08 December 2010

Wikileak-er: Activist vs. Terrorist

I realize that I am about to raise a thorny issue... Yet the sheer mass of events unfolding in the news in the last two weeks around the WikiLeaks release of DoS cables is difficult to ignore. Word of a pro-WikiLeaks cyber-attack started to filter into the media (here and here) showing a group of so-called "hacktivists" performing denial of service attacks on websites of companies that have broken contact with WikiLeaks over its recent actions. The attacks appear to be organized by a group of sympathizers who have been actively tweeting their intent, resulting in disabling attacks on MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and Amazon.com over. Interestingly, they are following on the heels of an anti-WikiLeaks attack on Nov 29th (see here).

Concurrently, the infamous founder of WikiLeaks is in some legal hot water in Europe over some interestingly ambiguous sexual assault charges coming from Sweden.

So this is the situation, but what is the context? A foreign organization (WikiLeaks) has been actively disseminating USG secret documents after receiving them from sources internal to the USG.

This is where it gets thorny. Throughout the on-line world there is intense forum and media discussion around a deceptively simple question...what do you call what WikiLeaks is doing? Is it journalism? Is it espionage? Is it, maybe even terrorism? The first amendment is often invoked and just as often countered by a security prerogative. And then you have the active interlocutors in the discussion (aka hacktivists), who contribute to the debate with their actions. Even the USG is painfully confused with Attorney General Holder claiming "intense investigations", Senators throwing around espionage, and the President mysteriously silent on the whole thing (example). So round and round we go...what do we do with a foreign man who has taken it upon himself to damage American interests and has a rag-tag army of loosely organized, volunteer supporters?

Wait...that is the question, isn't it?

While it might sound as hyperbole, there is a real issue of precedent here. Precedent set not on hijacked aircraft but in electrons. For a decade we have heard of the emerging threat of cyber-terrorism and cyber-attack from China or Iran. For a decade we have speculated that it might come as an attack on the banking system, electrical grid, or even the DOD networks. Yet we are inexplicably confused about what to call WikiLeaks. Does good faith make one's actions less damaging to the interests of the country we live in? If Al Qaeda got a hold of a laptop with US secrets and released them for the world to see how evil America is would we not call that an act of terror? What exactly is the rule for defending American interests? Perhaps there are no rules and at the end of the day we are just winging it (as the Administration's frustrating-to-watch confusion seems to imply)?

Those are the questions that come to mind. But allow me a moment to indulge in my own conclusions. There is no issue of freedom of speech here. There is no issue fairness or journalistic privilege here. In fact, there is no issue of due process here or justice. In Iraq the US Bill of Rights no more applies than the Iraqi Constitution in the US. Even Julian Assange himself notes the irony of charging an Australian with betraying the USA (
here). What we do have is an issue of a foreign citizen acting knowingly against US interests around the WORLD! Not even in just Iraq or Afghanistan or any other single issue. But an outright effort to discredit the United States. That is what we call in the US Army, an IO campaign (Information Operations). That is also what we would call a non-lethal weapon. So, why do we not insist that Australia attempt to control its citizen? To be frank, until today that would have been enough, in my opinion, as otherwise it would mean taking action against a citizen of an ally, an issue all its own. Yet with the hacktivists carrying out cyber-attacks, the WikiLeaks campaign has taken on a new dimension. After all, a cyber-attack is as much a weapon system in our arsenal as an IO campaign. Except enterprising hackers can do a lot of damage. So perhaps Julian Assange is a wayward citizen of an ally that needs to be brought in line. But the hacktivists are bona fide terrorists that need to be pursued as such if the US is serious about protecting its interests and not just winging it. After all, all of us that have put on a uniform and gone to war were doing just that, so it must be important...no?

As to the issue of the press. There is none. WikiLeaks is foreign. The NYT has published what WikiLeaks published and no action is even contemplated against them. But then again, the NYT also shows us the occasional Al Qaeda motivational also. There is a broader issue than speech, and that is mens rea. The idea that WikiLeaks and the hacktivists are intending to harm US policy and at least for those of them who are not US persons there needs to be a swift, multi-avenue response. For those that are, we have plenty of hacker laws on the books. And for those that leak, they are the ones that take the risk of Espionage.

