Continuing Relevance of Wikileaks, Assange, and Snowden

JulianAssangeCypherpunksNew Orleans  Contrary to many published stories, the reports of Wikileaks’ death and demise seem exaggerated, and despite the tedium the mainstream media has developed for Julian Assange and his antics, suddenly he seems relevant again, and Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, seems, surprisingly, to have ignited exactly the kind of high level national and international privacy and spying debate that he had hoped to inspire with his info dump.   How did this come to pass?

            Recently I read Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by some of the team of Guardian newspaper reports about the run-up to the multi-media publication of the original Iraq and Afghanistan documents from Bradley Manning via Wikileaks.  They are not uncritical, but give a semi-objective look at the process and Assange’s motivations and philosophy.  It was helpful to be reminded of the international awards Assange and Wikileaks had won before they kicked the US hornet’s nest for their work on transparency.  There were perhaps too many lurid details on Assange’s Swedish legal problems and sexual accusations, though it was a helpful education on how crimes are defined differently by different nations.  The other book I’ve gone through is Cypherpunks which is a conversation between Assange and some of his hacker colleagues from around the world.  In one great line he calls cellphones “a tracking device that also makes calls,” which recent information seems to confirm.  Reading this book before the Snowden revelations, I would have thought some of their concerns were perhaps true, but overblown, but now they might seem modest compared to what has emerged.  As a footnote it was also fascinating to find that Assange was learning from his buddies information that they had gotten by reading the Wall Street Journal, which he had not realized about the attacks against Wikileaks.  These guys don’t know everything of course and how could they, so why are we surprised that geeks with sometimes less than proficient social skills can also be naïve and left footed on political and organizational matters.

            But, just as Assange gets bottled up indefinitely in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, here comes this Snowden fellow with all of his NSA spying information, and here’s the irony, Wikileaks is back in the mix, because acting as a source for dumps of information from leakers was precisely the reason why Wikileaks was created and the cause it was designed to serve.  Furthermore in a world adverse to conflict, these dudes have proven that they can handle the heat. Say what you may about Assange, he may be running in some stunt for a political position in Australia, but he’s not running for prom queen.   He can carry weight. 

            And, Snowden despite the hue and cry and endless debate that we could all have on tactics and strategy and what makes him tick, had a story to tell that would categorically not have been told without him taking the risk and pushing it out to the world, and, arguably he could not have done so without the battle-tested skills of Wikileaks.

            A story in the Journal tries to use the report of a 2-hour encrypted skype-like call between Snowden and his father to cast aspersions on the motivations of blogger Glenn Greenwald who also facilitated this affair and the fundraising by Wikileaks in support of the Snowden work.   Who knows, but I would be careful about being herded anywhere on this.  Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison flew with Snowden out of Hong Kong to Moscow and hung with him for 5-weeks in the transit zone in real life not in some Tom Hanks movie, and that shows some organizational commitment no matter how haphazard the organization, and no doubt cost some big time cash as they facilitate Snowden’s asylum, so unless pops is willing and able to pay the whole bill, Snowden, Assange, and Wikileaks seem to be taking some heat for performing a service in a very small niche that turns out to be vital in modern life and politics for citizens trying to live in the new globalism of nation states specializing in secrecy by any means possible.


Justice Going Wikileaks on Middlemen in Payday Lending Schemes

indexNew Orleans  By issuing subpoenas to the financial institutions that are enabling blatantly illegal payday lending schemes and scams, the Department of Justice with provocation from the New York State Attorney General’s actions, finally seems to be getting serious about stopping these predators, largely by picking up a page from the State Department’s Wikileaks assault in 2010.  The strategy is essentially, “if you can’t touch them, then go after whoever is helping them.”

