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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Terrorism as the New McCarthyism, the Independent as the New Chicago Tribune?

The Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as
the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.
Sound familiar? See any resemblance to the UK's playing "harddrive" with the Guardian, or detaining David Miranda for nine hours under section 7 of the Terrorism Act (see previous post) and subsequently justifying it by claiming that the information he may or may not have been carrying would abet terrorists (not that he himself was engaged in terrorism or had any intention of communicating sensitive information to such persons). The Home Office spokesperson went on to say that
 Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.
Does this mean that criticism of illegal government detentions on human rights grounds is now itself a form of abetting terrorism? We seem to be rapidly approached the Alice-In-Wonderland, Catch-22 world where black is white and lies are truths and anyone who questions the government has already provided sufficient proof that they are "un-American," "terrorists," enemies of the state. 

By that logic the fact that I own a pressure cooker would be sufficient to justify my detainment, since said pressure cooker could easily fall into the hands of terrorists such as the Boston Marathon bombers (and in fact a hapless Long Island family's web searches led to a "perfect storm of terrorism profiling" by a police task force –which, however, did not "press [her] husband on the dilemma facing liberals over whether quinoa consumption is ethically sound – many Bolivians can no longer afford their staple food now everyone in Brooklyn is eating it.").

The wife's conclusions cut to the heart of the matter:

This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.

All I know is if I'm going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I'm not doing it online.

I'm scared. And not of the right things.
We expected this of the Stasi and the KGB, we are used to this logic in the Mad Czar's and Mad Ayatollahs' realms, but now it is coming a little too close to home for comfort.

But why write about these things in a blog on Meltdown Economics and Other Complex Catastrophes? Well, I would classify what is happening as one of the classical complex catastrophes:
The Bureaucratic Black Hole
A complex organization (be it a government, a business, an international body, a union or an NGO) will always make mistakes ("stuff happens"), and will always be obsessed with preventing bad publicity about them from getting out. So its highest priority will be to cover its ass. It will become paranoid and need to control everyone on the inside and the outside. It will need to suppress dissent, bag whistleblowers, battle the press, spy on everyone and eliminate the threats of real or imagined enemies. It can become a black hole from which nothing escapes.

This is why in democracies we have constitutional checks and balances, separation of powers. This is why we have legal due process. This is why we have a free press. To nip the Bureaucratic Black Hole in the bud, to reverse its abuses before they become irreversible. Anybody still remember Locke or Montesquieu or Mill? Because the alternative is tyranny. I thought we held these truths to be self-evident. But now it seems that only fools like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden still subscribe to them (the real weakness of American education: they still teach civics as if pupils are supposed to believe this rubbish – but then, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue).

The Independent's Turning of the Screw

But the Snowden/Greenwald/Miranda story just took a further Machiavellian turn in yesterdays The Independent. Potentially damaging state secrets are being leaked, and not by Snowden, it seems, although the leak is being made to look like he had. Under the headline
Exclusive: UK’s secret Mid-East internet surveillance base is revealed in Edward Snowden leaks
The Independent reveals the existence of a secret GCHQ facility in the Middle East that captures telecommunications from undersea fiber-optic cables and relays them for analysis to the GCHQ and the NSA. The article insidiously suggests that Snowden leaked this information, but a very close reading reveals that the authors are only insinuating that this kind of information must be part of Snowden's (still undisclosed) cache of data, not that Snowden has revealed it to The Independent, or anyone else for that matter.

And that is exactly what Greenwald and Snowden reply in The Guardian: neither he nor Snowden are the source of this information, and both have been exceedingly careful to avoid leaking anything that could harm anyone or damage legitimate national interests.

