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Behind the Assange Saga: Radicalized by Frustration

Yesterday morning, with news of Julian Assange’s arrest, I wrote the below piece for The Guardian (US), trying to explain that the real reason that the U.S. government was moving on Assange NOW had nothing to do with the 10-year old case of Chelsea Manning nor WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 election. The news people at The Guardian passed on the article, as did the Daily Beast. I didn’t really get a reason from The Guardian, but the editor at the Daily Beast wrote: “We don’t have the bandwidth tonight to sort through your sourcing, or to separate out the parts of this that immediately make sense from the ones that seem, at least here, offputting.” Some others offered to publish, and no disrespect to them, but I decided to just publish the piece here because I wanted to add a little explanation and analysis.

The core of my reporting – and my argument – is that WikiLeaks’ publishing of the so-called “Vault 7” trove of the CIA is what propelled the United States government to feel like it needed to take action against the organization. If you are not familiar with Vault 7, don’t feel bad. Most in the national security field aren’t either.

Up until the Vault 7 leaks, which were published by WikiLeaks in March 2017, the national security lawyers within the U.S. government had been hesitant to take on a journalistic entity, even one like WikiLeaks that looked so very different than The New York Times or NBC News. But then with WikiLeaks seeming cooperation (or at least servitude) to the Russian government in 2016, that very American mainstream media became more hostile to its now separated brethren, and the general view shifted within the intelligence community and the Justice Department that the organization was more vulnerable.

With Vault 7, WikiLeaks published almost 10,000 classified documents from the Center for Cyber Intelligence of the CIA, the covert hacking organization of the U.S. government. For a number of reasons – a new president in office, WikiLeaks’ prominence in the ongoing Trump collusion circus, and the obscureness of the very material WikiLeaks was publishing, Vault 7 received scant attention. But coming on the heels of massive leaks by Edward Snowden and a group called the Shadow Brokers just months earlier, and given the notoriety WikiLeaks had earned, Vault 7 was the straw that broke the governmental back. Not only was it an unprecedented penetration of the CIA, an organization that had evaded any breach of this type since the 1970’s, but it showed that all of the efforts of the U.S. government after Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden had failed to either deter or catch “millennial leakers.”

The thinking of government officials – current and former – that I’ve talked to is that shutting down WikiLeaks once and for all – or at least separating it from the mainstream media to make it less attractive as a recipient of U.S. government secrets, will at least be one step towards greater internal security. Sure there is the bigger question of Russia weaponizing its intercepts and hacking material to do damage to the United States and the West, but in terms of what the U.S. government can do to clean up its own house, or at least to bolt the doors better, was to shut up Assange and fracture WikiLeaks.  Whatever WikiLeaks has done to itself, and whatever the United States (and its allies) have done covertly, that seems to be progressing apace.

Maybe the rejected article below isn’t worthy of publication, but my experience in closely watching the WikiLeaks story – in both its vilification and in its lionization – has made me think about this current era of homogenized news reporting. “Don’t have the bandwidth”, what the Daily Beast said, is code for both don’t have the editorial people and don’t have the headspace to entertain a contrarian thought, particularly in a big news day. By last night, both The Washington Post and The New York Times were both mentioning Vault 7 but no one has yet tied together all of these pieces of why the United States, the U.K., Ecuador, and even Sweden might have common cause in exerting more control, not just against WikiLeaks but also against those who would independently assault their systems.

The thread that ties everyone from Manning to the Vault 7 leaker to Julian Assange together is that they have all in some ways been radicalized by their frustration. Frustration with this very system, with its exclusiveness, with its lies, with its immunity to any accountability. For Manning, radicalization started as the WMD debacle in Iraq became clear and as the war dragged on, the young twenty-something (with a Top Secret clearance conferred by the system) alarmed by the carnage and the seeming inhumanity. Snowden equally conferred as one of them with an even higher “clearance” was similarly driven to take matters into his own hands, radicalized by his perception of post 9/11 abuses that he felt the NSA had taken, and hadn’t been held accountable for.

Put aside WikiLeaks and the Russians. The unsealed indictment yesterday is just the tip of a giant iceberg on the part of the U.S. government (and its allies) to fight back against these (and future) non-conforming crusaders. After Snowden they mounted a multi-pronged (and multi-billion dollar) effort – including more internal surveillance and many administrative and systemic changes to information systems – to thwart “insider threats” from again extracting secrets. But the number of secrets had grown so big, and the number of insiders needed to churn through them equally had become so massive that they were not even able to police themselves. Even here, the government failed to control its own secrets, but is anyone saying (ironically other than Assange and Snowden themselves) that the secret keepers aren’t to be trusted to do their jobs?

