Double Data

Data Drama at Princeton April 4, 2014 (video)
Direct Democracy within the Internet, Left Forum, May 31, 2014

We think of Washington as a city of neoclassical wedding cakes on well manicured lawns. But the metropolitan area is sprawl. Power deals and history is made in unremarkable buildings like this one. That’s where Chelsea Manning’s court martial was held — in Fort Meade, near BWI airport. It is just slightly larger than the convenience store next to a gas station across the way.

She was sentenced to 35 years, with the possibility of parole in seven years. Fort Levenworth isn’t the Ecuadorian embassy. It isn’t Sheremetyevo airport. She’s locked away. We aren’t going to see her in a Google Hangout chatting with an ad executive at SXSW. She won’t be zooming around the TED stage as a telepresence robot. But Fort Levenworth is Military Corrections, not the Bureau of Prisons — so she has the a change to speak up occasionally in the news:

Recently she picked up an award decided each year by retired CIA officers. In her acceptance letter, she questioned if the targeted killing of the US Citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, suggests the government had the power to dispose of her similarly.

“Granted, I received due process. I received charges, was arraigned before a military judge for trial, and eventually acquitted. But, the al-Aulaqi case raises a fundamental question: did the American government, and particularly the same President and Department, have the power to unilaterally determine my guilt of such an offense, and execute me at the will of the pilot of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle?”

Suggesting she might have been droned was a provocation — the key point here is about secrecy. If she had been killed, the government wouldn’t need to reveal why the execution took place. Manning quotes the federal district court judge’s decision in the case who expresses she is horrified the “thicket of laws and precedents,” prevents her from stating the reason. In Mannings words, “it wasn’t that she didn’t think that the public didn’t have a right to know — it was that she didn’t feel that she had the ‘legal’ authority to compel disclosure.”

Central to understanding the Manning trial is the issue of over-classification of US intelligence. 4 million people have the security clearance to access classified documents. So many documents are needlessly withheld from the public that low level employees cannot access them without clearance. Absolutely nothing sensitive to national security should be accessible to 4 million people. Sensitive files are getting lost in the bureaucracy. Meanwhile information the public should have access to is kept private.

Billions and billions of dollars maintain these needless secrets. More than half of the diplomatic cables are not classified in any way, including the footage Manning leaked of the apache helicopter attack on civilians in Baghdad.

Manning used WGET, a basic program to bulk download the files. That’s part of her conviction. The CFAA, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is said to have been written after President Reagan saw the film War Games. This was dinosaur legislation from the time of its creation, and it continues to grow even more irrelevant. It is perilously overbroad — use of basic computer programs is conflated with “hacking.”

It shows that we need to find more exact, more understandable language about computer use because right now we are losing to this rhetoric. Just typing away at a terminal looks like witchcraft to law enforcement.

One of the charges in Manning’s trial, for which she received two years, is “Wanton publication.” It is an unprecedented offense. Manning’s lawyer called it a made-up offense. It is slut-shaming. This idea is actually slut-shaming data sets.

I would really recommend looking at Alexa O’Brien’s reporting on the trial, and especially writing on this because it really is just such a strange charge. It seems written between two generations. If you download files off the internet all the time, use wget, etc, transmitting large data sets seems like a pretty normal way of research.

It is something to be aware of, because we can think back to the release of these documents when Wikileaks coordinated with the Guardian, Der Spiegel,NYT. So much of the conversation about data journalism began with the release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs.

Contrast how in Ellsberg’s time, the labor involved was its own risk and deterrent. Over the course of a year, he went out with a suitcase to Xerox page after page of the Pentagon Papers (with a piece of cardboard pressed against the glass to edit out the “Top Secret” stamps.) Manning was tortured and faced life imprisonment — as an attempt by the government to realign a risk assessment. Leaking is considered so easy, the government raised the stakes.

Another point often lost is how Manning tried to work within the system. The chain of command was broken. She was a Shia analyst on the base in Iraq. Assigned to investigate a matter with propaganda, she had a translator work on the documents and discovered the information was a pamphlet critiquing the Malaki government for wasteful spending. But reporting this to her superiors did nothing. The writers were sent to prison.


