Tag Archives: Jesse Walker

The Keystone Kops Are After Greenwald!

Steve Ragan in Tech Herald:

After a tip from Crowdleaks.org, The Tech Herald has learned that HBGary Federal, as well as two other data intelligence firms, worked to develop a strategic plan of attack against WikiLeaks. The plan included pressing a journalist in order to disrupt his support of the organization, cyber attacks, disinformation, and other potential proactive tactics.

Update:

The Tech Herald was able to get in touch with Glenn Greenwald for his reaction to being singled out in the WikiLeaks proposal. He called the report creepy and disturbing. Moreover, he commented that the suggestions for dealing with WikiLeaks, along with the assumption that the organization could be undermined, were “hard to take seriously.”

The listed mitigations, such as disinformation or submitting false documents, have been discussed before. In 2008, the Pentagon had similar ideas, so that aspect of the document was nothing new.

Greenwald, as a journalist, is a prolific writer on media topics. He is a harsh critic of political figures and the mainstream media. The suggestion made by the proposal that he would pick career over cause is “completely against” what he is about, he told us.

“The only reason I do what I do is because im free to put cause before career,” he said.

Pointedly, he reminded us that his work includes taking aim at political figures, which could be a source of professional leverage with scoops or favors, as well as news organizations who could offer him gainful employment. None of these actions paints a picture of a man who would pick career over his passion.

Update 2:

WikiLeaks is hosting an official mirror of the sixth and final draft of the report. You can see a copy here.

Update 3:

Palantir Technologies has severed all ties with HBGary Federal and issued an apology to reporter Glenn Greenwald. More details here.

Update 4:

Berico Technologies has cut ties as well. More information is here.

Jesse Walker at Reason:

According to a report in the Tech Herald, three security firms recently pitched the Bank of America with a plan to take down WikiLeaks. If the documents at the core of the story are legit — and as Andy Greenberg of Forbes notes, “their level of detail would require immense effort on the part of counterfeiters” — the companies come off as Keystone Kops.

The most interesting detail is that the firms involved — HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies — placed a lot of emphasis on the pro-WikiLeaks blogger Glenn Greenwald, arguing that “Without the support of people like Glenn wikileaks would fold,” so “It is this level of support that needs to be disrupted.” The firms are confident that this can be done, since “most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals.”

The source of the documents is a massive trove of HBGary emails that was seized and released by Anonymous. The backstory behind that is pretty fascinating in itself.

Matthew Yglesias:

A consortium of national security contractors, led by Palantir Technology, seems to have been shopping a counter-WikiLeaks strategy. This slide is about neutralizing Glenn Greenwald:

— Glenn was critical in the Amazon to OVH transition
— It is this level of support that needs to be disrupted
— These are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals.
— Without the support of people like Glenn, Wikileaks would fold

I like that they’re on a first-name basis with Greenwald. Lee’s 2008 book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, is highly recommended. And remember, without the support of people like you, the Yglesias Blog would fold!

Kerry Lauerman at Salon:

We take threats against our own very seriously.

A bizarre plan for an attack on the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks and journalists construed as sympathetic to it — first reported by the Tech Herald — clearly targets Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, saying that his “level of support” for WikiLeaks “needs to be disrupted.” The report (you can download the purported final draft here) is listed as an “overview by Palantir Technologies, HBGary Federal and Berico Technologies,” and according to a string of e-mails also leaked, was developed following a request from Hunton and Williams, a law firm that represents, among others, Bank of America.

Bank of America is the presumed next target of WikiLeaks, and has reportedly been bracing for what’s to come.

The leaked report singles out other journalists, as well, and suggests that “these are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause …” And goes on: “Without the support of people like Glenn wikileaks would fold.”

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

Now aside from the predictable, but nevertheless rather shocking detail, that these security firms believed the best way to take WikiLeaks out was to push Glenn to stop supporting them, what the fuck are they thinking by claiming that Glenn weighs “professional preservation” against “cause”? Could they be more wrong, painting Glenn as a squeamish careerist whose loud support for WikiLeaks (which dates back far longer than these security firms seem to understand) is secondary to “professional preservation”? Do they know Glenn is a journalist? Do they know he left the stuffy world of law? Have they thought about why he might have done that? Are they familiar at all with who Glenn is? Do they really believe Glenn became a household name–to the extent that he did–just in December?

I hope Bank of America did buy the work of these firms. Aside from the knowledge that the money would be–to the extent that we keep bailing out Bank of America–taxpayer money, I’d be thrilled to think of BoA pissing away its money like that. The plan these firms are pushing is absolutely ignorant rubbish. They apparently know almost nothing about what they’re pitching, and have no ability to do very basic research.

Which is precisely the approach I’d love to see BoA use to combat whatever WikiLeaks has coming its way.

Glenn Greenwald:

My initial reaction to all of this was to scoff at its absurdity.  Not being familiar with the private-sector world of internet security, I hadn’t heard of these firms before and, based on the quality of the proposal, assumed they were just some self-promoting, fly-by-night entities of little significance.  Moreover, for the reasons I detailed in my interview with The Tech Herald — and for reasons Digby elaborated on here — the very notion that I could be forced to choose “professional preservation over cause” is ludicrous on multiple levels.  Obviously, I wouldn’t have spent the last year vehemently supporting WikiLeaks — to say nothing of aggressively criticizing virtually every large media outlet and many of their leading stars, as well as the most beloved political leaders of both parties — if I were willing to choose “career preservation over cause.”

But after learning a lot more over the last couple of days, I now take this more seriously — not in terms of my involvement but the broader implications this story highlights.  For one thing, it turns out that the firms involved here are large, legitimate and serious, and do substantial amounts of work for both the U.S. Government and the nation’s largest private corporations (as but one example, see this email from a Stanford computer science student about Palantir).  Moreover, these kinds of smear campaigns are far from unusual; in other leaked HB Gary emails, ThinkProgress discovered that similar proposals were prepared for the Chamber of Commerce to attack progressive groups and other activists (including ThinkProgress).  And perhaps most disturbing of all, Hunton & Williams was recommended to Bank of America’s General Counsel by the Justice Department — meaning the U.S. Government is aiding Bank of America in its defense against/attacks on WikiLeaks.

That’s why this should be taken seriously, despite how ignorant, trite and laughably shallow is the specific leaked anti-WikiLeaks proposal.  As creepy and odious as this is, there’s nothing unusual about these kinds of smear campaigns.   The only unusual aspect here is that we happened to learn about it this time because of Anonymous’ hacking.  That a similar scheme was quickly discovered by ThinkProgress demonstrates how common this behavior is.  The very idea of trying to threaten the careers of journalists and activists to punish and deter their advocacy is self-evidently pernicious; that it’s being so freely and casually proposed to groups as powerful as the Bank of America, the Chamber of Commerce, and the DOJ-recommended Hunton & Williams demonstrates how common this is.  These highly experienced firms included such proposals because they assumed those deep-pocket organizations would approve and it would make their hiring more likely.

But the real issue highlighted by this episode is just how lawless and unrestrained is the unified axis of government and corporate power.  I’ve written many times about this issue — the full-scale merger between public and private spheres —  because it’s easily one of the most critical yet under-discussed political topics.  Especially (though by no means only) in the worlds of the Surveillance and National Security State, the powers of the state have become largely privatized.  There is very little separation between government power and corporate power.   Those who wield the latter intrinsically wield the former.  The revolving door between the highest levels of government and corporate offices rotates so fast and continuously that it has basically flown off its track and no longer provides even the minimal barrier it once did.  It’s not merely that corporate power is unrestrained; it’s worse than that:  corporations actively exploit the power of the state to further entrench and enhance their power.