Assange is not a scapegoat, not only, but an activated and in some ways very frightened national security establishment, is mounting its first overt salvo against the world of anti-secrecy activists.  Even while Donald Trump lauds WikiLeaks – if he actually does anymore or even understands what is happening – the professionals need to take matters into their own hands. And Assange, so intent on self-aggrandizement and driven crazy in his incarceration, is certainly the perfect villain for the system to rally round.

Is he guilty?  I’ve been asked many times in the last 24 hours. My answer is yes, on these narrow charges, just like any protestor resorting to civil disobedience is guilty. But I say, more important than whether he is guilty and odious as an individual, he is also symbol of a bigger sickness, where we all consume today’s episodes and avoid the deeper issues of secrecy and perpetual warfare. In my mind, the mainstream news media, in not doing its job better, especially on national security, contributes to a lack of basic government accountability. That increases the power of the national security establishment – the bringers of this expulsion, arrest and indictment – a now so powerful and faceless officialdom that they have a greater vote in how, where and when we fight than does the chief executive or the Congress. Or the people.

There will be more Assange’s, more Snowden’s, more Manning’s, more assaults on the system by those radicalized by their frustrations with this state of affairs.  The very people who serve as sources for my article are no different, and I applaud them. So I can’t also at the same time blithely condemn anti-secrecy activists and facilitators, not per se.

Is it possible that the news media itself is thus the key to greater security, not just in better reporting on national security but also in embracing these voices? I don’t think Julian Assange’s arrest is a direct assault on the First Amendment or the freedom of the press. But like the official system that has too many secrets and too much to do, so the news media has become overwhelmed and normalized, and neutered.

Untitled, on Julian Assange’s Arrest, written April 11, 2019

Julian Assange’s expulsion and arrest in London will set off a new set of dramas regarding the WikiLeaks’ founder, one that could eventually land him in an Alexandria, Virginia courthouse and a trial that could surprise even close observers of his now seven year drama.

This comes after the United States unsealed an indictment against Julian Assange on Thursday, alleging Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning.

In the new indictment, the U.S. alleges that in 2010 Assange assisted Manning in cracking a password to gain administrative access to secret networks and thus more documents, assistance that occurred after the Army Private stationed in Iraq had already supplied WikiLeaks with classified material relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“It was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States,” the indictment says.

According to legal and intelligence documents reviewed by the author and over a dozen interviews, including with three U.S. intelligence officials directly involved in WikiLeaks investigations and damage assessments, conspiracy is at the center of what the U.S. Justice Department is trying to prove. The official American government legal argument is that Assange and his colleagues are really running an intelligence operation, one that conspired with U.S. government employees by “suborning” them to break the law, and also clandestinely conspires with foreign governments – including Russia and China – in obtaining and trading classified government materials. This argument, officials say, skirts the difficult question of whether WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization, and is thereby entitled to the protection of press freedoms.

Though Assange is wanted in a British court for jumping bail in 2012, and has become infamous for his role in publishing stolen Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton-related emails in the run-up to the last presidential election, the almost ten-year old Manning case is also not at the center of the American legal effort.

The American case, which shifted completely in March 2017, is based up WikiLeaks’ publications of the so-called “Vault 7” documents, an extensive set of cyber espionage secrets of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Vault 7 was little noticed in the emerging Russian collusion scandal of the new Trump administration, but the nearly 10,000 CIA documents that WikiLeaks started publishing that March constituted an unprecedented breach, far more potentially damaging than anything the anti-secrecy website had ever done, according to numerous U.S. officials.

“There have been serious compromises – Manning and Snowden included – but until 2017, no one had laid a glove on the Agency in decades,” says a senior intelligence official who has been directly involved in the damage assessments.

“Then came Vault 7, almost the entire archive of the CIA’s own hacking group,” the official says. “The CIA went ballistic at the breach.” The official is referring to a little known CIA organization called the Center for Cyber Intelligence, a then unknown counterpart to the National Security Agency, and one that conducts and oversees the covert hacking efforts of the U.S. government.

A month after WikiLeaks released the Vault 7 documents, then CIA director Mike Pompeo blasted WikiLeaks in his first public speech.

“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is… a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” Pompeo said.

Pompeo’s reference to Russia led everyone to assume that the CIA director was referring to claims of collusion between Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks in publishing the Clinton-related material. But the fine print of his speech should have signaled that Pompeo’s ire had nothing to do with election meddling. That is, none of the Clinton materials were classified government secrets.

Pompeo also did not mention the obscure Vault 7 documents directly, nor any new grievance against WikiLeaks.

But he did indirectly refer to the March 2017 documents and the CIA breach.

“As a policy, we at CIA do not comment on the accuracy of purported intelligence documents posted online. In keeping with that policy, I will not specifically comment on the authenticity or provenance of recent disclosures,” he said.

