Julian Assange

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Not all whistleblowers are created equal. Julian Assange is, after all, no Daniel Ellsberg, even if the latter leaker supports him.

The WikiLeaks founder is nothing if not a Trump-ish world figure, having climbed onto that stage while our current President was still more Kim Kardashian than Kim Jong-un, busy weighing the relative merits of Arsenio Hall and Gary Busey in a make-believe boardroom.

Assange has repeatedly proven himself over the past seven years to have been deeply irresponsible with both the lives of innocent people–even at-risk ones–and the truth. Slavishly devoted to his own privacy despite having no regard for anyone else’s, he’s a vainglorious, egotistical asshole with a deep misogynistic streak and multiple sexual assault allegations on his public record. That doesn’t even take into account Assange apparently working as a Putin stooge over the last several years, with his organization becoming a Kremlin house organ far more effective than Pravda ever was during the Soviet days.

A question remains despite his odious behavior: Even if what Assange practices is some sort of voodoo journalism, will it endanger genuine practitioners if he’s arrested and tried for espionage? That inquiry was a lot more germane before Trump and hopefully will be again after him, since any U.S. reporter or news organization are targets of the White House’s wrath during this terrible time, no questionable practices required.

In writing about Risk, the Laura Poitras documentary about the world’s second-most-infamous Kremlin crony, Sue Halpern of the New York Review of Books wonders over this very issue. An excerpt:

Despite Assange’s vocal disdain for his former collaborators at The New York Times and The Guardian, his association with those journalists and their newspapers is probably what so far has kept him from being indicted and prosecuted in the United States. As Glenn Greenwald told the journalist Amy Goodman recently, Eric Holder’s Justice Department could not come up with a rationale to prosecute WikiLeaks that would not also implicate the news organizations with which it had worked; to do so, Greenwald said, would have been “too much of a threat to press freedom, even for the Obama administration.” The same cannot be said with confidence about the Trump White House, which perceives the Times, and national news organizations more generally, as adversaries. Yet if the Sessions Justice Department goes after Assange, it likely will be on the grounds that WikiLeaks is not “real” journalism.

This charge has dogged WikiLeaks from the start. For one thing, it doesn’t employ reporters or have subscribers. For another, it publishes irregularly and, because it does not actively chase secrets but aggregates those that others supply, often has long gaps when it publishes nothing at all. Perhaps most confusing to some observers, WikiLeaks’s rudimentary website doesn’t look anything like a New York Times or a Washington Post, even in those papers’ more recent digital incarnations.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that WikiLeaks publishes the information it receives much like those traditional news outlets. When it burst on the scene in 2010, it was embraced as a new kind of journalism, one capable not only of speaking truth to power, but of outsmarting power and its institutional gatekeepers. And the fact is, there is no consensus on what constitutes “real” journalism. As Adam Penenberg points out, “The best we have comes from laws and proposed legislation which protect reporters from being forced to divulge confidential sources in court. In crafting those shield laws, legislators have had to grapple with the nebulousness of the profession.”

The danger of carving off WikiLeaks from the rest of journalism, as the attorney general may attempt to do, is that ultimately it leaves all publications vulnerable to prosecution. Once an exception is made, a rule will be too, and the rule in this case will be that the government can determine what constitutes real journalism and what does not, and which publications, films, writers, editors, and filmmakers are protected under the First Amendment, and which are not.

This is where censorship begins. No matter what one thinks of Julian Assange personally, or of WikiLeaks’s reckless publication practices, like it or not, they have become the litmus test of our commitment to free speech. If the government successfully prosecutes WikiLeaks for publishing classified information, why not, then, “the failed New York Times,” as the president likes to call it, or any news organization or journalist? It’s a slippery slope leading to a sheer cliff. That is the real risk being presented here, though Poitras doesn’t directly address it.•


“This is not the film I thought I was making”:

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An unqualified sociopath was elected President of the United States with the aid of the FBI, fake news, Russian spies, white supremacists and an accused rapist who’s holed up inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid arrest. Writing that sentence a million times can’t make it any less chilling.

WikiLeaks’ modus operandi over the last couple of years probably wouldn’t be markedly different if it were in the hands of Steve Bannon rather than Julian Assange, so it’s not surprising the organization leaked a trove of (apparently overhyped) documents about CIA surveillance just as Trump was being lambasted from both sides of the aisle for baselessly accusing his predecessor for “wiretapping.” The timing is familiar if you recall that WikiLeaks began releasing Clinton campaign emails directly after the surfacing of a video that recorded Trump’s boasts of sexual assault. With all this recent history, is it any surprise Assange mockingly described himself as a “deplorable” when chiding Twitter for refusing verify his account?

The decentralization of media, with powerful tools in potentially every hand, has changed the game, no doubt. We’re now in a permanent Spy vs. Spy cartoon, though one that isn’t funny, with feds and hackers permanently at loggerheads. Which side can do the most damage? Voters have some recourse in regards to government snooping but not so with private-sector enterprises. In the rush to privatize and outsource long-established areas of critical services, from prisons to the military to intelligence work, we’ve also dispersed dangers.

From Sue Halpern’s New York Review of Books pieceThe Assange Distraction“:

In his press conference, Assange observed that no cyber weapons are safe from hacking because they live on the Internet, and once deployed are themselves at risk of being stolen. When that happens, he said, “there’s a very easy cover for any gray market operator, contractor, rogue intelligence agent to take that material and start a company with it. Start a consulting company, a hacker for hire company.” Indeed, the conversation we almost never have when we’re talking about cyber-security and hacking is the one where we acknowledge just how privatized intelligence gathering has become, and what the consequences of this have been. According to the reporters Dana Priest, Marjorie Censer and Robert O’Harrow, Jr., at least 70 percent of the intelligence community’s “secret” budget now goes to private contractors. And, they write, “Never before have so many US intelligence workers been hired so quickly, or been given access to secret government information through networked computers. …But in the rush to fill jobs, the government has relied on faulty procedures to vet intelligence workers, documents and interviews show.” Much of this expansion occurred in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when the American government sought to dramatically expand its intelligence-gathering apparatus.

