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The Dangers of the Julian Assange Indictment

I was traveling yesterday when Julian Assange was arrested and pretty fried once I got back. Thanks to bmaz and Rayne for interesting pieces on his arrest. My initial thoughts on his indictment are influenced by CNN’s early report that DOJ expects to add charges and WaPo’s report on how this case moved forward in the last year, along with Orin Kerr’s opinion — which I share — that this is just a placeholder indictment. I’m going to do two or three posts laying out my thoughts on the indictment. This post will argue that the indictment, as written, is both dangerous and counterproductive to what I presume is a larger effort on DOJ’s behalf to go after Assange for actions that are far more removed from core journalistic ones.

Back in November, I laid out four possible theories of prosecution for Assange (I’ve since came to realize we may see more theories, but these are a good rubric for now) as a way to understand how dangerous such an indictment might be for journalism.

  1. Receiving and publishing stolen information is illegal
  2. Conspiring to release stolen information for maximal damage is illegal
  3. Soliciting the theft of protected information is illegal
  4. Using stolen weapons to extort the US government is illegal

In my opinion, this indictment, as written, is closest to the third theory, which I described this way.

Then there’s the scenario that Emma Best just hit on yesterday: that DOJ would prosecute Assange for soliciting hacks of specific targets. Best points to Assange’s close coordination with hackers going back to at least 2011 (ironically, but in a legally meaningless way, with FBI’s mole Sabu).

This is, in my opinion, a possible way DOJ would charge Assange that would be very dangerous.

At its core, Assange is accused of entering into a password cracking conspiracy with Chelsea Manning on March 8, 2010 to be able to access more files on SIPRNet using someone else’s username and password.

On or about March 8, 2010, Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications, as designated according to Executive Order No. 13526 or its predecessor orders.

[snip]

The portion of the password Manning gave to Assange to crack was stored as a “hash value” in a computer file that was accessible only by users with administrative-level privileges. Manning did not have administrative-level privileges, and used special software, namely a Linux operating system, to access the computer file and obtain the portion of the password provided to Assange.

Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers under a username that did not belong to her. Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.

Now, I say this is a dangerous indictment for the reasons I laid out in my earlier post. In cases where the sheer act of obtaining leaked files amounts to a crime — as it is in the case of BuzzFeed source Natalie Edwards leaking Suspicious Activity Reports — then a journalist encouraging his source’s leaks, as Jason Leopold allegedly did when he asked Edwards to look up Prevezon, may be criminalized by this indictment.

That said, actually cracking a password (or trying to do so) is something different than simply directing content requests. Making a journalistic request is not itself a criminal act. Attempting to crack a password with the intent to assume the identity of the person probably amounts to identity theft. So while this indictment, as charged, poses real dangers for Leopold, there is a difference of degree.

What is alleged here is perhaps better translated into the brick-and-mortar situation of a journalist going undercover. There are sometimes real ethical problems when doing so, but going undercover is also sometimes necessary to really get to important stories. Going undercover and committing crimes adds yet another ethical problem — but that, too, might be justified ethically if the law itself is designed to protect the powerful or systematic governmental crime (for example, in the case of some financial misconduct or abusive prison conditions). But going undercover using the real identity of someone else to get a story that amounts to committing a crime is something else entirely, because by doing so, you may end up framing the person whose identity you assume in the crime of obtaining that information.

That said, attempted identity theft is not charged here, and so the indictment, as laid out, is closer to the Jason Leopold situation and so poses real risks for important journalism.

DOJ made the risks worse by language describing the matter and means of the conspiracy to include operational security like using Jabber and deleting chat logs and — worst of all — “Assange encourag[ing] Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States.” I think all this language, which describes the techniques many journalists working in classified areas may use — could become important to DOJ’s larger project down the road. But I also think including it in this bare bones indictment unnecessarily exposes DOJ to claims that it is trying to criminalize core journalistic behaviors. It also exhibits DOJ’s long-standing suspicion of civilians, of any sort, who take reasonable measures using legal tools to preserve privacy. DOJ is effectively making a normative judgment about privacy tools when it is in the business of making legal judgments.

Moreover, including these descriptions of non-criminal conduct legitimately opened DOJ up for justifiable panic among journalists, who are focusing on this language rather than the password cracking language that is the overt act alleged in the conspiracy, that this indictment sets a dangerous precedent. This is not an indictment for publishing true information that a source broke the law to provide, as many responses to the indictment are claiming, but the press can be excused for describing it as such because of this extraneous language that does relate to core journalistic functions (this is basically the argument Margaret Sullivan makes in this great column).

Finally, one more thing contributed to the justifiable panic among the press. The indictment itself charges only conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (which Kerr, in his thread, suggested may be aggressive charges in and of themselves). But then in the body of the indictment, it states,

to intentionally access a computer, without authorization and exceeding authorized access, to obtain information from a department and agency of the United States in furtherance of a criminal act in violation of the laws of the United States, that is, a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 641, 793(c), and 793(e).

While it otherwise doesn’t allege a violation of the Espionage Act, here it invokes it, effectively shifting the described crime from CFAA to Espionage. There are likely tactical reasons why DOJ did this, which I’ll address in the second posts of this series. But whatever reason they had for invoking the Espionage Act, it rightly heightened the panic among journalists.

Had DOJ done it differently, it might have gotten a different response to the Assange arrest, but now, because of its bone-headed suspicion of civilians using privacy measures and premature invocation of the Espionage Act, DOJ rightly lost the initial round of PR in what will likely be a long campaign and caused justifiable panic among the press.

But as I said above: this indictment is likely just the first installment of a larger set of descriptions of what Assange has done.

The Assange Indictment and The Rule of Specialty

Alright, as most of you have discovered, Julian Assange had his asylum status revoked by Ecuador, and officers of the Met (and presumably Scotland Yard too) were allowed into the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to effectuate arrest of Assange. Don’t be fooled by the breathless cable news coverage, the primary arrest warrant was the UK one from Assange’s 2012 jumping of bail conditions, not the extradition request by the US. In short, Assange would still be in custody right now irrespective of the US extradition request.

To flesh out the rest of Assange’s status, to the extent we currently know it, I will pilfer some of the reportage of the excellent Daniel Sandford of the BBC. Assange was presented immediately to Court One at the Westminster Magistrate’s Court where it was made clear that there were two warrants he was arrested on, not just the US request. Assange pled not guilty. He was NOT ordered to present evidence on his failure to surrender (which is appropriate if he declines). The judge presiding, Michael Snow nevertheless, and quite properly, found Assange guilty of the bail offense. Assange will appear in the higher level Southwark Crown Court for sentencing on the bail offense at a future date not yet specified. He will be back in the Westminster Magistrate’s Court, as of now by video link from his detention facility, on May 2nd regarding the extradition matter.

With that background out of the way, let’s look at the more significant US extradition case. First off, here is the EDVA indictment that was unsealed this morning. As you can see, it is for a single count of computer hacking conspiracy. I think most people expected all kinds of different counts, up to and including espionage crimes. Those were not included, nor were the issues from the Vault 7 case, that easily could have been indicted on outside of any real First Amendment issues.

So, while the indictment could have encompassed far many more charges and issues, it does not and is just this one count.

Why is that important?

