July 2010 Archives

WikiLeaks and the Churches - Hacking, Journalism, Government...

Does WikiLeaks show us the possibility of the "World Wide Web"? Or is it a sinister threat to our sacred institutions?

Only The Government is Qualified to Redact?

Last weekend, as everyone knows, WikiLeaks posted documents that uncover the mundane details, the daily dirt of the Afghanistan war. The leak is unique in its sheer volume. It's also unique in that information is not condensed to a seconds long news flash with an explanation provided by a general or government official, in order to insulate us from the shock value war carnage. War is ugly and complicated, as described in all the books about the Iraq war that many people read, like Fiasco; or one I liked, Rory Stewart's The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. But for other citizens in the US and watchers of cable news, the wars abroad are remote and easy to ignore.

The WikiLeaks documents challenge the our architected ignorance of war by documenting unsavory details of our country's various "allies", the killing of civilians by wayward drones, intelligence mistakes, and small details like the attempted poisoning of an American geologist. In short, the everyday deaths, maimings, destructions and deceptions. War is of course, war.

Assange asserts that in airing these documents, he hopes citizens pressure the government, and that the details revealed embarrass some generals and goad them to behave better. While Assange has his agenda, involved states struggle to frame the leak within their agendas. Citizens have been barraged with guidance from official and unofficial sources about how much attention to pay to the deluge of unsettling news. At first most officials advised there was No New "News", which could mean anything, but seemed to implore: Pay no attention! Pay no attention! That compelled WikiLeaks and some news outlets to argue that indeed, This Was New News, detailing line item after line item of the gory "new news".

So then commentators put forth a more nuanced stance. Take the statements of Stewart A. Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy for the United States Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, who talked with Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute in "Dangerous Leaks", on BloggingHeads TV today. There was no "new news", Baker said, but new details about people and places that endangered military strategy and individuals. When told by Sanchez that WikiLeaks was redacting information in 15,000 docs to prevent that sort of thing, Baker responded that WikiLeaks was inept at that task because they couldn't know which information was dangerous. WikiLeaks could only pretend to protect sources and individuals in the documents, Baker said. The government was far more qualified to know which information to redact when they released information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But even the government made mistakes he said. In other words, we are told not to pay no attention because the news is not important, then told that the news endangers people and it must be stopped, then told that we should have asked the government to give us the important news that the didn't give us in the first place. What are we supposed to think about these contradicting statements? Will anarchy break out if the public knows more via "unofficial sources"?

House of Critics

It's not just governments who pursue Assange. Competing organizations in the "important leaked documents space" also criticize WikiLeaks and the personal motives of Assange. The owner of Cryptome says WikiLeaks' mission is corrupted by money. Steven Aftergood, of Secrecy News blog, has said that WikiLeaks threatens individual liberties by disclosing documents for disclosure's sake. Other hackers have accused WikiLeaks of endangering national security.

Some naysayers have other disputes. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called accused Assange of not working with journalists, saying:

"This is not journalism...did they write stories, talk to sources, analyze the information, go to the government for a response or put it in context? Did they do something to inform the public about what these documents show? No."

Still others accuse WikiLeaks of working under the mantle of transparency, but operating in a completely opaque fashion. Following the New Yorker's June 7th article on Assange: "No Secrets: Julian Assange's Mission for Total Transparency", one letter to the editor of The New Yorker criticized Assange's leak history, citing inconsistencies between his stated goals and the history of his actions: "On the surface, [Assange's] ideology seems to say: Full transparency leads to greater honesty and a better global society.", the letter writer wrote, "But why then publish private church data intended for the use of its leaders?"

This specific quote refers to the release of Church of Scientology leak described in the June 7th article. But let's consider that. The Church of Scientology has its awful secrets. Other churches, for instance the Catholic Church, and its leaders, also squirreled away very private church data for centuries. Only when many brave victims, mostly young boys, stepped forward to reveal the priests' transgressions was the destructive force of those private crimes revealed. If technology had enabled a leak earlier? Would some of those crimes been prevented?