Edward Snowden was a government contractor; he had a high security clearance while working for both Dell and for Booz, Allen, Hamilton. Vault 7’s source, from what one can discern from Assange’s remarks, was most likely a contractor, too. The real connection between Snowden’s NSA revelations and an anonymous leaker handing off CIA malware to WikiLeaks, however, is this: both remind us, in different ways, that the expansion of the surveillance state has made us fundamentally less secure, not more.

Julian Assange, if he is to be believed, now possesses the entire cyber-weaponry of the CIA. He claims that they are safe with him while explaining that nothing is safe on the Internet. He says that the malware he’s published so far is only part of the CIA arsenal, and that he’ll reveal more at a later date. If that is not a veiled threat, then this is: Assange has not destroyed the source codes that came to him with Vault 7, the algorithms that run these programs, and he hasn’t categorically ruled out releasing them into the wild, where they would be available to any cyber-criminal, state actor, or random hacker. This means that Julian Assange is not just a fugitive, he is a fugitive who is armed and dangerous.•

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Mentioned yesterday there were four questions submitted to Julian Assange’s Reddit Ask Me Anything that I hoped the Wikileaks EIC would address. The layout for the AMAs is sort of a mess, but from what I can quickly ascertain, it seems he responded to just one of them, though a good one. Assange skirts much of the inquiry’s substance, most likely because it speaks uncomfortable truths to his own stated philosophies about privacy, but it’s still worth reading.

The exchange:

Question:

People frequently group you together with Edward Snowden because you’ve both released classified American documents. But your motivations and philospophies couldn’t be more different.

Snowden claims to fight for privacy. He’s called privacy the bedrock of freedom, that one cannot be free without privacy.

You have called privacy obsolete and unsustainable. You’ve said that privacy has no inherent value. You appear to believe privacy and freedom are incompatible, that you cannot be free if others can keep secrets from you. You’ve published the credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical information, and sexual preferences of individuals of zero public interest. Two of your most recent publications are the personal Gmail inboxes of civilians, exactly the sort of thing Snowden has tried to protect.

Can you convince me that you’re right and Snowden’s wrong?

Julian Assange:

Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. He committed an important and brave act, which we supported. I worked with our legal team to get him out of Hong Kong and to a place of asylum. No other media organization did that. Not the Guardian, which had been publishing his material. Nor did Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, not even any institution from a government. It was WikiLeaks that acted. A small, investigative publisher, which understands computer security, cryptography, the National Security Agency, which I have been publishing about for more than ten years, and asylum law, because of my situation.

We couldn’t have a situation where Edward Snowden ends up in a position like Chelsea Manning and is used as a general deterrent to other whistleblowers stepping forward. Edward would have been imprisoned at any moment in Hong Kong and would have then been turned into the propaganda that if you’re trying to do something important as a whistleblower, your voice will stopped and you’ll be placed in prison in very adverse conditions.

We wanted the opposite. We wanted a general incentive for others to step forward. That’s for philosophical reasons, because we understand the threat of mass surveillance, but it’s also understandable for institutional reasons. WikiLeaks specializes in publishing what whistleblowers reveal and if there’s a chill on sources stepping forward, that’s not good for us as an institution. On the other hand, if people see yes, it’s good for sources to step forward, then there will be more of them.

On full publication versus the sadly limited publication of Snowden files–Edward Snowden hasn’t really had a choice. He has had various views that have shifted over time, but he is in a position where we made sure he had given the documents on him to journalists before he left Hong Kong. Both Edward Snowden and I assessed that it would be a dangerous bait for him to be carrying laptops with NSA material on it, as he transited through Russia to Latin America. That might be something that would cause the Russians to hold him. So he and we made sure he had nothing. Since the point of those initial disclosures, Edward Snowden hasn’t been able to control how his publications have been used.

Edward has been a very important voice in talking about the importance of different aspects of them, but he has had no control. The result is that more than 97% of the Snowden documents have been censored. Enormously important material censored and while there have been some good journalists working on them, and I think Glenn Greenwald is one of the best journalists publishing in the United States, you have to have hundreds of people and engineers working on material like this to understand what is going on.

We have a different position to those media organizations that have effectively privatized and limited that material. You can’t say that the initial publications had all the important docs. There have been more publications slowly as time goes by. Even some within the past two months. Those publications, for example, include ways to find interception sites in the United States used by the NSA. There are covert procedures to visiting those sites. Now, if those had been released in 2013, investigative journalists and individuals could have gone to those sites before there was a physical cover-up. That’s true in the United States and it’s true in Europe and elsewhere. I am sad about how the impact of the Snowden archive has been minimized, as a result of privatizing and censoring nearly all of it.•

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Complete assholes can sometimes be useful to society, but Julian Assange is the kind who isn’t.

If the Wikileaks EIC had stated he was openly in favor of a Trump Presidency, his involvement in disseminating stolen emails and apparent Russian ties would still be problems, but at least he would have been coming from an honest place. As someone who’s lectured ad nauseam about transparency and fairness, however, it’s particularly gross to see him do his damndest to tilt a democratic election while claiming impartiality. Bullshit.

Still for some reason being harbored from multiple rape accusations by the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange has just conducted a Reddit AMA. The four submitted questions below are ones I would like to see him address, though, in an larger sense, we already have all the answers we need.


Question:

In 2010, you tweeted about a massive Russian Cache. Within a year, you never mentioned it again, got a Russian Visa and were hired by the Russian Government for their “RT” State Media. What happened to the Russian Cache? Where’s the Russia Leaks?•


Question:

People frequently group you together with Edward Snowden because you’ve both released classified American documents. But your motivations and philospophies couldn’t be more different.

Snowden claims to fight for privacy. He’s called privacy the bedrock of freedom, that one cannot be free without privacy.

