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Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”


“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”

Julian Assange, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”

The piece of writing (via) which that quote introduces is intellectually substantial, but not all that difficult to read, so you might as well take a look at it yourself. Most of the news media seems to be losing their minds over Wikileaks without actually reading these essays, even though he describes the function and aims of an organization like Wikileaks in pretty straightforward terms. But, to summarize, he begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes.

He begins by positing that conspiracy and authoritarianism go hand in hand, arguing that since authoritarianism produces resistance to itself — to the extent that its authoritarianism becomes generally known — it can only continue to exist and function by preventing its intentions (the authorship of its authority?) from being generally known. It inevitably becomes, he argues, a conspiracy:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

The problem this creates for the government conspiracy then becomes the organizational problem it must solve: if the conspiracy must operate in secrecy, how is it to communicate, plan, make decisions, discipline itself, and transform itself to meet new challenges? The answer is: by controlling information flows. After all, if the organization has goals that can be articulated, articulating them openly exposes them to resistance. But at the same time, failing to articulate those goals to itself deprives the organization of its ability to process and advance them. Somewhere in the middle, for the authoritarian conspiracy, is the right balance of authority and conspiracy.

His model for imagining the conspiracy, then, is not at all the cliché that people mean when they sneer at someone for being a “conspiracy theorist.” After all, most the “conspiracies” we’re familiar with are pure fantasies, and because the “Elders of Zion” or James Bond’s SPECTRE have never existed, their nonexistence becomes a cudgel for beating on people that would ever use the term or the concept. For Assange, by contrast, a conspiracy is something fairly banal, simply any network of associates who act in concert by hiding their concerted association from outsiders, an authority that proceeds by preventing its activities from being visible enough to provoke counter-reaction. It might be something as dramatic as a loose coalition of conspirators working to start a war with Iraq/n, or it might simply be the banal, everyday deceptions and conspiracies of normal diplomatic procedure.

(29 November 2010)
I thought this was one of the best explications of what Assange is trying to do. The essay is also available in German, Dutch and Spanish.

Related: Philosopher Peter Ludlow on “The Political Philosophy of Julian Assange”


Something Wiki’ed This Way Comes

Jonathan Askin, Huffington Post
… Enter Julian Assange, the person that national security circles might cast as the villain of National Secrets, Episode 2: The Web of Deceit. Assange has come on the scene with much more power at his disposal than any leaker of state secrets before him. I, however, suspect that Assange, like Ellsberg, will be viewed as quaint once the next generation harnesses the power of digital technology and Internet distribution.

Continuing the analogy, we should not react to Wikileaks with inflated Heroics 2.0, putting up even more walls between the government and the people. Instead, government has to determine how to engage in international and domestic affairs in a world where most information will, inevitably, find its way into the public arena. To date, the default policy of even the most democratic governments has been that information — even innocuous information — should remain closely held, made available only when the government decides (or is compelled by law) to release it. If we shift that presumption and assume that information should be made publicly available, except when there is a compelling security reason to withhold the information, government would go a long way in gaining the trust of its citizens and the world. As it stands, many people around the world assume that governments are, too often, withholding the truth. Such an assumption heightens the role of the whistleblower, whose job it is to shine a spotlight on government “secrets,” including both innocuous information and sensitive, justifiably secret information.

Society still needs trusted sources to filter and curate information. Pre-Internet, trusted news came from established media outlets. Now, information can reach the public eye before having been vetted and digested by trusted outlets. Ultimately, the crowd-sourcing tools of the Internet should produce curation models that will dwarf the capabilities of old media.
The question government should be asking is what constructive role it might play in this new curation and distribution model. If information will inevitably find a way into the public arena, shouldn’t government figure out a way to better serve its people, providing access to the information in a manner useful for public discourse? The American government is already harnessing this sort of crowd-sourcing and civic participation with regard to less controversial domestic policy issues. The same tools and ideas might well be extended to the public with regard to issues implicating national security.

Jonathan Askin is a Professor at Brooklyn Law School
(6 December 2010)

WikiLeaks: The man who kicked the hornet’s nest

Editorial, Guardian
As the disclosures continue, a number of questions about the way the world has changed are becoming more clearly framed

… Under technological, legal, financial, corporate and governmental attack from all sides, Assange has managed to keep his subversive website, WikiLeaks, staggering on, spilling classified secrets around the globe. Will WikiLeaks be floored by the arrest of its driving inspiration? Or will its actions, ethos and notoriety prove it to be indestructible and thereby demonstrate that there are new forces in the world which can effectively challenge established patterns of power and control of information? Is it the end or the beginning?

Of the charges themselves it is unwise to say anything. The internet is awash with conspiracies, smears and rebuttal, but for the moment it is best to let the Swedish judicial process take its course. It is, though, difficult to see what purpose is served by locking Assange away this week, given that a number of reputable people were prepared to stand surety for his bail. The best way of demonstrating that the charges have nothing to do with silencing WikiLeaks is to let it carry on leaking while Assange faces his accusers.

Diplomatic confidences

But, 10 days into the disclosures, a number of questions about the way the world has changed are becoming more clearly framed. The first concerns diplomacy itself. Should diplomats be able to speak confidentially with their governments and sources?

The answer is, clearly, yes. Without secret communication there could be no meaningful diplomacy and textured communication between countries. But at least two further issues immediately come into play. Diplomatic sources deserve protection, too – and it is apparent that the US government must rapidly reconsider the way it exposed the confidences of sensitive sources to a potential audience of millions of Americans cleared to read “secret” material. And if American diplomats must troop around TV studios citing the Vienna convention, which protects diplomatic embassies and communications as “inviolate”, then they must do a better job of explaining why Hillary Clinton was recently sending out demands on behalf of the CIA to spy on foreign envoys at the UN and around the world. If the sanctity of the diplomatic bag is to mean anything, it must be a universal value.

The implications of the WikiLeaks disclosures for vast government databases are considerable.
(8 December 2010)

US embassy leaks: ‘The data deluge is coming …’
UK Guardian reporters
Jonathan Powell, Alan Rusbridger, David Leigh, Timothy Garton-Ash and Heather Brooke discuss the leaked US embassy cables.
(29 Novemmber 2010)
Helpful background for the story. The Guardian seems to have a better grip on things than the US media. -BA

The Truth Will Always Win

Julian Assange, The Australian
… I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully. The dark days of corruption in the Queensland government before the Fitzgerald inquiry are testimony to what happens when the politicians gag the media from reporting the truth.

These things have stayed with me. WikiLeaks was created around these core values. The idea, conceived in Australia, was to use internet technologies in new ways to report the truth.

WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?

Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate corruption.
(7 December 2010)
Also at Common Dreams.