Archive for the ‘foreign affairs’ Tag
[This post has been revised and expanded several times since initial publication; see updates below.]
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to be still scratching your head about the end of Osama bin Laden. Between the Obama administration and major US media, the story of the Navy SEALs’ mission in Abbottabad has never seemed quite straight, tilting toward the political or fantastical more than the cohesive. In some respects that’s unsurprising for one of the most important and highly classified military missions in modern memory — one whose outcome, many would argue, is all that really matters. But as America prepares to reflect on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth considering how the tales have been told, and where history begins to bleed into mythology. After several months of revised accounts and inside scoops, we still have a conspicuously muddled picture of bin Laden’s killing.
Lots of praise flowed earlier this month for Nicholas Schmidle’s riveting account in the New Yorker of the SEALs’ raid on bin Laden’s compound. It added many vivid details to what was publicly known about the killing of America’s arch-nemesis that fateful morning in early May. But Schmidle’s exquisitely crafted reconstruction also contradicted previous reporting elsewhere, and sparked some intriguing questions of its own.
It underscored what we still don’t really know about the operation. Schmidle’s depiction of the tense scene in the White House Situation Room, as President Obama and his top advisers monitored the action with the help of a military drone, included a notable refutation. The SEALs converged at the ground floor of bin Laden’s house and began to enter, Schmidle reported, but:
What happened next is not precisely clear. “I can tell you that there was a time period of almost twenty to twenty-five minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on,” [CIA chief Leon] Panetta said later, on “PBS NewsHour.” Until this moment, the operation had been monitored by dozens of defense, intelligence, and Administration officials watching the drone’s video feed. The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS.
Schmidle was referring to a May 12 story by veteran CBS News national security correspondent David Martin headlined, “SEAL helmet cams recorded entire bin Laden raid.”
The contradiction has big implications. Martin’s own story was in part a response to the famously mutating account from the Obama White House in the days following the mission. The administration had attributed its multiple revisions to “the fog of war” after backtracking from claims that bin Laden had engaged the SEALs in a firefight and used his wife as a human shield. Martin’s piece stated he was putting forth “a new picture of what really happened” in Abbottabad; he reported that “the 40 minutes it took to kill bin Laden and scoop his archives into garbage bags were all recorded by tiny helmet cameras worn by each of the 25 SEALs. Officials reviewing those videos are still reconstructing a more accurate version of what happened.”
Such footage obviously could go a long way toward a precise account. According to Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, though, it doesn’t exist.
There are other glaring discrepancies between the New Yorker and CBS News reports concerning the climax of the raid. In Schmidle’s version, the encounter involved two of bin Laden’s wives, and one SEAL firing the kill shots:
The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside….
A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed…. Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye.
But in Martin’s version, the encounter involved bin Laden’s “daughters” as well as one of his wives — and not one, but two SEALs firing the kill shots:
The SEALs first saw bin Laden when he came out on the third floor landing. They fired, but missed. He retreated to his bedroom, and the first SEAL through the door grabbed bin Laden’s daughters and pulled them aside.
When the second SEAL entered, bin Laden’s wife rushed forward at him — or perhaps was pushed by bin Laden. The SEAL shoved her aside and shot bin Laden in the chest. A third seal shot him in the head.
What’s going on here? Martin’s piece for CBS aired nearly two weeks after the raid; presumably the US government had its story straight by then. (The Guardian’s roundup of White House revisions linked above was published on May 4.) Martin provides scant information about his sourcing. If his piece has turned out to contain inaccuracies, to date CBS News has given no indication.
It is also possible that Schmidle’s piece contains inaccuracies, although it is more deeply reported and goes further in describing its sources. They include Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, and perhaps most significantly, “a special-operations officer deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid.”
Still, Schmidle wasn’t able to interview any of the Navy SEALs directly involved in the mission, despite that his piece seemed to suggest he had. Instead, Schmidle told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.
Schmidle wrote conspicuously of the SEALs’ perspective during the raid: “None of them had any previous knowledge of the house’s floor plan, and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections — on which this account is based — may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.”
From fraught US-Pakistan relations to conspiracy theories to partisan politics, it’s an understatement to say that there is keen interest in knowing exactly how the killing of bin Laden went down. Faulty reporting may be to blame for standing in the way. Alternatively, the mind doesn’t require much bending to imagine why military, CIA or White House officials might have been happy at various turns to help muddle the story. A certain degree of imprecision or misdirection can serve the side of secrecy. Perhaps at a time when the White House declined, amid much clamor, to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse, it was useful to let the world know that it also had video footage of the whole operation. Perhaps at some later point it was useful to quash the idea that the US government had lots of raw footage with which it might address questions about the circumstances and legality of bin Laden’s killing.
Whatever the case, one of two stories from major American media outlets is flat-out wrong on a significant piece of information about the raid. (As well as on some other details, it seems.) It may be that a precise account of the historic military mission will elude us for a long time, just as its target so famously did.