That’s what this anti-WikiLeaks campaign is generally:  it’s a concerted, unified effort between government and the most powerful entities in the private sector (Bank of America is the largest bank in the nation).  The firms the Bank has hired (such as Booz Allen) are suffused with the highest level former defense and intelligence officials, while these other outside firms (including Hunton & Williams and Palantir) are extremely well-connected to the U.S. Government.  The U.S. Government’s obsession with destroying WikiLeaks has been well-documented.  And because the U.S. Government is free to break the law without any constraints, oversight or accountability, so, too, are its “private partners” able to act lawlessly.  That was the lesson of the Congressional vesting of full retroactive immunity in lawbreaking telecoms, of the refusal to prosecute any of the important Wall Street criminals who caused the 2008 financial crisis, and of the instinctive efforts of the political class to protect defrauding mortgage banks.

Nate Anderson at Wired

More Greenwald

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While All The World’s Eyes Remain On Assange…

Max Fisher at The Atlantic

Glenn Greenwald:

Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old U.S. Army Private accused of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, has never been convicted of that crime, nor of any other crime.  Despite that, he has been detained at the U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia for five months — and for two months before that in a military jail in Kuwait — under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture.  Interviews with several people directly familiar with the conditions of Manning’s detention, ultimately including a Quantico brig official (Lt. Brian Villiard) who confirmed much of what they conveyed, establishes that the accused leaker is subjected to detention conditions likely to create long-term psychological injuries.

Since his arrest in May, Manning has been a model detainee, without any episodes of violence or disciplinary problems.  He nonetheless was declared from the start to be a “Maximum Custody Detainee,” the highest and most repressive level of military detention, which then became the basis for the series of inhumane measures imposed on him.

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement.  For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell.  Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions.  For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch).  For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs.  Lt. Villiard protested that the conditions are not “like jail movies where someone gets thrown into the hole,” but confirmed that he is in solitary confinement, entirely alone in his cell except for the one hour per day he is taken out.

In sum, Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America’s Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado:  all without so much as having been convicted of anything.  And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.

Just by itself, the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Manning has been subjected for many months is widely viewed around the world as highly injurious, inhumane, punitive, and arguably even a form of torture.  In his widely praised March, 2009 New Yorker article — entitled “Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?” — the surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande assembled expert opinion and personal anecdotes to demonstrate that, as he put it, “all human beings experience isolation as torture.”  By itself, prolonged solitary confinement routinely destroys a person’s mind and drives them into insanity.  A March, 2010 article in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Lawexplains that “solitary confinement is recognized as difficult to withstand; indeed, psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture.”

For that reason, many Western nations — and even some non-Western nations notorious for human rights abuses — refuse to employ prolonged solitary confinement except in the most extreme cases of prisoner violence.  “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his experience in isolated confinement in Vietnam. “It crushes your spirit.”  As Gawande documented: “A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam . . . reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.”  Gawande explained that America’s application of this form of torture to its own citizens is what spawned the torture regime which President Obama vowed to end:

This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantánamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. . . .

This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. . . . Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world.  In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement . . . .

It’s one thing to impose such punitive, barbaric measures on convicts who have proven to be violent when around other prisoners; at the Supermax in Florence, inmates convicted of the most heinous crimes and who pose a threat to prison order and the safety of others are subjected to worse treatment than what Manning experiences.  But it’s another thing entirely to impose such conditions on individuals, like Manning, who have been convicted of nothing and have never demonstrated an iota of physical threat or disorder.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Appropriately, Glenn links to this truly harrowing New Yorker piece on long-term solitary confinement. I don’t really see any argument for keeping Manning in these conditions, except a punitive one. But since he hasn’t been convicted of anything, I don’t see that argument either.
I think the worse part, is that very few people care what kind of condition the incarcerated endure. We have essentially accepted prison-rape. The New Yorker piece asks is solitary confinement torture? I’d ask, even if it is torture, whether we even care?

Jesse Walker in Reason

Nitasha Tiku at New York Magazine:

Thus far in the WikiLeaks saga, all the attention has circled the whistle-blowing website’s founder, with little emphasis on the whistle-blower himself. But while Julian Assange remains in custody pending an appeal of the judge’s decision to grant him bail, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald looks at a different prison, some 3,600 miles away, where accused leaker Bradley Manning has been sitting in solitary confinement in a U.S. Marine brig for five months without ever being convicted of a crime. According to Greenwald’s sources, Manning, who served a two-month stint in a military prison in Kuwait prior to being moved to Quantico, is being held as a “Maximum Custody Detainee,” despite being a model prisoner. For 23 hours a day, Manning is held in solitary confinement, without a pillow or sheets or access to the news and barred from exercising, conditions that are “likely to create long-term psychological injuries.” Wait a second, is Greenwald telling us that the U.S. government is willing to bend the law and play psychological games with people it perceives as a threat to national security? That doesn’t sound like … oh, never mind.

Eric Martin

John Cole:

There is absolutely no reason for this whatsoever, other than the fact that the United States has morphed into a brutal and repressive regime that is terrified of dissent. The only difference between this treatment and what we imagine third world nations do is that we have cleaner and more modern facilities. Hell, at this point Manning would probably welcome physical torture- it would be a welcome diversion.

And yet, this goes on every day in the greatest nation in the world, the home of the free and the land of the brave. Brought to our collective knees in terror of a rosy-cheeked private who had the balls to allow our lies to be published. And for that, we must emulate those great men who have gone before us- Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and other great human rights leader, and publicly make a show of our ability to crush one man. Because that is what this is- a message to every one else. There is no other reason to be subjecting Manning to this behavior, as he could be safely secured at any county jailhouse in this nation. Hell, he could be returned to his unit and confined to quarters, and nothing would happen.

We’re basically scum these days. It’s really sad. And I do not know how Lt. Villard and those like them live with themselves or sleep at night. I really don’t. Spare me the “they’re just following orders” crap. But we’ll go on spouting bullshit about Human Rights in every international forum we can find. American exceptionalism!

*** Update ***

For Christ’s sake, people. I simply am astounded at the lengths some of you will go to excuse this. “But I don’t like or trust Glenn Greenwald!” Who gives a shit if you don’t like him or trust him, try looking at the damned links he provides? What the hell is wrong with your cognitive skills? At the bottom of the page, there is an update which states a minor correction from THE OFFICIAL IN CHARGE OF MANNING’S DETENTION. That means they have read what Glenn said, and found one error, and corrected it. That would suggest to most people with at least one functioning synapse that, horror of horrors, Glenn’s piece is ACCURATE.

And yes manic progressives in the comments, this is on Obama. If we know about his, so does he, and he could stop it. It’s a goddamned disgrace. I didn’t realize I need to point this out explicitly, because Obama is, after all, the President and Commander-in-Chief. I sort of assumed you dullards knew this.

Weasel Zippers:

Feel good story of the day…

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The Blog Post That Went ‘Round The Sphere

zunguzungu:

And his [Julian Assange’s] underlying insight is simple and, I think, compelling: while an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to “think” as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy. The more closed the network is to outside intrusion, the less able it is to engage with that which is outside itself (true hacker theorizing).His thinking is not quite as abstract as all that, of course; as he quite explicitly notes, he is also understanding the functioning of the US state by analogy with successful terrorist organizations. If you’ve seen The Battle of Algiers, for example, think of how the French counter-terrorist people work to produce an organizational flow chart of the Algerian resistance movement: since they had overwhelming military superiority, their inability to crush the FLN resided in their inability to find it, an inability which the FLN strategically works to impede by decentralizing itself. Cutting off one leg of the octopus, the FLN realized, wouldn’t degrade the system as a whole if the legs all operated independently. The links between the units were the vulnerable spots for the system as a whole, so those were most closely and carefully guarded and most hotly pursued by the French. And while the French won the battle of Algiers, they lost the war, because they adopted the tactics Assange briefly mentions only to put aside:

How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?…We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, have cut high weight links by killing, kidnapping, blackmailing or otherwise marginalizing or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to.