            In the run-up to the first Wikileaks disclosures in the Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications, Senator Lieberman of Connecticut and the State Department with no legal basis squeezed off Wikileaks’ funding stream by convincing PayPal, Visa, and banking institutions to deny Wikileaks access to any ability to receive funds, largely crippling the organization.  With payday lending predators the Justice Department is trying the same strategy but has stronger legal standing since a 1989 act passed during the savings and loan scandals at the time allows financial recovery from banks and other financial transaction processors if there is fraud or other violations

            The back story on this version of payday lending predation is e-commerce gone rogue.  As we have discussed before, 15 states including New York in addition to the District of Columbia, have lending caps on payday lenders while 35 let them get away with wholesale murder.  On-line payday lending has now passed $18 billion in transactions and poaches victims everywhere, including in places where they are barred.  Additionally, and sadly, there are some Indian tribes making a sovereignty argument, that have allowed themselves to be home base for some of these shenanigans, along with “anything goes” states like Utah and Delaware.   This online activity is huge and according to Arkansas-based Stephens, Inc. now is 40% of the total payday lending business.   And, some of this is not payday lending but outright scams promising jobs or delivery of goods that will never happen once the transaction is processed.

            Supposedly, according to the Wall Street Journal, both the Office of the Controller of the Currency and the FDIC are telling their member financial institutions to clean-up their acts and evaluate their relationships as middlemen with these loan sharks and hustlers.  JP Morgan Chase earlier ran from a scandal where they were enabling false charges by larding on numerous hits on accounts with insufficient funds totally thousands of dollars for these shysters.  Chase now claims that it will only hit and charge once. 

            It’s too early to tell whether this is simply drum beating to warn the banks or a serious charge against the bad guys and their ever-so-willing partners in crime among financial institutions, both big and small, but at least if the bugle is blaring, we can finally hope that the troops are coming.

Wielding the Bank Account Weapon to Block Wikileaks and Others


Little Rock   In the current showdown between the National Security Agency and leaker Edward Snowden, numerous accounts are resuscitating interest and attention on Wikileaks and its huge intel drop of 2010.  Part of this is simply a case of Snowden being unavailable to talk, thereby opening up a huge media hole that demands to be filled and finding Julian Assange and Wikileaks happy to oblige.

            Part of the commentary invariably touches on the fact that a US-initiated shutdown of banking facilities allowing for money transfers to Wikileaks is still crippling the organization.  I keep thinking that Wikileaks has solved this problem, but if they have, the patchwork seems not to be holding, and that problem fascinates me.

            Most people do not realize that when they open an account at a bank, that the bank retains the right to terminate that account for any reason or for no reason at all without offering rhyme or reason or any process of appeal or redress.  Sure they have to provide the customer with notice, usually 30 days, and they have to give the customer their money back in a certified check, but that does not mean that it will be easy to open another account.  Banks by definition used to be seen as conservative institutions caring inordinately for their reputations and ability to command public and customer trust.  I realize that large scale banking has become something more akin to a criminal enterprise, but the cultural history still allows banks to cling to these myths from the past.   All of which boils down to the fact that as much as banks are about making the money, they do not want to be involved in any controversy whatsoever making something like Wikileaks or other politically controversial organizations more endangered by this hidden banking threat than they may realize.

            I’m not sure how many nonprofit CFO’s or controllers have intact contingency plans that would allow them access to alternate accounts or banking arrangements if their work was suddenly in the cross-hairs of controversy and conflict or as realistically the craziness of Congress and the polarization of our times.  I suspect most of them have not looked at the Wikileaks problem or similar problems faced by other groups around the world on the simplest of matters in handling their money, but these are real issues that need to be addressed.   I have seen these problems firsthand, and watched organizations scramble, sometimes on their knees, to try and convince banks to handle their business or others to stand in their stead.  It’s not pretty, and it can be fatal.

            Today’s papers may be full of Wikileaks speculation but seeing that a nonprofit election monitoring organization in Russia was suspended by the government there on specious grounds, after having blown the whistle on election irregularities a couple of years ago, note carefully that one of the key punishments was shutting down their bank accounts for the next six months, effectively strangling the organization to death.