A few thoughts..............so much more to say.......


  1. Yawn. Why don't the "hacktivists" take-down Amazon.com's website?

    Instead, they pursue organizations whose websites are incidental to their businesses (swiss bank, paypal, visa/mastercard). None of the latter organizations rely on their websites in a meaningful commerce manner...except...Amazon.com.

    The actions of the hacksters lack substance, unlike those who are attacking WikiLeaks’ website...

  2. When did it become open season on the whistle-blowers? When did it become open season on the messenger? Maybe a little collateral damage will seep out from the secret chambers of statecraft (That's a misnomer isn't it?) What passes for Anglo-American statecraft is actually endless & boundless war! I say break down the doors, open all the file cabinets, throw hard disks into the street. Nothing should be spared in the task of embarrassing the military industrial complex to death. To death, I say.

  3. Whistle-blowers? What, exactly, is Julian Assange "blowing-the-whistle" on? The fact that the DoS has open and honest, but confidential, discussion about foreign leaders? The operations of the US Military during war where secrecy is necessary to protect American lives and interests abroad?

    Wikileaks and its merry band of hacker allies are conducting an open cyber-war against the interests of the United States. While I sometimes disagree with the scope of US operations abroad, America has the right to defend itself against anyone or anything that threatens the stability and way of life of the American public; in the case of Mastercard/Visa/Paypal/Amazon, economic interests.

    One man's freedom fighter/activist is another man's terrorist. Depends on your point of view.

  4. @Anonymous
    Amazon Attack? Amazon has been mentioned in the media as an explicit target of the campaign. So, does interfering with major trade activity of a nation count as an attack on American interests? I'm pretty sure embargoes and piracy are the same thing, in form and function.

    @Vigilante: I'll presume that you are serious in spite of your colorful rhetoric. I have to admit I was actually a tacit supporter of WikiLeaks when it was just about corporate malfeasance or issues to do with other governments. Does that make me a hypocrite? No. The US is my bias and preference, not China or Kenya. To pretend that there is an ultimate morality at play here is somewhat disingenuous, since if we accept that, then people like me who served in open warfare for US interests would likely be immoral. After all, is killing an issue for ultimate morality? If taking human life isn't, then what privileges the speech of those same humans above the value of their lives? I would take what JB said as a challenge...what exactly is the whistle being blown on that seems worth the risk to the United States of America and her allies having their interests messed with in such a dramatic way??????????????????

  5. How can you argue that 'the hacktivists are bona fide terrorists'? By no stretch of the imagination, let alone legal definition, are the 'hacktivists' terrorists. They maybe a nuisance, attackers and even criminal - if in the USA - are they causing fear? No.

  6. US Code, Title 22, 2656f defines terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;"

    While the UN has yet to officially define terrorism, the High Level Panel of the UN Action to Counter Terrorism states: (d ) Description of terrorism as “any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act”.

    Both of these statements fall far short of accounting for attacks or criminal acts that occur in cyberspace with an intent to modify or punish entities for actions/non-actions. Thus we are left at the crux of the issue: how do we define what the "hacktivists" did, and what do we do about it now and in the future?

  7. As a general rule I don't assign any meaning to the word terrorist. It falls somewhere in the spectrum from useless to idiotic. When in public conversation it is an occasionally useful word to get the point across. That point of course, is urgency. As a tank platoon leader in 2003 doing a DOD mandated terrorism briefing I had to bend over backwards to explain a difference to my Soldiers, who rightly pointed out that by the DOD definition everyone of us in the unit was a terrorist. At 21 there is only so much philosophizing one can do.

    To the point, terrorism isn't the issue. Attack on American interests, domestic and international, by non-US actors is...especially the crusading type. Osama is one. Assange seems to want to be one.