Blaming the messenger

WikiLeaks and the high cost of embarrassing the U.S. government.

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On April 14th, the new Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, gave a speech in which he said that the U.S. government is building a criminal case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Pompeo, who had praised the publisher during the 2016 election campaign when it released information that Republicans believed was damaging to Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, now called WikiLeaks, “a non-state hostile foreign intelligence agency” and claimed that the publisher had in 2010, “directed Chelsea Manning to intercept specific secret information.”

This claim about Manning is one that the government has never made in the past to my knowledge. It seems likely that the U.S. government will try to build its case against Assange, and possibly unnamed others, on the basis of this allegation, implying that, rather than simply being a publisher, WikiLeaks was actively involved in directing the leaks. This could put them in the cross hairs of the U.S.’ 1917 Espionage Act.

The CIA Director then went on to denounce the target of his ire in no uncertain terms, “…Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom. They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that but they’re wrong. Assange is a narcissist who has created nothing of value.”

At a press conference the following week, the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, reiterated Pompeo’s position, telling the assembled reporters that the U.S. Justice Department considers the arrest and prosecution of Assange a “priority” and that, as an Australian, he is not protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Rather than springing to Wikileak’s defense, prominent news outlets like CNN instead worried that the government might target them for their reporting on secrets revealed by the publisher. This is also somewhat ironic, considering how much the corporate media relies on leaks that come from ‘unnamed official sources’ in their reporting, rarely questioning the motivations of those who pass them information to settle scores with rivals or spin the news to make their agencies look good.

Vault 7

It’s no coincidence that these statements from top U.S. officials came shortly after WikiLeaks began releasing a huge trove of leaked CIA documents under the title, “Vault 7“. The first batches of what the publisher has called the largest intelligence leak in history have already revealed a variety of clandestine programs pursued by the American foreign intelligence agency related to surveillance and ‘cyber warfare’.

Possibly worse than the information released so far, at least from the official point of view, was the embarrassment the leaks caused the Agency, showing, if not intentional wrongdoing, both a lack of oversight and staggering incompetence.

The mainstream press has spent very little time on the actual disclosures in these still ongoing publications. As we’ve seen in the past, major outlets from cable news networks to influential dailies have preferred to concentrate on the reaction of government and intelligence officials to the leaking, rather than detailing what the documents themselves reveal.

To offer one stunning revelation from Vault 7, a group at the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Virginia called UMBRAGE was collecting malware, trojans, viruses and other exploits from around the web that could then be re-used, saving both the time and money that would have been necessary to create their own tools, as well as making, in the words of PC World, “the agency’s malware tools resemble those of others, possibly confusing malware analysts as to the origin of attacks and causing others to be blamed for the agency’s false flag operations.”

Accusations against other states, like those against the Russian government in the earlier leak of the DNC’s internal emails during the 2016 election campaign, have yet to be proven with hard evidence but this hasn’t stopped officials from the previous administration, many members of Congress and a clear majority of the mainstream press from claiming with absolute certainty that it was a Russian sponsored hack as opposed to a more conventional insider leak, as WikiLeaks and others have claimed.

The Vault 7 documents released so far also show that the CIA was developing capabilities that must in many ways mirror those of the NSA. As WikiLeaks explained in a press release accompanying the documents, “The CIA had created, in effect, its “own NSA” with even less accountability and without publicly answering the question as to whether such a massive budgetary spend on duplicating the capacities of a rival agency could be justified.”

It isn’t even so much that the public should be surprised by what Vault 7 has already revealed, considering both recent leaks and the Agency’s history, it’s that the Center for Cyber Intelligence was inept enough to lose control of these tools, which may now be in the hands of criminals or rival powers.

According to WikiLeaks, “This archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.”

They go on to note that, “the source wishes to initiate a public debate about the security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyber weapons.”

As further explained by Infosecurity Magazine, “A major implication of the Vault 7 release is that individual hackers may now be able to conduct cyber-attacks with a sophistication previously only seen in state-sponsored actions.”

Rather than protecting the American people from often overhyped foreign threats, the proliferation of this malicious software has made them (and everyone else) more vulnerable to cyber attack from both non-state criminals and other state actors.

The internet security company, Symantec, recently reported that some of the tools revealed in the Vault 7 leaks seem to have been used by a shadowy group called Longhorn, which they believe is North American and “has infected 40 targets in at least 16 countries across the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa,” with sophisticated malware that may have originated with Vault 7.

Further documents released by the publisher have revealed backdoors into older versions of Apple’s IOS, Windows, Linux and most major internet browsers, as well as Iphones and Android phones and tablets. They have also shown that the so-called ‘internet of things’, including cars and some smart TVs are particularly vulnerable to state sponsored hacking.

Of particular concern to privacy advocates, as reported by The Irish Times, “the agency has the ability to break into devices and intercept messages before they can be encrypted by applications such Facebook’s Whatsapp, Signal, Telegram and Confide.”

Admittedly, fully understanding many of the details in the Vault 7 documents released so far requires not only a degree of technical knowledge that is beyond this writer, but also the ability to explain what their implications are for the general public, something that’s also true of even more pressing issues like climate change.

This type of specialized reporting should be undertaken by deep pocketed media companies in the public interest but we probably shouldn’t hold our collective breath waiting for them to get around to it when they have a clear financial incentive not to.

An imperfect force for transparency

Pompeo also made the argument that WikiLeaks only targets American interests. This is only true insofar as the media ignores their work unless it concerns the United States, creating a feedback loop that makes this seem to be the case. The fact is, Western media rarely cover revelations about other countries released by the publisher, including a 2015 leak of tens of thousands of documents from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Also, although it seems to have been forgotten, it was documents published by WikiLeaks regarding the corrupt Ben Ali government in Tunisia that provided some of the impetus for the Arab Spring in 2011.

In terms of Assange himself, there is no question that, compared to an Edward Snowden, he’s an imperfect messenger, obviously brilliant but also often coming off as arrogant in interviews and public proclamations. The allegations against him in Sweden, which he and his lawyers claim were trumped up to allow for his extradition to the United States, do seem to have been politicized, with Swedish prosecutors long refusing to interview Assange from his sanctuary at Ecuador’s Embassy in London, or even bring actual charges against him.

It doesn’t seem to be in the interest of justice to allow the statute of limitations to run out on these alleged crimes in 2020, with Assange remaining in his embassy limbo. Offering guarantees against extradition from the beginning might have allowed Assange and his lawyers to answer these allegations. While he hasn’t been found guilty of any crime, he has been presumed guilty in much of the press and, by extension, the court of public opinion.

The fact remains that no less an authority than the United Nations, after a 16 month investigation and an appeal by the British government, has called on both the United Kingdom and Sweden to allow Assange go free and pay him compensation.

American officials often tout their country as an exceptional nation that holds itself to higher standards than the rest of the world. The revelations of WikiLeaks, up to and including Vault 7, show that the country’s political class and its functionaries are serially incapable of living up to their own rhetoric. To paraphrase the great playwright Henrik Ibsen, American authorities will never be right until they do right. In terms of recent whistleblowers, they have failed this test time and again.

* As if to put an exclamation point on this story, another polarizing figure, Barrett Brown, a journalist who served four years in prison in relation to the hack of the private intelligence service Stratfor in 2011, was recently taken back into Federal custody in Texas for not getting permission from authorities before talking to the press while under home confinement.

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Derek Royden
Derek Royden is a freelance writer based in Montreal, Canada with an interest in activism, politics and culture. His work has appeared on Occupy.com, Truthout, Antiwar.com and Gonzo Today as well as in Skunk Magazine.

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