Why Accuracy about Wikileaks Matters

Let me preface this post by saying that I’m perfectly willing to accept that Julian Assange is a narcissist, accused rapist, destructive hypocrite serving as a willful tool of Russia. I’m also happy to concede that his role in publishing the DNC and Podesta emails may have played a significant part in getting Donald Trump elected (though I think it’s down the list behind Comey and Hillary’s own (in)actions). Please loathe Julian Assange–that is your right.

But please, also, try to be accurate about him and Wikileaks.

There have been two funny claims about Wikileaks since the leak of hacked emails from Emmanuel Macron associates was announced on 4Chan on Friday. First, analysis of how the hashtag #MacronLeaks spread emphasized that Wikileaks got more pickup than right wing propagandist Jack Posobiec or the other right wing promoters of it.

The most important surge came when WikiLeaks began tweeting the hashtag. The tweet itself was cautious, pointing out that the leak “could be a 4chan practical joke,” but it was retweeted over 2,000 times, compared with over 600 times for Posobiec.

Yet people have taken that to suggest that everyone who shared Wikileaks’ links to the materials were themselves promoting the emails positively. That is, they ignored the extent to which people share Wikileaks tweets critically, which itself added to the buzz about the dump. The surge in attention, in other words, was in part critical attention to what Wikileaks was doing with respect to the leak.

More troubling, still, outlets including NPR claimed that Wikileaks posted the documents (it has since issued a correction).

Finally, there are absurd pieces like this which, after babbling that, “Macron, by contrast, is favored by those who want … a France looking to the future rather than clinging to the fearful and fictional nostalgia promulgated by Le Pen,” states,

Literally at the 11th hour, before the blackout would silence it, the Macron campaign issued a statement saying it had been hacked and many of the documents that were dumped on the American 4Chan site and re-posted by Wikileaks were fakes.

On top of being poorly edited — Macron’s statement said nothing at all about who dumped the documents — the claims as to both 4Chan and Wikileaks are not technically correct. The documents weren’t dumped on 4Chan, a post on 4Chan included a link to a Pastebin with them. More importantly, Wikileaks didn’t “re-post” them, though it did post magnet links to them.

The importance of the distinction becomes evident just two paragraphs later when the article notes that some of the tweets in which Wikileaks linked to the documents described the vetting process it was undertaking.

Meanwhile, Wikileaks jumped on the document dump, but didn’t seem to be familiar with the material in it. Responding to the Macron statement that some of the items were bogus, Wikileaks tweeted, “We have not yet discovered fakes in #MacronLeaks & we are very skeptical that the Macron campaign is faster than us.”

Curiously, the article doesn’t link to WL’s first tweet, posted less than an hour after the 4Chan post, which said it could be a 4Chan practical joke.

In any case, contrary to what some idiotic readings of this article claim — that Macron succeeded in fooling Wikileaks — in fact, Macron has not succeeded, at least not yet, because Wikileaks has not posted the documents on its own site (Wikileaks could yet claim it had determined the documents to be real only to have Macron present proof they weren’t). Indeed, while Wikileaks expressed skepticism from the start, one thing that really raised questions for Wikileaks was that Macron so quickly claimed to have determined some were fake.

Plus, it’s not actually clear that Macron did fool the hackers who passed them onto the 4Chan source. Here’s the full description from Mounir Mahjoubi, the head of Macron’s digital team, on what their counteroffensive looked like.

“We also do counteroffensive against them,” says Mahjoubi.

[snip]

“We believe that they didn’t break through. We are sure of it,” said Mahjoubi. “But the only way to be ready is to train the people. Because what happened during the Hillary Clinton campaign is that one man, the most powerful, [campaign chairman] John Podesta, logged on to his [fake] page.”

To keep the entire Macron campaign aware of such dangers, Mahjoubi said, “Every week we send to the team screen captures of all the phishing addresses we have found during the week.” But that’s just the first phase of the response. Then the Macron team starts filling in the forms on the fake sites: “You can flood these addresses with multiple passwords and log-ins, true ones, false ones, so the people behind them use up a lot of time trying to figure them out.”

If Mahjoubi was being honest about his certainty the hackers didn’t succeed, then the campaign would have no reason or means to feed disinformation. And the details offered here appear to be about disinformation in response to phishing probes — that is, disinformation about metadata — not disinformation about content.