How many SEALs? (Update, Aug. 4)
Looking back over the CBS News piece again, I spotted another discrepancy: Martin reported that 25 SEALs stormed bin Laden’s compound; Schmidle’s New Yorker piece says there were 23 SEALs directly in on the raid. (Plus a Pakistani-American translator and a now legendary Belgian Malinois.)
Also, it’s worth noting how central the helmet cam information was to Martin’s story; the video version of it opened with a “CBS news animation” showing them:
I’ve also now filed an error report about this at MediaBugs, seeking a response from CBS News. I don’t have enough information to know whether their story is inaccurate, but it seems fair to say that the overall picture here suggests the onus is on CBS to corroborate their story.
Lack of disclosure (Update 2, Aug. 4)
In a guest post at Registan.net, Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair raises some provocative questions about Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, including about its sourcing. She is not the only one rebuking the magazine for failing to disclose clearly that Schmidle did not talk to any of the SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound. (That lack of disclosure apparently prompted an error and correction on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”) Fair wonders about how certain details in the story, and the fact that Schmidle’s father is the deputy commander of the US Cyber Command, might play across the Muslim world. Though I don’t necessarily share her conclusions, the post is interesting and worth a read.
“An administration puff piece” (Update 3, Aug. 10)
Marcy Wheeler has a rundown on Schmidle’s sourcing. She suggests that Obama senior advisers Brennan and Rhodes may have served as anonymous sources for the piece as well as named ones. (Not an uncommon practice in the journalism field, in my experience.) Thus, she argues, Schmidle’s piece deserves greater scrutiny in light of the “war on leaks” conducted under Obama. “This story is so thinly veiled an administration puff piece,” Wheeler says, “it ought to attract as much attention for the sheer hypocrisy about secrecy it demonstrates as it will for the heroism such hypocrisy attempts to portray.”
A Hollywood conspiracy (Update 4, Aug. 11)
Rep. Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has called for an investigation into alleged collaboration between the Obama administration and filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (of “The Hurt Locker” fame) for a forthcoming movie about the bin Laden takedown. Reportedly due for release in October 2012, just before the next presidential election, the movie project “belies a desire of transparency in favor of a cinematographic view of history,” according to King. The White House says King’s take is “ridiculous.” The story here seems to be opposition party politics layered on top of presidential politics layered on top of a Hollywood production — with the finer facts of bin Laden’s demise buried somewhere beneath.
Seeking clarification (Update 5, Aug. 15)
I’ve reached out to Nicholas Schmidle by email asking if he can offer any additional information regarding the helmet cam issue. (His New Yorker piece says nothing about his sourcing on that particular point.) I’ve also contacted CBS News about it and am in the process of looking for a more direct way to reach David Martin.
More details that don’t add up (Update 6, Aug. 26)
For more on this story, read my piece over at Mother Jones, which includes further examples of conflicting details from news reports on the bin Laden mission.
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it isn’t hard to recall the politically fraught case of the 20-year-old bearded kid captured by US soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2001. But think the media got the whole story right on the so-called American Taliban?
Think again: Nearly a decade later, a rather extraordinary meltdown occurred during a recent San Francisco radio show focused on the case of John Walker Lindh. It happened thanks to 14 erroneous words printed in the New York Times in July 2002. My MediaBugs partner Scott Rosenberg and I just published a long piece in The Atlantic that traces the tale and explains its profound implications for news accuracy in the digital age. Here’s how it begins:
It is hard to describe the interview that took place on KQED’s Forum show on May 25, 2011, as anything other than a train wreck.
Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh — father of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” — had been invited on to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he’d just published about his son’s 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: “Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?”
Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh’s 2002 guilty plea as “one count of providing services to a terrorist organization.” That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.
Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.
This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.
That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. The next day, KQED ran a half-hour Forum segment apologizing for the mess and picking over its own mistakes.
KQED’s on-air fiasco didn’t happen randomly or spontaneously. The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.
This is the story of how that error was made, why it mattered, why it hasn’t been properly corrected to this day — and what lessons it offers about how newsroom traditions of verification and correction must evolve in the digital age.
Read the whole thing here in The Atlantic. We reexamined the complicated Lindh case and conducted interviews with Frank Lindh, reporters and editors at the New York Times and KQED, and experts on media accuracy to get to the bottom of what turned out to be a fascinating case study.
Bonus link: Apparently the New York Times is not the only major news outlet with a Lindh error lurking in its digital archive.
John Yoo is someone who knows how to push an argument. At the U.S. Justice Department he designed rationales for the most controversial policies of the Bush-Cheney “war on terror,” and since then he has promoted right-wing political views in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Yoo must also know that an argument, however unyielding, quickly goes limp when it gets basic facts wrong.
If so, he hasn’t bothered to address a key problem with his recent Op-Ed trashing President Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden. His misrepresentation of the CIA’s role, flagged in a MediaBugs error report, undermines Yoo’s most audacious critique of the president.
