Thursday, 9 December 2010

Wikileaks Cables: Possibly a Plant of Selective Information? (A comment montage)

I've been speculating in the blog comments for a while about the possibility that the leaker of the latest Wikileaks dump might have been selective about what was leaked. Now I call in those comments, being far too lazy to type it all out again, still less to reorganise
it and tidy up. Come home, my pretties!

from, 2-5 Dec 2010:

 Tim Wilkinson said...
[...] so undamaging to the US - and so convenient in many cases for their PR effort - is
the preponderance of the documents I've come across so far that I'm inclined to give some consideration to the possibility that Akhmadi-Najad is on the right track when he claims that this latest batch was an engineered 'leak' of selected material.

Though the pronounced (though not too blatant, obviously) pro-US bias could just be down to what the papers have focussed on. It may be that this is influenced by the pseudo-coercive machinery of D-notices rather than just their customary obesiance to the authorities, though the latter could probably explain it.

But at some point Wikileaks was/is bound to be on the wrong end of such a trick (which is after all a standard bit of spy work, including adding just enough material just damaging enough to make it convincing).

Ideally I'd like to see some evidence that the selection of cables leaked doesn't have gaps in it. But I don;t really know what such evidence would look like, let alone think it likely that any is going to be forthcoming.
12/02/2010 05:02:00 PM

 Tim Wilkinson said...
Hasan's examples are diplomats spying and Islamo-arabo-terror-fascists being tortured in
far-away places. These are (o tempora, o mores) pretty low-impact disclosures.

As ever in the conspiratorial realm, evidence, especially direct evidence, is going to be very hard to come by, but the possibility is not an absurdly remote one (the disinfo hypothesis, that is - the helpfulness of the MSM and esp. Murdoch press is very far from a remote
12/02/2010 05:51:00 PM

 Tim Wilkinson said...
One kind of tenuous, and in itself hard-to-establish, evidence might be whether there is a
serious attempt to find and punish a leaker, I suppose.
12/02/2010 06:51:00 PM

 Tim Wilkinson said...

Hmm, should perhaps emph. I'm only mentioning that as a possibility, not as a strong
probability, firm conclusion, fervently held article of faith etc., but having done so, I have to go some way to making an outline case in its favour.
12/03/2010 09:49:00 AM
from, 5 Dec 2010

 Tim Wilkinson said...

On the other suspicions I voiced so echoingly on the previous thread:

1. press complicity in selective reportage - a bit of a no-brainer, but
nice to have it confirmed (that's 'confirmed' in the technical sense of
'supported by some evidence'): Gareth Porter: Wikileaks Exposes Complicity of the Press.

2. The much more speculative bit: well, notorious tinfoil hatter Zbigniev Brzezinski is reported to think there may be something in it: Agendas & Intel Ops Behind Wikileaks? - The Washington Note.
12/05/2010 04:30:00 AM

 Tim Wilkinson said...
One more point and I'll shut up. Maybe obvious but in light of previous remarks should be
acknowledged explicitly - the cables are of course US govt cables and thus show the world as seen through the prism of US diplomats - often not privy to the big picture, often self-censoring, often thick or just spouting off. 

Various kinds of bias are already there in the raw unfiltered data, e.g. prejudiced attitudes or telling people what they want to hear. And what is written is not true just because it's somewhat secret - whether it reflects well or badly on US agencies' motives or competence. It's also written in diplomatese, thus in any case less likely to be somewhat guarded, if only out of habit.
12/05/2010 01:28:00 PM

 Tim Wilkinson said...
oh bollo, sorry - forgot to clarify that another obvious point has not passed me by -
that Brzezinski is not necessarily authoritative nor trustworthy.
12/05/2010 01:39:00 PM

from, 6-7 Dec 2010

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 4:43 pm

(elm has got in first with some of this, but)
most of it seems to be readily inferrable from publicly-available information, and clear-headed analysis of the objective interests of the parties.
there are such things as evidence and deniability though aren’t there. Not that the most cast-iron physical and documentary evidence can’t be ignored, finessed or trumped by effective impunity
given the right climate (and we are in that climate, no matter what the bulk of the population might jadedly and resignedly believe.)
It’s true that much of the stuff seems relatively uninteresting (o tempora, o mores), and what has been presented as newsworthy and is actually new is largely quite convenient for the US govt but it’s worth considering the filters the stuff has been through:
gathering process (in some cases)
by intel agencies etc on what to tell diplomats
own ability to understand or recognise info and its implications
diplomatic language and habitual circumlocution
the leaker’s selection of cables (Brzezinski – as well as Akhmadi-Najad of course – has voiced some apparent suspicion about that – and it would be a standard espionage move to leak false info (and selective = false), either to promote false beliefs, or to muddy waters, or as a strawman operation (where the info is later proved false, discrediting the source). Alternatively large volumes of uninteresting info may be leaked to keeping WL busy, or to achieve a form of soft discrediting by leak-fatigue. I’m disinclined to believe that the leak was a plant on current evidence though.)
Wikileaks deselection of cables, if any – possibly in consultation with interested parties
And for most people: press decisions on what to publish – which is undoubtedly done in consultation with/obedience to other
Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 8:48 pm

What they say they are offering is effective anonymity combined with some degree of validation (which is where the branding is most relevant) and guaranteed publicity. These are all things which whistleblowers want, and which ordinary journalistic media are failing to deliver.
Whistleblowing is a risky business, hence anonymity (corporate media have a nasty
tendency to respond to whistleblowers by making a phone call to the Pentagon, naming names and asking for a denial.
Failed whistleblowing not only makes the risks pointless, but is actually more risky. Whistleblowers who are not in the public eye by dint of high-profile leaks or worse still, those who are yet to effectively
divulge their secrets at all can far more easily be dealt with in a variety of unpleasant

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10
at 11:48 pm

bianca: I’m not saying Wikileaks is itself a whistleblower – but its main role has been as a conduit for whistleblowing.
This latest batch is a bit odd, because unlike previous stuff it’s not clear what the whistle is being blown on; but unless WL has started using active espionage techniques, somebody presumably made a free and deliberate decision to leak it – and that person counts as a whistleblower (or possibly a disinformation agent) I suppose. ‘Whistleblower’ can be replaced with ‘leaker’ without affecting any point I’ve made, I think.
And WL doesn’t seem to object to secrets per se, either – it apparently accepts that some secrets should not be revealed. But its advertised commitment is to publish what is passed to it unless there
is very good reason not to.