The Sacrosanct Institutions and Freedom of Information

The letter to the New Yorker editor might as well have been referencing the "church" of government. It could have been referencing the church of the military, the church of hacking, or the church of journalism, all sacrosanct institutions to some.

Look for instance at "the church" of journalism. What is "journalism" these days? Is it a useful tool for eliciting government response and context as Lucy Dalglish says? Or is journalism, due to technology and psychology research, more and more the public relations arm of institutions? Does it live up to its potential? Do we really need generals to put war incidents in context for us? Or, as citizens, can we be enticed to be both interested and trusted as intelligent judges of how effectively our tax money is being used in wars? Or is that a fairy tale? More pragmatically, isn't there just too much information for the fourth estate to efficiently parse?

You don't need the FOIA to access WikiLeaks' cache of secret documents. The government has (at least momentarily) lost a tiny bit of control, as have the government journalists. The Church of Scientology has fewer secrets. Assange asserts that this is a good thing and that it was all his goal. We don't know. Long ago, when the internet first came to be, some crazy people thought it would provide a new frontier for open information, would break the barriers erected by states. But ordinary citizens have always found themselves on the wrong side of information asymmetry when it came to knowing what governments were up to. Does WikiLeaks shows another possibility? Maybe in this new age, as Obama promised, government will be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Maybe the Obama government will accomplish its stated transparent information goals. But perhaps all the transparency won't all be found at sites like transparency.gov in the cloud. But maybe Open Government will be defined by citizens too.

Spies Like Us

Thoughts on Spying

It's a spy filled summer, with movies like Inception and Salt -- one really enjoyable, the other not so much -- but both filled with evil doers and secretive characters up to who knows what. Then you exit the movies, glance around, and realize the world really is up to its ears in spying. Espionage messes in Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan...and everywhere else. But spying is complicated business, more complicated than figuring out what level everyone's in in the movie Inception, and more complicated than science too. Some people make a career of trying to convince you global warming is a conspiracy, but in the end (hopefully figurative), everyone will know that the climatologists were right. But at the "end" of spy stories, who knows?

  • New Century, Old Cold War?

    Take, for example, the recent rounding up of Russian spies hunkered down for years in the US. The US hosted "spy ring" turned out to be an eclectic assortment of suburbanites working at random places like Spanish-language newspapers in New York. Then suddenly one week, to chorus of guffaws about their inefficacy, the spies were quickly swapped for four imprisoned Russian nationals.

    Following the diplomatic swap, last weekend Vladamir Putin welcomed the 10 spies from the US back to Russia, and together they sang Soviet era patriotic songs like "How The Motherland Begins." The ten must have been thrilled, having been holed up in America for so long, but the glee club welcome must have been grating for homesick Soviet spies still salted away in the US.

    The Bush era reignited US public awareness of spying, and led some people to suspect that the administration was intent on returning to the Cold War Era. The Obama administration seems to be carrying on the trend. By most media accounts the Russian spies were throwbacks from the Soviet era, except strangely without the lethal weapons on the tips of their shoes and toxic poison tipped umbrellas. The incident was pure comedy fodder.

    But were they really as bumbling as the media concluded? Now we learn that Andrey Bezrukov, aka "Donald Heathfield", who lived in Cambridges, MA, with his "spy-wife" and two spy-kids , tried to sell software to Stratfor Inc. The CEO of Stratfor said Heathfield aroused no suspicion. "'Only when the news broke," Friedman said, "did we go, uh-oh". Stratfor is a "global intelligence" firm which has a very interesting take on the Russian spy story. It may be more complicated than you think.

  • Iran, Not Trading?

    Then there was the weird incident of the Iranian scientist. A bizarre web of a tale -- starting with a kidnapping in Saudia Arabia (maybe)? The kidnapped was supposedly incarcerated in DC until he somehow escaped his US captors and sought refuge at the Pakistan Embassy. Next Hillary Clinton rather woodenly explained he was "free to go". But in this case too, there was the potential for negotiation, what about those hikers imprisoned by Iran? Other strange details came out. Amiri was paid $5 million by the CIA, but couldn't take it with him back to Iran - bum deal, and was also once a CIA informant in Iran. So confusing. As an aside, Iran's nuclear program has been plagued by exploding centrifuges and equipment failures -- FT considers whether it's sabotage. Again, it may be more complicated than it appears.