Because legal commentators like Jeff Toobin on CNN are having a field day noting that there may be more charges forthcoming. And Shimon Prokupecz of CNN reports DOJ is indeed going to seek “additional charges” against Assange. And why is that important? Because of the Rule of Specialty.

I noted this from almost the first second on Twitter, but few other than Ken White (aka Popehat) seem to have caught on to how this doctrine will come into play in the case of Assange. It is a real issue, though we do not know how it will play out at this early stage of the extradition process.

The Doctrine of Specialty is a principle of International law that is included in most extradition treaties, whereby a person who is extradited to a country to stand trial for certain criminal offenses may be tried only for those offenses and not for any other pre-extradition offenses. Long ago and far away I argued this successfully, but that was in relation to the treaty between the US and Mexico. The Assange case obviously involves a different treaty, the US/UK Extradition treaty of 2003.

So, what does the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Treaty of 2003 provide? Well, that is contained in Article 18, which reads as follows:

Rule of Specialty

1. A person extradited under this Treaty may not be detained, tried, or punished in the Requesting State except for:
(a) any offense for which extradition was granted, or a differently denominated offense based on the same facts as the offense on which extradition was granted, provided such offense is extraditable, or is a lesser included offense;
(b) any offense committed after the extradition of the person; or
(c) any offense for which the executive authority of the Requested State waives the rule of specialty and thereby consents to the person’s detention, trial, or punishment. For the purpose ofthis subparagraph:
(i) the executive authority of the Requested State may require the submission of the documentation called for in Article 8; and
(ii) the person extradited may be detained by the Requesting State for 90 days, or for such longer period of time as the Requested State may authorize, while the request for consent is being processed.

2. A person extradited under this Treaty may not be the subject of onward extradition or surrender for any offense committed prior to extradition to the Requesting State unless the Requested State consents.
3. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of this Article shall not prevent the detention, trial, or punishment of an extradited person, or the extradition of the person to a third State, if the person:
(a) leaves the territory ofthe Requesting State after extradition and voluntarily returns to it; or
(b) does not leave the territory ofthe Requesting State within 20 days of the day on which that person is free to leave.
4. I f the person sought waives extradition pursuant to Article 17, the specialty provisions in this Article shall not apply.

It is early, but Assange has specifically NOT waived extradition, and I do not expect that will change. In fact, he would be nuts to waive it. But look out for the US requesting the UK to waive the issue pursuant to Article 18(1)(c). I have no idea how the UK would treat such a request (nor whether it may have already been made). But give the UK credit, they take extradition conditions seriously and will not extradite where the death penalty is in play.

The death penalty could be an issue were Assange to be subsequently charged under 18 USC §794 (Espionage Act), which reads:

(a) Whoever, with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation, communicates, delivers, or transmits, or attempts to communicate, deliver, or transmit, to any foreign government, or to any faction or party or military or naval force within a foreign country, whether recognized or unrecognized by the United States, or to any representative, officer, agent, employee, subject, or citizen thereof, either directly or indirectly, any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, note, instrument, appliance, or information relating to the national defense, shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for any term of years or for life, except that the sentence of death shall not be imposed unless the jury or, if there is no jury, the court, further finds that the offense resulted in the identification by a foreign power (as defined in section 101(a) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) of an individual acting as an agent of the United States and consequently in the death of that individual, or directly concerned nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, early warning systems, or other means of defense or retaliation against large-scale attack; war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information; or any other major weapons system or major element of defense strategy.

Now, frankly, I think the US, through the DOJ, would have no problem whatsoever stipulating that the death penalty is off the table for Assange. It is almost a given.

The real question is what becomes of the Assange case in light of the Rule of Specialty. Suppose any superseding indictment does not go into charges outside of the “computer offenses” specified in the current indictment, but seeks to add additional computer offenses in an attempt to increase the sentencing range? Does that violate the spirit of the Rule of Specialty?

There is a lot we simply do not know yet. But this doctrine, and how the US proceeds in light of it, needs to be watched closely as the Assange extradition matter proceeds, both in the UK, and once he is remanded to US custody.

In Subpoenaing Chelsea Manning, the Government Picks a Likely Needless Fight with the Transparency Community Again

I’m bumping this post from earlier in the week. After refusing to answer questions before the grand jury under a grant of immunity, the Judge in this matter, Claude Hilton, held Chelsea Manning in contempt. She has been booked into the Alexandria jail until she either answers the questions or the grand jury expires. 

Here’s an interview Manning did just before going in for her contempt hearing. 

As NYT first reported, a grand jury in EDVA has subpoenaed Chelsea Manning to testify. She has said she’ll fight the subpoena.

Ms. Manning, who provided a copy of the subpoena to The New York Times, said that her legal team would file a motion on Friday to quash it, arguing that it would violate her constitutional rights to force her to appear. She declined to say whether she would cooperate if that failed.

“Given what is going on, I am opposing this,” she said. “I want to be very forthright I have been subpoenaed. I don’t know the parameters of the subpoena apart from that I am expected to appear. I don’t know what I’m going to be asked.”

The WaPo adds details about a grand jury appearance last year by David House. Notably, he appears to have been asked about the Iraq and Afghan war logs, not the State department cables that have been more central to public reporting based off WikiLeaks releases.

Last July, computer expert David House, who befriended Manning in 2010 at a hacker space in Boston he founded, testified for 90 minutes before the grand jury. In an interview, House said he met the WikiLeaks founder in January 2011 while Assange was under house arrest at Ellingham Hall, a manor house 120 miles northeast of London. Assange was fighting an extradition request by Sweden, where he faced an inquiry into allegations of sexual assault.

Assange asked House to help run political operations for WikiLeaks in the United States. “Specifically, he wanted me to help achieve favorable press for Chelsea Manning,” he said.

House, who testified in exchange for immunity, said the grand jury was interested in his relationship with Assange. “They wanted full insight into WikiLeaks, what its goals were and why I was associated with it,” he said. “They wanted explanations of why certain things occurred and how they occurred. . . . It was all related to disclosures around the war logs.”

The WaPo also argues that Manning will have a tough time fighting this subpoena, which is probably right, though I’m not sure how her legal exposure works given the commutation. She may have a real basis to challenge the subpoena (or at least invoke the Fifth) based off a double jeopardy claim.

Setting aside the legal questions though, I think this subpoena raises real tactical ones. Unless the government believes they need to show a newly-understood pattern of behavior on the part of WikiLeaks dating to before the time Julian Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy as part of a bid to boot him, I think this move is likely to backfire, even from the most hawkish government perspective.

Subpoenaing people for stuff that happened nine years ago, when WikiLeaks’ actions are more immediately suspect in the context of the Vault 7 releases, only makes sense if prosecutors are pursuing some new theory of criminal activity. Contra what Steve Vladeck says to the WaPo (that Assange’s charges last year may be about a 10 year statute of limitations tied to the Espionage Act), prosecutors may be pursuing a conspiracy charge that has continued to more recent years, of which the 2009 actions were the first overt acts (which would also toll the statutes of limitation).