What was hailed across the press and party lines as Obama’s “gutsy” call to send in the Navy Seals, Yoo regarded as a botched opportunity. He suggested that the U.S. might have taken bin Laden alive. “If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands,” Yoo wrote in the Journal.
That was just part of how he reiterated the case for the Bush administration’s brutal interrogations of terrorist suspects. Yoo further argued that Obama wanted bin Laden not dead or alive, but just dead — because taking him prisoner would have required Obama “to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.”
Here’s the problem: Yoo’s argument hangs on a faulty summation of the intelligence trail that brought the Navy Seals to Abbottabad. From Yoo’s perspective, as the U.S. closed in on the compound “the CIA became certain that the al Qaeda leader was hiding inside.”
That doesn’t square with planning and operational details made public by top Obama officials and the president himself. As many news outlets have reported, Obama had to calculate his risky decision based on uncertain evidence of bin Laden’s whereabouts. According to CIA director Leon Panetta, analysts were only 60 to 80 percent confident bin Laden would be found in the compound. “We never had direct evidence that he in fact had ever been there or was located there,” Panetta said. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said Obama made his move based on “what was probably a 50-50 chance that Osama bin Laden was there.” The president himself said on “60 Minutes” that “there was no direct evidence” of bin Laden’s presence.
If Yoo and the editors of the Wall Street Journal know something about the bin Laden operation the rest of don’t, they should share it. Otherwise, they should correct the record.
In a recent conversation about news accuracy, a senior editor at the New York Times told me that its opinion writers tend to get more leeway than its news reporters do when it comes to drawing context. Still, he said that when an opinion writer has clearly gotten a fact wrong “you have to correct it.”
We agree. The question is, does the Wall Street Journal? We may not get an answer to that; thus far the Journal has been unresponsive to inquiries about Yoo’s piece, and its newsroom has proven inaccessible on such matters in prior cases.
It’s unsurprising to see Yoo argue for the notorious interrogation policies he helped craft. (Or for more credit for bin Laden’s demise to go to the president he worked for.) But his implication that Obama — armed with full-proof intelligence — intended from the get-go to bury bin Laden at sea just so he wouldn’t have to decide whether to waterboard him looks foolish in the face of widely reported facts. Meanwhile, the Times has since reported that the White House had two teams of specialists ready for action during the mission: “One to bury Bin Laden if he was killed, and a second composed of lawyers, interrogators and translators in case he was captured alive.”
As of this writing, MediaBugs’ multiple emails to Yoo and the Wall Street Journal have gotten no response and Yoo’s piece remains as it was first published.
[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]
UPDATED: A couple of interesting comments over at the MediaBugs blog.
UPDATED, 5/16/11: In the Washington Post today, Greg Sargent reports about a “private letter” from Leon Panetta to John McCain strongly making the case that interrogation by torture was not instrumental in tracking down Osama bin Laden.
The Panetta letter reveals further problems with Yoo’s piece, in which Yoo claimed: “CIA interrogators gathered the initial information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s death. The United States located al Qaeda’s leader by learning the identity of a trusted courier from the tough interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi.”
But according to Panetta’s letter: “We first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002.”
Panetta continued: “It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier. … In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.”
UPDATED, 5/23/11: And now Yoo’s polemic in the Wall Street Journal has been further discredited by reporting in… the Wall Street Journal. In March, according to the Journal, Defense Secretary Bob Gates also felt explicit uncertainty about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad (emphasis mine):
The B-2 plan had many supporters, particularly among military brass. A bombing would provide certainty that the compound’s residents would be killed, and it posed less risk to U.S. personnel. At the time, Mr. Gates, the defense secretary, was skeptical of the intelligence case that bin Laden was at the compound.
As late as April 28 — just three days before the raid — Gates still worried about it. Obama convened his top national security advisers in the White House Situation Room. “Only at that meeting,” reports the Journal, “did Mr. Gates come around to fully endorsing the operation, because of his skepticism of the intelligence indicating bin Laden was there.”
[Post updated below through May 10.]
In my view there’s a clear and compelling reason why the United States should release an image of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. It has little to do with nutty conspiracy theories, which were a consideration in the White House decision not to “spike the football.” For most of the world already, the fact of bin Laden’s killing is indeed unimpeachable. (One reason why President Obama deserves huge credit for what many view as his very “gutsy” call on the Navy Seals operation.) Even if bin Laden’s body had been displayed for a month in Mecca prior to disposal, there would still be crazies in the Arab world and beyond convinced of some grand, evil scheme. (“A fraudulent corpse delivered by the Mossad, CIA and George Soros!” Etc.)
More importantly the White House is wary of inflaming Muslim opinion against the U.S. But from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to the Koran-burning pastor in Florida to U.S. military atrocities in Afghanistan, the case of inflammation is already chronic. It’s a problem not easily controlled, let alone alleviated. I’m not sure I see how visual evidence of bin Laden’s death, even if pretty gruesome, adds significantly to it.