  • WikiLeaks and Its International Man of Mystery

    We would be remiss not to include WikiLeaks in our spy stories. Before the Afghanistan documents came out, Bradley Manning apparently contacted a former hacker via the internet and boasted about giving a slew of US military documents to WikiLeaks. Salon questions the motives of the the former hacker who turned Manning into the FBI, and day after day that thread got weirder and weirder.

    Then this weekend, WikiLeaks posted documents that uncovered the daily dirt of the Afghanistan war, released earlier to the New York Times, Der Spiegel and Guardian, who all extracted some material for stories. Everyone reacts with a different impression of the importance of the documents, with officials from the involved states -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US, giving a whole range of variable opinions on the docs' relevance, legitimacy, and harmfulness. Many now echo what BBC's Crispin Black told Salon before the documents were released:

    "Diplomatic cables don't usually contain huge secrets but they do contain the unvarnished truth so in a sense they can be even more embarrassing than secrets."

    WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange says he hopes to embarrass some generals. He's brilliantly solidified his reputation for being elusive while showing up more and more in public places. He recently appeared at a TED conference in Oxford. He was on Larry King. He apparently met several times with a New Yorker reporter sometime in the past, which led to a very long article on June 7th by Raffi Khatchadourian: "No Secrets: Julian Assange's mission for total transparency", which solidified his international man of mystery reputation. Sometimes he doesn't show up, but rumors leave rooms buzzing in anticipation, therefore he can achieve a physical presence in more than one place at a time. Now with the leak of the Afghanistan documents, he's gotten even more publicity, helped by rumors that the US government is chasing him. All choreographed with invisible and exquisite timing.

    Could it be less intriguing than it appears? I don't know. But it's riled some people up. Former Pakistani "spymaster" Hamid Gul, a retired general who the docs report has ordered roadside bombs against Nato and conspired with Afghan insurgents against the UN, says all the documents are a conspiracy by Obama to scapegoat Gul for the US failure. It must be a preemptive strike - Gul's mentioned in ~10 of ~100,000 docs - "Pure fiction", Gul says, all I do is grow mangoes and peaches and visit with my grandchildren.

  • Washington Post's Own Database of "Secrets"

    The Washingon Post, for its part, pre-empted WikiLeaks hoopla with it own "database" of compiled secrets. It says that "Top Secret America" made the Yahoo! News "Top 10 Blockbuster revelations". Then conversely, the Post explained to officials and readers who complained that their data endangered Americans' safety, that all the data was in the public domain anyway.

    Perhaps less secretive than it appears? As Tim Shorrock reported here, what took them so long?' And why the alarmed reaction from government? Does the Post's stuff really cause official consternation? Who could have really been surprised? It's true that most of the Post's stuff can be extracted from places like transparency.gov with zero difficulty, motivated by just the tiniest bit of curiosity. (And for that matter, the nitty gritty aspects of war in the WikiLeaks documents are accessible in books and articles, though not all at once with the type of fanfare that makes news.) So what's the official fuss over "Top Secrets"?


Comforting The Tourists -- Secrets Make Us Safe?

Is every last bit of information worthy the label "secret"? Or is "Top Secret America" sly advertising somewhat intended to make us feel safer? Once, as a Ghanaian taxi-driver drove a group of us through Columbus Square in Manhattan, I asked about all police cars and flashing lights and commotion in the middle of the square. He replied they were there for no particular reason except "to comfort the tourists". Maybe all the excitement about "top secrets" is merely to comfort the tourists (and citizens) -- as well as entertain them when they're not captivated by spy flicks.

Why Can't We Be Friends? The Pepsi Wars.

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The skirmish over at ScienceBlogs between PepsiCo and the science bloggers actually made me feel sorry for Pepsi.

