Volatility

October 24, 2010

Transparency, Wikileaks, and Odious Secrecy

 

Today the people are the beneficiaries of the latest Wikileaks document delivery, nearly 400,000 pieces of information touching on every aspect of the horrors of the Iraq war of aggression. I’ve previously written about Wikileaks here and here.
 
We ought to be the beneficiaries, if we choose to use this opportunity to learn about the crimes of this system. Unfortunately the previous deliveries didn’t have much immediate effect on the shocking complacency of what may be a terminal slave populace. But it’s too early to know how the beer will taste until it’s fully brewed. These things sometimes fester underground, like the flame that can slowly smoulder its way invisible through miles of subterranean pine needles before it bursts into the air as wildfire.
 
We have no idea what the tipping points will be, and what gradual, organic forces and tensions will have undermined the balance to the point of sudden imbalance.
 
However that may be, sunlight is a pure value. It warms, it invigorates the air, conjures the photosynthetic basis of complex life. It illuminates, it directs, it teaches, it inspires.
 
And while as individual human beings we also need and are entitled to our shade and shadow and our night as well, no one has the right to block out the sun. The information our society creates belongs to us all. It is our property as citizens. It’s our social sunlight, which illumines our collective truths. Top down secrecy is odious. It’s a theft of public property. It’s a characteristic crime of tyranny, committed for the obvious reason of concealing from us the rest of their crimes against us. It’s also done for its own sake, out of the inertia of power and the haughty sense of entitlement of elitism itself. It’s the smothering fog coughed up to obscure our sun. It’s shoving us into the grave dug for us, and the shoveling of sterile dirt upon our heads. Secrecy is death.
 
There’s certainly no “practical” reason for it. America has no existential enemies, except the criminals themselves. And even its lesser terrorist enemies are not a threat worth all we’ve pusillanimously surrendered to them. They’re mostly a threat to the elite empire, not to the citizenry. And it’s the empire’s war which creates the terrorists anyway. The Arab world long ago got sick of jihad. Only US aggression still fans those flames. So the pretext for the secrets is the same crime which generates the opposition whose alleged threat is supposed to justify the secrets. This is the same crime whose details the secrecy seeks to cover up. We’ll find that this applies in every example, not just the war.
 
So secrecy has no practical purpose or moral validity. Secrecy can only be part of legitimate sovereignty to the point it is absolutely necessary on account of some existential threat. Where, as in our case, this threat is nonexistent, the justification is nonexistent. So to the rest of our indictment we can add that a secretive government is an illegitimate government. In our case secrecy is not part of sovereignty, but is only instrumental toward tyranny.
 
Julian Assange of Wikileaks is an eloquent articulator and relentless activist of this ideal.
 

WikiLeaks receives about thirty submissions a day, and typically posts the ones it deems credible in their raw, unedited state, with commentary alongside. Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.” Because Assange publishes his source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative…..

Assange does not believe that the military acts in good faith with the media. He said to me, “What right does this institution have to know the story before the public?”…….

In some respects, Assange appeared to be most annoyed by the journalistic process itself—“a craven sucking up to official sources to imbue the eventual story with some kind of official basis,” as he once put it. WikiLeaks has long maintained a complicated relationship with conventional journalism. When, in 2008, the site was sued after publishing confidential documents from a Swiss bank, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and ten other news organizations filed amicus briefs in support. (The bank later withdrew its suit.) But, in the Bunker one evening, Gonggrijp told me, “We are not the press.” He considers WikiLeaks an advocacy group for sources; within the framework of the Web site, he said, “the source is no longer dependent on finding a journalist who may or may not do something good with his document.”

Assange, despite his claims to scientific journalism, emphasized to me that his mission is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events. In an invitation to potential collaborators in 2006, he wrote, “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations.” He has argued that a “social movement” to expose secrets could “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the US administration.”

 
And here:
 

This information has reform potential. And the information which is concealed or suppressed is concealed or suppressed because the people who know it best understand that it has the ability to reform. So they engage in work to prevent that reform . . . .

There are reasons I do it that have to do with wanting to reform civilization, and selectively targeting information will do that — understanding that quality information is what every decision is based on, and all the decisions taken together is what “civilization” is, so if you want to improve civilization, you have to remove some of the basic constraints, which is the quality of information that civilization has at its disposal to make decisions. Of course, there’s a personal psychology to it, that I enjoy crushing bastards, I like a good challenge, so do a lot of the other people involved in WikiLeaks. We like the challenge.