But it’s not just the US government that appears to have a new understanding of WikiLeaks’ actions. So do people who have been involved with the organization over the years, particularly in the wake of WikiLeaks’ 2016 efforts to help Russia elect Donald Trump. The public reversals on supporting Assange from Xeni Jardin, Barrett Brown, and Emma Best have been accompanied by a whole lot of reporting (some of it obviously based on leaks of communications from other former insiders) that lay out activities that go beyond the passive receipt of public interest documents and subsequent publication of them. More will surely be coming.

What journalists and activists are presenting about WikiLeaks doesn’t necessarily get the government beyond a First Amendment defense — certainly not one that might put a lot of respectable investigative reporting at risk. But it does undermine Assange’s claims to be a mere publisher.

And unless there’s a really good legal reason for the government to pursue its own of evolving theory of WikiLeaks’ activities, it doesn’t make sense to rush where former WikiLeaks supporters are headed on their own. In virtually all venues, activists’ reversed understanding of WikiLeaks is bound to have more credibility (and almost certainly more nuanced understanding) than anything the government can offer. Indeed, that would likely be especially true, internationally, in discussions of Assange’s asylum claim.

A charge against Assange in conjunction with Vault 7 or the 2016 election operation might accelerate that process, without foreclosing the government’s opportunity to present any evolved understanding of WikiLeaks’ role in the future (especially if tied to conspiracy charges including the 2016 and 2017 activities).

But getting into a subpoena fight with Chelsea Manning is likely to have the opposite effect.

That’s true, in part, because post-commutation a lot of people worry about the impact renewed pressure from the government against Manning will have, regardless of the legal soundness of it. The government wanted Aaron Swartz to become an informant when they ratcheted up the pressure on him between 2011 and 2013. They didn’t get that information. And his suicide has become a key symbol of the reasons to distrust law enforcement and its ham-handed legal tactics.

There’s even good reason to believe history will likely eventually show that FBI’s use of Sabu as an informant likely didn’t get them what they thought they got. And it’s not just Sabu. It is my strong suspicion that we’ll eventually learn that at key moments, the known instincts and habits of the FBI were exploited just as badly as the good faith efforts of transparency activists, even before the Bureau’s bumbling efforts played the perhaps decisive  role in the 2016 election.

We’re at a moment when, amid rising tribalism, both federal law enforcement and the transparency community are actually reassessing. That reassessment is key to being less susceptible to exploitation, on both sides.

But ratcheting up the stakes, as a subpoena of Manning at this moment amounts to, will reverse that trend.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

702 Reauthorization: The Anti-Leak Package

As part of the draft Section 702 Reauthorization released this week, the House Judiciary Committee included what I’ll call the anti-leak package. They’re not actually presented in the same Title, but I want to consider them as a group as a way to consider whether they’ll do anything to make leaking less useful than internal whistleblowing.

The package consists of three things:

  • Increased penalties for improperly handling classified information
  • New protections for FBI whistleblowers and contractor whistleblowers
  • A GAO report on whether classification works

Increased penalties for improperly handling classified information

The first part of the package changes 18 USC 1924, which criminalizes unauthorized retention of classified documents, to make knowingly retaining classified information a felony, while creating a new misdemeanor for negligently retaining classified information.

SEC. 302. PENALTIES FOR UNAUTHORIZED REMOVAL AND RETENTION OF CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS OR MATERIAL.

Section 1924 of title 18, United States Code, is amended—

(1) in subsection (a), by striking ‘‘one year’’ and inserting ‘‘five years’’;

(2) by redesignating subsections (b) and (c) as subsections (c) and (d), respectively; and 13 (3) by inserting after subsection (a) the following new subsection (b):

(b) Whoever, being an officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States, and, by virtue of his office, employment, position, or contract, becomes possessed of documents or materials containing classified information of the United States, negligently removes such documents or materials without authority and knowingly retains such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.

I think this was done to make what Hillary Clinton did a clear felony, so Republicans can squawk about it, rather than solving any real problem.

Which is a pity. Because those who want to write new laws criminalizing the retention and leaking of classified information (something I’m not advocating, but I understand the sentiment), it might be useful to write laws that address the problems we’re actually seeing.

For example, the Espionage Act should be rewritten to make it clear it only applies to real Espionage — the secret sharing of “national defense information” (which should be better defined) with an adversary for some kind of personal benefit. By all means, create something else that applies to the Edward Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings of the world, if you feel the need to. But in that law, do something to ensure that the David Petraeuses of the world — who leaked information to get laid and tell nice stories about himself — don’t get a wrist slap, while people who at least believe their acts to be benefitting the country face life imprisonment.

The degree to which the Espionage statute specifically, and leak prosecutions generally, have become the means to pursue arbitrary retaliation against people who don’t hew a party line undermines the legitimacy of the classification system, which (in my opinion, as someone who has covered most recent leak prosecutions) just leads to more leaking.

In related news, one of the reasons why magistrate Brian Epps Cobb denied Reality Winner bail yesterday is because she admires Snowden and Assange.

In addition, this week’s news that an NSA TAO hacker brought files home and used them on his machine running Kaspersky, thereby alerting Russia to them, suggests the need to consider the impact of even negligent improper handling, because it can have an impact akin to that of Snowden if it is compromised.

Finally, there should be some controls over abuse of Original Classification Authority, both in Prepublication Reviews, to prevent the selective censorship of important stories. And there should be some recognition that OCAs are often not the only source of information (which is one of the problems with the Hillary emails — her staffers were reporting widely known facts that the CIA later claimed a monopoly on, thereby making the information “classified”).

Perhaps the GAO review, below, can go some distance to making this happen.

New protections for contractor whistleblowers

There’s a section that extends the (still inadequate) whistleblower protections of the National Security Act to contractors, while adding protection (just for contractors!) for the reporting of “evidence of another employee or contractor employee accessing or sharing classified information without authorization.” It also adds additional reporting vehicles for FBI contractors (to DOJ or FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, to FBI’s Inspection Division, or to the Office of Special Counsel).

The bill also adds contractors to those you can’t retaliate against by stripping of security clearance if they’ve made a protected disclosure.

Contractor is defined as “an employee of a contractor, subcontractor, grantee, subgrantee, or personal services contractor, of a covered intelligence community element.”

As I said, this is just the protection extended to intelligence community employees, with enforcement by the President, the same guy who orders up the illegal activities (such as torture or domestic spying) of the IC.

Plus, I’m not sure the language protects against two other problems that have happened with contractors. First, the loss of a contract, which doesn’t seem to be included in the definition of personnel decisions. So an agency could retaliate not by denying a promotion, but simply denying a contract. And, for similar reasons, I’m not sure the language prevents a contractor from retaliating against one of their employees directly, particularly if they’re threatened with losing work.

As I said, I’m not sure on this. I await analysis from the people who work whistleblower issues all the time.

That said, while this is an important improvement that will extend the same inadequate protection that IC employees get to IC contractors, I think it doesn’t necessarily protect against some known kinds of retaliation.

A GAO report on whether classification works

Perhaps most interestingly, the bill asks GAO to conduct on a story on why we’re having so much leakage.

SEC. 303. COMPTROLLER GENERAL STUDY ON UNAUTHORIZED DISCLOSURES AND THE CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM.

(a) STUDY.—The Comptroller General of the United States shall conduct a study of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and the classification system of the United States.