But now, between the Daily Beast’s gloating and the sharing of it with even less factual gloating, coupled with Macron’s quick declaration that the dump included fake documents, raises real (but potentially unjustified!) questions about whether the campaign added the Cyrillic metadata that got so much attention. Not only has Wikileaks’ vetting process not (yet) been exposed as a fraud, but the reporting may create even more distrust and uncertainty than there was. [Note, I posted a tweet to that effect that I have deleted now that I’m convinced there’s no evidence Macron faked any documents.]

Moreover, even if it is the case that GRU hacked Macron and Wikileaks would have happily published the emails if they passed its vetting process (which are both likely true), Wikileaks didn’t get and post the documents, which itself is worth noting and understanding.

In other words, some inaccuracies — and the rush to gloat against Wikileaks — may actually have been counterproductive to the truth and even the ability to understand what happened.

And this is not the only time. The other most celebrated case where inaccurate accusations against Wikileaks may have been counterproductive was last summer when something akin to what happened with the Macron leak did. Wikileaks posted a link to Michael Best’s archived copy of the AKP Turkish emails that doxed a bunch of Turkish women. A number of people — principally Zeynep Tufekci — blamed Wikileaks, not Best, for making the emails available, and in so doing (and like the Macron dump) brought attention to precisely what she was rightly furious about — the exposure of people to privacy violations and worse. Best argues that had Tufekci spoken to him directly rather than writing a piece drawing attention to the problem, some of the harm might have been avoided.

But I also think the stink surrounding Wikileaks distracted focus from the story behind the curious provenance of that leak. Here’s how Motherboard described it.

Here’s what happened:

First, Phineas Fisher, the hacker notorious for breaching surveillance companies Hacking Team and FinFisher, penetrated a network of the AKP, Turkey’s ruling party, according to their own statement. The hacker was sharing data with others in Rojava and Bakur, Turkey; there was apparently a bit of miscommunication, and someone sent a large file containing around half of akparti.org.tr’s emails to WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks then published these emails on July 19, and as some pointed out, the emails didn’t actually seem to contain much public interest material.

Then Phineas Fisher dumped more files themselves. Thomas White, a UK-based activist also known as The Cthulhu, also dumped a mirror of the data, including the contentious databases of personal info. This is where Best, who uploaded a copy to the Internet Archive, comes in.

Best said he didn’t check the contents of the data beforehand in part because the files had already been released.

“I was archiving public information,” he said. “Given the volume, the source, the language barrier and the fact that it was being publicly circulated already, I basically took it on faith and archived a copy of it.”

Without laying out all the details here, I think there are some interesting issues about this hack-and-leak that might have gotten more scrutiny if the focus weren’t Wikileaks. But instead, the focus was entirely on what Wikileaks did (or actually, on blaming Wikileaks for what Best did), rather than how the hack-and-leak really happened.

I get that people have the need, emotionally, to attack Assange, and I have no problem with that. But when emotion disrupts any effort to understand what is really going on, it may make it more difficult to combat the larger problem (or, as lefties embrace coverage of the Bradley Foundation based on hacked documents and more mass hack-and-leak reporting gets journalism awards, to set norms for what might be legitimate and illegitimate hack-and-leaks).

If you hate Assange, your best approach may be to ignore him. But barring that, there really is a case for aspiring to factual accuracy even for Wikileaks.

Update: Fixed description of what WL actually linked to — h/t ErrataRob.

Update: This article provides more detail on the hack and Macron’s attempts to counter the hackers.

“Il y a des dossiers qui ont été ajoutés à ces archives. Des dossiers dont on ne sait pas à quoi ils correspondent. Qui ne sont pas des dossiers d’emails, par exemple. Ensuite, il y a des faux emails qui ont été ajoutés, qui ont été complétés. Il y a aussi des informations que nous-même on avait envoyées en contre-représailles des tentatives de phishing !”, a expliqué Mounir Mahjoubi.

So some of the added documents (which, incidentally, are the ones that show Cyrillic metadata) are from someplace unknown, not the five hacked email boxes. There are fake emails, described has “having been completed,” which may mean (this is a guess) the hackers sent emails that were sitting in draft; if so there might be fake emails that nevertheless come with authenticating DKIM codes. The description of what the campaign did — counter-attacks to phishing attempts — is still not clear as to whether it is metadata (faked emails) or content, but still seems most likely to be metadata.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

21 replies
  1. sponson says:

    By far the best article (in English, at least) on the Macron document dump and the (lack of) journalism about it.