You have called privacy obsolete and unsustainable. You’ve said that privacy has noinherent value. You appear to believe privacy and freedom are incompatible, that you cannot be free if others can keep secrets from you. You’ve published the credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical information, and sexual preferences of individuals of zero public interest. Two of your most recent publications are the personal Gmail inboxes of civilians, exactly the sort of thing Snowden has tried to protect.

Can you convince me that you’re right and Snowden’s wrong?•


Question:

I find it hard to believe that you and your organization have no ties to the Russian government and that you were not part of a disinformation campaign to attempt to get Donald Trump elected.

During your staff’s AMA two months ago, one of your staff members stated the following:

We were not publishing with a goal to get any specific candidate elected. We were publishing with the one goal of making the elections as transparent as possible. We published what we received. I know that many media, including the New York Times, did editorially back one candidate over another. We didnt and havent. We would have published on any candidate. We still will if we get the submissions.

If you truly weren’t being objective or had no horse in the race, then why would the Wikileaks Twitter account have a “poll” about Hillary’s health? Or why would your site be selling T-shirts about Bill Clinton “dicking bimbos”. Or maybe you’d like to comment on the Pizza Gate fiasco and the “Spirit Cooking” garbage? This sort of stuff is hardly objective and it’s journalistic hackery at its finest.•


Question:

Your organization has said in their mission statement that “publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people.”

Your organization published personal email exchanges between democratic operatives. Why doesn’t you organization, in the interest of creating a better society for all people, publish all of the personal emails of people who work for your organization?•

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Politics is a fluid business but never have more Americans learned to swim in unfamiliar waters than over the last year when, for instance, evangelicals accommodated their faith to the white-supremacist stylings of a debauched casino dealer and serial groom.

Sean Hannity likewise had an opportunistic apostasy. Judging by his past remarks about Bill Clinton, the Fox opinion-giver hated accused sexual predators until, that is, he met Donald Trump and Julian Assange, and now it is love sweet love.

Hannity, who previously called for Assange’s arrest, just interviewed the leaker, who’s become a darling of the far-right wing of the GOP, currently the overwhelmingly dominant faction. That he conducted the conversation in support of a President-Elect who trashed our POWs and encouraged Russia to hack our campaign is the U.S.A. reaching a degree of next-level nuttiness. 

Trump has only doubled down on his Putin-pumping comments since the election, trashing the D.C. intelligence community and discouraging hearings on the Kremlin’s machinations in regard to our democracy. Someone with a degree of sense must have cornered him, as the soon-to-be Commander-in-Chief has backed off his troubling statements for the moment, but his stance is established, the damage done and the future clear: The President-Elect will continue to attack truth and facts of all kind because nihilism, not clarity, favors him.

The opening of a well-written Politico piece by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz:

We are through the looking glass now.

The next president of the United States is siding with Julian Assange, a man who wears his anti-Americanism proudly and acts like the textbook definition of a Russian asset, over the U.S. intelligence community – thousands of smart, patriotic people who work long hours for middling pay, some risking their lives to keep the rest of us safe.

I was once one of them, and I can only imagine how my former colleagues are feeling now. Never in our history has a U.S. president openly chosen to trust the word of a foreign adversary ahead of his own analysts.

Never, that is, until Donald Trump—who last night began a series of astonishing tweets expressing skepticism about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia had hacked into Democratic Party institutions.

“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday,” Trump began, “perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” He followed up this morning with some positive vibes about Fox News’ Sean Hannity puff interview with Assange, including this gem: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”

And he’s gotten support or silence from far too many Republican members of Congress, including New York Rep. Peter King, who suggested last month that “some rogue person behind a desk somewhere” had leaked the CIA’s conclusions to influence the Electoral College.

As Trump himself might say, something’s going on here.•

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Not trusting your own government isn’t a good reason to trust Julian Assange. He’s full of shit, this Bill Cosby of whistle blowers, this unprincipled hack. Citizens disrupting government agencies surveilling us has great value, but they must have at least a modicum of scruples and the maturity to realize that in addition to black and white, gray areas actually exist.

Like a lot of assholes, Assange had the potential at one point to do some good despite himself, but this guy is no Daniel Ellsberg. Instead, he’s a self-aggrandizing bag of nuts. His apparent support of a Trump Presidency and his promised-but-not-delivered leak of a supposed trove of important documents are the latest signs of his utter unraveling.

Those still twisting and turning to support his nonsense in the name of some ideological argument are doing harm to themselves and their beliefs.

Two excerpts follow, one from a Spiegel Q&A conducted by Michael Sontheimer, and the other from a Mic piece by Emily Cahn about Assange’s bait-and-switch in regard to a Hillary Clinton bombshell he was allegedly sitting on.


From Spiegel:

Spiegel:

Mr. Assange, 10 years after the founding of WikiLeaks, the whistleblower platform is again being criticized. WikiLeaks is said to have put millions of Turkish voters in danger. What is your response?

Julian Assange:

A few days after the publication of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee, an entirely false story was put out that we had published the names, addresses and phone numbers of all female voters in Turkey. It is completely false. And it was and is simple to check. Power factions fight back with lies. That’s not surprising.

Spiegel:

Quite a few German journalists have long sympathized with WikiLeaks and also with Edward Snowden. But they aren’t impressed with the publishing of the DNC emails. Are you campaigning on behalf of Donald Trump?

Julian Assange:

Our publication of the DNC leaks has showed that the Democratic National Committee had effectively rigged the primaries in the United States on behalf of Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. That led to the resignation of leading members of the DNC, including its president Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Spiegel:

People within the Clinton campaign have suggested that the DNC emails were given to you by the Russian secret service.

Julian Assange:

There have been many attempts to distract from the power of our publications. Hillary Clinton is the favorite to win. As always, most media aligns with the presumptive winner even though their claimed societal virtue is to investigate those in power.

Spiegel:

The fact is, WikiLeaks is damaging Clinton and bolstering Trump. 