Pompeo then went on to stress that the Agency did not break any American laws in its intelligence collection. According to the senior official, the Agency was still waiting for WikiLeaks to drop the other shoe, the actual “source code” behind hundreds of CIA cyber “exploits,” capabilities and actual penetrations of computer systems and the internet of things that allowed it to carry out its extensive covert spying on foreign governments but could also be used in domestic spying.

“Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom,” Pompeo went on to say. “They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.”

Pompeo was alluding to the new criminal case and theory that the U.S. government wants to prove that WikiLeaks isn’t a journalistic entity. And, according to the senior official and numerous Justice Department documents reviewed by the author, the U.S. government has been aggressively building this specific case by trying to establish that WikiLeaks solicited classified information from numerous government employees, which prosecutors believe should disqualify the organization from being afforded any journalistic privileges and immunities.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” former director Pompeo said. “It has encouraged its followers to find jobs at CIA in order to obtain intelligence. It directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information.”

Alexa O’Brien, the leading expert on the case, says that during Chelsea Manning’s Court Martial in 2013, prosecutors suggested indeed that Julian Assange had instructed the Army Private on how to crack the administrator password on her computer that connected to the SIPRNet, the secret-level internet protocol network of the U.S. government.

Manning was ultimately acquitted of espionage in the release of the Garani airstrike video, a May 4, 2009 airstrike in a village in Afghanistan that may have killed as many as 147 civilians. According to O’Brien’s meticulous reporting on the trial, that espionage charge was directly tied to U.S. Army prosecutors’ theory at trial that Manning was involved in a criminal conspiracy with WikiLeaks.

“Prosecutors in the Manning Court Martial made it clear that they were not prosecuting WikiLeaks,” O’Brien says. “But they also had chat logs between Manning and an anonymous WikiLeaks interlocutor that they said was Assange. In other words, they knew in 2010 all of what Assange was indicted for Thursday.”

According to a second senior official, now retired, but one who was also directly involved in damage assessments of Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks of highly classified material from the National Security Agency, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement have also been looking into whether the Hawaii-based contractor received coaching or assistance from a WikiLeaks employee in downloading his documents and in spiriting him to Hong Kong. WikiLeaks subsequently assisted Snowden in leaving China and flying to Moscow, dispatching one of its officers to accompany him. WikiLeaks, U.S. intelligence believes, negotiated with both the Chinese and Russian governments in moving Snowden, and some analysts believe that there was an exchange of information.

The senior intelligence official who was involved in the Vault 7 case says that prosecutors are also trying to establish whether Joshua Adam Schulte, a former CIA employee who has been indicted for transmitting the Vault 7 documents to WikiLeaks, negotiated or coordinated with the organization or received coaching on how to obtain and move the materials he purportedly stole.  Schulte was arrested in August 2017 and is awaiting trial.

Writing in The Washington Post in response to the Pompeo speech, Assange characterized the Vault 7 disclosures as “evidence of remarkable CIA incompetence and other shortcomings,” focusing on the CIA’s loss of control of the documents.  WikiLeaks had previously taken the CIA to task for losing control of its secrets, which it said “circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner.” Assange’s argument was that the documents could result in infection of “the public’s ubiquitous consumer products and automobiles with computer viruses.” Ignored was how WikiLeaks itself had obtained the material.

One aspect of the Vault 7 documents further obscured the scandal and muddied the waters in explaining the U.S. government’s accelerating case against WikiLeaks. After announcing “the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency” and referring to “several hundred million lines of [computer] code”, WikiLeaks never posted the full documents or the damaging codes. According to two U.S. intelligence officials, that certainly lessened the damage that might have been caused, even if U.S. intelligence at the same time sees some evidence that the source code leaked out in other ways, causing some U.S. adversaries to change their practices.

According to two government officials who have been involved in the now almost decade-old WikiLeaks case, a multinational investigation into potential illegality on the part of the organization goes back to early 2010. A Grand Jury began its work and the FBI, supported by the intelligence community and the governments of Australia and the UK (and then by Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands) began intensive collection of evidence. In 2015, the investigation took a turn towards Conspiracy and WikiLeaks as a potential intelligence agency when U.S. intelligence obtained information that WikiLeaks had obtained a collection of documents on Saudi Arabia from Russian intelligence. That was a year before WikiLeaks published any Clinton-related emails.

On Thursday, the UK Home Office said in a statement that Assange “was arrested in relation to a provisional extradition request from the United States.”

The ultimate fate of Julian Assange depends upon London’s agreement to extradite the Australian on Conspiracy charges. But looming behind the 2010 case is a far broader case, one that will ultimately touch upon the fate not just of Assange, but also that of Edward Snowden and the WikiLeaks organization itself.

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What to Do When You Disagree and Yet Want to Be Polite

Maybe it’s because I’ve never been comfortable being labeled, and maybe it is that I had a chance early in my career to portray myself as whistleblower and declined, but as long as I can remember, I’ve had an aversion to being a member of a certain club.

