The Snowden Puzzle

Published at almost the same time as Edward Lucas’s ebook, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick’s full-length (200+pp) study of the Snowden case – Privacy for Thee and Not For Me: The Movement for Invincible Personal Encryption, Radical State Transparency, and the Snowden Hack – is now available on Scribd.

In her author’s preface, Fitzpatrick likens the case to a Rubik’s cube:

Turn the colorful cube one way, and it seems as if Edward, a 29-year-old systems analyst who said he became troubled by secret practices “done in our name”, was only concerned about civil rights… Turned in another direction, and it seemed that his coercive action… was in fact presenting Congress and the courts with an undemocratic fait accompli.

Although the author does not claim to provide a solution to the puzzle, her book analyses its many and various pieces in extensively sourced detail, so that others may reach a conclusion for themselves.

Julian Assange and 1917

In Western Europe and North America the name of WikiLeaks is still often invoked by advocates of Internet freedom and liberty of expression. An hour or so spent with the 2011 Russian-language publication WikiLeaks. Разоблачения, изменившие мир [WikiLeaks. Revelations that Changed the World] (available from B&N here) has been enough to convince me that the information-leaking system devised by the “Internet warrior” Julian Assange is viewed rather differently at the far eastern end of the Baltic Sea.

The book, by the journalist Nadezhda Gorbatyuk, presents an overview of Russian-language material in the WikiLeaks archives, focusing mainly on those parts of the material that concord with the official Russian state view of events in the Baltics, Georgia, and the Middle East during the first decade of the 21st century, and makes no bones about the true nature and purpose of Assange’s project. Right from the start, the services of Yulia Latynina are enlisted to make one thing clear. Assange has not been publishing secret U.S. documents in the name of freedom of information:

Assange’s purpose is exactly the opposite, and it is formulated in two of his programme articles of 2006 which not been translated into Russian, and so they are given here in the original language – “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy as Governance”.

“They are rather amusing essays, which follow a remarkable schizoid-cybernetic logic,” writes Latynina. “(‘Conspiracies are cognitive devices.’; ‘What does a conspiracy compute? It computes the next action of the conspiracy.’ )If the mathematician Perelman had taken an interest in the problems of society, perhaps he would have written something similar.”

Following Latynina, Gorbatyuk first explains that for Assange 1) America is an “authoritarian state”;  2)  all authoritarian states are ruled by a conspiracy; 3)  a conspiracy exists when the conspirators have dedicated links to each other and therefore have privileged access to information that is not available to those who are not members of the conspiracy. This structure can be weakened by strategically removing the secrecy from the conspiracy. To quote Assange:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

Latynina emphasizes the importance of this point. Assange’s aim is not to increase the amount of information available to the public, but to limit the amount of information on the basis of which the U.S. government takes decisions. This, she says, is a revolution in the classical Marxist sense of the word:

Once upon a time these guys were throwing bombs at presidents, “physically destroying the conspirators”. In 1968 they were throwing Molotov cocktails at the Paris police, and in the early 21st century they were making revolution, trying to force the system to take wrong decisions by restricting the amount of information available to it.

According to Marxism, a revolution takes place when the the relations of production change in the wake of the productive forces.

Now the productive forces have changed – the Internet is here, and Assange has changed the relations of production. He has made use of the Internet, in the same way as in 1917 the proletariat made use of cobblestones.

Reading about WikiLeaks

Looking again at Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (David Leigh and Luke Harding, Guardian Books, 2011) in the context of the Snowden affair, which it predates, it’s possible to see some places in the book where more information might have been useful. While the sections on the Afghanistan and Iraq cables are fully worked out, with many fascinating details, the passages that deal with Russia and Eastern Europe are sketchy, to say the least.

Although the flow of descriptive and biographical material is generally strong and animated, at one curious point in the narrative there is what feels like a sudden hiatus, a tug of uncertainty. We read first about “Adam”, to whom Assange handed over batches of cables:

“He seemed like a harmless old man,” said one staffer, “apart from his standing too close and peering at what was written on your screen.” He was introduced as the father of Assange’s Swedish crony, the journalist Johannes Wahlstrom, and took away copies of cables from Russia and post-Soviet states. According to one insider, he also demanded copies of cables about “the Jews”.

This was the WikiLeaks “associate”, Israel Shamir, who in the wake of events in Sweden said that Assange had been framed by “Langley spies” and “crazy feminists”. Some details about Shamir are given, including a very brief biographical profile, and his activities in Belarus are noted. But then we are told that “Assange himself subsequently maintained that he had only a ‘brief interaction’ with Shamir.” And with that, Shamir drops out of the Guardian Books narrative altogether.