(b) MATTERS INCLUDED.—The study under subsection (a) shall address the following:

(1) Insider threat risks to the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

(2) The effect of modern technology on the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, including with respect to—

(A) using cloud storage for classified information; and

(B) any technological means to prevent or detect such unauthorized disclosure.

(3) The effect of overclassification on the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

(4) Any ways to improve the classification system of the United States, including with respect to changing the levels of classification used in such system.

(5) How to improve the authorized sharing of classified information, including with respect to sensitive compartmented information.

(6) The value of polygraph tests in determining who is authorized to access classified information.

(7) Whether each element of the intelligence community (as defined in section (4) of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 3003(4))—

(A) applies uniform standards in determining who is authorized to access classified information; and

(B) provides proper training with respect to the handling of classified information.

(c) COOPERATION.—The heads of the intelligence community shall provide to the Comptroller General information the Comptroller General determines necessary to carry out the study under subsection (a).

(d) REPORT.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Comptroller General shall submit to the Committee on the Judiciary and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives and the Committee on the Judiciary and the Select Committee on Intelligence of the Senate a report containing the study under subsection (a). (e) FORM.—The report under subsection (d) shall be submitted in unclassified form, but may include a classified annex.

I really like the idea of doing such a report (though am not sure GAO can get it done in just 6 months, especially since I’m sure some agencies will filibuster any cooperation). And what a novelty, to finally consider whether polygraphs actually do what they’re claimed to do (rather than get people to confess to dirt that can later be used against them or leaked to China in an OPM hack).

As mentioned above, a really thorough such study should also look specifically at the Prepublication Review process, which is one of the most notorious forms of arbitrary use of classification.

It should also try to quantify how much classification does (abusively) hide mismanagement or law-breaking, especially in the FOIA process.

A truly thorough study would have to include leaks by members of Congress, up to and including the Gang of Four — but that’s never going to happen and so that means of leakage will remain untouched.

A study should also not only review recent leak prosecutions, with a particularly focus on the selectivity with which they’ve been taken, but compare leak prosecutions with the efficacy of internal measures (like stripping someone of clearance), which ODNI has been using more in recent years, at least before Reality Winner.

And a study should do a macro review of the initiatives put in place since Chelsea Manning’s leaks, to review overall compliance (we know NSA and CIA had not fully complied as of last year), and to measure whether those initiatives have done any good.

Finally, for the classified version, the report should include a full measure of how much internal spying is being targeted at government employees and contractors in various CI programs, and whether those are overseen adequately (they’re absolutely not).

Will this all do any good?

As I said, I’m the one lumping these together into a package, not the bill’s authors. I did so, though, to better weigh whether this will do any good — whether we’ll move the balance on necessary discussions for democracy being weighed against genuine need to protect secrets. I think an actual assessment is worthwhile.

But ultimately, I suspect our leak problem stems, in large part, from the degree to which classification (and clearances and leak prosecutions) have all been designed to give the Executive Branch unfettered ability to run an arbitrary system of secrets that does as much to serve nexuses of power as it does to keep the country safe.  Secrets, in DC, have become the coin of power, not the necessary tool to ensure a vibrant and secure democracy.

And I’m not sure this effort will do much to change that.

Mike Morell Resigns Out of Conscience because of [Leaks about] Torture

Former Deputy Director of CIA Mike Morell is resigning from Harvard’s Belfer Center because Harvard’s Institute of Politics has hired Chelsea Manning.

I am writing to inform you that I am resigning, effective immediately, as a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center.

[snip]

I cannot be part of an organization — The Kennedy School — that honors a convicted felon and leaker of classified information, Ms. Chelsea Manning, by inviting her to be a Visiting Fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Ms. Manning was found guilty of 17 serious crimes, including six counts of espionage, for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks, an entity that CIA Director Mike Pompeo says operates like an adversarial foreign intelligence service.

Morell goes on to talk about his great stand of conscience.

[T]he Kennedy School’s decision will assist Ms. Manning in her long-standing effort to legitimize the criminal path that she took to prominence, an attempt that may encourage others to leak classified information as well. I have an obligation to my conscience — and I believe to the country — to stand up against any efforts to justify leaks of sensitive national security information.

[snip]

[I]t is my right, indeed my duty, to argue that the School’s decision is wholly inappropriate and to protest it by resigning from the Kennedy School — in order to make the fundamental point that leaking classified information is disgraceful and damaging to our nation.

Of course, you could replace every instance where Morell invokes leaks with torture. You could replace every instance where Morell mentions Kennedy School’s (allegedly) poor decision and replace it with CIA’s.

And then it would become clear where Morell’s values lie.

Chelsea Manning started leaking because she was asked to support the repression of Iraqis engaged in peaceful opposition to Nuri al-Maliki — a view that came to be conventional wisdom long after Manning was in prison for her actions. Manning also exposed US complicity in torture in Iraq and Condi’s efforts to cover up the CIA’s torture. Manning also served seven years for her crimes, including a period where the US government subjected her to treatment most countries consider torture.

Chelsea Manning, too, took a stand of conscience. She stood against torture, which was disgraceful and damaging to our nation. Morell? He took no stand of conscience against torture. Instead, he stands against leaks about torture with which he was complicit.

Or Maybe America Post-9/11 Inspires More Disillusionment?

Michael Hayden thinks he has an explanation for all the whistleblowers. It’s those damn millennials.

How do you make sure every one of [the people who have clearance] was and remains a loyal American or a loyal member of British security services and so on. Beyond that, Catty, there’s another dynamic at work here. In order to do this kind of stuff, we have to recruit from a certain demographic, and I don’t mean to judge them at all, but this group of millennials and related groups simply have different understandings of the words loyalty and secrecy and transparency than certainly my generation did. And so we bring these folks into the agency, good Americans all, I can only assume, but again, culturally they have different instincts than the people who made the decision to hire them.

The reason Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden leaked vast troves of documents, according to Hayden, is because they’re young and not as loyal as people like him.

That may be true, to a point. Both Manning and Snowden seem to have a cosmopolitanism that a lot of Americans — those Americans raised during the Cold War — don’t have. We live in a globe now, just just America, and it’s possible Manning and Snowden felt some loyalty to humankind, rather than just America.

But there’s another problem with Hayden’s claim. There have been a number of whistleblowers who are of his generation. Consider all the intelligence people who’ve joined VIPS in response to idiotic foreign policy, after all.

Or consider an even more interesting example: Bill Binney. Binney was, during the Cold War, one of the most aggressive spies out there. He has said to me, repeatedly, that he’s the guy who invented Collect it all (though he, of course, wanted privacy protections for Americans). But when his approach came to be rolled out against Americans as part of the War on Terror that Hayden pursued with little self-reflection, Binney balked, quit the NSA, and started complaining that his program had been repurposed to target everyone.

Now, Binney didn’t bring a trove of documents with him. But he’s definitely animated by some of the same things that animated Manning and Snowden.

And Binney is two years older than Hayden.

There are a lot of things that motivate whistleblowers, and Daniel Ellsberg (who is 14 years older than Hayden) has said repeatedly that Snowden is just like he was.

But I do think one thing that has happened is that during the Cold War, for good or ill, Americans believed that they were the force of good. That belief is a lot harder to sustain in this day and age, for a range of reasons (not least the warrantless wiretapping and torture that Hayden facilitated). So just maybe the values remain the same, but America has changed?

On Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning’s Commutation

Today, President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence, effective May 17. May she have the fortitude to withstand five more months of prison.

Among the many responses to the commutation, many people are pointing to a tweet Julian Assange wrote in September, promising to agree to US prison if Manning got clemency.

Assange made a very similar comment more recently, on January 12.

To Assange’s credit, he has long called for clemency for Manning; and whatever you think of Assange, his anger against Hillary was in significant part motivated by Clinton’s response to the Manning leaks. Manning might have been able to cooperate against Assange for a lesser sentence, but there was nothing Assange did that was not, also, what the NYT has done.

Indeed, the oddity of Assange’s original tweet is that, as far as has been made public, he has never been charged, not even for aiding Edward Snowden as a fugitive.

Nevertheless, since the comments, Assange’s European lawyer said he stands by his earlier comment (though she points out the US has not asked for extradition).

But I’d like to point to a third tweet, which might explain why Assange would be so willing to be extradited now.

The day after Assange repeated his promise to undergo extradition, just as the uproar over the Trump dossier led Christopher Steele to go into hiding has been roiling, Assange also tweeted a comment at least pretending he thought he might be murdered.

Sure, Assange is paranoid. But while Assange has been hiding behind purportedly American IDed cutouts, claiming plausible deniability that he got the DNC emails from the Russians, he surely knows, now, those people were cut-outs. The Russians, Trump, and any American cutouts that Assange could ID would badly like him to sustain that plausible deniability.

And the Russians have a way of silencing people like that, even in fairly protected places in London.

So while Assange could just be blowing smoke, Assange may well be considering his options, coming to the US on a plea deal versus dealing with Putin’s goons.

All of which might make such deals more attractive.

Update: Here’s Assange’s latest on this.

In Latest Russian Plot, WikiLeaks Reveals Hillary Opposes ISDS

Among the emails released as part of the Podesta leaks yesterday, WikiLeaks released this one showing that, almost a year before she was making the same argument in debates with Bernie Sanders, Hillary was opposed to Investor State Dispute Settlement that is part of the Trans Pacific Partnership. (h/t Matt Stoller) ISDS is the means by which corporations have used trade agreements to operate above the domestic laws of party countries (if you haven’t read this three part series from BuzzFeed to learn about the more exotic ways business are profiting off of ISDS).

The email also appears to echo her later public concern that she had changed her mind on TPP because of KORUS.

After our last talk with HRC, we revised our letter to oppose ISDS and include her caution about South Korea.

Sure, other Podesta emails show Hillary supporting a broad region of free trade (and labor) in the Americas. But this more recent email confirms that the views she expressed in debate were more than just an attempt to counter Bernie’s anti-trade platform.

Whether or not this is newsworthy enough to justify the WL dump, it is noteworthy in light of NYT’s rather bizarre article from some weeks back suggesting that WL always sides with Putin’s goals. As I noted, the article made a really strained effort to claim that WL exposed TPP materials because it served Putin’s interests. Now, here, WL is is releasing information that makes Hillary look better on precisely that issue.

That doesn’t advance the presumed narrative of helping Trump defeat Hillary!

Then, as I noted yesterday, in spite of all the huff and puff from Kurt Eichenwald, the release of a Sid Blumenthal email used by Trump is another case where the WL release, as released, doesn’t feed the presumed goals of Putin.

Which brings me to this Shane Harris piece, which describes four different NatSec sources revealing there’s still a good deal of debate about WL’s ties to Russia.

Military and intelligence officials are convinced that WikiLeaks is an ongoing threat to U.S. national security and privacy owing to its leaks of classified documents and emails. But its precise relationship with Russia has been a subject of internal debate. Some do see the group as being in cahoots with the Kremlin. But others find that WikiLeaks is acting mainly as the beneficiary of stolen documents, not unlike a journalistic organization.

There are some funny aspects to this story. Nothing in it considers the significant evidence that WL is (and has reason to be) affirmatively anti-Hillary, which means its interests may align with Russia, even if it doesn’t take orders from Russia.

It also suggests that if the spooks can prove some tie between WL and Russia, they can spy on it as an agent of foreign power.

But those facts don’t mean WikiLeaks isn’t acting at Russia’s behest. And that’s not a trivial matter. If the United States were to determine that WikiLeaks is an agent of a foreign power, as defined in U.S. law, it could allow intelligence and law enforcement agencies to spy on the group—as they do on the Russian government. The U.S. can also bring criminal charges against foreign agents.

WL has been intimately involved in two separate charges cases of leaking-as-espionage in the US, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. The government has repeatedly told courts that it has National Security/Criminal investigations, plural, into WikiLeaks, and when pressed for details about how and whether the government is collecting on supporters and readers of WikiLeaks, the government has in part hidden those details under a b3 FOIA exemption, meaning a statute prevents disclosing it, while extraordinarily refusing to reveal what statute that is. We certainly know that FBI has used multiple informants to spy on WL and used a variety of collection methods against Jacob Appelbaum, including (according to Appelbaum) physical tails.

So there’s not only no doubt that the US government believes it can spy on WikiLeaks (which is, after all, headed by a foreigner and not a US organization), but that it already does, and has been doing for at least six years.

Perhaps Harris’ sources really mean they’ve never found a way to indict Julian Assange before, but if they can claim he’s working for Putin, then maybe they’ll overcome past problems of indicting him because it would criminalize journalism. If that’s the case, it may be shading analysis of WL, because the government would badly like a reason to shut down WL (as the comments about the direct threat to the US in the story back up).

As I’ve said before, the role of WL in this and prior leak events is a pretty complex one, one that if approached too rashly (or too sloppily) could have ramifications for other publishers. While a lot of people are rushing to collapse this (in spite of what sounds like a continuing absence of directly incriminating evidence) into a nation-state conflict, things like this TPP email suggest it’s not that simple.

A Cosmopolitan Defense of Snowden

A bunch of human rights groups have started a campaign calling on President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, to coincide with the release of the Snowden movie today.

With regards to Snowden’s fate, I believe — as I have from the start — that US interest would have been and would be best served if a safe asylum for Snowden were arranged in a friendly country. I had said France at the time, but now Germany would be the obvious location. Obama is not going to pardon Snowden, and Presidents Hillary or Trump are far less likely to do so, not least because if a president pardoned Snowden it would be an invitation for a metaphorical or literal assassination attempt. But I also think it would have always served US interests to keep Snowden out of a place like Russia. That ship has already sailed, but I still think we insist on making it impossible for him to leave Russia (by pressuring allies like Germany that might otherwise have considered asylum) largely out of self-destructive motives, an urge to prove our power that often overrides our interests.

That’s all background to recommending you read this post from Jack Goldsmith arguing against pardon for Snowden. While I disagree with big parts of it, it is the most interesting piece I’ve seen on the Snowden pardon question, for or against.

Like me, Goldsmith believes there’s no chance Snowden will get a pardon, even while admitting that Snowden’s disclosures brought worthwhile transparency to the Intelligence Community. Unlike me, he opposes a pardon, in part, because of the damage Snowden did, a point I’ll bracket for the moment.

More interestingly, Goldsmith argues that a pardon should be judged on whether Snowden’s claimed justification matches what he actually did.

