In praise of leaks, WikiLeaks and the Guardian

Today’s “scoop” is a reminder of why we have failed in Afghanistan.

Hats off to Julian Assange, Alan Rusbridger and the rest of the folks at WikiLeaks, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. Their joint publication of what the Guardian describes as a "huge cache of secret US military files" does indeed provide, as the reporters Nick Davies and David Leigh argue, "a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency".

The White House has criticised the "irresponsible" leak of 90,000 documents. Surprise, surprise!

Richard Kemp, the retired colonel, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and pundit often invited on to the airwaves to defend our "mission" in Helmand, told Radio 4's Today programme that the unprecedented document dump was "damaging" to operational security. First, how does he know? Second, so were the Pentagon Papers. As the US blogger Glenn Greenwald tweeted earlier this morning: "Can't wait to hear from those who believe Dan Ellsberg is heroic but who viciously condemn WikiLeaks". On his blog, Greenwald goes on to point out:

Ellsberg's leak -- though primarily exposing the amoral duplicity of a Democratic administration -- occurred when there was a Republican in the White House. This latest leak, by contrast, indicts a war which a Democratic president has embraced as his own, and documents similar manipulation of public opinion and suppression of the truth well into 2009. It's not difficult to foresee, as Atrios predicted, that media "coverage of [the] latest [leak] will be about whether or not it should have been published", rather than about what these documents reveal about the war effort and the government and military leaders prosecuting it.

At least John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate and chair of the Senate's foreign relations committee, seems to be taking the matter seriously:

[H]owever illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.

(Hat-tip: George Eaton.)

Talking of Daniel Ellsberg, by the way, here's what the most famous leaker in living memory wrote in September 2004, in the New York Times:

Surely there are officials in the present administration who recognise that the United States has been misled into a war in Iraq, but who have so far kept their silence -- as I long did about the war in Vietnam. To them I have a personal message: don't repeat my mistakes. Don't wait until more troops are sent, and thousands more have died, before telling truths that could end a war and save lives. Do what I wish I had done in 1964: go to the press, to Congress, and document your claims.

Technology may make it easier to tell your story, but the decision to do so will be no less difficult. The personal risks of making disclosures embarrassing to your superiors are real. If you are identified as the source, your career will be over; friendships will be lost; you may even be prosecuted. But some 140,000 Americans are risking their lives every day in Iraq. Our nation is in urgent need of comparable moral courage from its public officials.

Ellsberg was writing back then about the war in Iraq, but perhaps someone in the US government currently involved in the Afghan war effort read his piece more recently and was inspired to get in touch with Assange and co. (I suspect we'll never know . . . )

Either way, as the well-connected US blogger and commentator on foreign affairs Steve Clemons writes:

This is the "Pentagon Papers moment" in this contemporary war, and it will force President Obama and his team to go back and review first principles about the objectives of this war.

LBJ escalated the Vietnam war that he felt politically unable to escape.

The question is whether President Obama has the backbone and temerity to reframe this engagement and stop the haemorrhaging of American lives and those of allies as well as the gross expenditure of funds for a war that shows a diminished America that is killing hundreds of innocent people and lying about it, of an enemy that is animated and funded in part by our supposed allies in Pakistan, and US tolerance for a staggering level of abuse, incompetence and corruption in our Afghan allies in the Karzai government.

Does Obama have the "backbone and temerity" to stop this madness? It's question I've been asking for a while.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?