Proof isn’t the key point. (Nor is jingoism.) The reason to release the photo is the tremendous value of destroying, with vivid finality, bin Laden’s potent mythological image. Yes, the devotees of his jihad will promote the whole martyr thing. But they’re already doing that anyway.
Those who’ve studied bin Laden’s journey know how incredibly important his carefully tended cult of personality has been to his cause. Lawrence Wright documented this exhaustively in his masterful tome, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In the decade since 9/11, bin Laden’s successful evasion of the mightiest military in the world fed his symbolic power and the inspiration of his followers. It gave him a kind of metaphysical strength and credibility far greater than any cries of martyrdom now can. If his killing at the hands of the U.S. military was indeed a “decapitation” of Al Qaeda, then once that killing is in clear view bin Laden’s death cult also loses its heart.
No doubt a gruesome image would stir strong emotions around the world. But anger at the U.S. would be affected minimally and ephemerally, I think, discounting those already stewing in the radical margins. The narrative benefits of the publicity would be greater. Especially, as Steve Clemons suggests, if the White House were to release images simultaneously of bin Laden’s “respectful” burial at sea.
UPDATED 5/5/11: An opinion piece today from the International Herald Tribune, “The Death of an Icon,” goes to the heart of my thinking on this issue. “Osama bin Laden, the visual icon of terrorism in our fear-driven age, is gone,” writes Columbia history professor Richard Bulliet. “No one can replace him.”
He explains in detail why bin Laden “was unquestionably the master recruiter” for Al Qaeda:
Compared with the two-dozen jihadist videotapes I analyzed in connection with police investigations in 2002-2003, Bin Laden’s propaganda stands out. Not only does it present a plausible argument for jihad against the West, but his visual presence and calm voiceovers convey an aura of authority and leadership even though his name is never mentioned.
His screen presence also far outshadows that of other jihadist leaders. Where they are strident, or ranting, or dull, he is calm and articulate. Where they come across as one-note preachers or pedantic classroom teachers, he appears as a fully formed individual. Comfortable in the mosque, on the battlefield, at the training camp, or in a poetry recital.
One cannot mourn the death of a man who planned or inspired so many atrocities. But we should recognize that his bigger-than-life iconic presence was the heart and soul of jihadist Islam.
Read the whole piece — essential analysis on the meaning and impact of bin Laden’s end.
Also see Deborah Copaken Cogan, who suggests that “to sanitize photos is to distort history.”
UPDATED 5/10/11: The Associated Press is pursuing the bin Laden images with a Freedom of Information Act request. The AP cites Obama’s campaign vow to make his administration “the most transparent government in U.S. history” and points to the muddled narrative surrounding bin Laden’s killing, which has been revised multiple times by the White House. Says AP senior editor Michael Oreskes about the visual evidence of bin Laden’s death: “This information is important for the historical record.”
MoJo’s Michael Mechanic has pulled together how eight newspapers captured the defining moments of Osama bin Laden’s mortal entanglement with America. From the Gray Lady to the tabloids, it’s interesting to look through these juxtaposed front pages and reflect on all that transpired in the decade between:
(The Examiner’s awkward ad on May 2 is also evocative of historic changes — those roiling the news biz. Though I’m not totally sure about the tabloids, until a couple years ago the front pages were sacrosanct.) Check out the rest of the images here.
On February 15th the LA Weekly published a post by Simone Wilson under the headline “Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and War Zone ‘It Girl,’ Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration.” The opening paragraph stated that Logan had been “brutally and repeatedly raped” — with that phrase emphasized in bold type.
The LA Weekly apparently got the story wrong. Logan had suffered a horrifying sexual assault while working in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, disturbing details of which came to light in subsequent media coverage. But according to reporting from three different news outlets — The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and IOL News of South Africa (Logan’s native country) — Logan was not raped. Those articles were cited in a MediaBugs error report posted last week by Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist who covers women’s issues. (Disclosure: Clark-Flory is a friend and former colleague of mine at Salon.) Since the report was posted, MediaBugs sent three emails to LA Weekly editors seeking a response. We’ve received none.
It’s understandable how a news organization might have made this kind of mistake; while many initial reports about Logan’s attack adhered to a statement from CBS News describing “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating,” LA Weekly wasn’t the only outlet to make the leap to “rape.” (See Jen Phillips’ post on MotherJones.com for more on this.)
Still, it’s troubling that more than three weeks later the LA Weekly has not posted a correction on its piece, or explained why it believes no correction is warranted. To say that accuracy is important to a news organization’s credibility is stating the obvious — but it seems particularly crucial when public understanding is distorted around a story as emotionally and politically fraught as Logan’s.
Here’s one small anecdote showing why. Last weekend I described the issue to a friend who is well-read on current events. He said that he’d seen the LA Weekly piece, among others. When I told him that Logan apparently had not been raped, he was surprised — he’d understood that to be a central fact of the story.
The LA Weekly’s silence on the matter could in part be due to the withering criticism it came under for Wilson’s piece, which ran with a curvaceous photo of Logan and used various sexualized descriptions of her, including “firecracker” and “gutsy stunner.” Newsrooms tend to circle the wagons when under attack.
