I have seen expressed before by some of James’ colleagues at the Guardian

and its implicit corollary is that only established media outlets can provide sufficient pastoral support to fully protect sources that have put themselves at great potential risk in order to reveal wrongdoing. If the chat logs are accurate – and of course, in the absence of the record of other side of the conversation, if there is one, we simply can’t say – then Bradley clearly felt the need to confide in someone and, equally clearly, chose the single worst person imaginable.

In this narrow sense, James Ball is quite correct: no amount of technologically-derived protection can guard the identity of someone who decides to send their facebook address to someone they are corresponding with, even if they do so over encrypted protocol. The point of such measures – as I understand them – is to limit the amount of information one reveals involuntarily about identity and location. Ultimately, the security of any information freely volunteered depends on the degree of trust one has in the person it is shared with: but this is true of any method of communication.

The point about the comment attributed to Julian Assange in the chat logs – that he was keen to know as little about his (alleged) sources as possible, to the extent that he would be prefer to be actively misdirected about their identity –  is that freely volunteered information should be as minimised to the same degree as involuntarily revealed information. If this can be achieved, it provides perfect deniability on the part of the publisher.  This is actually important and it is misleading to suggest that this does not provide a certain degree of security that the traditional news media model of source protection cannot. While knowing the identity of a source, getting to know them and establishing a relationship with them might lend itself to a greater degree of personal support, it does mean that the security of that source relies to a large degree on the ability of their confidant to protect them. History tells us that, unfortunately, this cannot always be relied upon.

It is not irrelevant to this discussion that Lamo – again, if the chatlogs are an accurate representation of a conversation that took place – assured Bradley Manning that their conversation would be covered by journalistic standards of source protection:

“I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.”

Adrian Lamo appears to have violated this promise without much compunction, but it is well to realise that actual  journalists, equipped with a sense of professional integrity and ethical awareness, can also come under immense pressure to compromise the assurances they give their own sources. In the US, New York Times reporter James Risen has been subpoenaed to testify at the trial of suspected whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling. Should Risen continue to protect his alleged source in a courtroom (which he has shown every sign of doing) then he is risking a term in prison. This is a great testament to James Risen’s personal and professional integrity, but it does also show that traditional models of source protection rely on an enormous degree of trust. It also indicates that these relationships are made more vulnerable by traditional journalists having to operate in a national context, which is less of a problem for an organisation like WikiLeaks.

Finally, while it may long predate James Ball (and even David Leigh’s!) time at the Guardian, it is probably worth noting that the paper did not withstand political pressure to compromise a source back in 1983. Sarah Tisdall was a junior clerk at the Foreign Office who anonymously sent the Guardian a set of photocopied documents about the presence of US nuclear weapons in the UK. The Guardian, following a court order, handed those documents over to the Government, allowing Tisdall to be identified and prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

In conclusion, those who would release information of critical importance at great potential risk to themselves face a difficult dilemma: to decide to trust in true anonymity – with all the personal resilience that involves – or to have their hands held by someone who might ultimately have the power to slip the handcuffs over them.  Should the Manning/Lamo chatlogs be an accurate reflection of what Bradley was feeling last May, then it is clear he needed someone trustworthy to reach out to. Nevertheless, given the extraordinary pressure that has been brought to bear on Bradley himself over the past year, the continuing US investigations into those who would support him and the treatment the case has received in the mainstream media, I am far from persuaded that that person should have been a journalist.

WikiLeaks and the Espionage Act – how will the US press line up?

Considering that news broke this week of multiple subpoenas being issued by the federal Grand Jury in Virginia investigating WikiLeaks, it surprising how little attention this piece from the Wall Street Journal has attracted, not least as it went to press the day before the subpoenas (maybe just the latest round of them) were issued.  It deserves attention, not because it’s a particularly well-reasoned or thoughtful piece, but because it provides a clue as to how the US press might manage to support US legal action against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, even though any such action could – in theory – be equally applicable to them:

The Espionage Act requires willfully endangering the U.S. It may seem unusual to consider intent in the context of how information flows, but without focusing on intent, the law would raise serious First Amendment issues. Many academics and media commentators—and perhaps overly cautious prosecutors—have missed the point that WikiLeaks is different from the New York Times. It’s the political motivation of Mr. Assange that qualifies him to be prosecuted. The publisher is not liable for its reporting.