             There are a number of watchwords that come to mind in these cases of bank account closures for whatever reasons including “be prepared,” which would be good, “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware,” which is what the banks will remind you when you complain, or the common organizing maxim:  “when you strike the bear, make sure you bring it down,” or…be ready for the attack, which would be something good to remember.

Group Finally Stepping Up to Handle Donations for Wikileaks and Others

 New Orleans   A group of folks has finally stepped into the gap and created a nonprofit channeling capacity for donations to Wikileaks and other important, but unpopular groups protecting free speech and guaranteeing more transparency for the public.  The Freedom of the Press Foundation  is pretty much just a “scarecrow” site at its current launch with only a facility to accept foundations for the organization itself, Wikileaks, and several other groups for a fee that is either 8% or $8.00, which is kind of confusing, but regardless, not much of a bite, all things considered.  Furthermore, it allows the contributions to be anonymous to Wikileaks by making the money fungible on the site.   Board members include Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, John Cusack, the actor, and some other internet transparency, access, and accountability folks.

I say, about time!

In the spate of Congressional “takings” without due process which have included attacks on ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood, rumblings in that direction against Wikileaks and its release of a treasure trove of diplomatic correspondence, PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard all folded like cheap suits and refused to continue to handle donations to Wikileaks.  Others stepped up, but access was difficult and recognition was limited (see earlier blogs) with most of the publicity for their efforts ironically only available through the Wall Street Journal.  Sadly this all happened two full years ago at the end of 2010.  In the old days institutions like the Tides Center in San Francisco would have stepped into the void, but this time the prevailing ostrich mentality kicked into gear in the face of any controversy when progressive institutions were attacked.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation does make a point that your donations will be tax deductible.  I suspect that that has been the whole point of the delay, which is somewhat pathetic in itself.  Cutting off a progressive initiative just for the sake of possible income tax deduction must define fair weather support.  If that is what people have been waiting for then, Wikileaks, freedom of speech and much else is in much greater trouble than we realized.

Let’s hope this is a “better late than never” situation.

Whither Wikileaks? Assange Taking his Show on the Road to Ecuador?

Toronto   Quito is a fascinating mile-high city and Ecuador is a very interesting country.  I have many friends there and have worked with them for years to try and figure a way that ACORN could support organizing there.  One day, as we say!  I also have a lot of respect for President Rafael Correa and his efforts to shape a progressive government there.  It’s a difficult project and though his performance may not have been perfect in every regard, his project has been worthy of praise and support.  Some years ago I was honored to speak at a conference he organized on the future of progressive movements and to attend my one and only official state dinner anywhere in the world.

But having said all of that, I have to wonder what in the world Julian Assange, “principal founder of Wikileaks” as the Times called him, might be thinking he might do in Ecuador if by some wild miracle he was able to both get the asylum he is seeking now as he is holed up on the lam in London in their apartment sized consular headquarters trying to jump hundreds of thousands of dollars of bail put up by some of Wikileaks last and truest believers?  Is this crazy or what?

Assange has never been one to simply walk a straight and narrow path and god knows I do believe he is sincere that he at least believes that “they” are trying to get him, but he must know over the last year he has been little more than a bird in a gilded cage and now with this last stunt he is categorically signaling that Wikileaks is totally dead.  For Assange, as all of us who have supported him must now be clear, it’s all about him now!

Wikileaks had already been crippled by Assange’s decreasing ability to generate any resources to support its work and his distracted and diverted attention to having to spend most of his time and energy trying to save himself from extradition to Sweden.  Now clearly he couldn’t raise a dime for Wikileaks or anything he might be managing with a ski mask and a gun.

His sudden sneak out to the Ecuadorian consular office seems a total admission that Wikileaks is now history, no matter how valuable and worthwhile in its moment, and that he is ready to become the Bobby Fisher of the progressive forces, just a crazy voice yelling from the deep forest, crying to be heard every couple of years.