Julian Assange:

We’re not going to start censoring our publications because there is a US election. Our role is to publish. Clinton has been in government so we have much more to publish on Clinton. There is a lot of naivety. The US presidency will continue to represent the major power groups of the United States — big business and the military — regardless of who the talking head is.•


From Mic:

Julian Assange trolled the internet — and much of the world — Tuesday, getting thousands to tune into a glorified informercial for WikiLeaks and his new book by teasing he would be dropping a surprise in October on Hillary Clinton.

But Assange didn’t release any documents. Instead, he again moved the goal post for when new documents related to the election would leak — saying they’d come before the end of the year.

“We are going to need an army to defend us from the pressure that is already starting to arise,” Assange said via live video feed into a press conference to celebrate WikiLeaks’ 10-year anniversary, NBC News reported.

Top supporters of Donald Trump — including noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and political operative Roger Stone — had hyped Assange’s press conference, saying he would release documents that would end Clinton’s presidential bid.•

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Donald Trump is an American Berlusconi at the very least and perhaps a Mussolini, but a fascist’s rise to power doesn’t happen on its own–it takes a village. Joining strange bedfellows James Baker, Peter Thiel, Mike Ditka, Chachi and the underwear model in support of a Trump Administration is Julian Assange, Wikileaks very own alleged Bill Cosby. One of the main things making Assange’s posture as a journalist dicey is the fear he would used hacked information to service his own political beliefs and personal feuds, not hold all parties involved to the same ideal. He’s now admitted as much, saying he timed the email release about the DNC to try to enable a Trump victory. It’s a perversion of democracy, though I suppose you have to credit Assange for his transparency.

From Charlie Savage at the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Six weeks before the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks published an archive of hacked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of the Democratic convention, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, foreshadowed the release — and made it clear that he hoped to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency.

Mr. Assange’s remarks in a June 12 interview underscored that for all the drama of the discord that the disclosures have sown among supporters of Bernie Sanders — and of the unproven speculation that the Russian government provided the hacked data to WikiLeaks in order to help Donald J. Trump — the disclosures are also the latest chapter in the long-running tale of Mr. Assange’s battles with the Obama administration. 

In the interview, Mr. Assange told a British television host, Robert Peston of the ITV network, that his organization had obtained “emails related to Hillary Clinton which are pending publication,” which he pronounced “great.” He also suggested that he not only opposed her candidacy on policy grounds, but also saw her as a personal foe. 

At one point, Mr. Peston said: “Plainly, what you are saying, what you are publishing, hurts Hillary Clinton. Would you prefer Trump to be president?” 

Mr. Assange replied that what Mr. Trump would do as president was “completely unpredictable.” By contrast, he thought it was predictable that Mrs. Clinton would wield power in two ways he found problematic.•

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Julian Assange, the alleged Bill Cosby of Wikileaks, can be a preposterous blowhard, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been a useful part of the discussion about surveillance. At Spiegel, Michael Sontheimer has a new longform Q&A with Assange, in which they discuss what might be called Wikileaks 2.0, as well as the “digital colonization of the world” by Silicon Valley powerhouses, this era’s analog of America’s twentieth-century cultural exportation of Hollywood and hamburgers.

An excerpt:

Spiegel:

You met Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. Do you think he is a dangerous man?

Julian Assange:

If you ask “Does Google collect more information than the National Security Agency?” the answer is “no,” because NSA also collects information from Google. The same applies to Facebook and other Silicon Valley-based companies. They still collect a lot of information and they are using a new economic model which academics call “surveillance capitalism.” General information about individuals is worth little, but when you group together a billion individuals, it becomes strategic like an oil or gas pipeline.

Spiegel:

Secret services are perceived as potential criminals but the big IT corporations are perceived at least in an ambiguous way. Apple produces beautiful computers. Google is a useful search engine.

Julian Assange:

Until the 1980s, computers were big machines designed for the military or scientists, but then the personal computers were developed and companies had to start rebranding them as machines that were helpful for individual human beings. Organizations like Google, whose business model is “voluntary” mass surveillance, appear to be giving it away for free. Free e-mail, free search, etc. Therefore it seems that they’re not a corporation, because corporations don’t do things for free. It falsely seems like they are part of civil society.

Spiegel:

And they shape the thinking of billions of users?

Julian Assange:

They are also exporting a specific mindset of culture. You can use the old term of “cultural imperialism” or call it the “Disneylandization” of the Internet. Maybe “digital colonization” is the best terminology.

Spiegel:

What does this “colonization” look like?

Julian Assange:

These corporations establish new societal rules about what activities are permitted and what information can be transmitted. Right down to how much nipple you can show. Down to really basic matters, which are normally a function of public debate and parliaments making laws. Once something becomes sufficiently controversial, it’s banned by these organizations. Or, even if it is not so controversial, but it affects the interests that they’re close to, then it’s banned or partially banned or just not promoted.

Spiegel:

So in the long run, cultural diversity is endangered?

Julian Assange:

The long-term effect is a tendency towards conformity, because controversy is eliminated. An American mindset is being fostered and spread to the rest of the world because they find this mindset to be uncontroversial among themselves. That is literally a type of digital colonialism; non-US cultures are being colonized by a mindset of what is tolerable to the staff and investors of a few Silicon Valley companies. The cultural standard of what is a taboo and what is not becomes a US standard, where US exceptionalism is uncontroversial.•

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The upside to the financial crisis of a medium, say like magazines with their economic model tossed into the crapper by technological progress, is that publications are forced to reinvent themselves, get innovative and try offbeat things. In that spirit, the resuscitated Newsweek assigned Wikileaks editor (not “self-styled editor”) Julian Assange to review Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.

And what a gleefully obnoxious pan he delivers, making some salient points along the way, even if it’s not exactly unexpected that he would be bilious toward traditional media in favor of alterna-journalists like himself. Additionally: Assange proves he is a very funny writer. You know, just like Bill Cosby.