That uproar, ultimately, was a matter of editorial judgment and (brutally bad) taste, one that LA Weekly editors may or may not choose to address at some point. (Wilson did so, to some degree, in an update to her post on Feb. 16.)
But this issue is more straightforward. By not addressing the apparent factual mistakes brought to its attention, the LA Weekly not only damages its reputation but also does a disservice to Logan’s story, which has cast a powerful light on a previously underreported problem faced by female journalists. The uncorrected errors take a piece that already comes across as insensitive and make it seem irresponsible, too.
[Note: This post first appeared on PBS.org's MediaShift blog.]
UPDATED: It seemed worthwhile to include this subsequent exchange I had with an anonymous reader in the PBS MediaShift comments thread:
Anonymous: “I agree with you for the most part, however… no named source has yet contradicted their account. It could be that Lara was raped. We still don’t know.”
My reply: “True, the details of what happened still aren’t entirely clear. But since all the evidence we do have points to Logan not being raped, reasonable readers have a right to raise questions — and they deserve an answer from the LA Weekly. Perhaps the Weekly knows something it hasn’t shared, though the piece appeared to include no original reporting and that seems unlikely. Regardless, if the public raises legitimate questions the onus is on the newsroom to support — or correct — its account.”
UPDATED, 3/15/11: LA weekly has since posted a correction notice stating that it “erroneously interpreted CBS’ report of what happened to Logan on February 11, 2011.”
As of this update the original article’s headline and repeated references to “rape” in the text remain unchanged.
For additional details, see the updated mediabug.
Simplistic pronouncements about the role of social media in stirring uprisings and toppling dictators have by now, thankfully, seemed to die down. That Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital tools have been important to the historic upheaval in the Middle East is an unimpeachable fact. And a closer look at how those tools played a part is more than just interesting — it may offer clues to major social and political movements of the future.
A gathering last week in San Francisco organized by Hacks/Hackers and HackDemocracy showcased some illuminating work on the subject. Stanford computer scientist Rio Akasaka shared an animation he made showing worldwide Twitter activity from Feb. 7 to 14 that used the hashtag #Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the United States and Europe figure most prominently in the dynamic constellation, but there was also a climactic surge across the Middle East, South Asia and South America as news spread on Feb. 11 that Hosni Mubarak no longer held power:
Each dot on the map, Akasaka said, represents a single tweet; at the peak of activity for #Egypt, he said, there were as many as 6,000 per minute.
After the Mubarak regime all but shut down the Internet in Egypt at the end of January, activists moved to work around the technological assault. Egyptians relied even more on mobile phones to connect to the outer world, said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of Al Jazeera English, in some cases texting and emailing trusted contacts elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe who would disseminate the info via Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter joined forces to launch speak2tweet, a service that helped Egyptian citizens keep information flowing online by way of voicemails.
Egyptian-born technology entrepreneur Amir Khella said that the R.N.N news hub on Facebook, which reportedly saw a veritable explosion of page views in late January, was the best “hack” he’d seen among any related to the revolution. The R.N.N page pulled together information via text messages, phone calls and emails from people witnessing various events on the ground. R.N.N would crosscheck multiple reports from the same approximate time and location, Khella said, in order to separate fact from rumor. (Who exactly is behind R.N.N remains unclear, he later told me.) It was a nimble kind of crowdsourcing born of the crisis.
No doubt there have been other useful applications of digital technology during this period of seismic change in the Middle East, and surely more will spring up in the months ahead. It’s also important not to overstate their role, and to examine how the Internet has been used nefariously by oppressive regimes.
Maybe in part it’s because the earlier proliferation of Facebook and Twitter in American culture was marked by some frivolity that writers such as Malcolm Gladwell haughtily dismissed them as a sideshow in the context of revolutions. (See Matthew Ingram for a sharp take on how Gladwell went astray.) But as the speakers last week in San Francisco reiterated, a great number of people in the Arab world are using them, and not primarily to muse about what they ate for lunch. Under pressure from the U.S. government, executives at Facebook and Twitter have made moves to keep their platforms viable for activists, and it’s doubtful that their motivations to do so were solely capitalistic.
“We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real-world activism,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, in a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom. She later continued: “The dramatic increase in internet users during the past 10 years has been remarkable to witness. But that was just the opening act. In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.”
A report from the Washington Post on Wednesday describes an effort by the CIA to assess the impact of WikiLeaks on U.S. national security. The effort is known as the WikiLeaks Task Force. Apparently it’s also commonly referred to as “WTF” around the halls in Langley. While that acronym may be cracking some sardonic grins, the Post story also reveals a CIA perspective that is no laughing matter.
To some agency veterans, WikiLeaks has vindicated the CIA’s long-standing aversion to sharing secrets with other government agencies, a posture that came under sharp criticism after it was identified as a factor that contributed to the nation’s failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even while moving to share more information over the past decade, the agency “has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who recently retired. “They don’t even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked.”