This is the US’s counterterrorism strategy — find the men in charge and get ’em — but it’s not what Assange wants to do: such a program would isolate a specific version of the conspiracy and attempt to destroy the form of it that already exists, which he argues will have two important limitations. For one thing, by the time such a conspiracy has a form which can be targeted, its ability to function will be quite advanced. As he notes:

“A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influence the actions of the state is near its end. To deal with powerful conspiratorial actions we must think ahead and attack the process that leads to them since the actions themselves can not be dealt with.”

By the time a cancer has metastasized, in other words, antioxidents are no longer effective, and even violent chemotherapy is difficult. It’s better, then, to think about how conspiracies come into existence so as to prevent them from forming in the first place (whereas if you isolate the carcinogen early enough, you don’t need to remove the tumor after the fact). Instead, he wants to address the aggregative process itself, by impeding the principle of its reproduction: rather than trying to expose and cut particular links between particular conspirators (which does little to prevent new links from forming and may not disturb the actual functioning of the system as a whole), he wants to attack the “total conspiratorial power” of the entire system by figuring out how to reduce its total ability to share and exchange information among itself, in effect, to slow down its processing power. As he puts it:

Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).

Because he thinks of the conspiracy as a computational network, he notes in an aside that one way to weaken its cognitive ability would be to degrade the quality of its information:

Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out. Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer’s aphorism is sometimes called “the Fox News effect”.

I’m not sure this is what he means, but it’s worth reflecting that the conspiracy’s ability to deceive others through propaganda can also be the conspiracy’s tendency to deceive itself by its own propaganda. So many people genuinely drink the Kool-Aid, after all. Would our super-spies in Afghanistan ever have been so taken in by the imposter Taliban guy if they didn’t, basically, believe their own line of propaganda, if they didn’t convince themselves — even provisionally — that we actually are winning the war against Talibothra? The same is true of WMD; while no one in possession of the facts could rationally conclude that Saddam Hussein then (or Iran now) are actually, positively in pursuit of WMD’s, this doesn’t mean that the people talking about ticking time bombs don’t actually believe that they are. It just means they are operating with bad information about the environment. Sometimes this works in their favor, but sometimes it does not: if Obama thinks Afghanistan is winnable, it may sink his presidency, for example, while the belief of his advisors that the economy would recover if the government rescued only the banks almost certainly lost the midterm elections for the Democrats (and was the death-knell for so many of the Blue Dogs who were driving that particular policy choice). Whether this actually hurts the conspiracy is unclear; those Blue Dogs might have lost their seats, but most of them will retire from public service to cushy jobs supported by the sectors they supported while they were in public service. And lots of successful politicians do nothing but fail.

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy. As he puts it:

If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.

In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve. But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

Early responses seem to indicate that Wikileaks is well on its way to accomplishing some of its goals. As Simon Jenkins put it (in a great piece in its own right) “The leaks have blown a hole in the framework by which states guard their secrets.” And if the diplomats quoted by Le Monde are right that, “we will never again be able to practice diplomacy like before,” this is exactly what Wikileaks was trying to do. It’s sort of pathetic hearing diplomats and government shills lament that the normal work of “diplomacy” will now be impossible, like complaining that that the guy boxing you out is making it hard to get rebounds. Poor dears. If Assange is right to point out that his organization has accomplished more state scrutiny than the entire rest of the journalistic apparatus combined, he’s right but he’s also deflecting the issue: if Wikileaks does some of the things that journalists do, it also does some very different things. Assange, as his introductory remarks indicate quite clearly, is in the business of “radically shift[ing] regime behavior.”

Jesse Walker at Reason

Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing on the piece:

A close reading of a 2006 Julian Assange essay, useful for understanding the motivations behind Wikileaks.

Jonathan Holmes at ABC The Drum:

Though it may have been posted widely in recent months – I’ve been away – I came across it in a blog called Zunguzungu, written by a denizen of Oakland California called Aaron Bady. A couple of weeks ago he put up a post called ‘Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy’. His blog links to two documents by Julian Assange, titled ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’ and ‘Conspiracy as Governance’, written in November and December 2006 respectively. According to the UK Mail on Sunday‘s Jason Lewis, who quoted from the documents last August, they were written while Assange was at the University of Melbourne. I’ve not been able to verify their authenticity, other than by visiting the iq.org site myself and independently finding the second document here.

Anyway, if you’re interested in Julian Assange, I urge you to read both the Brady essay, and the Assange document. But if you haven’t time, let me summarise them as best I can.

Authoritarian states, argues Assange – and by that term he very clearly means democracies like the USA – are conspiracies, in the sense that they consist of a comparatively small number of people who ‘conspire’ to produce outcomes – economic, military, diplomatic – by sharing information, insights and plans which are not available to the people they are ruling and whose fortunes those outcomes will affect.

This is a bad thing.

Conspiracies need conspirators – some more important than others. But they also need the means to communicate secretly with each other, else there can be no conspiracy.

The computer age makes vast conspiracies possible – but it also makes them vulnerable. To quote from Assange’s introduction:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline…

Or, as he puts it graphically elsewhere in ‘Conspiracy and Governance’:

When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment.

What becomes clear from Assange’s essay – which strikes me as both profound and somewhat deranged – is that he knows exactly what he is doing, and why. He knows that a great many of the cables that WikiLeaks is now producing – and which are being so enthusiastically peddled by the mainstream media – are not in themselves evidence of what most of us would term wrongdoing. But to the extent that they are profoundly embarrassing, they will force the United States to change its communications system. The SIPRnet, which, inexplicably, allows a junior soldier in Iraq (and apparently some 3 million others) to access an ambassador’s appraisal of a prime minister, or the State Department’s concerns about Chinese weapons sales to Iran, will have to be changed; readership of documents restricted; security procedures tightened; secrets kept more secret. There will be a higher ‘cognitive secrecy tax’.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

This zunguzungu post on Assange’s motives is extremely important. He isn’t interested in preserving any current system; he quite radically wants to fundamentally change the capacity of governments he considers authoritarian to conspire in secret. He wants to bring everything out into the light and degrade their systems, as it were.

“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”

Government is doing exactly what can be expected of it in reaction to this – forced to operate in secrecy, cut off from its fellow conspirators, it seeks to control the flow of information. That’s what’s at work in the attempt to arrest Assange and shut down his website. Governments need to be able to communicate with themselves, and Assange is breaking that down, or at least exposing it to scrutiny. So they want to crush the bug. The only entity that gets to have total information awareness is the state.

Robert Baird at 3 Quarks Daily:

Aaron Bady won the internet last week with his explication of a pair of essays Julian Assange wrote in 2006. Paddling against a vomit-tide of epithets and empty speculations that threatened to bury Assange under a flood of banalities, Bady proposed and executed a fairly shocking procedure: he sat down and read ten pages of what Assange had actually written about the motivations and strategy behind Wikileaks.

The central insight of Bady’s analysis was the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes “information wants to be free” as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland. Noting the “certain vicious amorality about the Mark Zuckerberg-ian philosophy that all transparency is always and everywhere a good thing,” Bady argued that Assange’s philosophy is crucially different:

The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.

As Assange told Time: “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.”