Another difficulty in determining whether a pardon is warranted for Snowden’s crimes is that the proper criteria for a pardon are elusive.  Oliver Wendell Holmes once declared that a pardon “is the determination of the ultimate authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less” than what the criminal law specified.  But how to measure or assess the elusive public welfare?  The Constitution delegates that task exclusively to the President, who can use whatever criteria he chooses.  Many disagreements about whether a pardon is appropriate are at bottom disagreements about what these criteria should be.  Some will question whether Snowden should be pardoned even if his harms were trivial and the benefits he achieved were great.  Indeed, presidents don’t usually grant pardons because a crime brought benefits.  My own view is that in this unusual context, it is best to examine the appropriateness of a pardon in the first instance through an instrumental lens, and also to ask how well Snowden’s stated justification for his crimes matches up with the crimes he actually committed.

Goldsmith goes on to engage in what I consider a narrowly bracketed discussion of Snowden’s leaks about violations of US law (for example, he, as everyone always does, ignores NSA double dipping on Google and Yahoo servers overseas), claiming to assess whether they were violations of the Constitution, but in fact explicitly weighing whether they were a violation of the law.

His exposure of the 702 programs (PRISM and upstream collection) is harder to justify on these grounds, because these programs were clearly authorized by public law and have not sparked nearly the same criticism, pushback, or reform.

After substituting law for Constitution, the former OLC head (the guy who approved of much of Stellar Wind by claiming FISA exclusivity didn’t really mean FISA exclusivity) makes what is effectively an Article II argument — one nowhere nearly as breathtaking as Goldsmith’s Stellar Wind one. Most of Snowden’s leaks can’t be unconstitutional, Goldsmith argues, because they took place overseas and were targeted at non-US persons.

What I do not get, and what I have never seen Snowden or anyone explain, is how his oath to the U.S. Constitution justified the theft and disclosure of the vast number of documents that had nothing to do with operations inside the United States or U.S. persons.  (Every one of the arguments I read for Snowden’s pardon yesterday focused on his domestic U.S. revelations and ignored or downplayed that the vast majority of revelations that did not involve U.S. territory or citizens.)  To take just a few of hundreds of examples, why did his oath to the Constitution justify disclosure that NSA had developed MonsterMind, a program to respond to cyberattacks automatically; or that it had set up data centers in China to insert malware into Chinese computers and had penetrated Huawei in China; or that it was spying (with details about how) in many other foreign nations, on Bin Laden associate Hassam Ghul’s wife, on the UN Secretary General,  and on the Islamic State; or that it cooperates with intelligence services in Sweden and Norway to spy on Russia?; and so on, and so on.  These and other similar disclosures (see here for many more) concern standard intelligence operations in support of national security or foreign policy missions that do not violate the U.S. Constitution or laws, and that did extraordinary harm to those missions.  The losses of intelligence that resulted are not small things, since intelligence information, and especially SIGINT, is a core element of American strength and success (and not just, as many seem to think, related to counterterrorism).  It doesn’t matter that leaks in this context sparked modest reforms (e.g., PPD 28).  The Constitution clearly permits foreign intelligence surveillance, and our elected representatives wanted these obviously lawful practices to remain secret.

Having laid out a (compared to his Stellar Wind defense) fairly uncontroversial argument about the current interpretation of the Constitution reserving wiretapping of non-Americans to the President (though my understanding of the actual wiretapping in the Keith decision, of Americans in Africa, would say Presidents can’t wiretap Americans overseas without more process than Americans’ communications collected under bulk collection overseas currently get), Goldsmith goes onto make his most important point.

The real defense of Snowden stems not from our own Constitution, but from a moral and ethical defense of American values.

What might be the moral and ethical case for disclosing U.S. intelligence techniques against other countries and institutions?  (I will be ignore possible cosmopolitan impulses for Snowden’s theft and leaks, which I think damage the case for a pardon for violations of U.S. law.)  I think the most charitable moral/ethical case for leaking details of electronic intelligence operations abroad, including against our adversaries, is that these operations were harming the Internet, were hypocritical, were contrary to American values, and the like, and Snowden’s disclosures were designed to save the Internet and restore American values.  This is not a crazy view; I know many smart and admirable people who hold it, and I believe it is ethically and morally coherent.

This is a remarkable paragraph. First, it defines what is, I think, the best defense of Snowden. American values and public claims badly conflict with what we were and still are doing on the Internet. I’d add, that this argument also works to defend Chelsea Manning’s leaks: she decided to leak when she was asked to assist Iraqi torture in the name of Iraqi liberation, a dramatic conflict of US stated values with our ugly reality.

But the paragraph is also interesting for the way Goldsmith, almost as an aside, “ignore[s] possible cosmopolitan impulses for Snowden’s theft and leaks, which I think damage the case for a pardon for violations of U.S. law.” I take this to argue that if you’re leaking to serve some universal notion of greater good — some sense of world citizenship — then you can’t very well ask to be pardoned by US law. Perhaps, in that case, you can only ask to be pardoned by universal or at least international law. I’ll come back to this.

Goldsmith contrasts the moral and ethical case based on American values with his own, a moral and ethical one that justifies US spying to serve US interests in a complex and dangerous world.

But it is also not a crazy view, and it is also ethically and morally coherent, to think that U.S. electronic intelligence operations abroad were entirely lawful and legitimate efforts to serve U.S. interests in a complex and dangerous world, and that Snowden’s revelations violated his secrecy pledges and U.S. criminal law and did enormous harm to important American interests and values.

For the record, I think Snowden has said some of US spying does serve US interests in a complex and dangerous world. But from that view, the old defender of Article II argues that a President — the guy or gal who by definition is the only one can decide to pardon Snowden — must always adhere to the latter (Goldsmith’s) moral and ethical stance.

Unfortunately for Snowden’s pardon gambit,  President Obama, and any one who sits in the Oval Office charged with responsibility for American success around the globe, will (and should) embrace the second moral/ethical perspective, and will not (and should not) countenance the first moral/ethical perspective, which I take to be Snowden’s.

Goldsmith then ends where I began, with a more polite explanation that any president that pardoned Snowden would be inviting metaphorical or literal assassination. He also suggests the precedent would lead to more leaks. But that seems to ignore 1) that Snowden leaked even after seeing what they did to Manning (that is, deterrence doesn’t necessarily work) 2) the Petraeus precedent has already exposed the classification system as one giant load of poo.

Anyway, by my reading, Goldsmith argues that this debate pits those motivated out of American values versus those motivated out of perceived American interests, and that any President must necessarily operate from the latter.

I’m interested in that because I think the former motivation really does explain a goodly number of the leakers and whistleblowers I know. People a generation older than me, I think, may have been true believers in the fight against the Evil Empire during the Cold War, only to realize we risk becoming the Evil Empire they spent their life fighting. Every time I see Bill Binney, he makes morbid cracks about how he was the guy who invented “Collect it all,” back when he was fighting Russia. People a generation younger than me — Snowden, Manning, and likely a lot more — more often responded out of defense of all that is great in America after 9/11, only to find that that we have not adhered to that greatness in prosecuting the war on terror. These are gross generalizations. But I think the conflict is real among a lot of people, and it’s one that will always fight increasingly diligent efforts to tamp down dissent.

