Information is power.  But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.  Those with access to these resources … have a duty to share it with the world.
– Aaron Swartz, Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

When I was a kid in the fifties I read a short story (by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, I think) set in an American town where the citizens were spied on in their daily activities by machines that hovered permanently above the streets.  A little later I read Orwell’s 1984, with its telescreens in every apartment that watch and record individuals at all times, while written correspondence is routinely opened and read by the government before it is delivered.

These writers were astonishingly prescient of processes that we now know are routinely used, not only by authoritarian regimes, but, more disturbingly, by many governments that proclaim their adherence to democratic principles, due legal process and respect for human rights. The period we’re in may come to be seen as a watershed moment, when the extent to which democratic politicians are prepared to sacrifice principle and morality became crystal clear.


These thoughts are provoked, obviously, by the files handed to The Guardian by Edward Snowden detailing the extent of the American state’s surveillance of its own citizens, as well as those of allied European states; but also by recently seeing the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and reading pieces in the London Review of Books that discussed the implications of America’s ‘drone wars’.

At the very moment when Bradley Manning’s trial for passing classified material to the website WikiLeaks was drawing to a close, Edward Snowden provided the Guardian with top-secret NSA documents revealing the extent of US surveillance of phone and internet communications built in the shadows in the aftermath of 9/11. On 12 July, Snowden made this statement:

A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice — that it must be seen to be done.

I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics.

Snowden was still sheltering in Moscow airport when I went to see Alex Gibney’s documentary film about WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.  Like many big-screen documentaries these days, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, has high production values, photographed and edited like a feature film, with an original score and cool graphics that give the film the semblance of a spy thriller.

Some I was with at the screening were put out by Gibney’s portrayal of Julian Assange. Gibney tells the story of Assange’s formative years as an activist and young hacker and draws on interviews with WikiLeaks staff and followers who supported WikiLeaks in its crusade – all of whom are people that Assange has subsequently fallen out with.  There’s one voice missing in the Gibney interviews – that of Assange himself, since Assange withdrew his cooperation from the film.

Julian Assange, leader of WikiLeaks, holds up a copy of the Guardian with a front page article that used leaked Pentagon data. during a press conference in London on July 26, 2010.  The
Julian Assange holds up a copy of the Guardian front page with the WikiLeaks story, 26 July 2010

When we discussed the film afterwards, the criticism my friends made was that it over-emphasised the Swedish rape allegations, and failed to consider both the possibility that they had been engineered by US agencies, and the danger that Assange faced of being rendered to America if he had not legally challenged extradition.

Certainly, Gibney does dwell on the rape allegations, as well painting a picture of Assange’s increasingly erratic and egotistical behaviour at the head of WikiLeaks.  But I suspect that Gibney’s portrait is a true one, leaving the viewer  simultaneously compelled and appalled by a character who is brilliant but flawed. Gibney presents a powerful account of Assange’s early successes – for example, how he was instrumental in leaking the documents that revealed the extent of Icelandic bank irregularities.

The fact that Assange fell out with Gibney and withdrew from the filming proved, I think, significant for how the film has turned out.  For, without footage of Assange talking, Gibney has had to focus more on the story of Bradley Manning, and in many ways this is the more compelling drama.

Gibney tells Bradley Manning’s story powerfully – how the conscience-stricken Army private reached his momentous decision to pass to Wikileaks the of the biggest leak of all time – 700,000 classified files,  including the video footage of a US gunship in Baghdad killing two children, two Reuters journalists and several others who happened to be standing nearby.


The story of Bradley Manning, his intense isolation and psychological problems, has an emotional pull that Assange’s just doesn’t possess, however worthy.  When you come out of the film what lingers in the mind is Manning’s isolation and his betrayal by the hacker Adrian Lamo in whom he confided and placed his trust. The heart of the film, in dramatic terms, comes when Gibney reproduces their web-chats on screen, turn by turn. Just words on the screen – but it packs a hefty punch.

'He desperately needed to talk' ... above, a passage from Bradley Manning's infamous online chat, rendered in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
A moment from Bradley Manning’s online chat with Adrian Lamo, as portrayed in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.