In his essays Assange makes no bones about wanting to “radically shift regime behavior,” and this claim to radicalism marks one difference between Wikileaks and, say, the New York Times. As Bady notes, however, by far the more important distinction lies in the way Assange wants to use transparency to cause change. The traditional argument for transparency is that more information will allow a populace to better influence its government. In this scheme, freedom of the press, sunshine laws, and journalistic competition are all useful for prizing loose information that government actors don’t want us to see, but none of them are ends in themselves. The information they reveal is ever only propaedeutic: it needs advocacy, elections, armed uprisings, or some other activity to make real political change.

Certainly some of what Assange wants to do with Wikileaks can be explained by this model, but as Bady recognized, the 2006 essays propose a more unusual–and more interesting–reason for leaking. “Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms,” Bady explained, “precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more.” In this sense, the “nothing new to see here” posturing that followed the release of the cables in some quarters was not only something Assange had expected: it was a reaction whose anticipation led him to formulate a strategy that differed even from progressive/radical muckrakers like The Nation and Counterpunch.

[…]

Push this redescription a step further, and you can see that what Wikileaks is trying to do to international diplomacy is not so different from what the mortgage crisis did to the economy. The cable-dump is the diplomatic equivalent of Goldman Sachs’s famous ABACUS CDO, the one it designed to go bust.

If this sounds like sabotage, well, that’s sort of the point. But it’s important to remember that unlike ABACUS, Assange’s attempted sabotage of the diplomatic economy of secrets was planned with the explicit aim of ushering in a new and better system. His 2006 essays paint him as the opposite of a nihilist, someone with a radical’s distrust of reform. Like those Marxists who hoped they saw in the financial crisis the first stirrings of a new and more just economic age, Assange looks to the diplomatic rubble he’s created for the promise of a new paradigm of government behavior.

That Wikileaks will have real-world effects is indisputable; they’ve already begun to show themselves. The real question, now, is whether those effects will look anything like what Assange hoped for them in 2006.

The financial analogy gives us reason to be skeptical. By rights the mortgage meltdown should have wiped out half of Wall Street. And yet two years after the worst of it, the banks that caused the crisis are enjoying record profits while the rest of the economy foots the bill: 10% unemployment, frozen federal pay, broke state governments, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The lesson of the crisis was unequivocal: power doesn’t have to play by rights. The State Department of the United States, we can be sure, is quite aware of this.

There’s a deeper sense, however, in which Assange’s 2006 third-order strategy for Wikileaks has to count as naive. His belief that secrecy is the fundamental source of power is a version of the classic category mistake of the internet age: to imagine that the “world” of information simply is the world, that there is no remainder, nothing left to of the latter to overflow or exceed or resist the former. (The Language poets made a similar mistake in suggesting that a stylistic innovation in poetry was predictably convertible into real-world effects.)

In a recent interview at the Guardian, Assange seems aware of this problem, all but admitting that his earlier emphasis on secrecy doesn’t fit the reigning power structures of the West:

The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be ‘free’ because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free.

This diagnosis strikes me as much closer to the mark than Assange’s earlier identification of government as fundamentally conspiratorial. But his earlier account at least had the virtue of justifying the leak of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables. Now the release seems freshly unexplained. After all, how, exactly, are publicized diplomatic cables supposed to affect the “web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on”? I don’t know, and I’m beginning to wonder if Julian Assange does either.

Charli Carpenter at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Here are my reactions. First of all both Bady and Baird, who seem in agreement about Assange’s “clearly articulated vision” and offer a very helpful analytical typology to situate his ethics in relation to others like Mark Z, both discount the inconsistencies with which he has articulated that vision. If Assange truly fit the “third-order” mold when he wrote those essays, his thinking today seems to draw on all three discourses to fit his audience and the moment. He has said third-order types of things, but he has also said on the Wikileaks site  “transparency creates a better society for all people” and that “all information should be free” (ala Zuckerberg); he has argued at times that his goal is reform, not revolution; and as Baird acknowledges in a footnote, Assange’s Time interview reflected the second-order position.

If he has a consistent position, I’m not sure even Assange knows what it is. And considering that he is using the nuclear threat of releasing his entire archive (presumably irrespective of any harm minimization tactics the organization would otherwise claim to employ) as a bargaining chip to deal with his legal troubles, I have a hard time agreeing with Bady’s claim that Assange always emphasizes ethics.

But let’s suspend disbelief for a moment about whether Assange’s 2006 essays provide a useful road-map to his current position or political behavior, and simply examine his writings. What surprises me most is that Bady, and to some extent Baird, seem to accept many of Assange’s central claims. Here are several I find very troubling – even moreso if they indeed tell us something about his current agenda.

1) Assange Discounts the Importance of Secrecy For Good Governors, and Overstates the Impact of Leaks on Bad Governors.

In a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

I have already spoken to the value of discretion in good governance here, a set of points which I think weighs against Assange’s assertion that if you care about discretion, you must have something to hide.

But even if this weren’t true – even if eliminating the ability for the state to think discreetly were definitely a public good – there is another problem with Assange’s worldview: he believes that leaks will serve this goal.

“We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it… if an authoritarian conspiracy that can not think efficiently, can not act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces…”

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”

I am actually unconvinced, for what digital leaks do is encourage the state to avoid leaving a digital paper-trail, not to stop communicating entirely. Links can mean many things besides leakable documents. And what we know from studying genuinely authoritarian states is that they can think quite easily and behave quite murderously without a paper trail of any sort. This is in fact what makes it so difficult to prosecute the crime of genocide.

Therefore, I would imagine, in fact, that massive leaks actually do the reverse: make it impossible for those organs of government most willing to document their activities, within certain boundaries of discretion, to function. The true conspiracies to commit atrocious acts will simply go offline. Transparency of the type that would meet Assange’s goals would require a massive reverse panopticon inflicted upon civil servants that could capture their non-written activities and speech acts as well. This doesn’t strike me as a libertarian ideology – any more than the notion that those who value privacy must be hiding something and deserve what they get.

2) Assange’s Uses the Terms “Authoritarian” and “Conspiracy” in a Sweeping and Circular Way. Relatedly, Assange seems not to understand or even acknowledge the difference between authoritarian governments and democratic governments: for him, authoritarian is less a descriptive term and more a pejorative – one in terms identical to those of any powerful agent:

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.

Note the circular reasoning. I guess my husband and are conspiring as “successful authoritarian powers” when we meet privately to discuss our differences on parenting strategies, because we know that airing those differences in the open will encourage resistance.

If you suppose that I am using the parenting analogy to blithely make a point, consider the examples of “conspiracies” that Assange himself uses in his papers: the Democratic and the Republican parties.

Now, Assange does define “conspiracy” as making “secret plans to commit a harmful act; working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment.” (In the second of his two essays, nearly identical to the original, he expands on the paragraph cited above with a modifier “working to the detriment of a population,” which suggests he realizes that it is only bad secrecy that is conspiratorial.)

But he does not define what to what kind of harm or detriment he refers, assuming (I gather) that to his readers it will be obvious. The consequence of this however is that just about anything and everything – families, firms, NGOs he doesn’t like, or entire political parties for example – could be labeled a conspiracy. He is also unable to distinguish the conspiratorial elements of large political groupings like parties or states from those elements attempting to bring about a positive result.

In short there is nothing in his essay that discusses the scope conditions for targeting a particular actor: presumably the fact that they are operating secretly and to someone’s dissatisfaction is enough to prove they are both authoritarian and conspiratorial.