Now that club has come knocking at my door for me to join, formally and through the Twittersphere, I’ve been asking myself how to respond in a thoughtful way.

Here are excerpts from the email I received from Ray McGovern of “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)”:

Bill —

Thanks for your parting-NBC email.

We highly regard your work.  On behalf of VIPS, we cordially invite you to become a member… you are aware that we have done some good work.

When we in VIPS see a need to speak out corporately, we do so — usually by preparing a “MEMORANDUM FOR: The President ……” just as some of us used to do when we were on “active duty,” so to speak.  We prepare, on the average, 4 memos a year, most of them addressed to the President on key — often very current — policy issues.  We have some evidence that a couple of our memos, or excerpts from them, have been seen by Trump.

Our memos are normally published first on Consortium News, which also keeps our Archive …  Like you, we reported no-holds-barred on the fraudulent “intelligence” served up by many of our former colleagues to “justify” the attack on Iraq before it took place.  In fact, after watching Colin Powell disgrace himself on Feb 5, 2003 at the UN, a drafting group of two (out of our first five founding members) cobbled together a memo which we got out on the AFP wire at a little after 5 PM that same day. … as you will know all too well — virtually no one was interested.  (We did get a whole bunch of FOREIGN inquiries/interviews, etc.)

… You would be loosely affiliated with the likes of Larry Wilkerson, Greg Thielmann, Bill Binney, Scott Ritter, Coleen Rowley, Matthew Hoh, Larry Johnson, Ed Loomis, John Kiriakou, and myself — some combination of whom wind up as signatories, with normally just one doing the initial draft.…

Congratulations for what you just did, and the way you did it.  Let’s hope for hundreds of principled “copy-cats,” so to speak….

This is a serious invitation. We would love to have you on our (non-existent) VIPS roster.

I won’t be joining VIPS precisely because their sanity is as insane as that of the accepted mainstream narrative — fraudulent intelligence and lying – and even some set of truth-tellers who need to and are needed, to set the public (and even President Trump straight).  Central to the argument of most whistleblowers – no matter how much they do know – is not only that what they know is vitally important for all to know. And not only is it important, but that whatever it is that they do know the unmitigated truth. It is a stance that is accentuated by deep frustration and some kind of psychological makeup, and it is one that generally solidifies in the “system” reacting with indictments and banishment, a rejection often so complete and categorical that it might appear that they have nothing to say, these possessors of sanity, when in fact in many cases (in most) what they have to say is a piece of the puzzle, even if there are many others.

My problem here, besides not being a joiner, is that I don’t agree with their central proposition on the 2003 Iraq war. Even if it could have been avoided, the reason it wasn’t some evil conspiracy of a few at the top. Said another way, there was no conspiracy. Arrogance.  Group think. Ignorance. Mistakes galore. That’s my opinion. If you agree with me, you shouldn’t just rush off to try to appropriate my opinion (and expertise) to fit some pro- or anti-whistleblower narrative. The official, the conventional and the “sanity” narratives all leave much room for improvement.

First some important biographical context: I’ve never met or corresponded with Mister McGovern. He doesn’t know me and though I’ve met a couple of people on his list, I don’t know any of them nor have I sought out their help to explain anything to me. There is no “like you” in what I’ve written that corresponds to their “good work.” In fact, I’m mostly unfamiliar with their work, though I know individually what many of them argue.

So with regard to the 2003 Iraq war or probably any other subject, it is important to establish that I’ve never reported on what I believe to be “fraudulent intelligence”.  What I’ve written, and what I believe, is that the intelligence community failed to do their jobs – that is, to accurately portray the status of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program – and they probably also failed in many other tasks over many years in conveying accurately (or with any depth) the nature of either Saddam Hussein or the country of Iraq. But the WMD failure wasn’t about anyone lying to “justify” an attack. Don’t get me wrong, some agencies (such as DIA in the Curveball episode) demonstrated spectacular ignorance and myopia, but “fraudulent intelligence” creates the wrong impression as to both the problem and thus the solution.

None of that is to say that I excuse the bumbling of the Bush administration. Colin Powell was snookered and acted as the good soldier conveying bad intelligence and false certainty at the United Nations and in other public venues. But the path towards war with Iraq was actually the Clinton administration policy of “no normalization of relations without regime change”. Maybe to the White House before 9/11 it seemed humanitarian and even a rhetorical flourish with little globe-changing consequence. Thus even though the Powell theatrics at the U.N. will go down in infamy, it was a theatrical performance to justify something that the Bush inner circle had already decided they wanted to do. And in that decision, the inner circle monumentally failed in thinking how easy an easy military victory over Iraq would equally blossom into a transformation of the country.

But on the question of lying and covering up – seemingly the favorite of VIPS and its roster of truth-tellers, their truth is wrong and the history is more complicated.