Without a doubt the sharing of sensitive information among U.S. agencies remains a complex and unwieldy issue — perhaps as complex and unwieldy as the U.S. national security apparatus itself since it ballooned under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. But while a strong majority of Americans believe that WikiLeaks has harmed the national interest, it could be dangerously foolish to buy into a resurgent lockdown mentality.
In his indispensable 2006 book “The Looming Tower,” journalist Lawrence Wright investigated the devastating effect of turf battles among the CIA, FBI and NSA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Wright’s book, as I detailed in an essay for Salon, made a persuasive case that the 9/11 plot may well have been foiled if not for fatal duplicity on the part of the CIA, which jealously guarded its intelligence gathering from the criminal-investigation focused FBI. A crucial opportunity apparently came and went in late 2000:
In Yemen, [FBI agent] Soufan was on the trail of an al-Qaida figure closely connected with Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, two Saudi-born al-Qaida operatives who would later help seize planes on 9/11. The CIA had surveillance photos of all three men together from an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia the previous January, but when Soufan came knocking for information, the CIA slammed the door shut. It was part of what Wright calls “a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it.”
As I noted in my piece about WikiLeaks and cyber warfare earlier this month, some U.S. officials have been warning anew about the dangers of inter-agency turf battles. Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair recently told Congress, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”
What happens when the next 9/11 is in the works? The real imperative, it seems, is for the U.S. government to better protect any necessary secrets (the definition of which is another key subject — see Thomas Blanton on “the massive overclassification” of U.S. national security information) while improving upon the sharing of vital information among agencies. If it fails in that mission, the fallout could ultimately be far greater than anything perpetrated by the likes of Julian Assange and company.
[Updates to this post, through Monday Dec. 13, follow below.]
When the “Afghan war logs” became public earlier this year, I focused on WikiLeaks from the standpoint of its huge impact on the media. The ongoing release of a quarter million State Department cables has since unleashed a torrent of hot debate about government secrecy and whether Julian Assange’s organization is a force for good or evil.
Like many others, I’ve marinated myself in related articles and commentary over the last week but remain ambivalent about some of the complex moral issues involved. I’ve also been pondering a question that seems noticeably absent from the discussion: Could it be that WikiLeaks is actually the best thing in a long time to afflict U.S. national security?
The cacophonous phenomenon on the world’s front pages has been a grand wake-up call — the rise of cyberwar is no longer a matter of theory. It’s here whether you believe Assange is an enemy or a hero. If it proves true that a low-level Army analyst was able to get his hands on such a colossal amount of sensitive documents, what does that say about Pentagon preparedness for the security challenges of the proliferating information age?
So far some contents of “cablegate” itself have informed our view of just how serious an issue this is. As the Times reported on Sunday, “repeated and often successful hacking attacks from China on the United States government, private enterprises and Western allies” have been taking place since as far back as 2002. One previously unreported attack “yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mails and a complete list of user names and passwords from an American government agency.”
The China cables also show the fire with which WikiLeaks plays; you get the sense that if some of the redacted names were revealed, it could potentially be disastrous, both to individuals involved and to U.S. intelligence gathering.
It’s noteworthy that the Obama administration’s assessment of the damage from WikiLeaks has consistently been inconsistent. The latest round has Attorney General Eric Holder saying that “national security of the United States has been put at risk,” while Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that concerns about potential harm are “significantly overwrought” and that the disclosures will have a “fairly modest” impact on foreign policy. The mixed message would seem to suggest that the U.S. government yet lacks a coherent approach to safeguarding the nation’s information infrastructure.
In the later years of the Bush administration, the federal government began to prioritize cyberwar, a focus continued by the Obama administration. But today there are the troubling, all too familiar signs of unpreparedness, agency turf wars and legal muddle. The Pentagon’s Cyber Command seeks to expand its powers aggressively and is, not coincidentally, publicizing that fact now. According to the Washington Post, its general in charge recently testified to Congress that he could not adequately defend the country against cyber-attack because it “is not my mission to defend today the entire nation.” If an adversary attacked power grids, he said, a defensive effort would “rely heavily on commercial industry.” Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair warned, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”
By some accounts the world hasn’t seen anything yet in terms of the looming dangers of cyberwar. An attack could cripple America, argues former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, striking everything from train routes and electrical grids to bank data and medical records.
WikiLeaks over the last few months, then, may have exposed U.S. government vulnerability in an alarmingly useful way, if one not much in line with Assange’s ideas about undermining state power. You can bet it has lit a serious fire under officials involved with the nation’s cybersecurity, who now must be working that much more intensively to plug any leaks in the ship of state and build up defenses against future attacks. They are, of course, likely toiling in secrecy. For now, anyway.