Tim Wilkinson 12.07.10 at 2:07 pm

Yes, there is undoubtedly interesting and new stuff and little has yet been released – I did not and would not suggest otherwise. And very useful to historians much of it would be if they were inclined
to address events less than a declassification window ago. But WL’s advertised commitment is (has hitherto been) to get maximum impact for the revelations of whistleblowers – and if there is some one thing in particular here that’s having the whistle blown on it, it’s unclear what it is, which means it
has not been given maximal impact.
It’s easy to overestimate the impact of leaks, and in fact the House of Cards model, which exaggerates the impact of leaks, is often used as an anti-conspiratorial argument. A leak is successful only when it gains critical mass with the right audience. For example, o mores (not so much tempora – one of Eco’s idiocies is to suggest that diplomacy has only recently befcome intimately linked with espionage), things like spying on the UN is not a big deal – like much of this stuff, the other parties aren’t going to object much because they are all at it – this is dirty washing and governments – esp permanent elements therein – like to keep this stuff away from the public eye, as do the rest of the political class and the corporate media. That’s why the absence of clearly presented smoking guns is so important, because this stuff is dog-whistleblowing as it stands. Yes, to you and me this stuff lays bare skullduggery – but just watch as it’s finessed and excused, and the international hue and cry remains unraised. In the meantime, the way this stuff is coming out means the ‘all arabs want Iran bombed, ergo nothing to do with Israeli agitation’ dogwhistles its way into the headlines.
It may be that this deviation presages a new direction for WL, away from its proclaimed model which includes a string editorial element in pursuit of publicity and impact. If so, I suspect it is likely to retreat into the background as just another source to be acknowledged or ignored by the press. And if it does so, the motivation for genuine whistleblowers to risk leaking to it will be diminished.
Another example:
British assurances that ‘measures’ would be put in place to ‘protect US interests’ in the Chilcot
inquiry. De-diplomatising the language (which is there partly because this stuff can leak) suggests that the inquiry was nobbled – and I didn’t imagine that it wasn’t nobbled in a number of ways – but there is no smoking gun, no clear detail – basically, it is near-worthless.
If this had been the only thing leaked, then more resources might have been put into following it up, we might have front pages, questions in parliament, letters to gthe times from solid respectable types, etc., and more might come to light. You haev to look at it from an opinion dynamics point of view, and this kind of vague stuff, presented in bland and transient headlines, is not going to change anyone’s mind (force anyone to overturn their entrenched opinions).

8 Dec 2010

Tim Wilkinson 12.08.10 at 4:06 pm


This whole latest batch is anomalous. Brezhinski has suggested a plant – sincerely or not.
I’ve been mentioning this possibility on AWatch and the previous thread, and like a lot of these things, my assessment shifts from ‘actually quite plausible’ to ‘really not at all likely’, a bit like one of those shaded drawings of cubes that seem to switch from protruding to receding and back again.


Tim Wilkinson 12.09.10 at 12:14 pm

Sam Chevre @48:
Whether WikiLeaks is providing complete-enough-to-be-accurate information, or all the information it has, or all the information that slants a particular direction, is not determinable. With the US government, I have some idea of what they are likely spinning/concealing; I don’t with WikiLeaks.
think this is right, and is relevant in the specific circumstances of the latest batch of leaks, which is alnomalous. This batch (a few specifics apart), is very much like a dataset that gives an overall
impression, which can be tweaked effectively by biased selection. (Obviously the cables themselves are subject to this, as I’ve pointed out before – as well as being based on what the diplomats are allowed to know, there is plenty of self-censorship, selection bias, fixing evidence around the policy, etc).
This differs from the standard model of whistleblowing, which is based not on a kind of quasi-statistical overview, but on single assertions which can stand alone and speak for themselves. (Obviously these could be defeated or undermined by some conceivable further evidence, but
basically they are smoking guns – deductive rather than inductive evidence, you might say.) Even the Afghan dump (or the Pentagon Papers) were of the deductive kind – the revelations were simply numerous rather than cumulative.
That is not the case here, and that is a big change, which in conjunction with the concomitant unclarity of exactly what is being leaked, and (what so far appears to be) the rather convenient nature of the content for the US, provides some (perhaps rather slim, I can’t decide) grounds for suspicion about their origin.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not always sure what side yr spinning, but ...Porter's article in Counterpunch seems pretty convincing and important in terms of suggesting that the NYT serves as a crypto-Ministry of Information for the US Govt (via AIPAC, more or less) and often purges critical information--they did much the same when the Iraqi war started in 2003. Regarding Assuange the person, who cares--there's some pretty wretched emotional writing being spewed by left and right YET ...the Wikileaks data should at least be considered (at the same time, from a ...nationalist perspective, it's a bit naive for the bloggo-liberals---or the Crooked Timber's crew of sentimentalists and pseudo-marxists-- to assume the US Govt. would not be interested in...shutting Assuange the f**k up ASAP.)