 
He writes in his manifesto, “Conspiracy as Governance”,
 

He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks”—one of his favorite expressions—that contort the human spirit. He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.

 
The organization is a model of rhizomatic resilience and redundancy:
 

Assange is an international trafficker, of sorts. He and his colleagues collect documents and imagery that governments and other institutions regard as confidential and publish them on a Web site called WikiLeaks.org. Since it went online, three and a half years ago, the site has published an extensive catalogue of secret material, ranging from the Standard Operating Procedures at Camp Delta, in Guantánamo Bay, and the “Climategate” e-mails from the University of East Anglia, in England, to the contents of Sarah Palin’s private Yahoo account. The catalogue is especially remarkable because WikiLeaks is not quite an organization; it is better described as a media insurgency. It has no paid staff, no copiers, no desks, no office. Assange does not even have a home. He travels from country to country, staying with supporters, or friends of friends—as he once put it to me, “I’m living in airports these days.” He is the operation’s prime mover, and it is fair to say that WikiLeaks exists wherever he does. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers from around the world help maintain the Web site’s complicated infrastructure; many participate in small ways, and between three and five people dedicate themselves to it full time. Key members are known only by initials—M, for instance—even deep within WikiLeaks, where communications are conducted by encrypted online chat services. The secretiveness stems from the belief that a populist intelligence operation with virtually no resources, designed to publicize information that powerful institutions do not want public, will have serious adversaries……

Assange also wanted to insure that, once the video was posted online, it would be impossible to remove. He told me that WikiLeaks maintains its content on more than twenty servers around the world and on hundreds of domain names. (Expenses are paid by donations, and a few independent well-wishers also run “mirror sites” in support.) Assange calls the site “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis,” and a government or company that wanted to remove content from WikiLeaks would have to practically dismantle the Internet itself……..

As it now functions, the Web site is primarily hosted on a Swedish Internet service provider called PRQ.se, which was created to withstand both legal pressure and cyber attacks, and which fiercely preserves the anonymity of its clients. Submissions are routed first through PRQ, then to a WikiLeaks server in Belgium, and then on to “another country that has some beneficial laws,” Assange told me, where they are removed at “end-point machines” and stored elsewhere. These machines are maintained by exceptionally secretive engineers, the high priesthood of WikiLeaks. One of them, who would speak only by encrypted chat, told me that Assange and the other public members of WikiLeaks “do not have access to certain parts of the system as a measure to protect them and us.” The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network, which sends Internet traffic through “virtual tunnels” that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but “this is vastly more secure than any banking network.”

 
This is a new model for the kind of sunlight activism we need. Imagine a whole media system dedicated to such recovery of the people’s stolen information. (I’m of course referring to collective public information, regarding politics, the economy, business, foreign policy. Just as with property in general, the personally used item or information belongs to the individual; the collective infrastructure belongs to those who build it.) We can know our need for so many suns as we survey the wasteland of odious secrecy. I’ll just select some of the examples from some of the fronts.
 
The Banks:
 
So many secrets of the Bailout. The Fed’s still stonewalling the fight for sunlight which has outlived its originator, Bloomberg reporter Mark Pittman. Will we ever know how much taxpayer money was embezzled by the Fed’s “facilities” and arcane Treasury programs? How much was handed to the banks practically for free to let them gamble against our economy, prosperity, and society?
 
No sooner was the sham finance bill passed than it came to light (heh) that the bill contained a provision allowing the SEC to keep practically all of its activities veiled from the FOIA. Although Congress went through the charade of “fixing” this “oversight”, even the fix still adjures the SEC to protect the secrets of hedge funds.
 
So there’s a good example of what the sham finance “reform” bill was really about. Since they were worried that SEC activities which were subject to FOIA requests could become a conduit for throwing sunlight on the shadow banking system, they used the bill as a mechanism for indirectly gutting the FOIA where it comes to the finance sector. We should look for such anti-FOIA gambits in every other kind of bill.
 
