Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Diplomacy, or just diplomatic word-smithing?

Expanding on Boris' excellent post I would suggest readers take in the analysis of Wikileaks and the assessment of the moral standards of some of the critics by Glenn Greenwald. Yes, they're both long, but that's Glenn simply laying out a thoroughly compelling case.

It demonstrates that the likes of Tom Flanagan uttering calls for Julian Assange's assassination are not isolated. Further than that, Glenn guts the Flanagan camp with one stroke. Flanagan would like Assange assassinated for dumping so-called state secrets into the public square and putting some individuals at risk. Yet that same group does not apply the same standard to those who perpetrated an aggressive and unprovoked war, laying waste to an entire country and killing more than 100,000 innocent civilians.

What he demonstrates is that the real reason for the outrage being demonstrated by the Tom Flanagan/Joe Klein bunker is the exposure of their adherence to a particular and dangerous permutation of The Noble Lie. Through all the screaming and howling, if they turned their own standards on their own behaviour, they could expect, at the least, to be apprehended and face criminal prosecution.

The term "Diplomacy" is being used as a cover by the power holders. What we're seeing is what has always happened. Diplomacy is the art of negotiation between parties without an eruption of hostile reactions. It is always carried out with a view to gaining some advantage. A problem arises when the diplomacy involves something different than honest negotiations and frank but polite discussions with other parties.

The diplomatic word-smithing fed to public communications sources, when it is significantly different than the intentions and motivations of the negotiating body, is not diplomacy; it is spying and subterfuge.

To express shock at the existence of state sponsored spying and subterfuge is naive at best and dishonest at worst. Of course it happens. What's wrong with it is when those behaviours become the staple of a state's diplomacy and they are viewed as the only effective tools with which to achieve a strategic advantage. Honest brokering and democratic institutions are either sidelined or become nothing more than a front for behaviour which, if exposed, would be considered abhorrent.

That's what has happened here. The problem is, if you're going to engage in that form of activity, you'd better find a way of keeping it out of the light. Securing that information is critical because exposure means that the supposed democracy (in this case the U.S.) will be exposed as nothing but a small, powerful group of elites engaged in theatrics staged to keep the masses sufficiently mollified.

It's not like we haven't already leveled such accusations in the past. The only difference now is that we have an unbelievable amount of proof. We always knew that the U.S. permanent government (and plenty of others) were dishonest. However, it took great pains to dig into the truth and put it into the public square, and without substantiating evidence those who voiced suspicion were dismissed by the powerful and "serious" people as conspiracy nuts.

Although not exclusively unique, the contents of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Conspiracy were watershed events which exposed the extent of lying to which the powerful go to mislead populations and criminally destroy others in the name of some Big Picture which we plebes were just too unsophisticated to understand. In fact, they were criminal conspiracies perpetrated by those who feared losing the comfort of their power and wealth.

The Wikileaks acquisition of secret documents was inevitable for a variety of reasons. Just describing a few of them is all it takes to understand that inevitability.

As Boris described, the days of spy vs spy are very different from the conditions of three decades ago, and the oligarchy and political power elite have only themselves to blame for that. The advent of the giant library known as the internet has put vast amounts of information in the hands of common people, many of whom, three decades ago, might not have been able to afford a full volume set of printed encyclopedias. The information explosion is a side effect of another dramatic shift - economic and industrial globalization. As the rapid exchange of information and industrial connectivity has eroded national borders, culture and tradition, and has (at times criminally) exploited cheap labour markets, it also created a common portal through which information could flow to the masses. And the power elite could not have one without the other. In their hubris, however, they failed to properly evaluate the level of sophistication combined with the cynicism of the masses. While they sold us "globalization" as inevitable, so too was the ability of like minded people and groups to exchange information and ideas. It was inevitable that the very technologies they marketed to the common citizen would be used to infiltrate the secrets of the power elite.

Secrets are only secrets if nobody else knows about them. An old adage exists from days past: Once you share a secret, it's no longer a secret. Slapping a security classification on a document is all well and good, however, if you then distribute that classified document to thousands or millions of pairs of eyes, somewhere, somehow, a copy of that document will end up in a place you did not intend. This is hardly new. From the first time I was involved in classified material there was always a serious concern for the physical security and distribution of anything classified. The "need-to-know" is not some Ian Fleming invention. It is absolutely real and it means seriously limiting access to sensitive material. To "shotgun" distribution of something stamped SECRET was to immediately dilute the security classification. It meant too many people were seeing it and the risk of a physical breach increased.