Assange is a bright guy and when on his game, brilliantly effective.  I read an interview with him a couple of months ago that was hugely insightful in looking at the future, if one filtered out all of the weird and paranoid rants.  And, I’ll give him this, some of his paranoia over time was no doubt justified, but, frankly, that was then, and not so much now.

I wish that Assange would have gone to Sweden, faced the music, weathered the storm, and reemerged wiser and more effective.

If he miraculously gets asylum from Correa, and then somehow manages to catch a flight despite the Interpol red tag and other problems, I can’t imagine exactly what he will do in Quito other than learn and perfect his Spanish.  He doesn’t seem to be the settle down and move forward kind of guy who would just fall for a lovely senorita in Quito and call it a day.  He certainly won’t be able to resuscitate Wikileaks.

What could he be thinking?  And, why?  And, how disappointing for the rest of us that hoped Wikileaks would continue to make a contribution.

Komen Continues and Whatever Happened to Assange?

Team ACORN Paterno Paolo Guarnaccia and Astrid V. Anselmi

Paterno     After days of heated discussions the leaders of La Citta finally saw that the sides might be divided on candidates for mayor but could be united on a democratic process for selecting the candidate.  Being able to put aside individual differences and preferences for the good of the entire movement is an important early test for organizational survival, especially under political pressure.  The meeting last evening ended early for a change and everyone left with a smile on their face rather than shouting last remarks.  These are all good signs.

Another good sign half-way across the world was the announcement of the resignation of the polarizing and controversial VP for public policy and former losing candidate for governor in Georgia and staunch anti-abortion campaigner and anti-Planned Parenthood advocate.  She left without either grace or surprise given the reversal of the defunding of Planned Parenthood under withering public pressure and outrage by women and some of their own affiliates.    It seemed important to her to say that the Komen Foundation was already moving on a Planned Parenthood ban before she came on the scene and took the job, and that, yes, she had advocated the defunding, but wanted to make sure everyone knew that every level of the organization had vetted and approved the decision all the way to the board and no doubt to the founder and CEO of the foundation.   

All of which just deepens the indictment of the Susan Komen Foundation and makes the case even more clear that the Georgian had been hired in all likelihood to take the right wing heat off of Komen, but then the deluge.  It seems clear that Komen is simply trying to shelter itself from the wind without any true core around its mission and means.  The founder spoke of learning lessons and recommitting to the mission to protect women, but I have to ask what that means at this point.  Out of $97,000,000 in grants to support women’s community health initiatives, $700000 to Planned Parenthood was already a paltry sum…less than 1% of the operation’s total funding.   When it comes to protecting women’s health, we all need an outfit that we can depend on come any weather, and Komen seems not to be ready to stand in the storm and take the gale.  The emerging organizations suggesting that there might be better ways and better places for donations to support women seem worth a good look.

There are other lessons here from the Planned Parenthood resistance to the defunding purges of the right and easily cowed liberals.  Outfits like Komen depend on the public as do corporations like Ford, which quickly distanced itself from the Komen mess.  If support for organizations unjustly attacked develops resistance, then those kinds of institutions and organizations are force to heel to some level of accountability.  More authoritarian, hierarchical and closed institutions like churches and private philanthropic foundations lack any accountability or transparency, so are immune to questions of fairness or justice when they desert organizations under scurrilous attack, like ACORN and others.  NPR might have support from the public but also depends on the government, and the ideological warfare in the halls of government is scorching the earth everywhere.  These are hard times.

And, hey, whatever happened to Julian Assange and Wikileaks, speaking of beleaguered operations.  I read a curious and contradictory interview in The Rolling Stone which made it virtually impossible to sort out if there was any future for the organization.  Assange jumped back and forth between coherence and a kind of conspiratorial, head over his shoulder attitude that couldn’t be helpful in saving the value of the operation.  Speculation is that his hearing in Britain was likely to result in his extradition to Sweden.  Not sure if there’s a future for this organization, no matter how valuable it has been around the world, if there’s no willingness to learn a way to communicate a better, clearer path to the future.