An excerpt:

In recent years, we have seen The Guardian consult itself into cinematic history—in the Jason Bourne films and others—as a hip, ultra-modern, intensely British newspaper with a progressive edge, a charmingly befuddled giant of investigative journalism with a cast-iron spine.

The Snowden Files positions The Guardian as central to the Edward Snowden affair, elbowing out more significant players like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for Guardian stablemates, often with remarkably bad grace.

“Disputatious gay” Glenn Greenwald’s distress at the U.K.’s detention of his husband, David Miranda, is described as “emotional” and “over-the-top.” My WikiLeaks colleague Sarah Harrison—who helped rescue Snowden from Hong Kongis dismissed as a “would-be journalist.”

I am referred to as the “self-styled editor of WikiLeaks.” In other words, the editor of WikiLeaks. This is about as subtle as Harding’s withering asides get. You could use this kind of thing on anyone.

Flatulent Tributes

The book is full of flatulent tributes to The Guardian and its would-be journalists. “[Guardian journalist Ewen] MacAskill had climbed the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau. His calmness now stood him in good stead.” Self-styled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is introduced and reintroduced in nearly every chapter, each time quoting the same hagiographic New Yorker profile as testimony to his “steely” composure and “radiant calm.”

That this is Hollywood bait could not be more blatant.•

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Just because Julian Assange is a megalomaniacal creepbag doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything. He’s most certainly not. In a Newsweek excerpt from his book When Google Met Wikileaks, Assange recounts his 2011 meeting with that company’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Ideas Director Jared Cohen, and his subsequent realization that the search giant enjoys a cozy relationship with the inner sanctums of D.C.’s biggest power brokers, even the White House. I don’t doubt that Google, the de facto Bell Labs of our time and likely in possession of more information than any other entity in the history of Earth, is indeed ensconced in politics (and vice versa), though I would caution against thinking the Silicon Valley behemoth is some sort of shadow government. In his black-and-white way of viewing the world, Assange needs his foes to be as massive as his ego, and he wants to see Google as an indomitable force shaping our world. While it has some influence–and I wish corporations didn’t have any entrée into such quarters–I think Assange is overestimating the company’s importance as a world-maker to inflate his own. In fact, if Google is mainly a search company a decade or two from now, it won’t have much sway at all–it’ll probably be in a lot of trouble. A passage about Assange’s research into Cohen’s role in geopolitics:

“Looking for something more concrete, I began to search in WikiLeaks’ archive for information on Cohen. State Department cables released as part of Cablegate reveal that Cohen had been in Afghanistan in 2009, trying to convince the four major Afghan mobile phone companies to move their antennas onto U.S. military bases. In Lebanon, he quietly worked to establish an intellectual and clerical rival to Hezbollah, the ‘Higher Shia League.’ And in London he offered Bollywood movie executives funds to insert anti-extremist content into their films, and promised to connect them to related networks in Hollywood.

Three days after he visited me at Ellingham Hall, Jared Cohen flew to Ireland to direct the ‘Save Summit,’ an event co-sponsored by Google Ideas and the Council on Foreign Relations. Gathering former inner-city gang members, right-wing militants, violent nationalists and ‘religious extremists’ from all over the world together in one place, the event aimed to workshop technological solutions to the problem of ‘violent extremism.’ What could go wrong?

Cohen’s world seems to be one event like this after another: endless soirees for the cross-fertilization of influence between elites and their vassals, under the pious rubric of ‘civil society.’ The received wisdom in advanced capitalist societies is that there still exists an organic ‘civil society sector’ in which institutions form autonomously and come together to manifest the interests and will of citizens. The fable has it that the boundaries of this sector are respected by actors from government and the ‘private sector,’ leaving a safe space for NGOs and nonprofits to advocate for things like human rights, free speech and accountable government.

This sounds like a great idea. But if it was ever true, it has not been for decades. Since at least the 1970s, authentic actors like unions and churches have folded under a sustained assault by free-market statism, transforming ‘civil society’ into a buyer’s market for political factions and corporate interests looking to exert influence at arm’s length. The last forty years have seen a huge proliferation of think tanks and political NGOs whose purpose, beneath all the verbiage, is to execute political agendas by proxy.”

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Google does many great things, but its corporate leaders want you to trust them with your private information–because they are the good guys–and you should never trust any corporation with such material. The thing is, it’s increasingly difficult to opt out of the modern arrangement, algorithms snaking their way into all corners of our lives. The excellent documentarian Eugene Jarecki has penned a Time essay about Google and Wikileaks and what the two say about the future. An excerpt follows.

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I interviewed notorious Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by hologram, beamed in from his place of asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. News coverage the next day focused in one way or another on the spectacular and mischievous angle that Assange had, in effect, managed to escape his quarantine and laugh in the face of those who wish to extradite him by appearing full-bodied in Nantucket before a packed house of exhilarated conference attendees.

Beyond the spectacle, though, what got less attention was what the interview was actually about, namely the future of our civilization in an increasingly digital world. What does it mean for us as people to see the traditional town square go digital, with online banking displacing bricks and mortar, just as email did snail mail, Wikipedia did the local library, and eBay the mom and pop shop? The subject of our ever-digitizing lives is one that has been gaining currency over the past year, fueled by news stories about Google Glasses, self-driving cars, sky-rocketing rates of online addiction and, most recently, the scandal of NSA abuse. But the need to better understand the implications of our digital transformation was further underscored in the days preceding the event with the publication of two books: one by Assange and the other by Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt.

