Saturday, December 04, 2010

What Did You Think Was Going to Happen?

Way too many people out in Ye Olde Blogosphere are getting their collective knickers in a twist over the reality that - GASP! - wikileaks is getting shut down by a combination of government and commercial actors.

Grow. The. Fuck. Up.

First., let's dispense with the notion that Julian Assange is doing some service to mankind by vomiting up a set of diplomatic cables provided to him and his operation by parties unknown. This is not some take down of empire, and has more than likely contributed to strengthening exactly the most imperialistic elements in the various governments mentioned in these cables. It has been the occasion for some posturing and high-fives over showing that US a thing or two, and has given the conspiracy theorists toys to play with as they sit at their computers screens performing their intellectual masturbation for all the world to see. If you are convinced, like a good Jacobin, that government as such is always already corrupt and in need of overthrow, then this is "proof" of the "crimes". If you understand that the use and abuse of power is a given in the affairs of states, then you cringe to see the damage done to ordinary diplomatic maneuvers for no purpose save to be obstreperous.

You can't make a government agree stop being one, especially by calling it names. You can sometimes get a government to stop a particular course of action by making that action so problematic between the government and its citizens and/or other governments that there is no advantage to the government in continuing that action. Even then, it's an uphill battle that will probably deflect or delay rather than halt the problematic action.

The problem with wikileaks is that there is no call to action on it. It is a publicity stunt by Assange - see how clever I am! See how I can piss people off! Oh, poor, poor me, persecuted by the big bad US!

Ironically enough, what the wikileaks imbroglio demonstrates is how unlike the current administration is from the conspiracy spinners' fever dreams of Big Brother. Assange's freedom of movement is being constrained by Sweden because of a criminal charge there, one that I find all too believable. The US has known of his document stash for some time and has not seized it because, what do you know, they have no legal standing to do so. It is investigating the US military and other government personnel who may have provided the documents in the first place, which is what anyone would do if they discovered they'd been robbed. They are putting out their own interpretation of the situation, which is pretty much what any person or entity would do when facing bad public news.

There seems to be a lot of outrage that  the US is doing anything at all to prevent release of more information or to do anything in the way of damage control. News flash - nations will defend themselves when attacked. This is a feature, not a bug. The argument takes the form of "You're a big meanie and an imperialist power and I hatehatehate you so how dare you do anything to contradict my worst opinions of you!" The infantile ids on display are simply embarrassing to read. There is also a mutually contradictory stance that A) these are so damning it will stop the US in its tracks and expose its criminal core and B) the documents can't possibly do any collateral damage. If A is true, B is a given. The problem is that A can be untrue, yet B can still occur. The less specific and more general the communiques, the less likely A will be and the more likely B.

Much is being made of the incredible shrinking digital island wikileaks sits on. The US must be behind all of the attacks! Yes and no.

Looking at what's happening to Assange and his ego project, you're actually observing an example of how states defend their interests. The US has stated its case and asked for other entities to not distribute the materials. That's really all it has to do. It now is concentrating on damage control with the partners and adversaries who appeared in the cables. To think that it would do anything besides this is a failure of rational analysis.

The denial of service attacks wikileaks is experiencing are probably coming from criminal bot networks at the behest of governments who were embarrassed by the releases, but not the US. Claims that the DNS organization was "told" to drop wikileaks DNS record shows a profound ignorance of how denial of service attacks really do cause exactly the effect the company described. My bets are on China as the instigator because A) they've done this in the past and B) the embarrassment of having their internal actions exposed for international mockery is one of those "collateral damage" things I mentioned above. All of the various efforts on the Korean peninsula to keep North Korea from going off the deep end are now at risk. It may be nothing to you, writing from the safety of your apartment in New York or London, that quiet negotiations have been shaken up like a crate of soda bottles, but it matters a great deal to the millions living in that region near a border with a nuclear-armed batshit crazy dictator of a deeply paranoid nation. Me saying critical things of North Korea is negligible because I am a nobody writing my personal opinion. To see comparable sentiments as part of an official communication between states now makes it, if you will, actionable.

Amazon and PayPal are both dropping business relations with Assange because of legal liability for doing business with someone peddling stolen goods. They don't need a call from a government to calculate their rational business self interest, and I tend to classify Lieberman's aide's call as having more to do with the Senator's self-interest than anything else. Expecting commercial entities to bear the cost (in more ways than one) of political actions by an outside customer is laughable. These companies exist to make money, not support political causes. They have no obligation to assist Assange's promotion of his agenda. This also gets to the situations of Internet service providers. If a domain server (in truth, server bank) is being killed by DDoS, that's a hell of an attack, much greater than just flooding a single under-powered and over-loaded server with a rush of page requests. That DNS vendor had obligations to all of its customers, not just wikileaks, and made a rational decision to drop that record from its domain server.

The point here is that you don't need central coordination from some US-run command and control office for a variety of actors to end up at the same spot. Assange is releasing mountains of stuff in a general broadside against pretty much every moderately powerful nation on the globe and they are acting to defend their own interests. Duh. The seeming banality of the cables is the true motivating factor for the reactions because their exposure destroys the arena for ordinary diplomatic give and take. It raises the costs and risks of interacting with other nations because, frankly, the variance between public face and private actions is where diplomacy has the chance to turn around explosive situations. To attack this mode of interaction as such is why wikileaks is being steadily, methodically shut down.

