“If the leaks don’t kill you, the fear of them just might.”
Amid a seemingly incessant deluge of leaks and hacks, Washington, DC staffers have learned to imagine how even the most benign email would look a week later on the homepage of a secret-spilling outfit like WikiLeaks or DCLeaks. In many cases, they’ve stopped emailing altogether, deleted accounts, and reconsidered dumbphones. Julian Assange—or at least, a ten-years-younger and more innocent Assange—would say he’s already won.
After another week of Clinton-related emails roiling this election, the political world has been left to scrub their inboxes, watch their private correspondences be picked over in public, and psychoanalyze WikiLeaks’ inscrutable founder. Once they’re done sterilizing their online lives, they might want to turn to an essay Assange wrote ten years ago, laying out the endgame of his leaking strategy long before he became one of the most controversial figures on the Internet.
In “Conspiracy as Governance,” which Assange posted to his blog in December 2006, the leader of then-new WikiLeaks describes what he considered to be the most effective way to attack a conspiracy—including, as he puts it, that particular form of conspiracy known as a political party.
“Consider what would happen if one of these parties gave up their mobile phones, fax and email correspondence—let alone the computer systems which manage their [subscribers], donors, budgets, polling, call centres and direct mail campaigns. They would immediately fall into an organisational stupor and lose to the other.”
And how to induce that “organisational stupor?” Foment the fear that any correspondence could leak at any time.
“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation.”
WikiLeaks would publish its first leak the same month as that blog post, a communication from a Somalian Islamic cleric calling for political assassinations. Three years later it’d put out the Pentagon and State Department leaks provided by Chelsea Manning, and six years after that, leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton advisor John Podesta would lead to the ousting of DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and shake Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
It was a crappy, annoying manifesto. And it was ahead of its time by many years. Dave Aitel, former NSA analyst
The last decade has shown just how prescient Assange was. Take, for example, the Russian hackers who published private files from the World Anti-Doping Agency after Russia’s athletes got banned from the Olympics for doping. “Now a group like WADA has to take everything they say to every person into account. They have to think, this could leak,” says Dave Aitel, a former NSA staffer and founder of the security firm Immunity who focuses on cyberwar and information warfare. “The idea is, ‘If we can prevent them from having secrets, they have to operate very differently.’”
That move comes straight from Assange. “It was a crappy, annoying manifesto,” Aitelsays. “And it was ahead of its time by many years.”
A spokesperson for WikiLeaks says Assange’s essay was a “thought experiment” that the organization still believes to be true. “Organizations have two choices (1) reduce their levels of abuse or dishonesty or (2) pay a heavy ‘secrecy tax’ in order to engage in inefficient but secretive processes,” the spokesperson writes. “As organizations are usually in some form of competitive equilibrium this means that, in the face of WikiLeaks, organizations that are honest will, on average, grow, while those that are dishonest and unjust will decline.”
The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. Julian Assange, writing in 2006
Of course, Assange’s claim that a political party leaks in direct proportion to its dishonesty looks almost laughable after the last several months. WikiLeaks has published leaks exclusively damaging to Clinton and the Democratic Party, while publishing nothing from Donald Trump or his campaign. (Trump has, of course, faced the leaks of his 1995 tax returns and a damning video where he brags about sexual assault. But mainstream newspapers published both, and neither came from the sort of internal communications Assange wrote about. Trump himself also famously doesn’t use email, as good a security measure as anyone could hope for.)
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have both said that recent WikiLeaks releases originated with Russian state-sponsored hackers seeking to influence US electoral politics. Assange’s essay doesn’t account for the possibility that a government might exploit or collude with a leak platform like WikiLeaks. (WikiLeaks’ spokesperson denied that there has been any “official claim that any documents published by WikiLeaks have come from a state actor,” somehow ignoring last week’s DHS and ODNI announcement.)
The notion in Assange’s essay that only corrupt conspiracies keep secrets is one that Clinton herself has argued against—ironically, something we know because she said it in a speech whose partial transcript WikiLeaks leaked last Friday. Speaking to the National Multi-Housing Council in 2013, Clinton cited how President Lincoln secretly promised jobs to lame duck Congressmen of the opposing political party if they agreed to vote for the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. “If everybody’s watching all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least,” she said. “So, you need both a public and a private position.”
But the other point Assange makes—the “secrecy tax” that organizations pay when they try to avoid leaks—rings true. Any organization that has tried to encrypt all its communications, delete them, or throttle, quarantine, and compartmentalize them in the name of secrecy knows the toll that paranoia takes.
“An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces…. When we look at a conspiracy as an organic whole, we can see a system of interacting organs, a body with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed till it falls, unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment.”
Let that be a warning to the Democratic Party and any other organization with secrets to keep. If the leaks don’t kill you, the fear of them just might.