Assange’s book, When Google Met Wikileaks, is the transcript (with commentary by Assange) of a secret meeting between the two that took place on June 23, 2011, when Schmidt visited Assange in England. In his commentary, Assange explores the troubling implications of Google’s vast reach, including its relationships with international authorities, particularly in the U.S., of which the public is largely unaware. Schmidt’s book, How Google Works, is a broader, sunnier look at how technology has presumably shifted the balance of power from companies to people. It tells the story of how Google rose from a nerdy young tech startup to become a nerdy behemoth astride the globe. Read together, the two books offer an unsettling portrait both of our unpreparedness for what lies ahead and of the utopian spin with which Google (and others in the digital world) package tomorrow. While Assange’s book accuses Google of operating as a kind of “‘Don’t Be Evil’ empire,” Schmidt’s book fulfills Assange’s worst fears, presenting pseudo-irreverent business maxims in an “aw shucks” tone that seems willfully ignorant of the inevitable implications of any company coming to so sweepingly dominate our lives in unprecedented and often legally uncharted ways.•

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Julian Assange is an asshole, but so are a lot of useful people. Whistleblowers are vital in a free society, and I certainly don’t expect them to be perfect, but Assange is a messenger of such dubious character that it pollutes his message.

In today’s Gawker chat, Assange chose to not answer one of the best questions–“Given the collapse of your support since avoiding rape charges for several years, don’t you think that Wikileaks, as an organisation, would have been better served if you resigned?”–but he did respond to some others. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

Dear Mr. Assange, through your efforts and that of Wikileaks as a whole, you have led to a new era of whistleblowing that has revealed the extent of America’s malfeasance across the globe. We have also seen the United States (and others) attempt to break down the safeguards that enabled individuals to leak information to you and others. Do you think after Manning and Snowden that leaks of such magnitude are still possible?

Julian Assange:

Not only are leaks of this magnitude still possible, they are an inevitability. And there’s more coming, not less. While Washington DC has tried to set general deterants, we’ve set general incentives. That’s why we beat them at their own game and got Snowden to safety. So he could keep his voice and through his example of relative freedom act as general incentive.

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Question:

Julian, do you think you have anything—anything at all—in common with Eric Schmidt?

Julian Assange:

Plenty – I discuss it a lot in the book, e.g.: “Schmidt’s dour appearance concealed a machinelike analyticity. His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence. It was the same intellect that had abstracted software-engineering principles to scale Google into a megacorp, ensuring that the corporate infrastructure always met the rate of growth. This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows.”

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Question:

I feel you’ve done a great service to humanity for pulling the curtains back on corruption and lies. Do you have any ideas, or see any ways that the human race can change our ways to create a path towards more transparency, truthfulness, and doing what’s right?

Julian Assange:

One thing you can do, which is quite simple, is treat companies like Google and Facebook as the corporations they are. Lots of people – especially on the left – are aware of the ways in which corporations are exploitative and harmful. But there is a disconnect when it comes to Silicon Valley. Lots of people refuse to buy Coca Cola, but they don’t see any problem with having a Gmail account. I think that is changing lately, but we need a movement to divest from these corporations – which destroy privacy – and to build an alternative internet that isn’t as actively harmful to human interests.

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Question:

There was a piece in Slate last year about Google, that I kept thinking about with respect to this book, about how Google’s internal culture and goals are bound up in Star Trek. For example: Amit Singhal, the head of Google’s search rankings team, told the South by Southwest Interactive Festival that “The destiny of [Google’s search engine] is to become that Star Trek computer, and that’s what we are building.”

It makes sense to me in that there’s a real Camelot-era liberal pro-statist ideal underlying Star Trek’s vision of the future, and I’m curious what your sense was as to whether or not Eric Schmidt really buys into that. AND/OR I am curious to know how your idealized vision of the future differs from that Google Star Trek model.

Julian Assange:

I hadn’t seen that piece. At a glance, it reminds me of the discovery that the NSA had had the bridge of the Enterprise recreated. In my experience it is more reliable and fairer to look at peoples interests and expenditure rather than try to diagnose their inner mental state, as the latter often lets people project their own biases. As I say in the book, I found Eric Schmidt to be, as you would expect, a very sharp operator. If you read The New Digital Age, the apolitical futurism of Star Trek seems to fit what Schmidt writes quite well. I also quite liked this summary of Google’s vision for the future: “Google’s vision of the future is pure atom-age 1960s Jetsons fantasy, bubble-dwelling spiritless sexists above a ruined earth.”

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Question:

Russian FSB. You didn’t release that information, and today, you and the Russians are downright chummy, with you reportedly assisting Edward Snowden in his “travels” there, in spite of Russia’s considerable human rights and surveillance abuses. How do you square your relationship with Russia and your government transparency/anti-authoritarian goals?

Julian Assange:

This is the usual attempt to attack the messager because the message is indisputable. The approach would already be invalid at that level, but it is also strictly false. Many things you may perceive to be true about an individual or a nation are helpful rhetorical positions that spread around through one group or another like a virus. In the end the collection of these thought-viruses, or memes, reflects the psychological and political contours of the group in which it inhabits. We have published more than 600,000 documents relating to Russia. The US stranded him in Russia by cancelling his passport. The US State Department just keeps kicking own goals. It is not my fault, or Edward Snowden’s fault that they’re so incompetent.•

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In his Guardian defense of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Slavoj Žižek takes things to extremes, as is he is wont to do. An excerpt:

“In a country such as China the limitations of freedom are clear to everyone, with no illusions about it. In the US, however, formal freedoms are guaranteed, so that most individuals experience their lives as free and are not even aware of the extent to which they are controlled by state mechanisms. Whistleblowers do something much more important than stating the obvious by way of denouncing the openly oppressive regimes: they render public the unfreedom that underlies the very situation in which we experience ourselves as free.

Back in May 2002, it was reported that scientists at New York University had attached a computer chip able to transmit elementary signals directly to a rat’s brain – enabling scientists to control the rat’s movements by means of a steering mechanism, as used in a remote-controlled toy car. For the first time, the free will of a living animal was taken over by an external machine.

How did the unfortunate rat experience its movements, which were effectively decided from outside? Was it totally unaware that its movements were being steered? Maybe therein lies the difference between Chinese citizens and us, free citizens of western, liberal countries: the Chinese human rats are at least aware they are controlled, while we are the stupid rats strolling around unaware of how our movements are monitored.”