Complicated here doesn’t mean accepting the vacuous pabulum of conventional wisdom, nor on Iraq, does complicated comport with the self-justification and retelling of Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Tenet or others who were the key decision-makers and have never admitted their mistakes nor the mess they created. But if the narrative is left to officialdom on one side and the “truth tellers” on the other side, we may never get to the truth. And here I don’t define truth in any other way that an accurate representation of the historical record and facts.

We need to first dispense with the intelligence community (IC). These professionals at VIPS want us to accept their characterization of the CIA and other institutions associated with U.S. intelligence. And they assert that on Iraq and WMD, that the IC is guilty of “lying” to justify the Iraq war. Now let me just say that in my long writing and reporting career I’ve been lied to many times by government officials, but I’ve never had the experience of a working analyst lying or producing fraudulent intelligence (that is, not since the Vietnam era).  There are systemic reasons why “intelligence” fails to convey the big picture beyond a narrow question.  And in many cases I’ve found analysts terrifically uninformed or myopic, surprised by their lack of curiosity or indeed openness as to other explanation.

But having said that, let me be clear: It’s been the rare CIA director or other high official in the intelligence world who hasn’t blatantly lied to sell their organization or policy preferences. But even here lying is mostly the white lying of government, a sort of game of ‘I know more’ and ‘if only you know’ that more often than not results in bad policies and actions.

I anticipate that some will still defend the characterization of “fraudulent intelligence” and “lying” on the part of the IC in the run up to the Iraq war, pointing to their own personal experiences and to contradictory conclusions reached by the CIA or other intelligence components regarding both WMD and the Iraq war.  “Proof” that the CIA lied here morphs into an argument that they weren’t listened to, and truthy types like VIPS often point to some analysts predicting that indeed the aftermath of the military battle would descend into a complicated and anarchic mess. On this, these analysts were right, and their conclusion got little traction, but as I said above, policy-makers had already made up their minds.

Policy-makers had already made up their minds. But they also knew that on some things (the war’s aftermath) that the intelligence might be right and on others (WMD) the intelligence might be wrong. They might have chosen to ignore counter evidence but they also operated from this fundamental truth: they might be right and they might not be.  So it is precisely up to the policy-makers to take the intelligence and “use it” if you will to make bigger decisions because there are too many cases on both ends of the spectrum.  So it isn’t intelligence that determines things (it rarely does).

I also know that many of those named above think they had the truth and that their truth was the smoking gun that might have saved the country from an Iraq war, avoided 9/11 or stopped NSA’s mass surveillance. But in my experience and opinion, they are mistaken. Just as a cocksure Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz are mistaken in thinking that they know it all and know better. Intelligence is not perfect and policy decisions travel in the same boat. But having said that, that doesn’t mean that I think there shouldn’t be accountability for errors. I just don’t think it is ever going to happen until we accurately convey actual malfeasance or the supposed crimes committed on the part of the powerful.

I suppose that Mister McGovern highlights VIPS’ work on the 2003 Iraq war because that’s generally pointed to as the greatest intelligence failure since 9/11.  And though I’m mildly curious about what they are working on today, what sanity they are purveying from their experienced perches, “fraudulent intelligence” conveys a message that in many ways allows the policy-makers then and now to get off the hook for the decisions they made that had nothing to do with the VIPS narrative.

Though I’m virtually declaring war on this group in either not answering or contradicting their narrative, the truth of the matter too is that my experience is also that it is the rare bird indeed that sees a big enough picture to adjudicate complex intelligence and then fit it into the larger question of American interest or war policy. I point this out because I also firmly believe that there is unquestionably American interest that might diverge from the rest of the world, even our friends. And yet the assertion of this point – by Donald Trump for instance – has been met with almost universal derision, an overall narrative that wants everyone to believe that the only policies that are sound are the ones that are the most uncontroversial, or garner the largest support group.

The narrative of the ignoramus president not listening to the experts and the intelligence community didn’t start with Trump (it goes back at least as far as Reagan), the overall message being that the experts or the system knows more and should be listened to, which is the origins of all the deep state angst we face today. Therein is the genesis of the argument I’ve made for our current love affair with the CIA and the intelligence community and the experts – as well as with procedure and protocol – above all else, something that seems to unite conventional wisdom with the war mongers and VIPS types, I imagine an unlikely and uncomfortable club.

Washington is an ugly place, and the secret recesses of Washington have gotten too used to operating in a certain way, serving the president no doubt but also manipulating and undermining public debate when they do emerge from the shadows. Rarely does a president individually cut through this permanent system. Iraq from Clinton to Bush was the same, and I wonder even if Al Gore had been elected in 2000 whether an Iraq war would have been avoided.  Obama, with all of his promises and hope and smarts, similarly found himself hostage to continuity. Trump the same; even when he trips into good ideas, the system ultimately decides.

