I’ve been following the daily news stories connected with the actions of the four year old Wikileaks group, a website with a mission of shedding light on governmental and corporate abuses of power. This is a fast moving story involving revelations, governmental reactions, and the activities of various shadowy “hacker” groups. It is a conspiracy theorists’ wet dream in which any player can simultaneously be heralded as the puppet of various Intelligence/Military agencies, a fighter for democracy and openness in government and/or an egomaniacal anarchist sex pervert.
I’m not going to try and report on the latest twists in this saga; it’s changing too fast for meaningful analysis. I do hope to provide some meaningful context to follow this story, based on my own experiences in tilting against the windmills of secrecy so endemic to the mindset of the worlds of foreign policy and modern day governance. You see, I’ve walked a few steps in Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s shoes, and think what he’s doing is just plain crazy.
He’s crazy, not because of “life-threatening” leaks as claimed by the establishment—the world isn’t going to end because of this, and some good may actually come out of the revelations. Maybe the feckless and fearless leader of North Korea will realize that much of the world thinks he’s batshit crazy and hire a PR firm. (I doubt it)
The concept that the closed doors of power need to be open to public review isn’t crazy either. The press certainly isn’t doing a very good job of keeping an eye on government. Between 2006 and 2009, news room budgets were cut by $1.6 billion, while the number of documents and other communications containing information labeled secret has risen 1,000 percent over the past dozen years.
And I don’t think it’s crazy to say that we live increasingly in an Age of Secrecy that is the basis for the American Way of War, and increasingly draws the curtains over American democracy. The wars in Pakistan and Yemen are secret wars. The war in Afghanistan is dominated by secret US Special Operations raids and killings. The CIA has its own secret army in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s entire record in Iraq was classified.
I get that there’s something inherently wrong about a Washington’s value system that allows politicians to liken the revelation of embarrassing truths with a capital offense. Where were they when Valerie Plane was outed as a CIA agent by members of the Bush administration? How about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who put our troops at risk in an unnecessary war based on false information?
And I get the irony in the story that the United States, which is currently engaged in a total war against some weird guy with a website, is going to host “World Press Freedom Day,” as the Department of State announced a few days ago? The State Dept press release talks about protecting the flow of digital news, and how Washington is “concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information.”
That said, the effects of the struggle around Wikileaks may well prove to have unintended consequences that go far beyond the expectations of their supporters. And, as for Mr. Assange, I think it’s safe to predict that the future for him and his organization is not going to have much of anything to do with justice, daylight or accountability. He will be marginalized, not allowed to claim martyr status, and the organization squashed like a bug.
This is the way the system works. Assange is like the Tianamen Square tank man, planting himself squarely before the government juggernaut, and refusing to step aside. It makes for an amazing spectacle: This is what it looks like when power squirms. But, trust me, once the tank rolls over him, the secrecy, the corruption and the wars that he hopes to disrupt will continue unabated. His weaknesses will be exploited and spun in ways all deemed necessary to destroy him. Let me share a little history here…
I’m one of the people whose actions a generation ago lead to the enactment of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. This law makes it a federal crime to intentionally reveal the identity of an agent in (or recently in) a covert role with a U.S. Intelligence Agency. This is the law that some say was broken in the name of the greater good of ridding the Bush administration of critics in the War on Terror.
In the 1970’s I was one of the editors of the now-defunct CounterSpy Magazine. Blowing CIA agents’ covers was something we did on a regular basis. We didn’t start or stop with the CIA, either. Nor did we limit ourselves to naming names. In fact, most articles were very old school in the sense that we used public sources combined with a sense of the craft that gave the magazine an almost scholarly feel. The FBI, the NSA and even the Agriculture Department’s (hey, gotta keep them commies off the farms, ya know) intelligence operations all graced our pages.
I joined the group in 1973, having acquired a reputation for reportage on the exploits domestic intelligence agencies and the paramilitary right as one of the editors of the underground San Diego Door. One of our most popular features in the paper was found each fortnight on page two. We would send photographers to anti-war demonstrations to photograph plain-clothes police officers, run their license plates, check them out in the Polk City Directory and voila!, “Undercover Agent Trading Cards” were born, complete with stats and sardonic commentary. Readers were encouraged to collect them and trade them with their friends, just as we all had done with baseball cards in our younger days.
CounterSpy was the brainchild of a group of anti-war veterans whose military service included assignments with assorted clandestine services. I was recruited to give them more depth on the domestic front and because I knew a fair amount about the mechanics involved in publishing. Soon after my arrival in Washington DC, author Norman Mailer adopted the group, promising much needed financial support and credibility.
Author Sam Smith highlights an amusing account of our coming out party with Mailer that was dutifully read into the Congressional Record by a Senate Judiciary Committee investigator:
“Publicity was provided at a March 23, 1974, fundraising wine and cheese party at the home of District of Columbia Gazette editor Sam Smith attended by some 100 guests, each of whom paid $10 each for the privilege of attending. Norman Mailer made a rambling 30-minute speech; the staffers, Timothy Charles Blitz, Perry Fellwock, also known as Winslow Peck, K. Barton Osborn, and Douglas Porter spoke of their counterintelligence activities, and the somewhat besotted liberals in attendance poured two bottles of Portuguese wine into a planter in support of African liberation.”