That said, I want to note something else Goldsmith did, while making his aside that anyone making a cosmopolitan defense of Snowden cannot ask for a pardon under US law (a view I find fairly persuasive, which may be why I think a reasonable outcome is for Snowden to live out his life in Germany). In making that aside, Goldsmith effectively dismissed the possibility that living US values rather than interests might be both cosmopolitan and in our national interest.

I’ve talked about this repeatedly — the degree to which Snowden’s disclosures (and, to a lesser extent, Manning’s) served to expose some lies that are critical to American hegemony. Our hegemonic position relies — according to people like Goldsmith and, perhaps in reality, though the evidence is mixed — on our global dragnet, which in turn serves our global military presence. But it has also relied on an ideology, every bit as important as ideology was during the Cold War, that espoused democracy and market capitalism and, underscoring both of those, a belief in the worth of every individual (and by extension, individual nation) to compete on equal terms. Without that ideology, we’re just a garden variety empire, which is a lot harder to sustain because it requires more costly (in terms of dollars and bodies) coercion rather than persuasion.

And Snowden’s leaks showed we used our preferential position astride the world’s telecommunications network and our claim to serve freedom of expression to serve as the hegemon. Hell, the aftermath of that shows it even more! Country after country has backed off giving Snowden asylum — the proper cosmopolitan resolution — because the US retains enough raw power and/or access to the fruits of the dragnet to persuade countries that’s not in their “interest.”

This is an issue that has gotten far too little attention in the wake of the Snowden leaks: to what degree is the cost of the Snowden leaks measured in terms of exposing to the subjects of our hegemon facts that their leaders already knew (either because they were and are willing co-participants in the spying or knowledgeable adversaries engaged in equally ambitious but less effective surveillance)? I don’t doubt there are individual programs that have been compromised, though thus far the IC has badly hurt its case by making claims (such as that Al Qaeda only adopted encryption in response to Snowden, or that Snowden taught terrorists how to use burner phones) that are easily falsifiable. But a big part of the leaks are about the degree to which the US can (and does passively in many cases via bulk collection) spy on everyone.

But to me, the big cost has been in terms of exposing America’s hegemonic ideology as the fiction that ideologies always become if they aren’t from the start.

Note, I fully accept that that may be an unacceptable cost. America’s hegemony was already weakening; I believe Snowden’s disclosures simply accelerated that. It is absolutely possible that the weakening of US hegemony will create a vacuum of power that will leave chaos. That chaos may, may have already, led to a desire for strongmen in response. There were outside factors playing into all of this. The Iraq War did far more to rot America’s hegemonic virtue than Edward Snowden’s leaks ever could have. And it’s not clear that an empire based on oil can provide the leadership we need to fight climate change, which will increasingly be the source of chaos. But I accept that it is possible Snowden accelerated a process that may lead to horrible outcomes.

Here’s the thing, though: this younger generation of leakers — of dissident servants of the hegemon — don’t need to be cured of a lifetime of ideology. It may take, as it did with Manning, no more than critical assessment of some flyers confiscated by our so-called partners in liberation for the ideology cementing our hegemonic authority to crumble.

Our hegemony depends on the ideology of our values. That seems to both have been the trigger for and may justify the cosmopolitan interest in exposing our hypocrisy. And whether or not Americans should give a shit about the freedom of non-American subjects of the hegemon, to the extent that servants of that ideology here find the hypocrisy unsustainable, we’re likely to have more Mannings and more Snowdens.

Our global dragnet may very well serve the ethics of those who serve presidentially-defined American interests. As such, Snowden’s leaks are surely seen as unforgivable damage.

But it is also possible that American hegemony is only — was only — sustainable to the degree that we made sure that global dragnet was limited by the values that have always been critical to the ideology underlying our hegemony.

Why Do They Call It Panama Papers, Anyway?

Over the weekend, a bunch of media outlets let loose shock and awe in bulk leak documents, PanamaPapers, with project leaders ICIJ and Sueddeutsche Zeitung — as well as enthusiastic partner, Guardian — rolling out bring spreads on a massive trove of data from the shell company law firm Mossack Fonseca.

If all goes well, the leak showing what MF has been doing for the last four decades will lead us to have a better understanding of how money gets stripped from average people and then hidden in places where it will be safe from prying eyes.

Before I raise some questions about the project, I wanted to point to one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve seen from the project so far: this Miami Herald piece showing how its high end real estate boom has been facilitated by the money laundering facilitated by MF.

At the end of 2011, a company called Isaias 21 Property paid nearly $3 million — in cash — for an oceanfront Bal Harbour condo.

But it wasn’t clear who really owned the three-bedroom unit at the newly built St. Regis, an ultra-luxury high-rise that pampers residents with 24-hour room service and a private butler.

In public records, Isaias 21 listed its headquarters as a Miami Beach law office and its manager as Mateus 5 International Holding, an offshore company registered in the British Virgins Islands, where company owners don’t have to reveal their names.

[snip]

Buried in the 11.5 million documents? A registry revealing Mateus 5’s true owner: Paulo Octávio Alves Pereira, a Brazilian developer and politician now under indictment for corruption in his home country.

A Miami Herald analysis of the never-before-seen records found 19 foreign nationals creating offshore companies and buying Miami real estate. Of them, eight have been linked to bribery, corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion or other misdeeds in their home countries.

That’s a drop in the ocean of Miami’s luxury market. But Mossack Fonseca is one of many firms that set up offshore companies. And experts say a lack of controls on cash real-estate deals has made Miami a magnet for questionable currency.

The story is deeply contextualized with localized reporting that goes beyond the leaked documents. And it can lead to policy changes — restrictions on cash real estate transactions — that can help to stem (or at least redirect) the flow of this corrupt money. You could tell similar stories from big cities around North America (this has been a particular focus in NYC and Vancouver). And with effort, cities could crack down on such cash transactions, with all the negative effects they bring to localities.

But much of the other reporting so far remains at the level of shock and awe. Biggest leak ever! Putin Putin Putin! And much of the reporting reflects not just editorial bias, but some apparent innumeracy (though no one has yet released the real numbers) to claim that people from evil countries are proportionally more corrupt than people from good countries like the UK.

Where did these documents come from?

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.00.01 AM

Here’s how SZ describes how they got these documents.

Over a year ago, an anonymous source contacted the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and submitted encrypted internal documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that sells anonymous offshore companies around the world. These shell companies enable their owners to cover up their business dealings, no matter how shady.

In the months that followed, the number of documents continued to grow far beyond the original leak. Ultimately, SZ acquired about 2.6 terabytes of data, making the leak the biggest that journalists had ever worked with. The source wanted neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures.

Nowhere I’ve seen explains where this source got the documents.

For almost three years, we have openly debated what I consider a fair question: what was Edward Snowden’s motivation for stealing the NSA’s crown jewels and was any foreign country involved? People have also asked questions about how he accessed so much: Did he steal colleagues’ passwords? Did he join Booz Allen solely to be able to steal documents? I think the evidence supports an understanding that his motives were good and his current domicile an unfortunate outcome. And we know some details about how he managed to get what he did — but the key detail is that he was a Sysadmin in a location where insider detection systems were not yet implemented and credentials to have unaudited access to many of the documents he obtained. Those details are a key part of understanding some of the story behind his leaks (and how NSA and GCHQ are organized).