So who leaked this information and why? Since the purpose rather obviously seems to be to discredit Greenwald and Snowden as potential traitors and abettors of terrorism, one can only conclude that it is the UK government itself, a conclusion Snowden also comes to:
It appears that the UK government is now seeking to create an appearance that the Guardian and Washington Post's disclosures are harmful, and they are doing so by intentionally leaking harmful information to The Independent and attributing it to others. The UK government should explain the reasoning behind this decision to disclose information that, were it released by a private citizen, they would argue is a criminal act.
The Bureaucratic Black Hole working to the second power? Not for the first time have intelligence gathering and disinformation campaigns been compared to a House of Mirrors. But if the UK government is voluntarily leaking its crown jewels (which may not have been so crown or jewels, however) and wantonly damaging the ostensible national security in a silly and transparent attempt to take revenge on Greenwald and Snowden, who should be punished for treason? David Cameron and The Independent?

For history buffs there is a strange precedent for a newspaper leaking a vital national secret that might abet the nation's enemies, and the legal prosecution that followed: the Chicago Tribune's leak of Battle of Midway intelligence in 1942.  The Chicago Tribune was a fiercely anti-Roosevelt newspaper (and vice versa), but not unpatriotic. It revealed that the US Navy had advance knowledge of the disposition and intentions of the Japanese, which it exploited to overwhelming effect in the decisive Battle of Midway, knowledge that could only have been obtained (although the Tribune did not say this explicitly) by cryptanalysis of Japanese radio communications. In any but a narrow legal sense it was treasonous (the censorship rules at that time did not apply to leaking information about enemy plans, even if that information had been obtained by secret cryptanalysis, something which was soon changed). Fortunately for the US, Japanese intelligence did not deign to read the Chicago Tribune (or the Congressional Record, for that matter, where the affair had been discussed in open session), apparently falling victim to that other bureaucratic vice, closure, thinking their codes unbreakable. While the Roosevelt administration brought charges before a grand jury against the Chicago Tribune for treason, the Navy Department eventually pressed to have them dropped, since pursuing the case would have meant officially disclosing the cryptanalytic breaking of the Japanese codes. Something similar was involved in the persecution of the Rosenbergs for espionage. Although the case was not dropped, the decisive evidence based on the VENONA decrypts could not be revealed in the public record.

Is the Midway case an example of freedom of press, as the Tribune claimed at the time, or treason and potential disaster gone unpunished for even higher national security reasons? It differs from the Independent's case, so it seems, because the leak was against the government's wishes rather than in its Machiavellian interests (the Tribune's "embedded" reporter Stanley Johnston had accidentally seen Admiral Nimitz' secret message about Japanese dispositions on a ship returning from the Battle of the Coral Sea, something the Tribune did not acknowledge at the time and certainly was a violation of military secrecy*). It also was not disclosing secret information of public interest to right alleged government abuses, Snowden's and Ellsberg's defence. It was simply a scoop.

The Chicago Tribune has recently engaged in some self-reflection on its role in the Midway reporting 71 years ago following the Snowden revelations (but before the parallel Independent case), and while still unapologetic as to the treason charges, tends to the cautionary side about condemning whistleblowers and their supporting newspapers.

Final historical footnote on the House of Mirrors question: If you read Dina Goran's excellent paper (p. 681) on the Tribune/Midway scandal closely, you'll find another example of extreme Machiavellianism that the UK government might want to study further to hone its badly deteriorated skills. On Dec. 4, 1941 (three days before Pearl Harbor), the Chicago Times (also a vociferously isolationist paper) had published a scoop with Roosevelt's plans for Army mobilization. In turns out (only revealed in 1976) that the Tribune obtained a copy of those plans from a deliberate plant of the Political Warfare Department of BSC (British Security Coordination) and the FBI, apparently to discredit the isolationists!

*[Postedit 27 Aug 2013]: For more on how the Tribune's reporter Stanley Johnston may have obtained access to Nimitz' dispatch about the Japanese order of battle before Midway, see this Naval History site.

Are we getting sucked into the security state's Bureaucratic Black Hole?

Will we be manipulated into losing our way in the House of Mirrors?

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