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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Posted: December 11, 2010 03:52 PM

In an ideal world, the WikiLeaks revelations would have ended two wars. Documenting patterns of cavalier abuse and untold brutality in Iraq and Afghanistan might have sparked public outrage sufficient to undermine the capacity to continue these campaigns. Instead we've seen the war machine dig in even deeper, extending drawdown deadlines and expanding fronts to adjacent locales. Rather than being in retreat over the WikiLeaks data dump, the Pentagon seems to have become emboldened by the simple fact that a significant portion of its dirty laundry has been aired publicly, and the neighbors have barely uttered a murmur of discontent at the sight.

Even more perversely, WikiLeaks seems to have exacerbated two additional wars rather than ending the ones most clearly in its sights. The first is simply the "war at home," in which the technologies of scanning and surveilling utilized in combat theaters are emplaced domestically under the guise of fighting terrorists. Under the same paltry logic that keeps us indefinitely embroiled in Afghanistan, periodic attempts at impracticable mayhem by disaffected pawns become the basis for a quantum leap in backscatter hardware, security screeds in public places, and the state's increasing interpenetration of our privacy and dignity. By chronicling the perverse lengths to which the U.S. will go in the "war on terror," WikiLeaks has ironically helped to legitimize those actions by adding to their endorsement the imprimatur of public acceptance.

Not only has this led to the tacit approval and domestic deployment of the war machine, but in a feat of suspicious synergy the WikiLeaks controversy has actually spawned a third war. Media outlets everywhere have caught the wave of "cyberterrorists" and a burgeoning "cyberwar" as part of an "Operation Payback" that is ostensibly designed to avenge the mistreatment of Julian Assange and militantly defend the murky concept of "internet freedom." Business Week, for instance, characterized this as an effort "to wage a cyberwar in WikiLeaks' defense," launched by a terrorist-sounding "shadowy group" with "axis of evil" overtones that is "starting to look like the onset of a global struggle by Web anarchists against the mighty Empire." The socio-cultural import and dramatic nature of such war imagery was not lost on Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, who unabashedly tweeted in support: "The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops."

Interestingly, this purported cyberwar comes at a time when the debate over internet access and regulation is reaching a tipping point. Some politicians and pundits have openly called for listing WikiLeaks as a "terrorist organization," invoking the standard Trojan Horse phrase that is repeatedly used to curtail liberty, justify incursions, and foster interminable conflicts. For their part, the self-described "Anonymous" hacktivists and avengers of Assange have in many ways fed into this narrative, simultaneously exalting the power of the technological web and throwing down the gauntlet over its privatization and/or regulation:

"The internet is the last bastion of freedom in this evolving technical world. The internet is capable of connecting us all. When we are connected we are strong. When we are strong we have power.... This is why the government is moving on WikiLeaks. This is what they fear. They fear our power when we unite."

The Economist has documented some of the inner workings of the group, referring to the campaign as more of a "propaganda coup" than a cyberwar -- and yet with talk of deploying software tactics such as a "low-orbit ion cannon" and launching missions aimed at "vulnerable targets," the warlike sensibilities at work here are unmistakable. Another "inside look" at the hacktivists' "hidden world of Internet sabotage" reveals an obsession with "revenge attacks" and vigilante propaganda, and concludes that "the group has declared war against 'corrupt governments of the world' and anyone who tries to censor and copyright online information." In lauding the potentially revolutionary cyber-anarchism of WikiLeaks and the campaign to avenge it (for the record, Assange has described himself as a proponent of "free market libertarianism" and not as an anarchist), Mother Jones pithily invokes the war ethos in its call to "bring it on." The totality of these sentiments and activities has led Secure Computing Magazine to proclaim a nascent "total cyberwar," with the Anonymous hacktivists following suit by asserting that "we will fire at anyone or anything that tries to censor WikiLeaks... The major shitstorm has begun."

While the ostensible motivations of the WikiLeaks hacktivists may be intended to stand at cross-purposes to the mega-militarism of the war machine, the invocation of similar phrases and motifs raises some troubling issues about the nature of this resistance. More to the point, it engenders concerns over how the response to it will be constructed and deployed. By launching and/or threatening cyberattacks on central financial enterprises such as Visa and MasterCard, on retail pillars like Amazon (which apparently never quite fully developed as initially planned), and on governmental entities including Swedish prosecutors and various U.S. senators' sites, Operation Payback has triangulated its nonlinear efforts on what may be the virtual equivalent of the World Trade Center, at least in terms of symbolic stature. Unfortunately, the post-9/11 era has taught us that any perceived threat to business as usual is going to be met with overwhelming force, and moreover that human rights and civil liberties are likely to be among the myriad casualties.

Such are the ironies of the era in which we live: even antiwar actions and intentions can be fed back into the loop of justifying more war in the process. The military machine appears monolithic on some levels, but it is a good deal more agile and adaptable than is often perceived. On some level, we might plausibly conclude that if entities such as WikiLeaks and its shadowy avengers didn't exist, the Pentagon would probably have to invent them. To wit: the data contained in the voluminous war logs -- and the attendant cables detailing the behind-the-scenes machinations that undergird perpetual warfare -- indicate a widespread pattern of official overreaching and international illegality. These sordid details should have been sufficient to erode the ability to wage war, but instead we've seen an expansion that now includes cyber-fronts and potential retrenchments on virtual liberties in addition the physical ones already under assault. In this sense, WikiLeaks has perhaps unwittingly provided a base of tacit support for such abuses and an impetus to expand the range of battlefields in the age of perpetual warfare.

In a bygone day, analysts referred to the "fog of war" to encapsulate the moral murkiness and battlefield blurriness attendant to combat zones. Today, however, with the advent of high-tech warfare and the relative transparency of information vis-a-vis WikiLeaks, we can see much more clearly what war does and how it impacts all spheres of our lives. And yet, this potential sense of greater clarity has not brought with it an end to war, but rather a proliferation of it. Whereas the "fog of war" metaphor might cast doubt on the ethics and integrity of the enterprise, today we are experiencing a "blog of war" in which more information sharpens our gaze and thus inculpates us further as accomplices who still choose to suborn the ongoing operations. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know exactly what it is that we are blithely dismissing and conveniently ignoring in the collective "pursuit of happiness" that informs the business of our modern lives.

 

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