Gibney, presumably to offer some balance, includes interviews with various figures from the US government and security services.  It’s one of those who, confusingly, gives the documentary its title when he candidly says, ‘We steal secrets. We steal other nations’ secrets’. This was before we knew what Snowden’s leaks confirmed.

Another moment in the film points towards the link between WiliLeaks, Snowden and the intensifying drone war being conducted by the US by remote control on targets across the Middle East.  The then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton states that the work of WikiLeaks is, ‘not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships . . . that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.’ What she was getting at is the American government’s belief that certain of the documents unleashed by WikiLeaks resulted in an almost unparalleled shift in global power and in stability in the Muslim world. For example, one of the diplomatic documents leaked revealed the greed and corruption of the Tunisian president, sparking the uprising that inaugurated the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.

But it’s not just a question of revelations that destabilise your allies; the Snowden files reveal just how far the American government is prepared to go in order to identify those who might pose a threat to the US.  This summer, articles in the London Review of Books have reviewed recent books examining how such information might be used – to kill, without judicial process or any formal declaration of war, individuals deemed to be a threat to US interests.

In ‘Like a Mosquito’ (LRB, 4 July 2013) Mattathias Schwartz, reviewing Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill wrote:

Distinguishing between civilian and militant has become a post hoc body-sorting argument. As viewed through the drone’s crosshairs, the ciphers on the ground are neither civilians nor militants: they could be called ‘civilitants’, some of whom have been rendered killable not by who they are or what they have done but by where they happen to be.[…]

In a signature strike, a person is made a target not because of their identity but because of certain ‘signatures’ – criteria associated with terrorist activity. They could be called pieces of circumstantial evidence. An early report in the Washington Post gave a loose description: signatures are ‘patterns of behaviour that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance … that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against US interests’. Kevin Heller, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, has used media reports to compile a list of 14 likely signatures. Five, he found, are legal under international law. Five are dubious. Four are illegal. These four are: ‘military-age male in area of known terrorist activity’; ‘consorting with known militants’; ‘armed men travelling in trucks’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; and ‘suspicious camp’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida.

Schwartz went on to note how monitoring a person’s Internet activity has become crucial to identifying such ‘signatures’:

Meanwhile, the US is doing what it can to blur the distinction between the sniper on a rooftop and the sniper Googling where to buy his first gun. The two cases can be made into one with the ‘broader concept of imminence’ outlined in a US justice department white paper leaked this February:

The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack … does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future … the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties.

So, armed with information culled from the trawls through Internet use conducted by the National Security Agency (as revealed by Edward Snowden) the Americans go in for the kill – even eliminating their own citizens. (See, for example, ‘US drone strikes: Memo reveals case for killing Americans‘ on the BBC News website). In the process, it’s likely (as Bradley Manning’s US gunship video clip showed) that innocent people will die.   In his review of Scahill’s book, Schwartz offers a telling quote from a source in US military intelligence who told Scahill: ‘If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s 34 people in the building, 35 people are going to die,’

Tribesmen on Sunday on the rubble of a building destroyed on Oct. 14, 2011, in an American drone strike against suspected militants in Shabwa Province in southeastern Yemen.
Men on the rubble of a building destroyed in an American drone strike against suspected militants in southeastern Yemen.

A vivid illustration of that statement comes in a New York Times report of a drone attack in Yemen on 14 October 2011:

Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen. It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.

As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.

Why has the use of drone warfare spread so widely and so fast?  Why does the United States not round up, render and imprison those it suspects of harbouring terrorist inclinations – as they did in the decade after 9/11?  An answer is offered in The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti, reviewed by Stephen Holmes in the LRB (‘What’s in it for Obama?’, 18 July 2013).  Mazetti’s case is that ‘the CIA and the Pentagon have opted to hunt and kill suspected enemies in order to avoid the extra-legal tactics of capture and interrogation adopted under Obama’s predecessor’.  In other words, as Stephen Holmes acidly remarks:

The administration doubled-down on what look suspiciously like extrajudicial executions, faute de mieux, after shuttering Bush’s black sites and deciding not to send anyone else to Guantánamo, where approximately a third of the hundred detainees on hunger strike are receiving a macabre form of Obamacare through tubes in their noses.