Somehow, journalists aren’t asking such questions when it comes to this leak, the Unaoil leak that broke last week, or the leak of files on British Virgin Isles have activity a few years back (which, like this project, ICIJ also had a central role in). I’m sympathetic to the argument that IDing who stole these documents would put her or him in terrible danger (depending on who it is). But I also think this level of description the Intercept gave — in the first paragraph of a story about stolen recordings of jailhouse phone calls that revealed improper retention of attorney client conversations — would be useful.

The materials — leaked via SecureDrop by an anonymous hacker who believes that Securus is violating the constitutional rights of inmates — comprise over 70 million records of phone calls, placed by prisoners to at least 37 states, in addition to links to downloadable recordings of the calls. [my emphasis]

The Intercept’s source, knowing of the problem, hacked recordings from an inadequately protected server.

As the Guardian’s own graphic makes clear, this leak dwarfs the leaks by Chelsea Manning and Hervé Falciani (the security engineer behind the HSBC leak). It probably dwarfs the Snowden leak (though oddly the Guardian, which had fingers in both, doesn’t include Snowden in its graphic). That ought to raise real questions about how someone could access so much more information than tech experts with key credentials working at the core of security in the targeted organizations could. And those questions are worth asking because if these files come from an external hacker — a definite possibility — than it ought to raise questions about how they were able to get so much undetected and even — as everyone felt appropriate to ask with Snowden — whether an intelligence agency was involved.

Where are the corrupt Americans?

As with the BVI leak before it, thus far this leak has included no details on any Americans. Some have suggested that’s because the Panama trade deal already brought transparency on US persons’ activities through the haven of Panama, except these files go back four decades and. Americans not only used Panama as a haven before that, but the CIA used it as a key laundering vehicle for decades, as Manuel Noriega would be all too happy to explain if western countries would let him out of prison long enough to do so.  Moreover, the files are in no way restricted to Panama (indeed, some of the stories already released describe the establishment of shell companies within the US).

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.17.39 AMNot only haven’t we heard about any Americans, but even for the close American friends identified so far — starting with Saudi Crown Prince and close CIA buddy Mohammed bin Nayef — the details provided to date are scanty, simply the name of the shell he was using.

Craig Murray has already been asking similar questions.

Russian wealth is only a tiny minority of the money hidden away with the aid of Mossack Fonseca. In fact, it soon becomes obvious that the selective reporting is going to stink.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung, which received the leak, gives a detailed explanation of the methodology the corporate media used to search the files. The main search they have done is for names associated with breaking UN sanctions regimes. The Guardian reports this too and helpfully lists those countries as Zimbabwe, North Korea, Russia and Syria. The filtering of this Mossack Fonseca information by the corporate media follows a direct western governmental agenda. There is no mention at all of use of Mossack Fonseca by massive western corporations or western billionaires – the main customers. And the Guardian is quick to reassure that “much of the leaked material will remain private.”

What do you expect? The leak is being managed by the grandly but laughably named “International Consortium of Investigative Journalists”, which is funded and organised entirely by the USA’s Center for Public Integrity. Their funders include

Ford Foundation
Carnegie Endowment
Rockefeller Family Fund
W K Kellogg Foundation
Open Society Foundation (Soros)

among many others. Do not expect a genuine expose of western capitalism. The dirty secrets of western corporations will remain unpublished.

Expect hits at Russia, Iran and Syria and some tiny “balancing” western country like Iceland. A superannuated UK peer or two will be sacrificed – someone already with dementia.

Now, in response to people like me and Murray and Moon of Alabama asking those questions, the SZ editor in charge of their side of the project promises dirt on Americans will be coming. Let’s hope so, because this is a worthwhile leak of data, and it would be unfortunate for Americans and Brits to be deprived of learning more about the corruption among their elite.

Does this project follow up on Ken Silverstein’s earlier reporting?

Back in December 2014, Ken Silverstein did a fairly thorough review of MF at Vice (though he worked at the Intercept at the time).

[A] yearlong investigation reveals that Mossack Fonseca—which theEconomist has described as a remarkably “tight-lipped” industry leader in offshore finance—has served as the registered agent for front companies tied to an array of notorious gangsters and thieves that, in addition to Makhlouf, includes associates of Muammar Gaddafi and Robert Mugabe, as well as an Israeli billionaire who has plundered one of Africa’s poorest countries, and a business oligarch named Lázaro Báez, who, according to US court records and reports by a federal prosecutor in Argentina, allegedly laundered tens of millions of dollars through a network of shell firms, some which Mossack Fonseca had helped register in Las Vegas.

Documents and interviews I’ve conducted also show that Mossack Fonseca is happy to help clients set up so-called shelf companies—which are the vintage wines of the money-laundering business, hated by law enforcement and beloved by crooks because they are “aged” for years before being sold, so that they appear to be established corporations with solid track records—including in Las Vegas. One international asset manager who talked to Mossack Fonseca about doing business with them told me that the firm offered to sell a 50-year-old shelf company for $100,000.

If shell companies are getaway cars for bank robbers, then Mossack Fonseca may be the world’s shadiest car dealership.

Silverstein clearly had some documents, though there’s no indication he had the trove that started getting leaked to SZ and ICIJ in early 2015, just weeks after Silverstein’s story.

On Twitter, Silverstein suggested his story never got published because this was the period when the Intercept wasn’t publishing (I had something similar happen to me while there).

But given the close continuity between Silverstein’s story and SZ receipt of the first documents, are they part of the same effort?

Why do they call it the Panama Papers?

These aren’t papers showing the corruption that flows through Panama (for that matter, neither did the BVI leaks show all the corruption that flows through BVI, and there’s a significant BVI aspect to this leak). Rather, they show the corruption flowing through a Panamian-based but global firm, Mossack Fonseca. Reporting on this tells us MF is only the fourth largest of these laundering specialists.

So, aside from the fact that few people have heard of MF, why are we calling this the Panama Papers and not “Here’s what the fourth largest of these companies is involved with”?

All of which is to say as huge as this leak is — which is good! — it’s still just a tiny fraction of what’s out there.

Let the resignations begin

None of this is meant to undermine the importance of this leak or the reporting the team of journalists covering it. Indeed, the story already threatens to take down the Prime Minister of Iceland whose conflict of interest the files revealed. We should have more of these leaks, covering all the havens and shell-creators.

Just remember, as you’re watching the coverage, that we’re getting selective coverage of one particular corner of that industry (ICIJ has said something about releasing files in several months). By all means let’s go after the crooks this story exposes, but let’s remember the crooks who, for whatever reason, aren’t included in this one.

Update: Fusion, which is part of the data sharing, admits there are only 211 Americans identified in the stash, though thus far this is just from recent years (that is, the years that might be affected by the trade agreement).

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has only been able to identify 211 people with U.S. addresses who own companies in the data (not all of whom we’ve been able to investigate yet). We don’t know if those 211 people are necessarily U.S. citizens.

All that said, the very good experts (including Jack Blum, who’s as good on these issues as anyone) don’t have very compelling explanations why there aren’t Americans in the stash.

Update: McClatchy describes some of the 200-some Americans whose passports show up in the files. All the ones it describes have been prosecuted (though several got light punishments).