Had the release been smaller and targeted to a specific set of actions or problems, I strongly suspect it would stand a greater chance of remaining in the public space because of its specificity. Exposure of government behavior needs a case or an argument to say why X behavior is wrong, which also means demonstrating that it is in violation of law or agreement, or that there has been a misrepresentation of such a degree that national interests have been damaged. The Pentagon Papers could stand because it was clear that the misrepresentation was deliberate and aimed at fooling the nation itself. Likewise the photos of Abu Ghraib showed torture being performed. The diplomatic cables for the most part are the antithesis of this - blunt and honest evaluations of other actors that are in the US's interest to know.

So, I have to ask, what did anyone think was going to happen as a result of Assange's dump on the world? That the governments would just stand there, wringing their hands, and vowing to do better?

They are moving to protect their interests, which is the normal and predictable behavior of states.



Romberry said...

I've read a lot of really bad posts about Wikileaks, but yours is in the top ten worst. It read like a tantrum and not much more. There was almost nothing accurate in what you said and no evidence of any thought behind it at all. I was embarrassed for you as I read it. I believe that one day you'll look back on it with embarrassment for having written it.

JM said...

I disagree, but Firedog lake is being idiotic about the rape charges:

Mike J. said...

Generally speaking I agree with you, and I love to read your analyses, but on this issue we see it differently. I think Glenn Greenwald has hit the nail on the head here. Irrespective of what one might think of Assange, and I don't dispute your characterization of his motives, they have provided a useful service, and the unhinged reaction Wikileaks elicits (Glenn lists a few examples) suggests we are all facing a grave threat to our civil liberties. If wikileaks is shut down, is Assange is arrested and prosecuted, it will not be a good day for any of us.

Anglachel said...

Hi Mike,

First off, thank you for offering an argument instead of a personal attack. My inbox is pretty rank at the moment, as you can see from the sample I've released.

I think you misunderstand the point of this specific post. I'm not saying that states are right to shut the site down. I'm already on record saying I don't think it should be shut down. My point is that states act in a predictable way and I'm both annoyed and amused by the fulminating over completely normal behavior from states.

I'm not the slightest bit convinced that Assange has done anyone any good, except the far right, and even then it's not in the way people think. I'll have a post about that. The way I would characterize it is that he has acted ideologically rather than politically and thus has endangered both.

The left blogosphere is prematurely making him into a hero simply for acting out a vengeance fantasy. People keep saying he has performed a useful service, but I can't see that he has. What advantage has been gained? Specific, concrete advantage.

I disagree that all reactions to the release are "unhinged". Calls for violence against him or any one connected to the site are revolting and to be condemned. I find the immediate reaction of the US government, playing up how State Department staff may be endangered, more than a bit disingenuous. Anyone who defended the release of Valerie Plame's information has no leg to stand on.

Even so, there are reasons to reject the general release of documents (vs. specific and targeted information that identified particular incidents) on both diplomatic and strategic grounds. I'm not talking about government strategy, either; I'm talking about whistle blowing strategy. The State Dept. directive for staff not to read the material has a lot to do with defending that staff over what is going to come with the new Congress, which I will be discussing later.

Again, thanks for objecting in a civil way. I don't think we'll convince each other, but push back is good.


StephenAG said...

Aw, geez, Anglachel. Now you can't possibly believe that our brand-spanking new Congress would find the time to waste over some silly Wikileaks brouhaha, right? Darrell Issa has other things to do than investigate that trivial matter. It would be like wasting time on a failed land deal in Arkansas...

Oh snap...! Time for Conspiracy Brother to put his hat back on!

Anglachel said...

Hi Stephen,

Yeah, little things like that. And, oddly enough, Assange will only be a side show since he isn't the primary target. Cold comfort for him.


Cathy said...

Real life has kept me from visiting for awhile. But how lovely to find you still skewering the pompous on all sides.

Assange's information "dump" (pun intended) harmed far more than Internet traffic. It helped destroy relationships among people (diplomats, business people, and citizens). Without the ability to freely (read privately) exchange information we end up living in the paranoid state his follows claim to hate.

Problems are best solved through collaboration. Its even better when all sides can gather at the proverbial table and contribute. Yes, we must talk to people and share power with people we don't like or agree. The time of a two power nation world ended a long time ago.

Unfortunately collaboration only occurs when all sides feel self-confident as opposed to self-righteous. Having an agenda tied to improving real people's lives (i.e. reality) as opposed to promoting ideological purity (fantasy) helps a whole lot.

Keep going, girl!

bornagaindem said...

Normally I love everything you write but I am not sure what your argument is in this case.

It is my understanding that all of the cables so far released are the ones that the Guardian , the NY Times and Der Spiegel have used to write their stories. I do not see their websites being shut down by amazon, credit card companies and their bank accounts being frozen by Switzerland? So it is ok to go after the middle man, Julian Assange, with these undemocratic methods (and no it does not surprise me that the US uses these tactics all the time) but let the newspapers that also used these cables to be unaffected? Sorry but that is not ok with me.

I was not for the release of these cables initially and I am not sure I think all of them have been of use. I do not think you can do diplomacy in the open and so I think these things should not be public. But it is the government itself that is to blame if these things get out not the guy who provided the outlet to make them public. And it is a threat to our civil liberties just as McCarthy was a threat to our civil liberties to allow our government to bring their full force against a single citizen threatening his life and labeling him a terrorist without responding to it as a citizen. If I say nothing how long will it be before they come me.