Pass The Bong and the Aspartame

You have to admit, PepsiCo has had a tough month. First, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom banned Pepsi from vending machines, a move that elicited potshots from conservative DC paper The Washington Times, with the headline: "Pass The Pot Brownies, But Drop That Soda". Expounding on that clever cliche, WT wrote: "In the City by the Bay, it may soon be easier to get a pot-laced brownie than a can of Pepsi".

Oh yeah, nailed it! Hippies in the "City By The Bay" ("Frisco" to some) -- don dirty tie-dyed t-shirts to stand on corners flashing "peace" fingers, swaying to the music, flowers in their hair and THC soothing their psychedelics' addled nerves, else the badly parented long-haired youth are driving around in orange Volkswagon buses, pot smoke billowing out the windows - yup, The Washington Times really knows "The City By The Bay".1

The battle used to be between Pepsi and Coke. Coke would lose its big university or city contract to Pepsi, then Pepsi to Coke, back and forth. But this time, all soda was ousted, and no sooner was soda ejected from San Francisco city vending machines, then PepsiCo was yelled off ScienceBlogs.

SciBling Hospitality?

It must have been a confusing time for PepsiCo. ScienceBlog editors at first warmly courted PepsiCo, who titled their blog invitingly: "Food Frontiers". But they couldn't even pen a "Hello, World! Corn syrup is so good for you", before "SciBlings" (ScienceBlog bloggers) rose up en masse from their virginal science blog space and confronted the evil sugar-water mixer about their "stealth" advertising.

I wasn't there. But it's mid-July, pretty slow in science news, so I thought I'd Twitter all the anger and consternation, not to mention the mass exodus of SciBlingers. This I think, will entertain all the marketing gurus, dogs, porn stars, and some cool peeps who follow AcronymRequired. Unfortunately, before anyone could figure out whether to call it PepsiCoGate, Pepsigate, or Pepsicopalyse, Pepsi's Food Frontiers bloggers had skedaddled as if confronted by a battalion of helmeted storm troopers spraying plastic bullets and tear gas at their sit-in.

Safely back at PepsiCo.com, the Food Frontiers bloggers publicly reminisced about the "very candid feedback" and their "intent to embrace that conversation".

The regrouping bloggers from PepsiCo talked microbial stability, acidity, phosphorous content, obesity, and salt, vis-a-vis PepsiCo. And as promised, Pepsi engaged "that conversation", by answering the demands of SciBlingers who chased them out of their Special Science Space back into the World Wide Web. PepsiCo "embraced" the assault from SciBlingons when one Science Blog writer asked (none to politely):

"Does the material leave your own computer when you write a post, ever? I.e, pass in front of other people's eyes? Is there a standard workflow for producing a blog post that involves any kind of oversight or inspection?...The truth is that if you'all blogging researchers can only write approved copy, then the whole blog thing really is probably a bad idea".

To this, Pepsi responded promptly and sweetly: "Thanks Greg Laden" in a post they titled unambiguously: "The Posting Process on Food Frontiers".

But will such sugary pabulum engage ScienceBloggers? No. Only two people responded to the thoughtful PepsiCo post, and neither of them reciprocated by "embracing" the drink maker in the same way Pepsi wanted to embrace them.

I would have suggested that Food Frontiers could have been a little more in Sciblingers' faces - such as: "WTF is YOUR process -- why do so many ideas conflicting with your world view meet with such profane outbursts and bunkerbuster-style attacks? What are you, the Department of OK Blogs?" Now that, would be "engaging the conversation", sciblingy-like. Plus, summer is boring online and that would have really added some tinder to the whole thing. Instead we got this light, huggy-bubbly, PepsiCo marketing stuff.

Maybe the PepsiCo Food Frontiers bloggers were jittery, wan and weak from a diet of caffeine, phosphorous, sugar, water, and natural flavors. Or, possibly they were devouring cans of spinach voraciously and weight-training vigorously, but saving their vim and vigor for this week's attack on a more familiar foe -- CocaCola.

