Governments and political influencers have a long history of working clandestinely behind vehemently closed doors as the general public unaware, wades in the waters of a global system that they have little to no word in its workings. Or is this just a bloated, convoluted perspective of individuals that are little too paranoid and not studied enough on happenings of global politics? No matter what the circumstances, at certain historical moments individuals under the flag of verity have revealed shocking truths on the shadowy workings of governments. In recent memory two of the most famous “champions” of truth have been Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Have they really changed the world though or are they just tilting at windmills?
I could go into a character analysis of Assange, mention his troubled youth, his sexual assault accusation and the granting of political asylum in Ecuador, but that isn’t pertinent to our topic. Instead, let’s see the evolution of Assange’s brain child and call to fame: Wikileaks. Early on even in childhood Assange had activist leanings (being fathered by an anti-war activist), and as a teenager he was embroiled in a criminal hacking case; while using the pseudonym Mendax he and a group of teenage hackers known as International Subversives, had accessed a long roster of websites including the Pentagon’s, the U.S. Department of Defense’s, MILNET, the U.S. Navy’s and NASA’s. These breaches would become prophetic, and although they were instigated as a form of protest (or maybe even partially post-adolescent mischief) they were not malicious or damaging to the hacked organizations (Assange would just pay a fine as punishment). That would come later in his career, the damaging not the hacking. In 2006 the domain name wikileaks.org was registered and published its first document just a few months later. Although initially started as a ‘wiki’ page that bases its publishing on volunteer contributors, it later evolved into a more traditional model of publication.
In January 2010 Chelsea Manning an ex-military intelligence analyst released the first set of many documents involving military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most infamous leak being the video known as Collateral Murder which depicted a helicopter raining a barrage of 30mm cannon fire on an group of people in a Bagdad street. These people were at the location of an attack on a U.S. military vehicle enacted earlier that morning. After the attack, seven of the ten people died; one of which was an Iraqi war correspondent for Reuters. As with any armed conflict, the circumstances are convoluted at best, the team that called in the support of the military helicopters was under fire the entire morning by insurgents and under the heat of battle misidentified the reporters cameras as a weapon and in fact two individuals escorting the reporters were armed with AK-47s, weapons preferred by the insurgence. The video created two distinct factions, a public outcry against the killing and the proponents that saw the attacks as justified.
Of course like many other media outlets, Wikileaks edited the original content changing the context of the video and although Assange initially spoke about brutality and murder, he later inadvertently relinquished his statements saying: "Based upon visual evidence, I suspect there probably were AKs and an RPG, but I’m not sure that means anything". Shortly after 400.000 documents regarding the Iraqi war were published, which the U.S. Department of Defense told the BBC, this leak of confidential information was the largest in history.
But has the largest leak in the history of classified data resulted in profound and significant change?
In 2013 as part of WikiLeaks parallel activities to protect whistle-blowers, the organization assisted Edward Snowden, after Snowden revealed information regarding the NSA’s surveillance of U.S. international citizens and organizations.
A former systems administrator for the CIA, later became a DELL company contractor for the NSA in Japan and the U.S. and finally (before the leak) an infrastructure analyst employed by Booz Allen Hamilton that was consulting for the NSA in Hawaii. Snowden was characterized by a high level of intelligence evident by his very significant career in lieu of a university diploma. After failing to enlist with the U.S. Special Forces (due to training related injury in which he broke both his legs), he applied at a job fair dedicated to intelligence agencies and was hired by the C.I.A. Due to his programming proficiencies he was soon assigned to be part of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland and was given full diplomatic cover. One of his agency supervisors said that Snowden was considered as the preeminent cyber security expert in the country at the time. He was later hand-picked by the Agency to support the president during the 2007 NATO summit in Romania.
It was during his time in Geneva he witnessed something that would change his views on the Agency’s tactics. He stated in an interview that he witnessed the C.I.A. getting a Swiss Banker drunk and then instigating him to drive home, resulting in the banker’s arrest. He was then approached and offered carte-blanche by becoming an informant for the U.S. This was during a period in which the U.S. government was pressuring Swiss authorities to force clarity on their banking institutions. The Swiss government has rebutted Snowden’s statement saying it means that the C.I.A. successfully bribed both Swiss police and judiciaries which is highly unlikely. Two years later Snowden resigned from the Central Intelligence Agency.
When Snowden was hired by DELL to work on NSA contracts he started collecting the documents that he would later leak. Rising meteorically through the ranks, he eventually became a “cyberstrategist” consulting NSA chiefs of cyber intelligence and technology officers in counter cyber intelligence against Chinese hackers. Three days after witnessing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lie under oath on the Congress floor, Snowden decided to walk away from his $200.000 a year position at DELL. Finally while working with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton (again under a NSA contract), he worked as an infrastructure analyst which had him attempting new methods to intercept internet and telephone traffic globally. Throughout all his time working under NSA contracts he continued to gather information, deciding to leak it when he witnessed James Clapper’s blatant dishonesty in front of the U.S. Congress.
Although the agencies exposed both within the United States and abroad don’t know specifically how many documents Snowden took, they estimate it around 1.7 million. The repercussions of the leaks that have been released was said by the NSA to have hampered their ability to monitor terrorist and terrorist groups, as they used the Snowden leaks to avoid surveillance methods used and the same holds true for the British Intelligence Agency which also had documents that were leaked.
One of the most profound truths revealed was project Prism which allowed the NSA court-approved access to American’s information on their Google and Yahoo accounts. It also revealed that the NSA went beyond its function as an agency of National Security and gathered data and information on business leaders, political influencers and even Governments of Nations that are allies of the United States. The documents also exposed the Agency’s black budget spending which wasn’t revealed or accountable to taxpayers.
Unlike Assange’s leaks, the information Snowden revealed still carry traction and have created a huge discussion surrounding national security, the safety of personal information and government clarity.
I think this may be because Assange’s leaks were more sensationalist and motivated by other factors, where Snowden’s leaked information sought to reveal the truth without alternative motives or agendas.
Ultimately though, its information and the way that information is assimilated digested and disseminated lies with the individual.
Is there anything else that you would like to add to this topic? Please let me know in the comment section below.