Alexis Madrigal:

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Almost A Year From Our Original Post, We Return To The Land Of Panthers And 60s Revivals

Ace Of Spades:

The 10 Minutes fight between Megyn Kelly and Kirsten Powers on FNC may be the greatest ten minutes of television, ever.

I mean it.

Somebody please send me this clip. Not only did Kelly reveal Powers to be a know-nothing mouthpiece for the left (something I’ve always asserted), but she further owned her for knowing next to zero about the New Black Panther case.

Now I know why Dylan named his album “Blonde on Blonde”. That’s shorthand for “so awesome it hurts”, isn’t it?

Robert Stacy McCain:

Megyn’s one-upsmanship – ”Have you read the testimony?” — is what sparks the fireworks. I’m sure King Samir Shabazz watched this and said to himself, “Crazy cracker bitches.”

Aaron Gardner at Redstate:

Earlier today, Megyn Kelly of Fox News had Kirsten Powers on to talk about the Justice Department’s handling of the Voter Intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party(NBPP). Specifically, Brad Sherman’s [Democrat representing CA-27], reaction to a constituent question on the subject.

For a bit a background, members of the NBPP committed voter intimidation, one of which is Samir Shabazz. This is not in doubt as injunctions had been put in place. Unfortunately, in a land where Law is no longer king, injunctions can be reversed at the whim of a bureaucrat working to affect his leaders style of change.

The injunctions were reduced or reversed by the direction of AG Holder and the case was put out to pasture. The people, seeking justice, come to their duly elected representative to ask questions and they are met with arrogance clothed in ignorance.

The scene is now set, prepare yourselves for 10 minutes of pure awesome …

Michelle Malkin:

I’ll let you provide all the commentary, with only one observation: Kirsten sank to her lowest and most ignorant low with her “scary black man” snark at Megyn — who showed amazing restraint in the face of being accused of racial demagoguery by a fellow Fox colleague who has no grasp of the basic facts and import of the DOJ’s corruption in the case and who demonstrated complete cluelessness about the poisonous, violence-promoting history of the NBPP.

Abigail Thernstrom at National Review:

A number of conservatives have charged that the Philadelphia Black Panther decision demonstrates that attorneys in the Civil Rights Division have racial double standards. How many attorneys in what positions? A pervasive culture that affected the handling of this case? No direct quotations or other evidence substantiate the charge.

Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, makes a perfectly plausible argument: Different lawyers read this barely litigated statutory provision differently. It happens all the time, especially when administrations change in the middle of litigation. Democrats and Republicans seldom agree on how best to enforce civil-rights statutes; this is not the first instance of a war between Left and Right within the Civil Rights Division.

The two Panthers have been described as “armed” — which suggests guns. One of them was carrying a billy club, and it is alleged that his repeated slapping of the club against his palm constituted brandishing it in a menacing way. They have also been described as wearing “jackboots,” but the boots were no different from a pair my husband owns.

A disaffected former Justice Department attorney has written: “We had indications that polling-place thugs were deployed elsewhere.” “Indications”? Again, evidence has yet to be offered.

Get a grip, folks. The New Black Panther Party is a lunatic fringe group that is clearly into racial theater of minor importance. It may dream of a large-scale effort to suppress voting — like the Socialist Workers Party dreams of a national campaign to demonstrate its position as the vanguard of the proletariat. But the Panthers have not realized their dream even on a small scale. This case is a one-off.

Forget about the New Black Panther Party case; it is very small potatoes. Perhaps the Panthers should have been prosecuted under section 11 (b) of the Voting Rights Act for their actions of November 2008, but the legal standards that must be met to prove voter intimidation — the charge — are very high.

In the 45 years since the act was passed, there have been a total of three successful prosecutions. The incident involved only two Panthers at a single majority-black precinct in Philadelphia. So far — after months of hearings, testimony and investigation — no one has produced actual evidence that any voters were too scared to cast their ballots. Too much overheated rhetoric filled with insinuations and unsubstantiated charges has been devoted to this case.

Doug Mataconis:

Moreover, as others have pointed out, the district at which these two members of the NBPP were filmed was a majority black district that had gone overwhelmingly for John Kerry in 2004. If these two guys were really interested in intimidating white voters in the Philadelphia metro area rather than engaging in street theater, they would’ve shown up at a polling place in King of Prussia or Bensalem, not one in the inner-city at which, conveniently a guy with a video camera had shown up.

As I noted in an earlier post, there’s no evidence that any actual voters were intimidated by these two men, or even that their “protest” lasted longer than the amount of time that the camera crew was there filming them. In fact, judging from this video, it seems clear to me that these two guys were playing for the cameras

David Weigel at Andrew Sullivan’s:

I don’t really get a chance to watch TV in Unalaska, and the one thing I miss is Megyn Kelly of Fox News. The last week or so of her work — her one woman crusade against the New Black Panther Party — has been truly riveting television. Kelly widens her eyes in a way that bespeaks both horror and anger at the subject she’s reporting on. “Shocking new video,” she’ll say, introducing a clip of the Panthers acting like idiots and yelling about “crackers” at a Philadelphia street festival. “We have a DOJ whistleblower alleging there is a discriminatory policy at the DOJ voting rights section,” she’ll say, “and no one seems to give a darn.” It’s the “darn” that ties this together — she’s not just a journalist, she’s a concerned citizen who has to bring you this story before it’s. Too. Late.

The people who grab these videos for the web use the same cliches to title them. “Megyn Kelly DESTROYS Kirsten Powers on New Black Panther Case” says one of them; “Megyn Kelly schools lib pundit over New Black Panthers Party.” But why is she doing so many stories on the Panthers? It’s because Fox News uses the Panthers the way that Phil Donohue used to use the KKK or G.G. Allin. They’re good on TV. The difference between the Panthers and other freakish groups that look good on the air, of course, is that that they threaten white people.

How often does Fox bring on the Panthers, or talk about them? A Lexis-Nexis search finds 68 mentions of “Malik Zulu Shabazz,” a leader of the NBPP. The majority are appearances on Fox News, where Shabazz is repeatedly brought on to act as a foolish, anti-Semitic punching bag.

[…]

Kelly’s obsession with the current NBPP controversy is something else, though. No one disputes that two members of the Panthers lurked outside of a heavily black, Democratic polling place in Philadelphia on election day 2008, and no one thinks this was a smart or legal thing for them to do. Police were called to the scene to disperse them, and King Samir Shabazz, who was filmed holding (though not using) a nightstick, lost the right to be a poll-watcher for the next election cycle. It was the only recorded incident like this in the nation; nearly two years later, no voter has come forward and said he or she was prevented from voting by the Panthers. And in his publicity tour to attack the DOJ over the Panther case — a second-rate case against a fifth-rate hate group — J. Christian Adams has been unable to name any case in which the DOJ was presented with a crime committed by black people and chose not to prosecute it.

So why obsess over the Panthers? Is it turnabout for the way that liberals elevate the craziest tea party activists, or the way they call them racist? Because it’s obviously not a search for justice or a muckraking effort to discover reverse racism in the DOJ. If this is an effort to make sure that King Samir Shabazz is prosecuted for intimidating voters, why not try to find some voters he intimidated? Why, instead, as Kelly and Glenn Beck have opted to do, show video of the Shabazz yelling about “crackers” at a street fair before the election? No one disputes that he hates white people — just watch one of the tapes from the times Fox News invited his colleagues on to discuss how they hate white people.