This seems a pity, as some further investigation of this enigmatic figure might have proved more interesting than the rather bland few pages devoted to the Russia cables and the characterization of the “mafia state” (the title of another book by Harding).

The Technorevolutionaries


Some comments I wrote on the Wired State blog, in a discussion of Edward Snowden, Sarah Harrison and WikiLeaks:

… I wonder what it is one might be looking for amid all this intrigue, these wheels within wheels? Back in the Soviet era there was clarity in most of the Kremlin’s strategies: it was a power game, played mainly with the United States, with stocks of real weaponry on both sides, and the real prospect of the game turning nasty – after all, nuclear war was just around the corner in 1962 and 1983. Nowadays, however, one has the sense of watching an almost surreal parody of the old power struggle: the postmodernist propaganda pumped out by RT may be flashy, grotesque and fun to watch, but it has nothing like the sinister and soul-crushing presence of the anti-Western stuff that churned from Moscow in endless volumes across the airwaves during the Cold War.

Looking at Russia and the West in the context of Snowden and the WikiLeaks scandal it’s not clear what we are witnessing: is it just that a generation of young and relatively young folk in the West have developed a strain of nihilism that caused them to turn against their own heritage of relative freedom in the name of a suddenly-conceived dislike of national security? Did some diehard retro Kremlin stooges decide to take advantage of this, out of boredom, resentment and bile? Or are we genuinely seeing a replay and revival of the Cold War in modern dress? What could have induced a nice young American man like Edward Snowden to re-enact the role of Cold War NSA defector, or a nice young Englishwoman like Sarah Harrison to resurrect the somber memories of 1951?

Perhaps there are unresolved questions of education and social psychology at work here, and until these essentially domestic, home-centered issues are examined and analysed, the true political dimension of what appears to be a spontaneous protest hijacked by some ex-KGB pros will remain obscure. The children are acting out a drama based on the political past of their parents and grandparents, but the plot of the drama is confused, and so far the characterization is at best sentimental and shallowly defined.

One difficulty with the “Cold War isn’t over” argument is that it immediately brings anyone trying to promote it into contact with people whose motivations and world view are often far from balanced – all the way from those who push the conspiracies associated with the Mitrokhin Archive to one or two comparatively respectable international commentators and journalists on the right – and sometimes the left – of European and American politics. The real, authentic Cold War had a presence and an atmosphere that was irreversibly fixed in the historical ambience of the twentieth century, with a peculiar, unique quality that can’t be repeated, any more than the unique socio-political ambience of the Soviet Union can be repeated now. Those who say without metaphor, as if it were an established fact, that the Cold War never ended, or the Soviet Union never went away, are talking from a position of unreality which deprives their otherwise often plausible arguments of the support they need. The world has changed, and the political processes and the actors that drive them have changed with it. To deny this is to drift off into a mode of thinking about the past and present of global politics that is unhistorical, and therefore likely to be fruitless.

Where the WikiLeaks scandal and the leadership of Julian Assange are concerned, it’s often noted that both the movement and its leader style themselves as “anarchist”, whereas in fact – as you point out – the techniques and ideas they employ have much more in common with those of Leninism and early Bolshevism than with any recognizably anarchist instruction book. Perhaps it’s not going too far to move the Cold War analogy out of the way and gaze further back into twentieth-century Russian history. In the period immediately preceding and following the October Revolution of 1917 there was a similar blurring of the lines between the different revolutionary movements, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Anarchists and Social Revolutionaries. In looking at the contemporary techno-revolutionary phenomena it may make more sense to view them in an analogy with the era of 1917 – not as an exact copy or a continuation of that era, but as manifestations of the “revolutionary pragmatism” that Lenin advocated: a practical and technical agenda and strategy for radical international social and political upheaval, in which the overthrowers of the established order become the guardians and rulers of the world that is to replace it.

For that is what is really so disturbing about the technolibertarians and technocommunists, the Assanges, Snowdens, Greenwalds, Appelbaums and others who seek to destroy the governmental,security,informational and social structures of the Western state. What they all share is a desire to dominate – on the successful completion of the revolution to fill the empty seats of power themselves, and to impose their own intolerant notions of social and political justice. Given the choices and rejections of those who hold them, those notions appear to derive more from the authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies of countries like Russia, Iran and China than they do from the “distillation of Australian cultural values…[the] distillation of American cultural values” and “the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution” that is claimed by Assange.

And maybe that is what Obama needs to be focusing on right now.