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Anyone who leaks information about war crimes is useful, but did it have to be Julian Assange? Yeesh. Part Ellsberg and part Polanski, he’s retreated for the past two years from international law to the safe haven of Ecuador’s embassy, a veritable house arrest of his own design, dodging sex-crime charges. Assange just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What is your opinion on Edward Snowden? 

Julian Assange:

Edward Snowden performed an intelligent and heroic act. I and others had been calling for exactly this act for years (you can read about that here) co-ordinated his asylum. Our Sarah Harrison kept him secure in his path out of Hong Kong and spent 40 days making sure he was OK in Moscow’s airport. Just last week I co-launched a new international organisation, the Courage Foundation in Berlin. Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire and many other great people are involved. 

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Question:

If you had a chance to do this all again, would you, and what changes would you make?

Julian Assange:

Again – definitely; we only live once and every day spent living your principles is a day at liberty. It is clear that history is on our side. Most of our difficult decisions are constrained by resource limits, not ideas. But I was ignorant about the extent of Sweden’s geopolitical reliance with the United States and to some extent the structure of UK society.

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Question:

In regards to President Obama you were recently quoted as saying, “You must surely, now, start to reflect on what your legacy will be.” How do you think history will remember you, and how do you feel about that?

Julian Assange:

For presidents it is important, but for the rest of us it is more important to get things done and see your legacy in the world. We’re doing well in the more academic or comprehensive histories and outside the worst aspects of the English speaking mainstream press. Smears don’t have much staying power on their own because they deviate from the foundations of reality (what actually happened). They require constant energy from our opponents to keep going. The truth has a habit of reasserting itself.

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Question:

Hi Julian, I have 2 questions.

First, what do you do to stop yourself going mental with boredom? From my understanding, you cannot leave the embassy or you’ll be arrested, so you’ve basically placed yourself under house arrest. What are you day to day activities?

Second, (and I don’t mean this to sound inflammatory), why did you start a website to leak classified information? Surely you can understand that many things kept confidential are for the reasons of national security, and releasing secret documents puts lives and international relations at risk?

Julian Assange:

1) I only wish there was a risk of boredom in my present situation. Besides being the centre of a pitched, prolonged diplomatic standoff, along with a police encirclement of the building I am in and the attendant surveillance and government investigations against myself and my staff, I am in one of the most populous cities in Europe, and everyone knows my exact location. People visit me nearly every day. I also continue to direct a small multinational organisation, WikiLeaks, which is a serious logistical and occupational endeavour. I barely have time to sleep, let alone become bored.

2) Confidential government documents we have published disclose evidence of war crimes, criminal back-room dealings and sundry abuses. That alone legitimates our publications, and that principally motivates our work. Secrecy was never intended to enable criminality in the highest offices of state. Secrecy is, yes, sometimes necessary, but healthy democracies understand that secrecy is the exception, not the rule. “National security” pretexts for secrecy are routinely used by powerful officials, but seldom justified. If we accept these terms of propaganda, strong national security journalism becomes impossible. Our publications have never jeopardized the “national security” of any nation. When secrecy is a cover-all for endemic official criminality, I suggest to you, it bespeaks a strange set of priorities to ask journalists to justify their own existence.•

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There’s no corporation, including Google, that should be trusted with our private information. Of course, there’s no way to avoid such a faustian bargain in this world of clouds. Everything is free, but it still costs a lot. There’s the rub.

Later this year, Julian Assange is to release a book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, the description of which sounds bombastic, grandiose and borderline crazy, like Assange himself. But that’s not to say it won’t contain truth. Just because the messenger is deeply flawed doesn’t mean the message is completely wrong. Sometimes, it’s only the truly damaged person who’ll step forward. From Alison Flood in the Guardian:

‘Julian Assange is writing a ‘major’ new book, in which the Wikileaks founder details his vision for the “future of the internet’ as well as his encounter in 2011 with Google chairman Eric Schmidt – a meeting which his publisher described as ‘an historic dialogue’ between ‘the North and South poles of the internet.’

The book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, will be published in September this year, announced publisher OR Books this morning. It will recount how, in June 2011 when Assange was living under house arrest at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, Schmidt and ‘an entourage of US State Department alumni including a top former adviser to Hillary Clinton’ visited for several hours and ‘locked horns’ with the Wikileaks founder.

‘The two men debated the political problems faced by human society, and the technological solutions engendered by the global network – from the Arab Spring to Bitcoin. They outlined radically opposing perspectives: for Assange, the liberating power of the internet is based on its freedom and statelessness. For Schmidt, emancipation is at one with US foreign policy objectives and is driven by connecting non-western countries to American companies and markets. These differences embodied a tug-of-war over the internet’s future that has only gathered force subsequently,’ said OR Books in its announcement.

The title will include an edited transcript of the conversation between Schmidt and Assange, as well as new material written by Assange, who has been confined to the Ecuadorian embassy, in London, for the last 18 months.”

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Whether we’re talking about governments and corporations spying on individuals or citizens leaking classified documents, I think the main problem isn’t that legislation hasn’t yet caught up to technology, but that it can’t and won’t. When information is so easy to intercept, when you can download Deep Throat, when everyone can be proven guilty, what will the new morality be?

A few differences between Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak and Assange, Manning and Snowden, from “The Three Leakers and What to Do About Them,” by David Cole at the New York Review of Books:

“First, unlike Nixon, Obama did not attempt to prohibit the publication of any of Snowden’s or Manning’s leaks. The Pentagon Papers case, thanks in part to Goodale’s own arguments before the courts, established an extraordinarily high legal bar for enjoining publication, and that bar holds today. For many of the justices in the Pentagon Papers case, however, that bar applied only to ‘prior restraints’—requests to prohibit publication altogether—and would not apply to after-the-fact criminal prosecutions of leakers. While the Times was not prosecuted, Ellsberg was, and his case was dismissed not on First Amendment grounds, but on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct.