One of the more jarring passages in Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” is his recounting of a popular myth that went around Iowa in 1966, the year of the conservative backlash against the Great Society. The myth was that black gang members on motorcycles were going to head from Chicago to ransack Des Moines. Reading this in 2008, it sounded preposterous, the kind of thing that no one could believe in the country that was about to elect Barack Obama. But Kelly, under the guise of journalism, is working to create a rumor like this in 2010. Watch her broadcasts and you become convinced that the New Black Panthers are a powerful group that hate white people and operate under the protection of Eric Holder’s DOJ. That “Megyn Kelly DESTROYS Kirsten Powers” video that I mentioned begins with her introducing a clip of a town hall meeting with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Ca.) in which he gets an angry question about whether the DOJ has a policy of not prosecuting African-Americans.

“I am extremely sure that we do not have a policy at the Department of Justice of never prosecuting a black defendent.”

The crowd rises up. “Yes you do!” shouts one voter. When Sherman says he doesn’t know much about the Panther case, the crowd erupts in boos. They’ve been driven to fear and distrust of their DOJ by round-the-clock videos of one racist idiot brandishing a nightstick for a couple hours in 2008.

Congratulations, Megyn.

Jesse Walker at Reason:

The New Black Panther Party plays the same role for the right that Hutaree-style militants play for the left: They’re a tiny, uninfluential group whose importance is magnified to keep the base excited. Left and right wind up worrying more about each other than they care about the institutions that actually govern the country. It’s great if your goal is maintaining movement identity, but not if you’re more interested in changing policy than collecting scalps.

EARLIER:  Why Don’t Any Of These Sixties Revivals Include A Beatles Reunion? Oh. Yeah.

UPDATE: Ben Smith at Politico

The Washington Times

Andrew Alexander at WaPo

Joan Walsh at Salon

Adam Serwer at The American Prospect

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary

Allah Pundit

UPDATE #2: Andy McCarthy responds to Thernstrom

Thernstrom responds to McCarthy

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Filed under Crime, Race

Pabst Blue Ribbon, Man

Stephen Saito at IFC:

At the risk of being tacky to bring up Dennis Hopper’s personal travails late in life, as they unfortunately will be alongside the glowing career retrospectives now that he finally succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of 74, it’s worth mentioning that he wouldn’t let his weakened state keep him from being a daring rabble-rouser until the very end.

Although Hopper’s long battle with disease robbed us of one of cinema’s great rebels too soon, it also allowed for moving considerations of his work while he was still alive as the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Matt Zoller Seitz did of both his work as a director right here for IFC.com and his career as a whole for Moving Image Source around the time he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Hopper’s speech for the occasion can be found here.)

Of course, Hopper was always an odd fit with Hollywood — a fiercely talented actor with all-American looks whose early roles opposite James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” always hinted at his independent streak with the ever-present mania behind those blue eyes. It may not entirely have been his plan to overthrow the film business in 1969 (and using studio distribution to do it, no less) with “Easy Rider,” a film that helped bring counterculture to the masses and kickstarted one of the most creatively fertile periods in Hollywood history, not to mention its influence on shaping the modern independent film movement. (In a study of extremes, Hopper acted in Tinseltown stalwart John Wayne’s “True Grit” the same year.)

Showing my age, I grew up with Hopper in the era long after his exploits offscreen and on (let’s just say it was a long time before I got to appreciate his turn as Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet”) had given way to a steady stream of villains in mainstream Hollywood fare. His appearance alone was instant code for crazed mastermind in such films as “Super Mario Brothers,” “Waterworld” and “Speed,” even though he was doing some of the most nuanced work of his career in films like the May-December romance “Carried Away” and his pivotal supporting turn as Christian Slater’s blue collar father in “True Romance.”

David Thomson at The New Republic:

There was a time when Dennis Hopper exulted in the reputation of being the first kid who knew what was wrong with Hollywood. What he said, more or less, was that the movies have gone dead, man, that it’s just old-timers doing it all on automatic pilot, that there’s no truth, anymore, man, and they won’t put me in lead parts.

There was some truth in what he said, and it was certainly the case that a number of veteran directors found Hopper an intolerable smart-ass who said he had known Jimmy–Jimmy Dean–and that what he was saying now was only what Dean would have said. Which may have been true. But which also allowed that Nicholas Ray–the director of Rebel Without a Cause, one of their two films together–also knew some of what was wrong about Hollywood, even if there was very little he could do about it. Come to that, Orson Welles, 15 years earlier had known, too, and had done his best to indicate another way out of the jungle.

Dennis Hopper was not a Dean or a Welles; he was not a Ray. But he was a bright-eyed, wide-browed kid with a slightly frozen beauty who looked a little like some silent screen actors.

Though he had come out of Dodge City, Kansas, he got to California early on and for a moment it was reckoned he had a career. He was a guy in the gang that hazes Dean in Rebel, and just a year later he played the grown-up son to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.

He did a few other films–Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (that’s the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas version) where he played Billy Clanton, From Hell to Texas, and The Sons of Katie Elder (with John Wayne).

In 1961, he married Brooke Hayward, the stunning daughter of agent Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan. The young couple was good looking enough to be taken for the next generation of Hollywood royalty, but no one quite noticed that the kingdom was melting like an ice sculpture out in the sun. Hopper fought with directors. He spouted a lot of Method talk about the actor feeling “right,” and his career was going nowhere.

Then something happened. Roger Corman was making his exploitation films of the moment and the subject was bikers on drugs having sex. One of these pictures was The Trip, with a scene where Hopper, Peter Fonda, and some others were at a campfire, passing round a joint, and improvising. Was that a real joint? Corman would ask later. He was shocked to think that could be going on. But others noted that the joint gave Dennis a gift of tongues–he made up a speech using the word “man” 36 times.

As a reward, he said, Corman sent Hopper and Fonda off into the desert with a nonsynch camera to get some atmosphere shots. They had a terrific time as can happen with gorgeous kids, a camera, and what may be joints. As Fonda remembered, “So we shot for a couple of days in Yuma, in Big Dune and back towards L.A. Dennis got some beautiful, beautiful stuff of me in the dunes with water behind me, water going into my profile and bursting behind me.”

Gee, this is easy, they thought, and so they reckoned they’d make a whole movie more or less that way. They called it Easy Rider and they did it without Corman. And Dennis would direct. A wild bunch of Hollywood kids came on board–Hopper and Fonda, Terry Southern, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Donn Cambern, Henry Jaglom and Laszlo Kovacs. Anyone they knew, passing by, was likely to be asked to help in the editing. Another kid they knew, Jack Nicholson, got the third acting role, the disenchanted lawyer–though there was a good deal of argument (and money in court later) over how he got the part when Rip Torn had been in line first. Thy shot stuff–beautiful, beautiful stuff. They had desert, sunrise-sunset, and girls. Kovacs was a terrific camera man. They laid music on the soundtrack and the film has a quest if not a story–of these cowboys driving across America for drug money (Phil Spector made a cameo as their connection–I’m not making this up).

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

On the one occasion when I met Hopper, at a film-festival party in San Francisco about 15 years ago, he gave a vintage performance, drinking wine and laughing it up with a group of people he barely knew (or, in my case, didn’t know at all). He wore a white linen suit and a trim goatee, regaled us with yarns from his heyday as a “total madman” in the 1960s, and looked terrific against what I remember as a crisp, sunny day. At some point his female companion — I’m not going to try to figure out who that was, and it doesn’t matter — stalked off after some heated private conversation, but he didn’t seem concerned.

When I asked Hopper what he remembered most about James Dean, with whom he appeared in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” his demeanor changed. He became intensely earnest, explaining that Dean had changed his approach to acting and to life. Hopper had begun acting in television at a time when it was all about clarity and economy, he explained: You hit your mark, you said your lines clearly, you made your exit. Then he got on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause” (his film debut) and met Dean, who had been studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in New York.