Mortgages:
 
Among its many vectors of criminality, the MERS system is meant to cause all mortgage information to disappear down a black hole. But the land belongs to the people, and the banks have no right to secrets over it. Why should we ever agree that some secret system vouches for the ownership of land? It’s not bad enough we have private property in land on the part of unproductive bankster “owners”, but this system of ownership is also being kept secret from we the people, from whom this potentially productive land was stolen in the first place?
 
The truth is that the banks themselves have long since lost track of this ownership, and abrogated the chain of title beyond redemption. Part of the point of MERS was to carry that out, and now part of its point is to conceal it.
 
Even a neoliberal propertarian like Hernando de Soto deplores this assault on transparency, considering it subversive of property rights. Among the criteria he lists for stability of the property regime are that all assets and transactions be listed on publicly accessible registries, that all finance deals must stay closely tied to the real value of the underlying asset (so it follows that this value must be transparent), and that government must forbid opacity and obfuscation in the language of market transactions.
 
(I mention de Soto to demonstrate that a leading neoliberal concurs in the assessment that the MERS system, including its secretiveness, has called landed property itself into quesion.)
 
The Health “Insurance” Rackets:
 
They’re notorious for total darkness where it comes to pricing. (Doctors and hospitals are guilty of that too.) The customer has practically no basis for cost comparison or any kind of understanding of why he’s being quoted the rate he’s experiencing. The racket bailout bill alleges it will change that, but we’re already seeing how well the bill’s provisions are being enforced.
 
Internet Access and Participation:
 
The telecoms and cable companies have so far mostly refrained from transmission discrimination because they fear political fallout and a consumer backlash. But the formal enshrinement of net neutrality has become all the more critical as the technology now exists to let the telecoms discriminate in a secretive manner.
 
(The FCC’s proposed net neutrality principles, even if enshrined, may actually be pretty weak against such secret discrimination. But one fight at a time. Let’s get a basic net neutrality enshrinement, and then we’ll improve it.)
 
Food:
 
The FDA, a corporate tool, has done all it can to keep secrets from the American people about the safety and costs of their own food. It seeks to ban GMO-free labeling. Although it hasn’t (yet) banned bovine growth hormone labeling, it allows and is encouraging states to do so. Recently a federal court overturned an Ohio state ban where the Agriculture Department sought to intervene on behalf of the state.
 
The Obama administration also continues the Bush tradition of refusing to update public environmental databases even where required by law. In this case the USDA has refused to update its pesticide use database since 2007.
 
The Gulf Oil Eruption:
 
Perhaps the most chilling secrecy event, imposed not by stealth and bureaucracy but by brute force, was Obama’s literal handing over of (anti-)sovereign jurisdiction over much of the US part of the Gulf of Mexico to BP. Federal employees openly said they could only do or allow what BP authorized, and federal agents became de facto privatized deputiesWe still know almost nothing about what’s really happening in the Gulf, and while we’ll eventually know the full effects if only by experience, the system criminals will do all they can to keep our information from us as long as they can, to our economic and health detriment.
 
(With all of these, we should recall the sick joke out of Chicago, how markets were going to be “free” and “efficient” and “rational” since all “participants” would have all the necessary information. But as I described in my deconstruction of the ideological and “constitutional” rationale for the Stamp mandate, we were really never considered participants in this utopian market, but passive subjects, clay to be worked, a resource to be mined, victims. That’s the full Orwellian truth of neoclassical economics. So there also lies their explanation for how Secrecy = Transparency. Their theory was only ever meant to apply to the elites themselves.)
 
It’s easy to see how many powerful interests are ranged against the people’s sunlight. So it’s also no surprise that Assange and Wikileaks have been demonized by the government, the MSM, and conservative and liberal hacks alike. (Including quite a few of the “real progressives” who oppose Obama, but who nevertheless as liberals remain elitists and still viscerally abhor the ideal that the elites are entitled to no secrets at all.)
 
The fact that such an array of criminals has assembled against Wikileaks is a metric of its effectiveness, and even more, of its perceived threat, and a badge of honor. We can expect every kind of tactic to be deployed against Assange and the rest of the team, but the aspirations of the organization and the task may just withstand the onslaught. It’ll help if more people and organizations follow on this path.
 