In the newish YouTube spot which may revive the Pepsi-Coke wars, the two opposing soft drink truck drivers meet in a diner and swap colas, "Why Can't We Be Friends?" by the band War, a 1970's song. As one driver drinks a soda, the other betrays him (can't tell you why). Then they get mad and crash through a window together. The Associated Press wrote:

"Analysts say people love the funny, spirited rivalry of the decades-old cola wars and the move will benefit both soda makers. That's good news for the $100 billion industry, which is seeing weak soft drink sales as shoppers switch to healthier juices and teas."

That's more like it, the funny, spirited, decades-old rivalry, like grandpa and his brother, just pining for the good 'ole days? See how it works Sciblingers? Friendly public rivalry.

Butlered off the Isle?

Of course, I don't really feel sorry for Pepsi. They have a nice new sepia toned 1970's ad and a brilliant business, patenting and selling corrosive sugar and water drinks. But soda's not so healthy for humans or the environment (as we've written in "Childhood Obesity, The American Way", or "Pop's Out Drug's are In", or "Coke: Teaching the World to Sing", or "Why So Fat? It's System Wide", or "Common Sense Foods in Schools""). And PepsiCo doesn't need us, they can always fall into the arms of Coke, or the loving the Cato Institute, or FOX, and many others.

Apparently there was more going on at ScienceBlogs than PepsiCo, there always is. I've read and mostly enjoyed ScienceBlogs since the inception. There weren't too many bloggers way back then and I've watched SB evolve with particular interest. So I get it. But Sciblingons! Sheesh! "Spirited rivalry" and gentle brawls people! Do you really need to beat them up, throw them off the island, bash their heads in, then drown them? What good are they too you then?

Just my opinion. I believe that ScienceBlogs has done wonders for getting others online writing about science. A ton of SB bloggers blog seriously about science, every day, good stuff. But some bloggers get increasingly spiteful as they vie for the attention that blogging compels, then use that attention to generate a certain brand of PR for SB. The level of conversation often spirals downward (there must be some entropy model that describes it). And that downward spiral seems infectious -- I've noticed Nature has been forging new ground lately in diluting their brand with some profane blogs also.

Pepsi's not the first one to feel SciBlingon wrath, though sleepy-hot July always gives these incidents an extra charge. Remember the Nature/Butler/PLoS fracas of July, 2008? It was similarly acrimonious with a familiar corporate/underdog theme.

These bloggers know their power, they say. But this is how SB looks from the outside, to me, an independent sometimes-blogger. Everyday science bloggy, bloggy, bloggedy, great - oh, too boring? Yawn? Then Boom, Smash, Bang, big tizzy over at ScienceBlogs over something, lots of media coverage. Repeat. For someone not in the thick of it, the episodic commotions tempt a plea for perspective.

I hope ScienceBlogs settles -- certainly finding eager writers shouldn't be a hurdle, and there are 60 left. I look forward to future writing from the diaspora. But I would also venture that it's complicated, messy business, this advertising stuff, this ethical boundaries stuff. It's pretty easy to inadvertently be seen as hypocritical trying to carve arbitrary ethical boundaries that suit your own very personal interests. As a minor, minor example, isn't most blogging just personal branding/advertising? But your brand is pure as the driven snow, whereas Pepsi's is marred by soda pop? Anyway, I'm not sure getting Pepsi off of ScienceBlogs, although certainly a "cause", was one worthy of the show or the arena.

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1 Actually, in another "City By The Bay", they plan to grow pot by the acre, an unfortunately timed news story which you'd think would crush my defense. But then the city will tax it, hopefully so they can pay for a much needed police force. Complicated. Another story.

Old vs New Newsrooms, Sides of Maggots, and Lady Gaga

Gene Weingarten on the old "typical American newsroom" versus the "New Newsroom", in "Gene Weinharten Column mentions Lady Gaga" (via BoingBoing, via Joel Johnson).

Weingarten misses deadlines and creative headlines, but appreciates "the services of tens of thousands of fact-checking 'citizen journalists'", and "comments" -

"though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots".

"New Journalism" is "confusing", with leagues of "multiplatform idea triage specialists", compared to the old days, when:

"On deadline, drunks with cigars wrote stories that were edited by constipated but knowledgeable people, then printed on paper by enormous machines operated by people with stupid hats and dirty faces."

There's more.

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