“Here was this kid, Jimmy — I mean, he was older than me, but he was still a kid,” Hopper said, “and the stuff he was doing was amazing, it just blew me away.” (I won’t pretend these are verbatim quotes; this is the conversation as I recall it.) He remembered Dean rolling around on the carpet of the set that was supposed to be the Stark family’s Los Angeles home. “I asked him what the hell he was doing. I mean, you just didn’t do that. It was completely from another planet.” Dean explained that Jim Stark, his alienated teenage character, had spent a lot of time on that carpet and was intimately familiar with it. He needed to know what it felt like.

Along with Marlon Brando, Dean was one of the principal vectors for the transmission of Strasberg’s “Method acting” approach into the Hollywood mainstream, and Hopper became an eager disciple. (Publicity photographs from “Rebel Without a Cause” show Hopper reading Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares” on the set, which can only have been Dean’s idea.) After Dean’s death, Hopper abandoned Hollywood for Manhattan and spent five years studying under Strasberg. In later years, as the Method came to dominate American film acting, several of its practitioners became much bigger stars than Hopper: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Sean Penn, along with Hopper’s close friend Jack Nicholson. But I’m not sure any of those men internalized the Method, or pursued its philosophical and psychological dimensions to their logical extremes, the way Hopper did.

Viewed narrowly, the Stanislavski-Strasberg Method is a means to an end: An actor employs his own emotions, memories and sensations in order to portray a character in more lifelike and convincing fashion. Hopper seemed to develop his own expanded, synthetic interpretation, probably shaped by his appetite for consciousness-altering substances, avant-garde art and thorny philosophy. Every Hopper performance was just a facet of his lifelong, overarching performance as Dennis Hopper, and the professional separation most actors maintain between themselves and their characters evaporated entirely. Apocryphal or not, the story of Hopper’s phone call to David Lynch after he had read the script for “Blue Velvet” is on point: “You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!”

Of course Hopper wasn’t really an amyl-nitrite-huffing, psychopathic rapist any more than he was a disgraced Indiana basketball coach (as in “Hoosiers”) or a disgruntled bomb-squad officer (as in “Speed”). But he pursued roles as dangerous and damaged characters, at least in the second half of his career, with a fervor that suggests he found them personally therapeutic as well as financially rewarding. Frank Booth was a revelation because he was horrifyingly, recognizably real, in a way movie villains hardly ever are. Even with his exaggerated vices and mannerisms, his foulness was rooted in genuine pain. (And Frank’s profane preference for Pabst Blue Ribbon over Heineken launched a trend among young consumers that endures two decades later; the brewery should have paid Hopper and Lynch a lifetime commission.)

Roger L. Simon at Pajamas Media:

Unlike other Hollywood hot shots like Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, etc, who never once changed a single thought they ever had, whether on LSD or a glass of milk, Dennis Hopper was able to see that the very thing that allowed him to live the wild and crazy life he did was deeply obvious. Forget all the self-serving narcissistic left-wing baloney. It was good old fashioned American Freedom! Nowhere else could Dennis have been Dennis — and he knew it. He wanted that for everybody.

So when you think of Dennis on that iconic bike in Easy Rider, think of America at its best, out on the open road, optimistic and heading straight on with unflinching belief in liberty.

And to my Hollywood friends, let this be a reminder that traditionally an artist is not someone who goes with the crowd, especially when that crowd hasn’t revised an idea since the presidential campaign of George McGovern. Open your minds. What’s cool may not be so cool anymore. If Dennis can do it, so can you. He wasn’t afraid of losing his job.

Yes, I know, this is not exactly the perfect guy to pick as a role model — but in a way I do. In fact, in honor of Dennis I’m thinking of turning in my Prius for a Harley.

J. Hoberman at Village Voice:

“The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad!” So Hopper described Marlon Brando towards the end of Apocalypse Now in a no-doubt improvised line that basically referred to himself. Hopper took Method Acting to the far side of the moon and turned Hollywood on to Pop Art, he appeared in Andy Warhol’s first narrative movie (Tarzan and Jane Regain… sort of) in support of Taylor Mead, and pioneered the naturalistic use of marijuana on the screen. He never won an Oscar or a lifetime achievement award but there are lines like “Hey man, I’m just a motherfuckin’ asshole, man!” (delivered while pouring a bottle of bourbon over his head in Out of the Blue) to which no other actor could possibly do justice. Blue Velvet is unthinkable without him.

As an actor, the young Hopper combined the image of the Cowboy with that of the Juvenile Delinquent; later, he was pleased to incarnate the chaos of the Sixties (and not just as a Ronald Reagan supporter). Eighteen years after Easy Rider, Hopper enlivened the youth film River’s Edge as a one-legged ex-biker living alone with an inflated sex doll called Ellie, selling loose joints to the local punks, and reminiscing about his colorful past: “I ate so much pussy in those days, my beard looked like a glazed donut.” Last seen, he was in heavy rotation on TV as a clean-shaven but acid-ripped investment services pitchman proposing to redefine his generation’s notion of retirement. (See his villainous turn in fellow Sixties-man George Romero’s Land of the Dead to see how.)

Not long ago I made a pilgrimage to Chinchero, the Indian town 14,000 feet up in the Andes where The Last Movie was shot–sacred ground for the Incas, man, even before Hopper re-sanctified it! There was no monument to, or even a memory of his antics, just the realization that this crazy gringo had somehow taken over the whole town as the set for his masterpiece. The Last Movie is the one Hollywood production since Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons that deserves a place in Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema. It used to be that Hopper had the only decent 35mm print in existence. What will happen to it now, I wonder?

UPDATE: Dana Stevens in Slate

UPDATE #2: Jesse Walker in Reason

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I Always Feel Like Somebody’s IDing Me

Alexander Bolton at The Hill:

A plan by Senate Democratic leaders to reform the nation’s immigration laws ran into strong opposition from civil liberties defenders before lawmakers even unveiled it Thursday.

Democratic leaders have proposed requiring every worker in the nation to carry a national identification card with biometric information, such as a fingerprint, within the next six years, according to a draft of the measure.

The proposal is one of the biggest differences between the newest immigration reform proposal and legislation crafted by late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The national ID program would be titled the Believe System, an acronym for Biometric Enrollment, Locally stored Information and Electronic Verification of Employment.

Ezra Klein:

The Democrats’ immigration-reform proposal (pdf) is 26 pages long. Pages 8 through 18 are devoted to “ending illegal employment through biometric employment verification.” I don’t think the Democrats are going to like me calling this a biometric national ID card, as they go to great lengths to say that it is not a national ID card, and make it “unlawful for any person, corporation; organization local, state, or federal law enforcement officer; local or state government; or any other entity to require or even ask an individual cardholder to produce their social security card for any purpose other than electronic verification of employment eligibility and verification of identity for Social Security Administration purposes.”

But it’s still a biometric national ID card. It’s handed out by the Social Security Administration and employers are required to check it when hiring new employees. Essentially, if you want to participate in the American economy, you need this card. “Within five (5) years of the date of enactment, the fraud-proof social security card will serve as the sole acceptable document to be produced by an employee to an employer for employment verification purposes,” the bill says. “This requirement will exist even if the employer does not yet possess the capability to electronically verify the employee by scanning the card through a card reader.”

Jesse Walker at Reason:

Without defending Arizona’s latest lousy law in the immigration arena, I’ll give the place this much credit: At least the state fended off REAL ID.

Digby:

That ought to be good for six months worth of Beckian paranoia.

Is it possible that they thought it was smart to throw that in as a bargaining chip? If so it shows once again that Democrats should never, ever play poker.