We who reject the existence of the “elites” also reject their nonexistent right to keep secrets. Every leak against the will of the elites is a restitution of stolen property. Wikileaks is in fact an agent of law and order, and its people are part of the human citizenry.
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14 Comments

  1. How’s that transparency working for US: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-25/u-s-treasury-shielding-of-citigroup-with-deletions-make-foia-meaningless.html

    Comment by tawal — October 25, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    • I just read the update at Naked Capitalism.

      Here’s my comment from there:

      As the public are the owners of Citi and all the other zombie banks, all their information is our property. They must affirmatively publicize all information. That’s a minimum consequence of the Bailout.

      By definition all government information is our property and must be publicized unless there’s some actual existential threat to us. No such threat exists on earth today. So it follows that government has zero right to any secrets whatsoever.

      So information regarding the interaction of government and bailed-out banks (a redundant compound noun,really; these banks could not and do not exist except as parasites on the government, i.e. on the people) is doubly public property.

      The government’s stonewalling on transparency is a primary case study in two things:

      1. Proof that the government consciously sees itself as the servant of Wall Street, and the people as the enemy.

      2. The government’s general hatred for democracy and elitist contempt for the people.

      Comment by Russ — October 26, 2010 @ 4:03 am

  2. The customer has practically no basis for cost comparison or any kind of understanding of why he’s being quoted the rate he’s experiencing.

    That’s because profits on the scale we see today mostly come from market capture, secrecy, and monopoly power. It’s practically impossible to be profitable over the medium term in a pure market situation – as anyone who has worked in a open market situation knows. The way to maintain profitability is to use one’s initial leverage – often obtained through thievery – to stomp out the competition and buy political power. Thus we have health care cartels, cable, insurance (legally required for a variety of essential things), usurious credit card rates, and the like.

    Comment by purple — October 25, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    • Absolutely. According to the capitalists’ own textbooks profits should trend toward a minimum as the sector matures.

      The Rule of Rackets is the process of counteracting that. It should the the basis for the real textbook.

      Comment by Russ — October 26, 2010 @ 4:00 am

  3. That’s why the State and its legal and military apparatus is an essential component of Capitalism – which has very little to do with ‘markets’ except in the imagination of its more naive proponents. Markets were around for thousands of years – in every corner of the globe – before modern day Capitalism evolved out of the ashes of the Dark Ages in Europe.

    Comment by purple — October 25, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    • Yes, there are plenty of alternatives to capitalism which still aren’t “communism”.

      Comment by Russ — October 26, 2010 @ 4:02 am

  4. Here’s a great sighting of Assange walking out of a typical corporate/tabloid CNN interview:

    http://thisislikesogay.blogspot.com/2010/10/kid-we-dont-like-your-kind.html

    Assange’s conduct provides a good model for the situation any publicly identifiable dissident is likely to encounter. He remains calm in the face of the oblivious hack and responds to her tabloid questions tolerantly, but only up to a limit. He then says I’m done with the tabloid crap, and we can either talk about the real issue or this interview is over.

    She of course is unwilling, and probably congenitally unable, to conduct the interview on a professional level. So at that point he terminates it.

    Comment by Russ — October 26, 2010 @ 8:26 am

    • The interview video in the link Russ posted is blocked in the US on “copyright grounds”. An edited version is available on cnn’s website, which I will not dignify with a direct link but can easily be googled.

      Comment by reslez — October 26, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

      • Sorry about that. They must’ve taken it down over the course of yesterday.

        Basically, he answers her questions about reports of internal strife at Wikileaks even though that’s a diversion from the real issue of what the document delivery is about (you know, torture, war crimes, mass murder, war as vector of corporate corruption, all that trivial stuff which is so boring to the MSM).

        When she then presses on with questions about the sex assault allegations against him he balks. He says he’s not going to discuss that and that they had wasted enough time with nonsense, when the real issue is Iraq.

        (She had been saying the internal strife at Wikileaks was an intrinsically important issue, and now she was trying to say the same thing regarding any personal legal issues he has, that they could affect Wikileaks itself or something. But of course it’s incoherent to care about what might indirectly affect Wikileaks if you don’t care about the core mission itself, which she and the rest of the hacks clearly do not. So clearly the point of her questioning was to misdirect and if possible smear, not to gauge the health of the organization.)

        When she refuses to drop the tabloid stuff, he walks out.

        Comment by Russ — October 27, 2010 @ 5:46 am

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