UPDATE: On the eve of his arrest in London, Assange publishes an article in The Australian: “Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths.” He opens with a quote from Rupert Murdoch: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”
UPDATE 12/8/10: Hackers sympathetic to Assange and WikiLeaks have launched a series of cyberattacks in recent days, targeting MasterCard, PayPal and a Swiss bank. (Could Twitter be next?) The Guardian looks into the “shadowy group” allegedly behind the attacks:
A 22-year-old spokesman, who wished to be known only as “Coldblood”, told the Guardian that the group – which is about a thousand strong – is “quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals” and wish to be a force for “chaotic good”.
There is no real command structure in the group, the London-based spokesman said, while most of its members are teenagers who are “trying to make an impact on what happens with the limited knowledge they have”. But others are parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time – and resources – on their hands.
It’s really too bad that Stieg Larsson isn’t still around to witness all this.
UPDATE 12/13/10: The WikiLeaks saga itself continues to ratchet up the potential for cyberwar. With a secret grand jury in Virginia reportedly now considering criminal charges against Assange, a headline in today’s Daily Mail raises the specter of retribution for Assange’s potential extradition: “Britain on cyber warfare alert as Whitehall prepares for WikiLeaks revenge attacks on Government website, it reads. Apparently “bank details of taxpayers and benefits claimants” could be at risk.
Stateside, meanwhile, the Times’ Scott Shane reports movement on the cyberwar front: “Whether or not the Obama administration tries to prosecute those who disseminated the information, it is determined to use technology to preserve its secrets. The Defense Department is scaling back information sharing, which its leaders believe went too far after information hoarding was blamed for the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot. The department has also stripped CD and DVD recorders from its computers; it is redesigning security systems to require two people, not one, to move large amounts of information from a classified computer to an unclassified one; and it is installing software to detect downloads of unusual size.”
According to a write-up in the Times this week of George W. Bush’s new memoir, here’s one way in which the former president regards the Iraq war:
For the most part, Mr. Bush offers a strong defense of his presidency, declaring that his decision to invade Iraq was the right one because … “the Iraqi people are better off with a government that answers to them instead of torturing and murdering them.”
[T]he documents … contain indelible details of abuse carried out by Iraq’s army and police. The six years of reports include references to the deaths of at least six prisoners in Iraqi custody, most of them in recent years. Beatings, burnings and lashings surfaced in hundreds of reports, giving the impression that such treatment was not an exception. In one case, Americans suspected Iraqi Army officers of cutting off a detainee’s fingers and burning him with acid. Two other cases produced accounts of the executions of bound detainees.
No matter where you come down on the veracity, morality or impact of WikiLeaks’ mountainous Afghan “war diary,” its release has been a fascinating event. It prompted me to reread Raffi Khatchadourian’s first-rate New Yorker profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, where several passages have fresh resonance in the wake of the latest document dump. (Back in April WikiLeaks made waves when it released a controversial video showing an attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad that killed seven people including two journalists.) There’s been much debate since Sunday, not to mention pushback from the White House, about whether WikiLeaks’ disclosures endanger U.S. troops and allies. Assange takes a provocative stance in this regard. As Khatchadourian reported back in early June:
I asked Assange if he would refrain from releasing information that he knew might get someone killed. He said that he had instituted a “harm-minimization policy,” whereby people named in certain documents were contacted before publication, to warn them, but that there were also instances where the members of WikiLeaks might get “blood on our hands.”
Also widely discussed right now is the idea of WikiLeaks as a kind of roguish champion of transparency — one that is itself frustratingly, if perhaps necessarily, opaque. Khatchadourian also considered this problem in striking terms: “Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most — power without accountability — is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.”
I highly recommend reading the full profile if you haven’t; Assange’s personal background and various perspectives are quite illuminating with regard to the global splash his organization currently is making.
Another major theme since Sunday has been the story’s impact on media itself. Without a doubt we are in an evolutionary moment. Jay Rosen has some great thoughts on the ramifications of WikiLeaks’ rise: “In media history up to now,” he says, “the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.”
There’s another aspect of the freshly tweaked media equation that I find fascinating: How effectively Assange and his (unknown) collaborators played a bunch of prominent global news institutions in the service of their cause. Why did they give the trove of so-called war logs to the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first, rather than just release all the raw material for anyone to dive into from the get-go?
“It’s counterintuitive,” Assange explained in October 2009. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
It’s certainly no coincidence that three media giants (from countries with troops in the war zone) were offered the embargoed material; WikiLeaks could bet that the New York Times wasn’t going to pass on it knowing that the Guardian or Der Spiegel might well produce a big exposé (and vice versa). You can sense the effect of this calculation bristling beneath comments from New York Times executive editor Bill Keller about his organization’s subsequent reporting project:
First, The Times has no control over WikiLeaks — where it gets its material, what it releases and in what form. To say that it is an independent organization is a monumental understatement. The decision to post this secret military archive on a Web site accessible to the public was WikiLeaks’, not ours. WikiLeaks was going to post the material even if The Times decided to ignore it.
Keller also noted: “At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”
By which Rosen further points out: “There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.”