Is the maintenance of this unchanging system nourished by lying and fraudulence? I don’t think so. And in that is a better insight into the excessive power that has accreted to the national security custodians. They do not have the answers and they are operating from a giant bubble of their own hyper-regarded information. But to call them liars and conspirators is to also to rob us – the people – from any possibility to see the truth for what it is, that they are just wrong-minded and even just wrong much of the time, a truth that might start us along the path of taking their power away.

My Departure Letter from NBC

Note to readers:  I circulated this letter to NBC colleagues on January 2 and since it quickly leaked and got recirculated all over, I’d thought I’d post it here, on my own laconic blog:

January 4 is my last day at NBC News and I’d like to say goodbye to my friends, hopefully not for good. This isn’t the first time I’ve left NBC, but this time the parting is more bittersweet, the world and the state of journalism in tandem crisis. My expertise, though seeming to be all the more central to the challenges and dangers we face, also seems to be less in value at the moment. And I find myself completely out of sync with the network, being neither a day-to-day reporter nor interested in the Trump circus.

I first started my association with NBC 30 years ago, feeding Cold War stories to Bob Windrem and Fred Francis at the Pentagon. I became an on-air analyst during the 1999 Kosovo War, continuing to work thereafter with Nightly News, delighting and oftentimes annoying in my peculiar position of being a mere civilian amongst THE GENERALS and former government officials. A scholar at heart, I also found myself an often lone voice that was anti-nuclear and even anti-military, anti-military for me meaning opinionated but also highly knowledgeable, somewhat akin to a movie critic, loving my subject but also not shy about making judgements regarding the flops and the losers.

When the attacks of 9/11 came, I was called back to NBC. I spent weeks on and off the air talking about al Qaeda and the various wars we were rushing into, arguing that airpower and drones would be the centerpiece not troops. In the new martial environment where only one war cry was sanctioned I was out of sync then as well. I retreated somewhat to writing a column for the Los Angeles Times, but even there I had to fight editors who couldn’t believe that there would be a war in Iraq.  And I spoke up about the absence of any sort of strategy for actually defeating terrorism, annoying the increasing gaggles of those who seemed to accept that a state of perpetual war was a necessity.

I thought then that there was great danger in the embrace of process and officialdom over values and public longing, and I wrote about the increasing power of the national security community. Long before Trump and “deep state” became an expression, I produced one ginormous investigation – Top Secret America – for the Washington Post and I wrote a nasty book – American Coup – about the creeping fascism of homeland security. Looking back now they were both harbingers for what President Obama (and then Trump) faced in terms of largely failing to make enduring change.

Somewhere in all of that, and particularly as the social media wave began, it was clear that NBC (like the rest of the news media) could no longer keep up with the world. Added to that was the intellectual challenge of how to report our new kind of wars when there were no real fronts and no actual measures of success. To me there is also a larger problem: though they produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security, the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested. Despite being at “war,” no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus’ and Wes Clarks’, or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as “analysts”. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.

As perpetual war has become accepted as a given in our lives, I’m proud to say that I’ve never deviated in my argument at NBC (or at my newspaper gigs) that terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting. And I have maintained my central view that airpower (in its broadest sense including space and cyber) is not just the future but the enabler and the tool of war today.

Seeking refuge in its political horse race roots, NBC (and others) meanwhile report the story of war as one of Rumsfeld vs. the Generals, as Wolfowitz vs. Shinseki, as the CIA vs. Cheney, as the bad torturers vs. the more refined, about numbers of troops and number of deaths, and even then Obama vs. the Congress, poor Obama who couldn’t close Guantanamo or reduce nuclear weapons or stand up to Putin because it was just so difficult. We have contributed to turning the world national security into this sort of political story.  I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.

I’m a difficult guy, not prone to either protocol or procedure and I give NBC credit that it tolerated me through my various incarnations. I hope people will say in the early days that I made Brokaw and company smarter about nuclear weapons, about airpower, and even about al Qaeda. And I’m proud to say that I also was one of the few to report that there weren’t any WMD in Iraq and remember fondly presenting that conclusion to an incredulous NBC editorial board. I argued endlessly with MSNBC about all things national security for years, doing the daily blah, blah, blah in Secaucus, but also poking at the conventional wisdom of everyone from Matthews to Hockenberry. And yet I feel like I’ve failed to convey this larger truth about the hopelessness of our way of doing things, especially disheartened to watch NBC and much of the rest of the news media somehow become a defender of Washington and the system.

Windrem again convinced me to return to NBC to join the new investigative unit in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. I thought that the mission was to break through the machine of perpetual war acceptance and conventional wisdom to challenge Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness. It was also an interesting moment at NBC because everyone was looking over their shoulder at Vice and other upstarts creeping up on the mainstream. But then Trump got elected and Investigations got sucked into the tweeting vortex, increasingly lost in a directionless adrenaline rush, the national security and political version of leading the broadcast with every snow storm. And I would assert that in many ways NBC just began emulating the national security state itself – busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.