Holmes adds that Mazzetti’s ‘unspoken and perhaps unspeakable explanation’ for Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, is that the members of the intelligence establishment ‘were afraid they could be held legally responsible for engaging in torture, a felony under American law’. The suggestion is that Obama’s shift to killing suspects from drones has been driven ‘by rumblings of rebellion at the CIA, where fear of being hung out to dry by bait-and-switch politicians is legendary’.

Drawing on Mazzetti’s book, Holmes elaborates:

By the time Obama stepped smartly into office, the agency was apparently preoccupied by the possibility that ‘covert officers working at the CIA prisons could be prosecuted for their work.’ This dampened the interrogators’ enthusiasm for extracting information by physically and psychologically abusing their prisoners: ‘each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation programme pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects.’ According to John Rizzo, a career CIA lawyer, Obama officials ‘never came out and said they would start killing people because they couldn’t interrogate them, but the implication was unmistakable … Once the interrogation was gone, all that was left was the killing.’ Summarising his interviews with Rizzo and other insiders, Mazzetti concludes: ‘Armed drones, and targeted killing in general, offered a new direction for a spy agency that had begun to feel burned by its years in the detention-and-interrogation business.’

Land of the free? By curious coincidence, while these thoughts were exercising my mind, I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit, in which Dickens has a good go at skewering American hypocrisy.  Dickens wrote the novel after travelling to America with all the hopefulness of an English radical.  His disappointment at what he found fuelled the sarcasm in his description of American attitudes and the strange disconnect between the language of liberty, freedom and independence that resounded everywhere in a country where the right to carry a gun and own slaves was guaranteed in the constitution.  Dickens’ disillusionment – to a friend he wrote, ‘this is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination’ – echoes our own disenchantment with Obama’s presidency.

Aaron Swartz, internet activist
Aaron Swartz, who killed himself shortly before his trial for downloading academic journals.

I opened this post with a quote from Aaron Swarz, a tech whiz-kid and political activist passionately committed to internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible.  In January he committed suicide at the age of 26.  When he tried to ‘liberate’ data from an academic website, US authorities responded fiercely with a prosecution that meant he faced a fine of up to $1m and 35 years in jail. What’s the connection with the foregoing?  As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Guardian a few days after his death:

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information.

Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, arrested on 27 May 2010, detained for much of the time since in solitary confinement, tortured, and convicted in July of violations of the Espionage Act, awaits sentencing. Glenn Greenwald has argued that Manning is the most important whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Bradley Manning

Disturbing and yet inspiring footnote: Email service used by Snowden shuts down, rather than comply with a (secret) US government court order to access encrypted messages on its servers. Details here.

Further footnote: Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks on 21 August 2013. The sentence was more severe than many observers expected, and was much longer than any punishment given to any previous US government leaker. Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, commented:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.  A legal system that doesn’t distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and treason against the nation will not only produce unjust results, but will deprive the public of critical information that is necessary for democratic accountability.

The news came in the same week that the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who wrote the series of stories revealing revealing the NSA’s electronic surveillance programmes, detailed in thousands of files passed to him by whistleblower Edward Snowden, had been held under anti-terrorism laws for nine hours by UK authorities as he passed through Heathrow airport on his way home to Rio de Janeiro.  As Simon Jenkins wrote:

It remains worrying that many otherwise liberal-minded Britons seem reluctant to take seriously the abuses revealed in the nature and growth of state surveillance. The arrogance of this abuse is now widespread. The same police force that harassed Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow is the one recently revealed as using surveillance to blackmail Lawrence family supporters and draw up lists of trouble-makers to hand over to private contractors. We can see where this leads.

I hesitate to draw parallels with history, but I wonder how those now running the surveillance state – and their appeasers – would have behaved under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. We hear today so many phrases we have heard before. The innocent have nothing to fear. Our critics merely comfort the enemy. You cannot be too safe. Loyalty is all. As one official said in wielding his legal stick over the Guardian: “You have had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

Yes, there bloody well is.

One thought on “Whistleblowers and drones

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