We soon learned that Mailer’s financial backing was limited by a succession of ex-wives seeking alimony and an on-going dispute with the Internal Revenue Service about back taxes. The publicity surrounding Mailer’s endorsement did lead us into campus speaking engagements, which, for a time, provided us with a steady income.
Later we would join forces with ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, who turned on his former employers after twelve years of clandestine service by publishing “Inside The Company: A CIA Dairy” in 1975. Our connection with Agee, along with a Washingtonian article by John Marks entitled “How to Spot a Spook”, lead us inevitably into the business of outing spies. Given my background with exposing agents in the underground press, I was tasked with creating a regular section in the magazine. We never debated the ethics of this move; it was a given that, whatever small sins we were committing, were more than compensated for by our contribution to the greater good.
During this period, Counterspy evolved into a slicker and more popular periodical. Publishing secret agent’s identities was good for circulation. Looking back on it, it wasn’t that different from what the popular men’s magazines were doing—sandwiching sometimes insightful editorial content in between titillating “exposés”. Growth enabled us to recruit more staff through an internship program; soon decisions that used to be made over draft beer were the subject of daylong meetings. Philosophical discussions evolved into hair-splitting ideological debates. Success and recognition also lead to arrogance and ego-clashes.
Then, in December, 1975, Richard Welch was gunned down as he was returning from a holiday party in Athens, Greece. Welch happened to be the CIA Station Chief in Greece. Counterspy had blown his cover in his capacity as head of the Agency office in Lima, Peru a few months earlier.
Over the next few days, a media firestorm developed. The Agency’s press office, along with a few well-placed “friends”, led the assault, insisting to their sources in the press that CounterSpy was responsible for the terrorist assassination. Reporters demanded answers; TV camera crews camped outside our Dupont Circle offices; we were the lead story on the CBS evening news. The questions followed a predictable pattern, ending up with the espionage world’s equivalent of “When did you stop beating your wife?”.
The editorial page denunciations in the following weeks were followed by random death threats. Our collective paranoia soared as we were shunned in many formerly friendly quarters. It was time to circle the wagons, a move that seemed wise a few months later with the car-bomb assassination of Chilean Human Rights activists Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit just a few blocks from the CounterSpy offices.
This isolation served to intensify the internal conflicts already present within the group. At a clandestine meeting called in a “safe location” (we assumed that our normal haunts were all bugged), these conflicts came to a head. What seeming started out as yet another criticism-self criticism session turned ugly quick. I stood horrified as I was (falsely) accused of being an undercover agent for the government.
Now the shoe was on the other foot. The “outer” became the “outed”. After three years of living, working and breathing CounterSpy, I was cut off. Shunned by former associates, unemployed and fearful that I could be a target of retribution from either side, I sank into the depths of depression…
Fast-forward to thirty years later. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald launches an investigation into whether the Intelligence Identities Act was violated was violated when Robert Novak “outed” Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, takes the fall, convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to federal investigators. President Bush commutes his sentence, effectively eliminating the last chance that investigators will ever uncover the trail of evidence that almost surely leads to Presidential advisor Karl Rove and the Vice President.
Still, it’s no secret that Plame’s cover was blown by the administration as retribution for her husband’s role in critiquing the justifications for the invasion of Iraq. Conservative backers of the war even justified those actions using what became known as the “CounterSpy Defense”. The Washington Times, among others, asserted that the administration’s actions were permissible because her role as an agent had previously been revealed elsewhere, just as we at CounterSpy asserted that Richard Welch’s assassination was more likely the result of his Athens residence being publicly known for many years as the home for the CIA Station Chief.
The irony of this situation is apparently missed by the conservatives that denounced CounterSpy and Phillip Agee as traitors in the hearings leading up to the passage of the Identities Act.
For me, the experiences of watching Plamegate and Wikileaks unfold have brought long suppressed memories and ethical quandaries to the surface. The practice of ignoring moral and legal pitfalls in a quest to defeat the “greater threat” inevitably leads to becoming no different than the enemy. I can only hope that the current batch of administration apologists can some day find the courage to admit that they have become as one with the forces they so unreservedly label as the “enemies of freedom”. Assange seems, based on his writings, ideologically driven not only to expose secrets to the light of day, but to bring down “the system” as a whole. He believes that some day he will find the Holy Grail of secrets that reveal the Big Lie that governs the world.
Julian Assange is not a terrorist. He’s not using violence to carry out political objectives. But in reaction to what he perceives as an innate injustice, both he and the jihadis are willing to take steps that they believe will make the US more imperial in the short term — in Al Qaeda’s case, acts of terrorism that inspire American military interventions in the Muslim world; in Assange’s case, revelations that instigate ever-greater secrecy and centralization, hoping that the system will eventually collapse under its own weight.
The trouble is that our national security state is more durable than either Assange or Osama bin Laden seem to think. Which means that their efforts at disruption have little chance (by design) of prompting any real reforms in the system they scorn, and a considerable chance of just making life worse for everybody, inside and outside the United States government alike.
One man against the world is crazy. Building a movement, changing minds and having the necessary discipline to stay the course in the face of repression, hostile opposition and the world as defined by Faux news takes time. What we need to be watching here is the story beyond the story: the war over control of the Internet, and whether or not the Internet can actually serve its ultimate purpose—which is to allow people collectively to democratize the checks on the world’s rich and powerful.