The problem with limiting distribution of course, is that those in high office are unable to delegate work arising from highly classified information. If spying and subterfuge form the basis for a large amount of the information flow then, particularly in the case of a military super-power, it becomes impossible for the limited number of high-office holders to deal with. That means employing staff and that means extending the distribution of that information to a wider body. That means either declassifying information before delegating it or, as is the case in the U.S., extend security clearances to the wider group. That has the effect of diluting security clearances. Now huge numbers of people have access to things classified. It stands to reason that within that large body there will eventually develop a problem. The only way to contain the effects of the problems that develop within a large group of security cleared people with access is to create a dedicated watcher organization which in turn has access to the same classified material. Just try to keep a secret in that kind of world, especially one in which the "need-to-know" extends to file clerks and security guards.

Another thing which made the leak of information inevitable was and is the over-classification of information. As far back as the 1960s there was a noticeable change in the way the U.S. military classified their information. Where Canada, Britain and the U.S. were pretty much on the same page as to what did and what did not receive a high security classification, the U.S. started a process which can only be called "classification creep". Subjects which had been classified at a lower level started to inflate their way into a higher classification. This triggered an increase in the amount of information with a high security classification - some of it legitimately so; some of it not. Once again, this increased the need to have a wider body of people to process and manage the information thus increasing the security clearances issued to a wide array of workers. Think about it: you work at a job all day where everything passing in front of your eyes is classified at a minimum SECRET, and most of it mundane. Eventually, complacency takes over.

That's just a touch. The diplomatic pouch has been replaced by instant communications relay over global networks arriving on the monitors of hundreds of thousands of people.**  To believe that such a traffic flow of information bearing inflated security classifications could be kept secure is somewhat delusional.

And so is calling for the assassination of the person who demonstrated how weak the system is, from the type of information being sent in such volume, to the ability to gather and dump it, to the exclusionary yet casual dialog of those who speak with two tongues.

** Added: That is not to say that diplomatic information hasn't been passed electronically for many decades. It has. But 60 and 100 words-per-minute teletype machines and their associated cryptosystems had much stronger limits than the way information flows today. And they had their own problems. ( In June of 1979 the Russians were breaking the KL-47, KL-11, KW-26, Adonis, KW7, KY-8, KG-14, KY-36 systems "with no problems".)


Jazzie Casas said...

I remember the last time there was a "Wikileaks," and it very much like this time.

Now, as then, I encountered very strong but differing opinions/perceptions about it. Some/many people explicitly support "Wikileaks" and regard it/Julian Assange as good, and others explicitly condemn it/him -but I've yet to see anyone clearly identify much less defend their reasoning. This seems strange to me, and almost makes me suspicious. What exactly is the issue here? For disclosure, I'm undecided on the issue -because I simply do not know enough to know if Wikileaks is good or bad. I'm aware that JA is accused of a sexual crime in Europe. I will say that as someone who values truth and honesty, I have at least a little suspicion and/or skepticism of advocacy of GOVERNMENT secrecy (although I understand it it necessary at least sometime). What exactly is going on with WikiLeaks and why exactly is it wrong or right? And HOW is this information being obtained? It confuses me that I hear people harshly condemning it and saying "this person should be tried for treason and executed, etc."IF a serious law has been broken, I'd expect it to be cited and used as the basis for advocating the pursuit of formal charges.Was the information leaked acquired by consent (shared/sold by those who controlled it) or stolen? I haven't seen this clearly established anywhere, which seems weird as it is clearly a significant consideration. If anyone can clarify this, I'd be grateful, thanks. I'm also VERY curious why I've yet to hear it clearly identified.

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Boris said...

Great post, Dave! I think it might also be worth mentioning that after 9/11 the number of security agencies and staff bloomed, especially in the US. Odd, because it wasn't as if the US were lacking an intelligence bureaucracy able to deal with large and complex threats. I mean, the CIA, FBI, NSA, etc still existed, yet they set up an entirely new bureaucracy in the DHS, which meant more staff, more information sharing, more opportunities of leaks. These would have been more than capable of dealing with both the tactical and strategic problem emerging from 9/11: finding out how a small group of people were able to turn commercial airliners into manned cruise missiles and then figuring out to not let that happen again, and then the task of capture/kill/disrupt them and their supporters. I don't think either one of these tasks would have taken any great effort.

And then world could have returned to normal in short order.

chris said...

Come now, Boris, there's no money in that ;-)

Great posts, both of you. Here's more from Charlie Stross the SF writer.

"Assange has a model of how the abduction of governance by common interest groups — such as corporations and right wing political factions — works in the current age. His goal is to impair the ability of these groups to exert control over democratic institutions without the consent of the governed. By forcing these authoritarian institutions to apply ever-heavier burdens of secrecy to their internal communications, wikileaks aims to reduce their ability to coordinate and, thus, to exert control:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

Assange's analysis parallels Chomsky's — modulo having a somewhat different ideological outlook — but he's gone a significant step further, and is fighting back. His own explanation is here (warning: PDF)."

Hear! Hear! says I.