I’d argue that under Trump, the national security establishment not only hasn’t missed a beat but indeed has gained dangerous strength. Now it is ever more autonomous and practically impervious to criticism. I’d also argue, ever so gingerly, that NBC has become somewhat lost in its own verve, proxies of boring moderation and conventional wisdom, defender of the government against Trump, cheerleader for open and subtle threat mongering, in love with procedure and protocol over all else (including results). I accept that there’s a lot to report here, but I’m more worried about how much we are missing. Hence my desire to take a step back and think why so little changes with regard to America’s wars.

I know it is characteristic of our overexcited moment to blast away at former employers and mainstream institutions, but all I can say is that despite many frustrations, my time at NBC has been gratifying. Working with Cynthia McFadden has been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve learned a ton about television from her and Kevin Monahan, the secret insider tricks of the trade and the very big picture of what makes for original stories (and how powerful they can be). The young reporters at NBC are also universally excellent. Thanks to Noah Oppenheim for his support of my contrarian and disruptive presence. And to Janelle Rodriguez, who eventually came around to understanding deep expertise. The Nightly crew has also been a constant fan of my too long stories and a great team. I continue to marvel as Phil Griffin carries out his diabolical plan for the cable network to take over the world.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done with my team and know that there’s more to do. But for now it’s time to take a break. I’m ever so happy to return to writing and thinking without the officiousness of editorial tyrants or corporate standards.  And of course I yearn to go back to my first love, which is writing boring reports about secret programs, grateful that the American government so graciously obliges in its constant supply. And I particularly feel like the world is moving so quickly that even in just the little national security world I inhabit, I need more time to sit back and think. And to replenish.

In our day-to-day whirlwind and hostage status as prisoners of Donald Trump, I think – like everyone else does – that we miss so much. People who don’t understand the medium, or the pressures, loudly opine that it’s corporate control or even worse, that it’s partisan.  Sometimes I quip in response to friends on the outside (and to government sources) that if they mean by the word partisan that it is New Yorkers and Washingtonians against the rest of the country then they are right.

For me I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI.  Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war. Really? We shouldn’t get out Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula?  Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really earn for the Cold War?  And don’t even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?

Even without Trump, our biggest challenge as we move forward is that we have become exhausted parents of our infant (and infantile) social media children. And because of the “cycle,” we at NBC (and all others in the field of journalism) suffer from a really bad case of not being able to ever take a breath. We are a long way from resolving the rules of the road in this age, whether it be with regard to our personal conduct or anything related to hard news.  I also don’t think that we are on a straight line towards digital nirvana, that is, that all of this information will democratize and improve society. I sense that there is already smartphone and social media fatigue creeping across the land, and my guess is that nothing we currently see – nothing that is snappy or chatty – will solve our horrific challenges of information overload or the role (and nature) of journalism. And I am sure that once Trump leaves center stage, society will have a gigantic media hangover. Thus for NBC – and for everyone else – there is challenge and opportunity ahead. I’d particularly like to think and write more about that.

There’s a saying about consultants, that organizations hire them to hear exactly what they want to hear.  I’m proud to say that NBC didn’t do that when it came to me.  Similarly I can say that I’m proud that I’m not guilty of giving my employers what they wanted. Still, the things this and most organizations fear most – variability, disturbance, difference – those things that are also the primary drivers of creativity – are not really the things that I see valued in the reporting ranks.

I’m happy to go back to writing and commentary. This winter, I’m proud to say that I’ve put the finishing touches on a 9/11 conspiracy novel that I’ve been toiling on for over a decade. It’s a novel, but it meditates on the question of how to understand terrorists in a different way.  And I’m undertaking two new book-writing projects, one fiction about a lone reporter and his magical source that hopes to delve into secrecy and the nature of television. And, If you read this far, I am writing a non-fiction book, an extended essay about national security and why we never seem to end our now perpetual state of war. There is lots of media critique out there, tons of analysis of leadership and the Presidency. But on the state of our national security?  Not so much. Hopefully I will find myself thinking beyond the current fire and fury and actually suggest a viable alternative. Wish me luck.

Rodney King and War, 25 Year On

Thinking About Technology

William M. Arkin
Presentation at the DOD National Security Management Course, 10 April 2001

“In the aftermath of Desert Storm, no image of violence was as stark as that of the beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.  The videotape was plastered all over television, a kind of visual catharsis to censorship and virtual, seemingly inhuman firepower.  The black and white video, shaky, and grainy, surreptitious, had instant credibility.  It was amazingly similar to gun camera video clips that had become commonplace in the Pentagon’s telling of the very unanimated story of their air war.