  2. Chris says:

    This piece points out what we as the mass are overlooking which is not only simple truths but also points out even more complex questions we should be asking. I will admit, I found myself wondering what was going on with WL during this without looking at the fact that they haven’t published or even vetted these yet. I fell for media coverage of a subject matter that they have inaccurately reported many times. My initial theory, after reacting to bad coverage and still questioning the US election, is that Julian was trying to scratch Russia’s back so maybe they could scratch his in the same way they have Snowden. Great piece emptywheel and thanks for the work.

  3. lefty665 says:

    Assange is not a warm and fuzzy character. As you note, he does deserve factual opprobrium, we all do.

    The DNC and Podesta hacks were real. The DNC hacks revealed what the elite Dems and DNC were doing to fix the primaries for Hillary. Podesta’s emails revealed fat cat pandering sore points in the speeches to Goldman-Sachs that Hillary was trying to keep secret, her hypocrisy in having public and private positions on all issues, and other unflattering things.

    Any damage done to her candidacy by Wikileaks was the factual exposure of “Hillary’s own (in)actions” that reinforced voters dislike, distrust and disinclination to have her as president. It reminds me of Harry Truman’s line “I tell the truth and they think it’s Hell”. That is what investigative journalism is all about, and to think we have the Russians and Julian Assange to thank for it. What a strange world it has become when the godless commies uphold the standards our god fearing, but mostly establishment toady free press has abandoned.

    • Podesta's Creamy Risotto says:

      Hacking is not investigative journalism. The latter is specifically about uncovering malfeasance, not indiscriminate surveillance of private communications and the curated release of the latter to achieve specific political goals. That our lefties cannot distinguish between the two is… not surprising.

      As for the rest of the horse manure in your post, anyone who read the DNC emails and concluded there was ‘fixing’ involved, cannot be regarded as literate in any functional sense. Likewise, anyone who believes that the electorate is entitled to the uncensored thoughts of any individual is either not ready for adulthood, or views 1984 as a handy manual.

      • lefty665 says:

        Dear creamy rice, the DNC and Podesta hacks were specifically about uncovering malfeasance. You do not count them as investigative journalism, nor apparently would you categorize the publication of the Pentagon Papers that way.  I’ll drop the qualifier if it pleases you. Both the Wikileaks disclosures and release of the Pentagon Papers represented journalism at its best. While neither the NYT or Wash Post were the initial publishers of the DNC and Podesta docs as they were the Pentagon Papers, they both pandered the disclosures for circulation and clicks.

        You can tout anything you please. But if you do not think there were feasances (mis, mal and non) disclosed in the DNC docs you’re missing the profound panic of the Dem elites and their frantic efforts to keep the disclosures from blowing up the Dem convention. To defuse the issue they fired Wasserman-Schultz as the convention was opening, and the heads of the executive staff rolled shortly thereafter. The Democrats sure thought there were feasances aplenty. It did not help that Wasserman-Schultz is a bigger jerk than Assange. That she landed in the Clinton campaign is icing on the corruption and experience does not equal good judgement cakes.

        Voters deserved the content of Hillary’s speeches to Goldman-Sachs for which she was paid approaching 3/4 of a million dollars. Had she “censored” her greed she’d have followed the advice of her staff and declined to cash in with people who contributed materially to the collapse of the world’s financial systems.  The disclosures put a fine point on Hillary’s hypocrisy.  When voters were polled and asked to describe Hillary in one word, the word was “liar”.

        Your ad hominem attacks on me and your straw man construction in your second paragraph are not worth comment. I encourage you to read EarlofH’s insightful post.

        My thanks to Marcy and the community here for the longstanding pursuit of facts and analysis that is uncommon these days. We don’t always have to agree to appreciate independent, fact based thought and journalism.

    • taiey says:

      “the DNC hacks revealed what the elite Dems and DNC were doing to fix the primaries for Hillary”  i.e. absolutely nothing.

      “Any damage done to her candidacy by Wikileaks was the factual exposure of “Hillary’s own (in)actions” ”  Here is a verbatim tweet from the Wikileaks twitter account implying the Podestas’ interest the weirdo modern art is evidence of something like Satanism:

      The Podestas’ “Spirit Cooking” dinner?
      It’s not what you think.
      It’s blood, sperm and breastmilk.
      But mostly blood.

