No Comment — August 3, 2010, 11:25 am

WikiLeaks: The National-Security State Strikes Back

WikiLeaks’ disclosure of the 91,000 U.S. government documents that it labels the “Afghan War Diary” raises a number of vital issues. Most of the discussion so far has focused on the significance of the documents themselves. They make the intelligence community look not so intelligent, and they make a number of political leaders look like dissemblers, spewing claims about the situation in Afghanistan that can’t really be squared with information in their briefing portfolios. But quite apart from their contents, the WikiLeaks documents are a test for America’s voracious national-security state. Its response to them gives us a sense of how it intends to fight perceived threats to secrecy.

An Information War Targeting WikiLeaks. Field officers of the intelligence community urgently need to play a game of misdirection–relabeling the threat that is presented to them. They will argue that the WikiLeaks disclosures imperil the safety of American forces on the ground, America’s allies, and thus every American citizen sitting at home. They will find few facts to back this contention, but that won’t stop them. This argument has already been rolled out repeatedly. Almost immediately on publication, it was in a statement issued by Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones. The latest variant is the claim, advanced last week at the Pentagon, that the leaks have disclosed the names of Afghans who collaborate with the U.S. military. That’s certainly a plausible argument—and it’s regrettable that WikiLeaks decided to publish the documents without blocking these names—but so far the concern is hypothetical rather than real. In any event, however, the first stage in the effort to build public support will be to demonize WikiLeaks. It will be accused of endangering men and women in uniform, even though it might be better described as a channel in which they can vent their frustration at institutionalized stupidity and wrongdoing. Much of the American media, which filled the airwaves with bogus claims about WMDs in Iraq, can be counted on to view WikiLeaks as an adversary rather than an ally.

Making an Example of the Leaker. Focal to the response will be a harsh and heavy-handed prosecution or court-martial of the leaker. The message to other would-be whistleblowers must be clear. Cross us, and we will destroy you. You have no law or rights to hide behind. We can and will turn you into the enemy. At this point, attention is focused on Private Bradley Manning, a young enlisted man from Potomac, Maryland, who was arrested and detained in Kuwait. He appears to have been denied access to independent counsel and held incommunicado outside the country. Reports also indicate that criminal investigators are looking to identify individuals who may have facilitated his leak. A student at MIT was identified this past weekend as having assisted Manning in some Internet maneuvers. While the facts remain to be fully developed, it seems hard to see how Manning can mount a meaningful legal defense. The military whistleblower statute carves out a very narrow zone in which uniformed service personnel can disclose classified information; Manning does not appear to be in a position to avail himself of these defenses. Considering the weakness of Manning’s position, the heavy-handed tactics which are being applied against him are mystifying displays of asymmetrical legal warfare.

Destroying WikiLeaks. But the major target surely is WikiLeaks itself, and on this score the goal of the national-security state is unambiguous. WikiLeaks must be destroyed. Indeed, as I noted in March, long before these leaks, the Army Counterintelligence Center had prepared a 32-page secret plan to destroy WikiLeaks. The memo notes that the American intelligence community has valuable allies in the struggle against WikiLeaks—China, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. It recommended emulating the tactics used by these tyrannical states:

The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the Wikileaks.org Web site.

Finally, it argues that WikiLeaks itself must be criminalized and put out of business.

There is some evidence that this strategy is in fact being implemented. The Huffington Post reports:

Jacob Appelbaum, a Seattle-based volunteer hacker for Wikileaks, touched down at Newark Internation Airport in New Jersey on his way back from Holland last Thursday, and was promptly whisked away by U.S. customs officials for a “random” security search. The hacker told CNET he was interrogated as to the whereabouts of his boss — Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has gone underground since the U.S. government announced it was hunting him — as well as “his attitudes to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on the philosophy behind Wikileaks.” Appelbaum’s laptop was briefly confiscated, but investigators kept his three cell phones.

And indeed, Julian Assange may himself be a even more serious target. How might the United States deal with Assange? Marc Thiessen, a Republican publicist and torture apologist with close ties to former CIA Director Hayden, argues that Assange is a non-American who lives outside the country and therefore apparently has no legal rights. He advocates kidnapping and hints at still more violent conduct. As Eva Rodriguez notes, Thiessen seems ready to send drones over Iceland–one of a number of European states, nearly all of which are U.S. allies, that has supported WikiLeaks. When Daniel Ellsberg suggested earlier that Assange might be in physical danger, the comment was roundly dismissed by the “responsible media.” But Thiessen—who often appears to be the mouthpiece of senior Bush-era intelligence community figures–demonstrates just how well taken were Ellsberg’s concerns. I don’t think the Obama Administration will use a drone to murder Assange, but some in the intelligence community will be arguing for use of some of the “black arts” that were a staple of covert operations in the Bush era. He will certainly be targeted for petty harassment and subject to steady surveillance, and efforts to kidnap him are almost certainly being spun at this very moment. On this score, the intelligence community should recall what came of its kidnapping caper in Italy in 2002. (Tonight at 9 p.m. EDT, HDNET will premiere “The Italian Job,” a report on that particular intelligence fiasco.)

Few functions are so fundamental to a democracy as the decision about when and how to wage a war. That decision means an investment of treasure and blood that can affect the lives of hundreds of millions in America and elsewhere. In this process, fair presentation and discussion of the facts is essential to a correct result. If information can be routinely suppressed because it is embarrassing to political leaders or would undermine the arguments they make to the nation, then our democracy is faltering. In the wake of these disclosures, Americans should carefully judge the conduct of those who claim that suppressing the leaks is in the interests of national security. Are they upholding national security, or are they betraying American democracy?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Wood Chipper·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today