View from Brussels: What is true and false on the internet?
As the speculation continues to swirl around whether the Russians hacked emails that revealed corruption in the Democratic Party, an obscure news website accuses Google of carrying out systematic censorship of real journalism.
At time of writing, Julian Assange - the flamboyant publisher of national security secrets - has been on the run for almost seven years to the day.
The Wikileaks founder faded from the public eye in Britain and America after reneging on the opportunity to return to Sweden to answer questions about the alleged rapes of two women in August 2010. Instead, he sought refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in June 2012, saying he wasn’t afraid of responding to potential rape charges as such, but was worried that Sweden would, without further ado, simply extradite him onwards to the United States, where it seems a grand jury has convened and is preparing to indict him on potentially more serious charges of espionage.
American courts may not be in a generous mood and while Bradley Manning - the original US army whistleblower - was released after a pardon by Obama, it is not clear whether Trump is going to be as well-disposed towards Assange. What the new president thinks is anyone’s guess, since he is alternately said to be under the influence of hardliners – “the generals” - or he doesn’t know his own mind from day to day.
In Sweden, while the mainstream media have gone from support to hostility over approximately the same time span as the British media, private citizens are more positive. There’s a website called Flashback, devoted to citizens’ journalism, where the Assange thread has 80,000 entries, the latest written this morning, going over the same-old, same-old events of those August days in various Stockholm beds.
The Assange sexual molestation story may turn out to be the JFK assassination of sex crimes: forever a mystery and source of fascination. A poll of 8,000 Flashback users (admittedly self-selected), many of whom have access to leaked Swedish police documentation, shows that this group believes by a 4-to-1 margin that the whole case against him is bogus.
It’s been some time since I researched this case carefully, but there were several anomalies to give at least some ammunition to those who argue Assange was framed. There was no DNA - Assange’s nor anyone else’s - on the condom that was alleged to be ripped off by him during sex (which made up one of the counts of sexual molestation) and, in a leaked photo from the police documentation, the rupture of the condom looks more like a cut from a sharp object, like a pair of scissors, than a tear from an impatient hand. Planted evidence, then?
One of the two women arrived at the conclusion that she wanted nothing to do with the case being built up against him and didn’t sign off on the final version of her testimony to the police. While he was definitely rough in bed, both girls had pillow talk with him and at least one of them wanted him to call back in the afternoon – which he never did. Assange spent several days in the flat of the other woman even after the alleged molestations took place.
Was Assange a rapist? The courts have never had a chance to decide. Of course, you can be a bad human being and still come up with important truths.
Assange, from his cramped room in Knightsbridge, continues to publish streams of revelations from intel agency whistleblowers through his website WikiLeaks. They are as interesting as the military revelations of years ago and, of course, haven’t received nearly the same attention. Let us recall that the Guardian and the New York Times collaborated to give the Wikileaks Iraq revelations maximum play in 2010-2011. These days, both papers appear to despise and hate Assange.
Today’s leaks are all technology-related and are to do with US intelligence’s capabilities to hack just about anything. If you go to the WikiLeaks website, there is a lot of really revelatory information in the so-called ‘Vault 7’ dump, which details the capabilities of the CIA to perform electronic surveillance and cyber warfare just about anywhere.
Projects with names like Angelfire, ExpressLane, Dumbo and Outlaw Country allow the CIA to penetrate web browsers, smartphone operating systems, as well as smart TVs and cars.
It may be too technical for the average journalist but, for instance, the Angelfire project allows the modification of a partition boot sector so that when Windows loads device drivers, it also loads and executes the Wolf Creek implant, which can load and run other Angelfire implants. The implants never touch the file system, so there is very little forensic evidence to indicate that the process was ever run.
Express Lane is a project that allows the cyber-infiltration of fellow intelligence agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security - which the CIA seems not to trust - and allows the exfiltration of biometric information that these fellow agencies hold on the CIA’s human targets.