Here are some additional pieces to the WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story that are well worth checking out:
• Amy Davidson with a thoughtful take on the huge trove of raw information: “WikiLeaks has given us research materials for a history of the war in Afghanistan. To make full use of them, we will, again, have to think hard about what we are trying to learn: Is it what we are doing, day to day, on the ground in Afghanistan, and how we could do it better? Or what we are doing in Afghanistan at all?”
• Philip Shenon discussing the WikiLeaks phenomenon on “Fresh Air”: “You certainly hear at the Pentagon, at the White House, concern that one of these days somebody is going to leak something really important to an organization like Wikileaks. The example given to me is American nuclear secrets or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Would Wikileaks put that out to the world without much filtering, and isn’t there a threat in that?”
• Steven Aftergood, a respected voice on government secrecy, noting that WikiLeaks represents a creative solution to “over-control of government information” — but ultimately blasting WikiLeaks as being “among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.”
• The WikiLeaks “about” page, which offers some bold declarations of purpose: “In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.”
Here’s the main page for the New York Times series.
And you can follow WikiLeaks activity on Twitter. (Bio: “We open governments.”)
Forget the dismissive Pentagon Papers comparison that’s becoming conventional wisdom — see this sharp analysis from Joel Meares at CJR on the value of the Afghanistan docs: “The WikiLeaks documents put an underreported war back on the nation’s radar. It doesn’t matter that the pundits are yawning.”
Also now on CJR: Clint Hendler traces in detail how the WikiLeaks docs made their way into the Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel, “from Brussels, to a bunker, to blockbusters.” Part of his reporting underscores my view above as to how Assange played his hand with the three powerhouse news outlets:
On June 22, during a six hour coffee-soaked meeting in a Brussels café, Davies [a Guardian reporter] says Assange suggested another idea — that The Guardian and The New York Times be given an advance look at some information the site had on the Afghanistan war, with each paper publishing their own takes on the documents. Within the next twenty-four hours, Davies says Assange told him Der Spiegel should be included as well.
The piece recounts the unusual, highly secretive collaboration between the three news outlets that followed, as well as differing views on Assange’s involvement in the process. It’s an intriguing read that answers some questions while raising others — not only about how a rather mysterious new media force drove a global news cycle, but also about how things will go down when WikiLeaks makes its next move to foment a “global revolution,” as it puts it, in government and institutional accountability.
Some commentators have suggested that the WikiLeaks story essentially was over after a couple days. Far from it, judging by the reaction of U.S. officials.
Speaking at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday, Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that the disclosures had “potentially dramatic and grievously harmful consequences,” including for Afghans identified in the documents who had helped the U.S. war effort. Added Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff: “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” (It’s interesting that Mullen seemed to refer to Assange’s source as a single person.) Meanwhile, the Justice Department apparently is looking into possible espionage charges against Assange and his organization. (That may be a stretch.) And Assange has said that WikiLeaks has another 15,000 unreleased Afghan war documents in its possession.
Though it’s grabbing fewer headlines these days, the upheaval in Tehran that began last summer continues to simmer. Apparently the Obama administration has some evolving ideas about how to exploit the domestic dissatisfaction, which has been rising, along with the local price of tomatoes, for quite some time. How long can Ahmadinejad hold on?
I finally had a chance to read Nazila Fathi’s recent essay about her experiences reporting from, and then fleeing from, Iran, where she’d been working for the New York Times. It’s chilling at turns, but also uplifting, particularly with its focus on the regime-busting role that technology has played in the historic unrest. Last summer I focused at length here on the unprecedented ways in which digital technology was shaping events from Tehran to Tiananmen Square. With events in Iran, Twitter suddenly had gone from trendy social networking toy to subversive diplomatic tool square on the State Department’s radar. But until reading Fathi’s essay I hadn’t known about another fascinating technological application in the fight—the use of Bluetooth by dissidents to dodge the crackdown. As Fathi writes of Iran’s continuing unrest in December:
Last month, during and after the funeral of the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hossain Ali Montazeri, one of the demonstrators’ most useful tools was the Bluetooth short-range radio signal that Americans use mainly to link a cellphone to an earpiece, or a printer to a laptop. Long ago, Iranian dissidents discovered that Bluetooth can as easily link cellphones to each other in a crowd. And that made “Bluetooth” a verb in Iran: a way to turn citizen reportage instantly viral. A protester Bluetooths a video clip to others nearby, and they do the same. Suddenly, if the authorities want to keep the image from escaping the scene, they must confiscate hundreds or thousands of phones and cameras.
The authorities have tried to fight back against such techniques and the Internet itself, but have fallen short. In November they announced that a new police unit, the “cyber-army,” would sweep the Web of dissent. It blocked Twitter feeds for a few hours in December, and an opposition Web site. But other blogs and Web sites mushroomed faster than the government could keep up.
Also be sure not to miss Frontline’s compelling documentary on the infamous killing of Neda Agha-Soltan.
UPDATE, 1/28/10: According to the New York Times, Iran reportedly has just executed two men in connection with the election protests. Nine others have been condemned to death for same.