Gun camera video tapes, of course, are carefully chosen for the audience’s entertainment during an otherwise difficult to imagine technological enterprise.  Press briefings and video selections emphasize airpower’s perfection and downplays its destructiveness.

Is it the case that the very nature of airpower, and of emerging cyberwarfare, defies heroic description?  There is, of course, real danger for the pilots.  But bombing soon enough becomes a production process, in which the occasional pilot death is more akin to an industrial accident than the result of what we think of as military combat.

We found ourselves at the end of the Gulf War, in the midst of old-fashioned massacre called the Highway of Death.   General Schwarzkopf, adamant that he would not be another commander disgraced for letting a beaten enemy get away, let fighter-bombers be his cavalry.  Almost immediately, a panic set in amongst military and political leaders in Washington and London at the scale of killing on the ground.  They had caused it, even willed it.  But they had not imagined what it would be like.  Somehow when the video screen turned buildings and bridges in the cross hairs to human beings, a tide shifted.  Despite all that Iraq had done, death became awfully hard for the American government and military leaders to justify.

It is such an uplifting anti-heroic approach to death, one that goes back to ancient times, one that is the very basis for what we call the laws of war.  For a soldier it means that any death on the battlefield means potentially ones own death.  The more anti-heroic we are, the more we come to grips with the limitations of the use of force and our own ambivalence about casualties, the more we see this issue as not about the deficiencies of this or that administration or policy-maker, the more we recognize our developing aesthetic about war, the better we will protect human life and the environment.”

Announcing the publication of my new book Unmanned

Unmanned R1-5

UNMANNED is an in-depth examination of why seemingly successful wars never seem to end. The problem centers on drones, now accumulated in the thousands, the front end of a spying and killing machine that is disconnected from either security or safety.

Drones, however, are only part of the problem. William Arkin shows that security is actually undermined by an impulse to gather as much data as possible, the appetite and the theory both skewed towards the notion that no amount is too much. And yet the very endeavor of putting fewer human in potential danger places everyone in greater danger. Wars officially end, but the Data Machine lives on forever.

#PZintel: NRO Monitored the Deepwater Horizon Spill

We’ve been tweeting top secret tidbits about the world of national security for the last few months from our Twitter account @GawkerPhaseZero, using the hashtag #PZintel. Give us a follow; and if you have intel to share, contact me at william.arkin@gawker.com. A round up of our latest tweets can be found on Phase Zero, including: more about the diversion of National Reconnaissance Office satellites to monitor the devastating 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and how there is a new version of Most Wanted Playing Cards in action.
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Loitering With Intent: An Excerpt From Unmanned in Harper’s Magazine June 2015 Issue

This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine features an exclusive excerpt from my book, Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, from Little, Brown and Company, out next month. A brief intro from the essay has been included below; for the full version, visit Harper’s website.

LOITERING WITH INTENT

By William M. Arkin

If you have spent any time thinking about the exponential increase in the use of unmanned vehicles over the past decade, you have probably thought about the Predator drone. Every second of every day, about fifty Predators are airborne. Each weighs more than a ton and has wings that extend the length of four automobiles. They fly at altitudes of 15,000 to 25,000 feet and can stay aloft for more than forty hours. They conduct deadly missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fly quietly over Yemen and Syria, assist law enforcement in Africa and Latin America, patrol borders, monitor oceans, and do civilian and scientific work of all kinds.

Government propaganda, the news media, and Hollywood movies characterize drones almost exclusively as high-flying hunterkillers and all-seeing information machines. In fact, more than 90  percent of the world’s drones are small, short-range, and unarmed. Only about 5 percent of the drones operated by the U.S. government are as large as manned airplanes. Predators, which garner so much of the public’s attention, make up an even smaller subset—there are just a few hundred worldwide. Most U.S. military drones belong to a single type—a 4.2-pound spy machine called the Raven. These and other human-portable devices are all but standard government issue for soldiers these days, like binoculars or radios. They are remarkable, to be sure, but they are remarkable mostly in the way of smartphones: omnipresent, ultraconvenient, annoying, distancing, and subtly threatening to privacy and security. There’s no doubt that they exert an influence on our society, even if the ultimate nature of that influence is unclear.

The civilian market for unmanned vehicles has expanded to serve scientific, industrial, consumer, educational, and entertainment purposes. Drones play an increasing role in industries as diverse as real estate and journalism, weather forecasting and agriculture. They identify forest fires and pipeline leaks, relay radio signals, and assist in archaeological and environmental research. They have also, of course, become popular with local, state, and federal law enforcement. Border agencies and police departments, emulating their military counterparts, have acquired unmanned vehicles not just for bomb disposal and other dangerous missions but also for intelligence collection and surveillance. Advances in information technology, nanotechnology, and even genetics, together with the continued miniaturization of nearly everything, are propelling an astonishing acceleration of drone capabilities. The future promises personal drones of amazing sophistication that weigh just a gram.