Second, the digital age has profoundly altered the dynamics and stakes of leaks. Computers make stealing documents much more efficient. Ellsberg had to spend months manually photocopying the Pentagon Papers. Manning used his computer to download over 700,000 documents, and Snowden apparently stole even more. The Internet makes disclosures across national borders much easier. Manning uploaded his documents directly to WikiLeaks’ website, hosted in Sweden, far beyond US reach. Snowden gave access to his documents to journalists in Germany, Brazil, and the US, and they have in turn published them in newspapers throughout the world.

Third, computers and the Internet have at the same time made it easier to identify and prosecute leakers. When someone leaked the fact that the US had placed an agent inside an active al-Qaeda cell in May 2012, an entirely unjustifiable disclosure, the Justice Department spent eight months investigating the old-fashioned way, interviewing over 550 people without success. But when the prosecutors subpoenaed phone records of the Associated Press offices and reporters involved in publishing the story, they promptly identified the leaker, an FBI agent, and obtained a guilty plea.”

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In “The Man Who Came To Dinner,” Sarah Ellison’s new Vanity Fair piece about Julian Assange, we get a look at the Wikileaks mastermind as he’s confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, dodging a likely indictment from the U.S. for espionage and certain interrogation from Sweden about alleged sex crimes. Yet behind closed doors, he telecommutes at will, running his document dump seamlessly, striking a pose that’s equal parts Ellsberg and Polanski. An excerpt:

“Even before the Snowden affair brought him back into the limelight, Assange had been busy. During his year of confinement at the embassy, he has released a vast cache of documents, written a book, addressed the U.N., founded a political party in Australia and launched a bid for a Senate seat there, entertained socialites and celebrities, maintained contact with leakers and whistle-blowers all over the world, and worked behind the scenes to influence depictions of him that are now hitting movie screens (the most high-profile being a DreamWorks production starring Benedict Cumberbatch). As for the Snowden case, Assange and WikiLeaks have served, in effect, as Snowden’s travel agents, publicists, and envoys; it is still not clear how far back the Snowden connection goes, or precisely how it originated, though the filmmaker Laura Poitras likely played the key role.

Assange cannot move from his quarters, but he is either at his computer or in conference, working in an impressive number of spheres. ‘He is like any other C.E.O.—plagued by constant meetings,’ WikiLeaks told me. He employs sophisticated encryption software, which anyone wishing to make contact with him or his circle is encouraged to use. To gain a sense of his life and work, during the past months I have spoken to Assange’s lawyers and to many longtime or former friends, supporters, and professional associates. (Some have requested anonymity.) Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. military analyst who brought the Pentagon Papers to light, has met with Assange and speaks with personal knowledge about the lonely life of a leaker and whistle-blower. ‘We are exiles and émigrés,’ he told me.

But the fact that Assange has had to take himself physically out of circulation has had the effect, oddly, of keeping him more purely at the center of things than he was before. His legal perils have not receded, but his state of diplomatic limbo means that he is no longer being hauled out of black vans and in front of screaming reporters and whirring cameras. The U.S. government has tried to decapitate his organization, which has only made him a martyr. No one is talking, as they were when he was free to mingle with the outside world, about his thin skin, his argumentative nature, his paranoia, his self-absorption, his poor personal hygiene, his habit of using his laptop when dining in company, or his failure to flush the toilet.

‘If anything, I think he’s stronger and more sophisticated than he used to be, and so is the organization,’ Jennifer Robinson, an Australian human-rights lawyer best known for her work defending Assange in London, told me. ‘They’ve weathered three years of intense pressure and all forms of legal and political attacks, and they are still here and still publishing and still making headlines.’ Today, Assange is alone and unbothered, but not isolated—the unquiet center of a web whose vibrations he can both detect and influence.”

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Julian Assange makes a raft of good points in his New York Times Op-Ed piece about the globalizing effect of the Googleplex and its arrogant brand of technocracy. But because he’s the kind of exasperating person who sees the world only in extremes, Assange goes too far in painting the company as unmitigated autocratic evil. If you think we’re going to become the United States of Google, let’s recall that Microsoft was not too long similarly feared, and even without government intervention, it would have collapsed beneath its own weight because that’s usually what corporate behemoths do. And Google is nowhere near the tool of American governmental policy that Bell Labs was. You remember Bell Labs, right? It used to be a thing. An excerpt from Assange’s article, which is inspired by the book, The New Digital Age:

“The writing is on the wall, but the authors cannot see it. They borrow from William Dobson the idea that the media, in an autocracy, ‘allows for an opposition press as long as regime opponents understand where the unspoken limits are.’ But these trends are beginning to emerge in the United States. No one doubts the chilling effects of the investigations into The Associated Press and Fox’s James Rosen. But there has been little analysis of Google’s role in complying with the Rosen subpoena. I have personal experience of these trends.

The Department of Justice admitted in March that it was in its third year of a continuing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks. Court testimony states that its targets include ‘the founders, owners, or managers of WikiLeaks.’ One alleged source, Bradley Manning, faces a 12-week trial beginning tomorrow, with 24 prosecution witnesses expected to testify in secret.

This book is a balefully seminal work in which neither author has the language to see, much less to express, the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing. ‘What Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century,’ they tell us, ‘technology and cybersecurity companies will be to the 21st.’ Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces — forever. Zealots of the cult of consumer technology will find little to inspire them here, not that they ever seem to need it. But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.

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"The Iraq War was the biggest issue for people of my generation in the West." (Image by Espen Moe.)

From Michael Hastings’ new interview in Rolling Stone with Wikileak’s head leaker, Julian Assange, on what inspired him to begin disseminating classified information:

Then, two years later, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
The creation of WikiLeaks was, in part, a response to Iraq. There were a number of whistle-blowers who came out in relation to Iraq, and it was clear to me that what the world was missing in the days of Iraq propaganda was a way for inside sources who knew what was really going on to communicate that information to the public. Quite a few who did ended up in very dire circumstances, including David Kelly, the British scientist who either committed suicide or was murdered over his revelations about weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq War was the biggest issue for people of my generation in the West. It was also the clearest case, in my living memory, of media manipulation and the creation of a war through ignorance.

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