WikiLeaks, hackers and conspiracy theories  

Posted by Big Gav in

Crikey has an update on the Wikileaks saga - WikiLeaks, hackers and conspiracy
theories
.

On Sunday in the United States, David House, who has been a regular visitor of Bradley Manning, the US Army PFC accused of providing material to WikiLeaks, was prevented from seeing Manning and placed under temporary arrest, along with Jane Hamsher, at Quantico Marine Corps Base, then barred from seeing Manning.

Manning, who is yet to be tried, is being held at the base under almost ludicrously oppressive conditions that have drawn widespread criticism, including from a former commander of the facility.

At the time, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, a staunch supporter of WikiLeaks, tweeted “the point of the Quantico episode was to deny Manning his only real visitor: more likely solitary will crack him & induce anti-WL testimony.”

Greenwald’s claim — for which of course there’s no evidence, only the logic that that’s exactly how law enforcement frequently operates — echoes Julian Assange’s comments about Manning. He recently told John Pilger “cracking Bradley Manning is the first step. The aim clearly is to break him and force a confession that he somehow conspired with me to harm the national security of the United States.”

But while there’s more than a touch of the conspiracy theorist about these claims, it’s hard to avoid seeing a pattern in a number of recent events around WikiLeaks and its supporters.

First there was the claim, advanced with virtually no evidence, that WikiLeaks might have obtained information by hacking, rather than receiving material from whistleblowers. Last week, Bloomberg ran a piece on claims made by the Pennsylvania company Tiversa that “it discovered that computers in Sweden were trolling through hard drives accessed from popular peer-to-peer networks such as LimeWire and Kazaa. The same information obtained in those searches later appeared on WikiLeaks.”

One assumes Bloomberg meant “trawling”, but anyway. “Trolling” sounds worse.

Within hours the claims — such as they were — were undermined. A blogger for business publication Forbes.com, Andy Greenberg, investigated the claims and the company behind them. In an interview with Greenberg, a Tiversa executive backpedalled from the claims in the Bloomberg piece and admitted there was no evidence relating to WikiLeaks.

Tiversa has extensive links to the US government and has undertaken spying and surveillance work for the US Government agencies. Indeed, the Bloomberg article unwittingly raised the question of exactly what Tiversa was doing, and who it was doing it for, when it undertook the surveillance of Swedish servers it says served up evidence of “trolling.”

Needless to say, the Bloomberg article got an extensive mainstream media run despite the problems identified by Greenberg and Tiversa’s close relationship with the US Government. Two days after the original publication, Fairfax inexplicably ran the original Bloomberg copy here without any reference to material that had emerged afterward — although Fairfax lately has had a habit of running wire copy without checking online to see whether it has been discredited by bloggers.

Then came claims from a conservative Iceland newspaper that WikiLeaks might have installed a PC in the Icelandic Parliament near the office of prominent WikiLeaks supporter Birgitta Jonsdottir — despite there being no evidence Wikileaks had anything to do with it. Icelandic WikiLeaks supporters immediately noted the link with US efforts to link WikiLeaks to hacking emerging in the media.

You can see why linking WikiLeaks to hacking (although, as Greenberg noted, who “hacks” with a PC, rather than installing software?) would be a boon for the US Government in its attempt to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Media outlets don’t hack parliamentary networks or “troll” servers for information — most likely because hacking voicemail is as complicated as they can manage.

The claims follow a strange anti-WikiLeaks campaign by Wired.com, which has links to Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned Manning in, via senior editor and former hacker Kevin Poulsen. In a huge online spat between Christmas and New Year, Wired and Poulsen was accused by Greenwald of selectively leaking parts of the Lamo-Manning chatlogs and not being fully transparent. The chatlogs may — or given Poulsen’s later statements on Twitter, may not — serve the case that Julian Assange somehow facilitated Manning’s leaking of documents, rather than merely received them, which would bolster efforts to prosecute Assange without egregiously offending the mainstream media in the US.

At the same time, the US Government has continued to serially harass WikiLeaks associate and computer security researcher Jacob Applebaum, stopping him whenever he enters the US to confiscate and search — or try to search — his electronic equipment. Each encounter is now tweeted in detail by Applebaum, as officials get upset he has no equipment with him, or try to fruitlessly de-crypt the copy of the Bill of Rights he has put on a USB stick.

There may be no conspiracy at work, but all these events leave a strong impression of a persistent effort to portray WikiLeaks not as a media organization revealing material released to it by a disaffected government employee, but as a shady organization engaged in unethical or illegal activities to obtain information.

If successful, it will be a key step not merely in damaging WikiLeaks’ credibility, but in bulking up the currently tissue-thin case for prosecution of Julian Assange in the United States.

Problem is, as Al Jazeera has just demonstrated, destroying WikiLeaks won’t solve anything or prevent governments from being further embarrassed by high-volume leaks. Just ask Condoleezza “send the Palestinians to South America” Rice.

Update: In a major development this morning Australian time, US military sources have admitted to NBC that they were unable to establish any connection between Bradley Manning - the alleged source of much of the Wikileaks material released in 2010 - and Julian Assange. This has major implications for the US Government’s attempts to conjure any sort of case against Assange, which a secretly impaneled grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia is said to be considering. Military sources also confirmed that the officer in charge of the facility where Manning is being detained, Brig Commander James Averhart, had exceeded his authority in determining some of the conditions under which Manning is being held.

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