Now lets talk about what kinds of items that were part of these leaks, this data. Human rights violations, war crimes. She believed these cables— cables millions of people could access—were not really sensitive to people in the field after about three days of publishing. This was transparency activism, for a dialogue, for democracy

You know of course, what Wikileaks called “Collateral murder”—the footage of a 2007 attack in Baghdad on civilians including two Reuters correspondents. And this group is protesting rendition flights that stop st Shannon airport. Something that was rumored and finally confirmed in the cables. Leaks uncovered drone operations in Yemen. the Yemeni government was claiming were its own bombs, plenty of examples of abuse of power like US clothing manufacturers working with the US government to keep Haiti’s minimum wage at a rate of pennies an hour.

Perhaps the best known cable was about a cat like this — the tiger that eats 4 chickens a day, a pet of Ben Ali’s daughter, revealing the family’s outrageous opulence and, by the cynicism of the cable, that the leader of Tunisia was not actually respected by the US Government. A few weeks later mass protests began. Might the Arab Spring have happened anyway? Sure. But the cable release was a legible move on the chessboard. Everyone saw it happen.

Likewise, cables related to the Ishaqi massacre, a gruesome attack, chilling to read about it — children shot in the head, no possible way to justify this— US gov denied it for 5 years. No one wanted to believe it happened. This was a miscarriage of justice Following that, Iraq denied US bases and asked troops to leave. Again, not a direct causal link. Nevertheless Arab Spring and Iraq war might have played out much differently without the release of these cables

Ultimately Manning’s whistleblowing revealed how power works. These are systems locked in place and in secret. That’s what the cables revealed. The empire is attenuated but secret. Secrecy is the fuel of its engine. The Wikileaks cables are still classified. Sometimes at the trial, there were secret meetings to discuss classified information — information anyone with a computer could access. This is on a website set up by the ACLU, they FOIA-ed Wikileaks files, most of which were denied, some were sent back with redactions. So ACLU set up a website where you can scroll over the redactions and see what’s missing.

I was thinking about that ACLU website when I saw this image of the front page of NYT in Pakistan. Newspaper land art. There was a story about how a wing in the ISI knew Osama Bin Ladin’s location in Pakistan. They censored the paper. But it is hard to suppress workarounds.

Information is easier to transmit so the penalties are stiffer. Because it’s easier to download a file rather than xerox like Ellsberg did, the penalties are serve. To give an example of how prosecutors deny the internet and pretend it is something else — absurdly Manning faced the charge of “aiding the enemy” because Wikileaks files were found on Bin Ladin’s computer.

From the beginning, Wikileaks was originally conceived of a crowdsourcing project like Wikipedia. That was 2006 crowdsourcing/peer production enthusiasm. Julian Assange thought people might actually collaborate on policy papers together. Then it became a leaking operation. I doubt he ever imagined he’d get files like these. But actually, it makes sense that Manning would transfer the data this way. She’s a post-Napster kid… “big data,” “crowdsourcing”…these aren’t buzzwords, to her generation that’s how information is transmitted.

I mentioned the tiger in Tunisia,, but it doesn’t make sense to do ever compile something like a “Top 10 Most Shocking Leaks.” We just can’t know. If the Arab Spring happened can you imagine what a list like that would look like? Most Scandelous reveals from Wikileaks cables: Drones in Yemen, ISI playing a double game, oh and then this pet tiger who eats so much! No one would care about that tiger at all.

There is too much information for us to read action only as what’s legible to us. Yes, the case of Tunisia is interesting because it was such a benign cable to us, but mattered so much as it confirmed the people’s resentment. There were more tigers, we just don’t know what. The info is so local we’ll never know the ripple effect of Manning’s leaks.

Most actions that came out of Manning’s leaks are things we will never know or see. Super local knowledge. Someone on the ground is suspicious of one thing and had the opportunity to look and confirm it. The documents made strategy possible.

And this was the work of one person. So much has come from something really unbelievable. It is amazing what she accomplished —and continues to. She was then a 21 year old Pfc.

People forget that collecting and verifying data, cleaning and selecting data is a valuable skill. This was information about the stateless, the Gitmo prisoners, the civilians who lost their lives in senseless wars. She acted for the people without a vote.

I understand the cynicism about transparency. You make something visible and then… what? But that’s where this conversation fits in….We can’t expect anything from a closed system. This is step one, but it is an essential step.