Tom Maguire:

We need national ID cards or the terrorist win?  I deplore this fear-mongering, just as I know earnest libs deplored the fear-mongering of the Bush era.

But reflect with me – forcing passengers to remove their shoes prior to boarding a flight may deter some aspiring shoe bomber, and I think there is a strong societal consensus that having airplanes fall out of the sky unexpectedly is a bad thing.

But requiring a person to show an ID card before serving coffee at a local deli prevents what – bad coffee?  Forcing a lawn care service to ID their workers prevents what – crabgrass?  I’ll take my chances (“Danger” is my middle name…).

Somewhat more seriously (I am making an effort here), the complaint in Arizona that sparked their controversial new law is that they are being overrun with illegal drug smugglers, illegal human smugglers, and illegal workers.  If, I say IF Durbin’s new ID card was effective and IF small, off-the-book employers that are currently ignoring Social Security requirements and other work-related rules actually played along, we would still have done nothing to deter illegal drug smugglers.  Or does Durbin think the drug cartels will be applying for ID cards for their workers and enrolling them in the new health exchanges?

Terrorists are physically dangerous.  Drug smugglers are physically dangerous.  Most illegal workers are only dangerous to the wages of the Americans they might be displacing.  Let’s not muddle the dangers here.

John Cole:

Apparently they think the outcry over the Arizona “SHOW YOUR PAPERS” bill is that it will only be applied to Hispanics. Polls pretty clearly demonstrate that half the country has no problem with the Arizona bill because it will not affect them- it only is an inconvenience for “others” (meaning brown people). But start talking about a national id with biometric data that everyone has to be issued, and you will think the death panels and health care reform debate were a walk in the park.

And I’m not even talking about the actual merits and downsides to the id card. I’m talking about the freak-out that will be inevitable, some of which I will probably even agree with. This is just stunningly tone deaf.

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Mr. Subpoena Risen, Mr. Subpoena Risen, Gotta Subpoena Risen

Charlie Savage at NYT:

The Obama administration is seeking to compel a writer to testify about his confidential sources for a 2006 book about the Central Intelligence Agency, a rare step that was authorized by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

The author, James Risen, who is a reporter for The New York Times, received a subpoena on Monday requiring him to provide documents and to testify May 4 before a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., about his sources for a chapter of his book, “State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration.” The chapter largely focuses on problems with a covert C.I.A. effort to disrupt alleged Iranian nuclear weapons research.

Mr. Risen referred questions to his lawyer, Joel Kurtzberg, a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel L.L.P., who said that Mr. Risen would not comply with the demand and would ask a judge to quash the subpoena.

“He intends to honor his commitment of confidentiality to his source or sources,” Mr. Kurtzberg said. “We intend to fight this subpoena.”

Hamilton Nolan at Gawker:

The government has subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen, asking him to reveal the secret sources he used in his book about the Bush Administration and the CIA. Meaning James Risen could be the next Judy Miller.

Not Judy Miller in the sense of being a government patsy; Judy Miller in the sense of sitting in jail in order to protect sources. According to the NYT, the government wants to know who Risen’s sources were for his reporting on “the C.I.A.’s effort to disrupt Iranian nuclear research;” Risen has a lawyer and plans to fight the subpoena, and presumably would go to jail to protect his sources. (This has happened to him before). The Obama administration, disappointing the free press once again! At least James Risen knows Bill Keller will keep his commissary account full.

Jesse Walker at Reason:

The lead prosecutor in the case is William Welch II, the same man heading up the prosecution of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake for another set of Bush-era leaks. So I’ll just quote the same Julian Sanchez post that I cited when Drake was the case du jour:

the contrast [with] the non-reaction to other forms of lawbreaking makes the standard in effect for Bush-era misdeeds clear: If you illegally gathered information on members of the public, Obama’s DOJ would rather let sleeping dogs lie. If you illegally tried to get information to the public, you’d better lawyer up. From Main Justice to Fort Meade, message received.

Ed Morrissey:

The chapter dealt with a clumsy attempt at disinformation from the CIA in February 2000. The agency had hoped to derail Iranian research into nuclear weapons by surreptitiously giving them designs with flaws that would have rendered the devices impotent.  Unfortunately, the Russian scientist who was supposed to give Tehran the plans found the flaws so obvious that he needed to correct them in order to maintain his own credibility.  Just as unfortunately, no one knows whether the Iranians had figured out that the Russian scientist at the center of the plot was working for the CIA prior to the publication of Risen’s book, which the Times notes in this report.

The Bush administration got a subpoena in January 2008, but Risen stalled until after the election.  He may have presumed that Barack Obama would not force his testimony on the matter, a perhaps reasonable assumption given the tacit support Senator Obama had expressed for Risen’s other exposés noted by the Times in this report.  Instead, Eric Holder pursued a new subpoena — and now Risen has to either testify about his sources or go to jail for contempt of court.

Earlier this week, I covered a controversy about California’s shield law and noted that journalists have to protect sources in order to report effectively.  I also argued that an exception should be made for national-security matters, given the nature of those efforts and the need to keep our tactics and assets from public exposure.  Those who see wrongdoing within the system have other channels to use — either through the chains of command, or by going to Congress.  This case, though, has the complication that the incident reported by Risen had been brought to Congress, which declined to act on it.  Still, the leaker chose a rather uncourageous method of dealing with the failure; he or she could have made this information public and borne the consequences of breaking the laws on confidentiality for this material and putting the life of a CIA source at risk.

Overall, the White House and the DoJ made the right decision to enforce those laws through this subpoena.

Glenn Greenwald:

I’m not convinced that the real motive, as Horton suggests, is to conceal ineptitude.  I think it’s broader than that:  to send a signal that the Greatest Crime one can commit is allowing breaches in the Absolute Wall of Secrecy that surrounds the public/private Surveillance and National Security State.  If Obama has definitively demonstrated anything, it’s his commitment to preserving and even fortifying this wall (that’s what the promiscuous assertions of the State Secret privilege are about).  One of the very few ways we learn about anything that happens in that realm is through conscientious whistle-blowers leaking what they know to journalists and others.  Hence, the Obama DOJ wants to snuff out the possibility that any light will be shined on what is done through this method.

For any Democrat or progressive who wants to defend the issuance of this Subpoena, I have a question for you:  when this controversy first arose in early 2008, did you defend the issuance of the very similar subpoena to Risen by the Gonzalez/Mukasey DOJ?  If not, why not?  What’s the difference?  “Pragmatism” is not an answer.

Gabriel Schoenfeld at The Weekly Standard:

What gives? Is the president now unaccountably reversing field and waging a war on the American press? Or do we have here, finally, a recognition that the revelation of secrets, particularly those involving ongoing classified intelligence programs, can place us all at risk?

Scott Horton at Harper’s:

A 1960 congressional committee looking into the nation’s security classifications called secrecy “the first refuge of incompetents.” It was obvious even then that national-security classifications are often used to protect government officials from having their stupidities exposed. There may be cases when it serves the public interest in national security to keep mistakes under wraps. But mistakes that are kept secret are more likely to be repeated, and those who commit them are more likely to advance to positions in which they can do more costly damage. The passages of the Risen book that are now being scrutinized by prosecutor Welch expose just that sort of embarrassingly inept behavior. The public’s security was in this case plainly served by disclosure, and the prosecution that is apparently being mounted is another gallant defense of the government’s right to keep its inept conduct secret not from foreign enemies but from the American public. Such steps make us dumber, weaker, and less safe.

UPDATE: Gabriel Schoenfeld at Daily Beast 

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Filed under Books, GWOT, Mainstream, Political Figures