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Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The season of Snowden continues to bite

A New York Times story from a few days ago illustrates how unconvincing intelligence authorities have become in their war against whistleblowers, describing an open court decision in the UK where the government and the Guardian made their cases regarding data taken from hardware that had been carried by David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist most responsible for stories relying on information received from Edward Snowden. The decision allowed authorities to further analyse the contents of the hardware.
The [senior national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron], Oliver Robbins, said in a written statement that the information could put the officers and their families at risk, or even make them vulnerable to recruitment by foreign intelligence services. 
In all, he said, the files contained about 58,000 highly classified documents, which were “highly likely to describe techniques which have been crucial in lifesaving counterterrorist operations, and other intelligence activities vital to U.K. national security.” Allowing the material to become public, he said, “would do serious damage to U.K. national security and ultimately risk lives.”
How? asked the Guardian: "the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger ... [accused] the government of making unsubstantiated claims." If the information was so dangerous, he asked, why had the government done nothing about it before detaining Miranda? And what about copies of the information that had been given to the NY Times and ProPublica, both US-based news companies? Where was the urgency evident in those cases?

As I wrote two weeks ago, targeting Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras shows the US is in looneyville and the UK authorities have also drunk the Cool-Aid. Their current gyrations in the face of the inconvenience of open court and the rule of law - two bulwarks of Western legal practice that have been bequeathed to us by generations and partly constitute, precisely, the institutions the intelligence services are tasked with protecting - do nothing more than reveal the logical and moral abyss in the depths of which spies daily operate. So certain of the crucial nature of the data in question yet unable to reveal publicly just why that information is so crucial. It's a kind of nightmare scenario for organisations who have operated behind a pall of secrecy for over 100 years, since their establishment in the years leading up to WWI.

But the situation also highlights how badly WikiLeaks handled the media. UK and US media organisations like the Guardian and the NY Times are operating all stops in their effort to support Snowden by ensuring that the data he released becomes public in news stories, and by working to protect people associated with the release. Julian Assange, meanwhile, has largely dropped out of the public arena following well-publicised run-ins with editors at those publications. In fact, WikiLeaks makes it a point of pride in social media and press releases to distance itself from such organisations, including by claiming that it, itself, is a publishing venture. Instead of working closely with these companies, WikiLeaks has set itself up as a rival venture. The result has been disastrous for WikiLeaks.

The relationship is well-illustrated by the falsehoods that entered the movie Underground: The Julian Assange Story, which was screened in Australia on TV in April. As I wrote at the time:
Julian's meeting with the journalist - a sloppy, careworn specimen well played by Simon Maiden - that is so important in the movie, and of course in real life, does not appear in the book [Underground by Suelette Dreyfus]. The idea that Assange at this early stage, in 1989, sought to publicise the material that he found online is correct by the logic of 2013, or even 2009, but its appearance in the movie is a piece of teleological wishful thinking. 
But of course in the court of public opinion just as in a UK open court the protagonists must appeal to the public for its support. Having neglected - and even insulted - the gatekeepers, WikiLeaks must fall back on its own devices: what vehicles can we control in order to get our message across? Undoubtedly history will decide in favour of Assange in the longer term; in the short term his hubris has made his life harder.

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