The Dumbo project allows webcam footage to be remotely deleted following a break-in by the so-called Physical Access Group, that special branch of operatives who physically break in to and target computers in CIA field operations.
In short, these revelations fill in concrete details about the claims of the universal surveillance society made by Edward Snowden and dramatised by film-maker Oliver Stone in a film made two years ago. The list goes on.
I suppose when you don’t have a life, you have the time. Apart from continuing his leaks of US intelligence secrets from his tiny bedsit in the embassy, Assange has also had the time to pen a vitriolic attack on Google’s pretensions to be a geopolitical player and collaborator with the US State Department.
Before his self incarceration at the embassy, and while the extradition process to Sweden was going through English courts, Assange lived out his bail period at an English country house owned by friend and entrepreneur Vaughan Smith.
There, Assange received visitors from far and wide, including a VIP visit from the chiefs at Google - chairman Eric Schmidt and a promising young executive called Jared Cohen.
Assange at the time though Schmidt was just a brilliant engineer able to grasp the problems very quickly in a visually intuitive way. He liked Schmidt and decided it was one of his most rewarding discussions ever. By the time he was writing this, his latest book, he had decided that Schmidt wanted to be a player in Washington.
And Cohen? A striver with geopolitical ambitions for his company. Jared Cohen is cited by the private intelligence agency Stratfor’s emails (which Wikileaks has also leaked and which Assange quotes) as “Google’s director of regime change”. Cohen allegedly wanted to use Google’s enormous power to spread democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere. Part of Hillary’s smart power approach when she was Secretary of State: many State Department officials worked for spells at Google and vice versa.
It has to be said that Assange doesn’t exactly mention a plethora of examples of Cohen’s attempts to use Google’s power to effect political change. The one example he does give is how Cohen allegedly emailed the chief executive of Twitter to delay scheduled routine maintenance in order to assist the 2009 uprising in Iran. And he is better on tech collaborations with the Pentagon such as the Enduring Security Framework (ESF), the sharing of information between Google and the rest of Silicon Valley and Pentagon-affiliated agencies.
Freedom of Information requests show how Schmidt is on first-name terms with the chief of the National Security agency, Kenneth Alexander, with whom he traded chummy emails. Google also received money to provide the NSA with search tools for the NSA’s gigantic amount of hoarded information, phone calls and emails from around the world.
A possible recent candidate for the US media technology giant’s political intervention – too late for Assange’s book - could be Google’s alleged censorship of at least a dozen US news web sites offering an alternative angle to the news coming out of official Washington.
I consult them often; some of them are really well-respected. For instance, Consortium News is run by a former Newsweek journalist, Robert Parry, who broke many of the stories in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s and was the 2015 winner of the IF Stone medal and the 2017 winner of the Martha Gellhorn award. Both Stone and Gellhorn were legendary muckraking journalists; the latter, a famous foreign correspondent, was briefly married to Ernest Hemingway.
Many of the writers for Consortium News are ex-CIA analysts, ex-NSA staff and ex-State Department diplomats and while they are generally quite critical of President Trump, they are even more critical of the so-called Russiagate scandal, which they think is fake.
An organisation called the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) run by William Binney, former technical director of the NSA, has found that the emails at the heart of the Russiagate scandal, based on download speeds, must have been downloaded onto a USB drive on location on the East Coast, not a remote hack from Eastern Europe or Russia. It was an inside job, a leak - not a hack.
These emails - discussions between key Democratic officials, whose veracity no one has contested - showed how the Democratic National Congress (DNC), which was supposed to be neutral between the Democratic presidential candidates, consistently favoured the Democratic establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, over the very popular upstart socialist candidate Bernie Sanders.
These emails, with their revelations of Democratic party active bias, were damaging to Hillary Clinton. Who was responsible?