       

  4. Bernd Paysan says:

    Assange is victim of a spear campaign, so you can’t trust what third parties tell about him. But I know one thing for sure: When Snowden leaked his trove, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras ran away with the fame, and only Assange (who didn’t get anything of that trove) cared about Ed so that he could leave Hong Kong safely and go through a route of safe places (Moscow, Havanna) to Ecuador to seek asylum.  Ed was entrapped in Moscow, so he took asylum there, but the plan actually worked well enough and was quite risky and difficult for Assange, in his embassy exile. The coup with the Morales machine rumors (which resulted in the machine grounded and searched in Vienna) was also Assange’s work.

    The people who hate Wikileaks are those who have been unmasked as bad people or rogue organizations.  I agree that Assange deserves all the hate from these organizations, but we, the public, benefit greatly.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Italian rice dishes aside, there is a difference between investigative journalism – espoused by this site and others in the manner of I.F. Stone – and hacking.  The Macron incident looks more like hacking and dissemination of its proceeds for political purposes.  Izzy Stone and his modern peers would have attacked it as much as does Marcy.

    As for Hillary, she was as stiff as a corporate board and ran a poor campaign against a lying right wing populist, a boorish, crude, neophyte politician wannabe, and lost.  The Democrats should clean their own house instead of blaming others for the state of their rickety porch.  They might start by paying attention to the aims and policies of Bernie Sanders instead of ignoring their base in an effort to garner easy corporate money.  We may be in an era of one dollar, one vote, but the Democrats should be fighting it instead of rushing toward the money and the damaging policies and cruel outcomes that come along with it.

  6. blueba says:

    I suppose I shouldn’t be so disappointed and saddened by the views expressed in the opening paragraph regarding Julian Assange.  I am not going to refute the claims and positions expressed directly but I do have a few remarks.  First of all I do not believe that emptywheel in in the least qualified to psychoanalyze Assange from a distance and smear him with descriptions of his psychological characteristics.  Second the cheap rhetorical and propagandist association of Assange with a charge for which no evidence has been presented and no court proceedings have occurred in which Assange can defend himself, if there is evidence why has he not been charged with this serious crime?  It is just so easy for the Neoliberal established order, of which emptywheel is clearly a part, to convict Assange in the press when every corner of institutional journalism is more than ready to smear him at every opportunity.  Further, there is little or no real evidence that Assange has had anything what-so-ever to do with the Russian government, yet here we have it stated as if it is proven fact when in fact emptywheel is in no position to produce.

    I feel that these statements – like a Thomas Freedman column in the NYT – reveal an underlying ideology of full support for the existing imperial power structure and an intense opposition of anything nonconforming.

    The attacks on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange make clear that emptywheel is not interested in real change or the well being of citizens it is supporting the Neoliberal status quo because it is part of the status quo.

    I do not think emptywheel is naive it simply supports the idea that the Neoliberal power structure can be changed if all just hold hands be nice to one another and pass laws.  Unsavory people like Assange or anyone who does not adhere to conventional institutionalized definitions of journalism (as given to us from journalists on high)  are to be vilified and run out of public life.

    ALL Western institutions are under pressure and that applies to the “institution” of journalism the old order is collapsing around us, Democrat Republican/ left right political paradigm is no longer applicable.  There is an insurgency against the US led global empire – it is ugly may cause much chaos and involves lots of people I may not particularly like but I am still a part of that insurgency because the wholesale slaughter of tens of millions of people and the billions kept in poverty by the US led global empire – MUST STOP.

    It is clear to me that WikiLeaks and Assange are engaged in the efforts to dismantle this vicious empire while emptywheel actually supports entrenched power.

    The sanctimony on display here and the undying smarmy derision of Assange is eclipsed only by the vast hypocrisy of the empire itself.

    Emptywheel is a part of a clique of “journalists” who appear to be trying to supplant the NYT as the paper of record and replace the existing elements of institutional journalism with their own publications and become the establishment themselves – change the faces and news outlet personalities in power now with new faces supporting the same murderous empire.  Nothing new really, it happens over and over, make it look like your working against the empire to get institutional power then support the empire.

    Perhaps emptywheel can provide a “mission statement” or an airing of the ideology behind this website – for now it appears its ideology is that of established power.