We could, unfortunately, see more of this although from the legal documents themselves it looks as though other avenues are also being explored.  From the Washington Post:

“If the Justice Department concludes that a crime has been committed, it will twist itself like a pretzel to avoid using the Espionage Act, not only because it is old and vague but because it raises a number of First Amendment problems for prosecutors,” said Abbe D. Lowell, a Washington defense attorney who has handled leak cases.

U.S. officials would not comment on any subpoenas but indicated that prosecutors are likely to carefully weigh any decision to file charges under the Espionage Act, in part because of First Amendment concerns.

The April 21 letter, first reported by Salon.com, indicated that the individual served with the subpoena was to appear next month before a grand jury to answer questions concerning “possible violations of criminal law.” Possible violations include conspiracy to “knowingly [access] a computer without authorization” and to “knowingly [steal] any record or thing of value” belonging to the government.

“What they are trying to do is find proof that the WikiLeaks people were in a conspiracy with the leaker to get the information,” Lowell said. “If WikiLeaks is involved in the theft or improper access to the information, that’s not protected under the First Amendment.

Guantánamo Files: The Camp No Records

As posted on twitter earlier today, the release today of inmate records from Guantánamo Bay presents us with the opportunity to investigate something rather important.

On the night of 9-10 June 2006, three Guantánamo inmates died in suspicious circumstances. The official report, from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (a heavily redacted version of which is available here) maintains that all three deaths were due to suicide. A report prepared by Seton Hall University pointed out many difficulties in the NCIS report and military whistleblower Joe Hickman later suggested that the three deaths may have been the result of enhanced interrogation techniques carried out at “Camp No”, a secret facility located just off the main Camp America base. Scott Horton later wrote about this at length for Harpers.

Shaker Aamer is the last individual with British connections (he is a resident) to be held at Guantanamo. As the Guardian reports today (Monday) the British Government has lobbied hard for Aamer’s release and neither they or officials in Saudi Arabia, where Aamer holds citizenship, hold that he has any criminal case to answer. According to testimony given to Aamer’s lawyer and cited by Horton in Harpers, Aamer was also subjected to interrogation techniques of questionable international legality on 9-10th June 2006.

The Guantánamo records for Shaker Aamer and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, one of the men who died on 9-10 June 2006, have now been released by The Guardian and Wikileaks respectively. Both men are reported as presenting disciplinary concerns (a “high detention risk”). A later reported suicide, Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih Al Hanashi, is also reported to have been a “high detention risk.”

At the very least this appears to warrant further investigation.

The files of the two other inmates who died on the night of 9-10 June 2006 have yet to be released. They are Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi (of Saudi nationality, ISN 588) and Ali Abdullah Ahmed (a Yemeni citizen also known as Salah Ahmed al-Salami, ISN 693). There is one further death reported as suicide, that of Abdul Rahman Ma’ath Thafir al Amri (Saudi Arabia, ISN 199) and bearing in mind that Muhammad Al-Hanashi’s records denotes a “high detention risk” it would be useful to see Abdul al-Amri’s record too, once it is released.

At present, Wikileaks have released a selection of inmate records (which you can search by name, Internment Serial Number (ISN) and nationality) and the Guardian are providing limited possibilities for searching through all 779 records. At the time of writing, you can filter the Guardian records by nationality, relevance to a particular news story and whether they are one of the 172 currently being held at Camp Delta.

In addition to looking at the individual files above, it would be helpful at this point to ascertain what proportion of those at Guantánamo were reported as presenting disciplinary issues (a “high detention risk”) – James Ball at The Guardian has indicated that he might be able to sort this out (see below), so hopefully more on this soon.


The second part of this post may be found here.