A US intelligence assessment made in January by handpicked analysts from a number of intelligence agencies argued that the emails were hacked by “the Russians” before being passed onto Wikileaks. This confirmed a narrative for which the Hillary team argued early on and which the mostly pro-Hillary mainstream media have parroted since, possibly as a way of diverting attention from corruption in the campaign of the party favoured overwhelmingly by journalists.
It could be true. However, no concrete evidence was presented at that January assessment – which the VIPS findings now challenge.
Of course, it is possible that the individual, the insider, who downloaded the incriminating material from the DNC server on the East Coast – i.e. the leaker - was an agent working for Russian intelligence inside the United States. Yet why has no journalist working for the mainstream media ever discussed the possibility of who this individual might be?
In another extremely interesting revelation that appears on alternative websites like Consortium News, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh told a citizen journalist that his inside contacts at the FBI tell him that their agents have managed to break into the computer of murdered Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich and, going through the emails, find that Rich was in touch with Assange and was the source of at least some of the emails exposing the Clinton-DNC shenanigans.
Was that why Rich was murdered? Hersh doesn’t think so – he thinks it was a random robbery gone wrong, when Rich was gunned down walking home from a Washington bar at 4am last July – and while he offers no proof that the entire stash of emails, in several tranches, was acquired by Wikileaks from this source, the possibility that they all came from Rich is certainly an interesting avenue of exploration.
Was the 27-year-old Rich - a known Sanders supporter, a young idealist - working off his own bat or was he a “Russian agent”? If Rich was the leaker, and Rich was acting alone, out of disgust at the corruption in his organisation, that blows away much of the mainstream media case against the Russians. Every day for the last ten months, newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times and cable channels like CNN and MSNBC have taken it as axiomatic that it was. Yet they have provided no proof and they certainly don't discuss Seth Rich.
The truth only emerges in an open intellectual community, so it is important to have alternative voices and outlets for these voices to appear. Maybe this is where the new strategy attributed to Google comes in. According to investigations by the World Socialist news website (WSWS), traffic to their websites and many others, including Consortium News, has dropped between 20 per cent and 70 per cent since Google introduced a sort-of fake news-detecting algorithm in April 2017.
The websites are available if you type in their URLs directly, but if you type in keywords previously associated with their news stories, they now fail to appear either in a Google search at all or very low down, claims the WSWS – after the tenth Google page. Only a small percentage of web surfers go that far. Consortium News has also suffered terribly, as has Truthdig and the Wikileaks website itself.
Google has been under enormous pressure, I guess, and they recently hired a bunch of mainstream news media organisations, including the New York Times, to act as consultants on an algorithm to exclude “fake news” from the searches. Asking the New York Times to be an impartial observer of what constitutes “fake news” is not uncontroversial, since these selfsame websites, if their investigations are true, claim to show up the mainstream media to be fake news, at least on the Russiagate story.
Is this what is happening? Rather than engage in the claims of Hersh and Binney and others, are the mainstream media organisations like the New York Times, with their reputations to protect, simply collaborating with Google to get these voices excluded from the public domain?
It is bad news for free speech if Google is carrying out this kind of censorship. It also shows how America is under pressure, as is Britain. The Iraq war of 2003 and the financial crisis of 2008 damaged these countries’ reputations; the ability of the “Anglosphere” to impose its language and ideological and political system on the world, as has been the case since 1945, is under challenge as never before. India, Turkey, Indonesia, China, Russia and Brazil are rising powers – and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. China holds enormous amounts of American debt. The role of American dollar as the world’s reserve currency cannot last forever.
Americans who think geostrategically - of which there are many in Washington - might ask why the internet and Google, an American company, should be allowed to circulate stories that, true or not, diminish America’s reputation and air America’s dirty laundry. Especially as America’s rivals may already be doing this sort of thing.
America is a relatively open society – a very open society, in fact, much more open than Britain, never mind America’s Asian rivals. Can it afford to continue to be? When the new Cold War moves into cyberspace, and censorship grows, the internet will no longer be what it used to be.