    As I said, no more left/right its the insurgency or the establishment take your pick and emptywheel has picked the establishment.

    The deeply fundamental changes to society and politics which are necessary for real change are not going to happen without a lot of upheaval and people will suffer and die in the course of events.  Some, perhaps many, of the people who will be effective in this effort to free the world from the extremist Calvinist ideology which has brought us to this point are not going to be “nice” and I might not like them (I might even think they are narcissistic or even pathological, but I know I could be wrong – as I said psychoanalysis from a distance is a fools game) but they are dedicated to the overthrow of the criminal hoodlums murdering people by the hundreds and thousands day in and day out (mass starvation in Yemen as a weapon of war-again nothing new) while emptywheel spends its time whining about Assange supporting the status quo.

    Lets all just hold hands pass laws and have elections then there will be “democracy” and under “democracy” all will prosper – how has that worked out so far?

    While I would not characterize emptywheel as corporate media it is never-the-less a part of established power.

    • SpaceLifeForm says:

      Reading Comprehension 101.

      Go back and carefully parse the very first sentence that Marcy wrote.

      ‘willing to accept’ is not the same as an accusation. While those accusations are out there, they were *NOT* originated by Marcy.

      HTH. HAND.

  7. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT: Attribution of attacks.

    It really does not matter. The problem is Microsoft.

    https://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2017/05/eps-processing-zero-days.html

    Following the April 2017 Patch Tuesday, in which Microsoft disabled EPS, FireEye detected a second unknown vulnerability in EPS.

    FireEye believes that two actors – Turla and an unknown financially motivated actor – were using the first EPS zero-day (CVE-2017-0261), and APT28 was using the second EPS zero-day (CVE-2017-0262) along with a new Escalation of Privilege (EOP) zero-day (CVE-2017-0263). Turla and APT28 are Russian cyber espionage groups that have used these zero-days against European diplomatic and military entities. The unidentified financial group targeted regional and global banks with offices in the Middle East.

    [well, they think they are russian]

    Let’s get fancy with false flags

    A quick demonstration on how to appear as an APT28 related C2

    https://blog.0day.rocks/lets-get-fancy-with-false-flags-28eaabefeff6

    A lot is going on today with APT28 (allegedly the Russian military intelligence agency GRU). Indeed, they are very prolific and quite good at spear phishing.
    They recently targeted the Emmanuel Macron’s campaign and the #EMleaks were mostly attributed to Russia — which makes sense — but is it supported with any full-proof evidence? No and here is why.
    Anyone can add fake metadata

    https://grugq.tumblr.com/post/106516121088/cyber-attribution-in-cyber-conflicts-cyber

  8. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT: Phishing 101

    I have to give Newt Gingrich and FBI director James Comey a ‘B’ at best on this test because they leaked info. But I give them all credit for not being totally stupid.

    http://gizmodo.com/heres-how-easy-it-is-to-get-trump-officials-to-click-on-1794963635/

    Two of the people we reached—informal presidential advisor Newt Gingrich and FBI director James Comey—replied to the emails they’d gotten, apparently taking the sender’s identity at face value. Comey, apparently believing that he was writing to his friend, Lawfareblog.com editor-in-chief Ben Wittes, wrote: “Don’t want to open without care. What is it?” And Gingrich, apparently under the impression he was responding to an email from his wife, Callista, wrote: “What is this?”

  9. SpaveLifeForm says:

    OT: More stuff on the shelf not worth buying

    Geeze, if there was NO evidence of Rusian activity, then that would be news.

    But, as I posted above, attribution is difficult.
    And there is no proof.

    https://www.wired.com/2017/05/nsa-director-confirms-russia-hacked-french-election-infrastructure/amp/

    “If you take a look at the French election … we had become aware of Russian activity,” Rogers said

    [Useless. Just totally useless. ‘Became aware’? Because you read some news on the internet? Is that how you ‘became aware’? Are any of the TLAs doing their job? Or is it all about sucking up taxpayer money? Why did #UnfitForOffice keep him around? Why did Obama admin not fire him? My only hope is that it has something to do with ‘keeping your enemies closer’, but more likely money. Spy vs Spy. I am disgusted]

    https://www.wired.com/2017/05/nsa-director-confirms-russia-hacked-french-election-infrastructure/amp/

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