Bradley Manning

Last week, in a point-form article of pellucid clarity on the current situation, your correspondent noted that the week of the Boston marathon bombing was in its own quiet way as significant as 9/11 in the way our world was changing and evolving.

Well, this week is giving that week a run for its money, and that may start to happen quite a lot in the period to come. Globally, in terms of states, corporations, information and citizens, the fundamental relations are changing very rapidly in sequences that go off like a bandolier of firecrackers.

Three days ago, we saw the opening of the Bradley Manning trial in the US and the almost indecent haste with which the prosecution whizzed past the charges against the young former intelligence operative to the real meat — an attempt to link him to WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. That Manning did leak material to WikiLeaks is now a matter of public record, after Manning made a guilty plea to some of the lesser charges against him. But WikiLeaks preserved the anonymity of contact via a secure chat room. The prosecution alleges that Manning had obtained Assange’s phone number in Iceland when he and WikiLeaks were preparing the “collateral murder” video, and that there was communication back and forth between the WikiLeaks chat room and Manning, with requests and instructions for specific documents to be fished out of the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network archives, to which Manning had access.

WikiLeaks and Assange have denied the accusations, saying they simply acted as a drop box. The evidence itself has not yet been presented — the trial is expected to last 12 weeks — but is expected to rely on a cross-referencing between the testimony of hacker-informant Adrian Lamo, recovered chat room logs, and a “Jabber” account that the prosecution claims Assange was at one end of.

The dual objective of the prosecution will be to convict Manning on an “aiding the enemy” charge — which carries a life-without-parole sentence — and to amass sufficient evidence to charge Julian Assange under the Espionage Act. There will be considerable latitude in this, since both laws are so broad in their application as to be at the discretion of whichever judge is petitioned to issue an indictment. Technically, the Espionage Act under which they hope to charge Assange applies far beyond the person accused of actually taking confidential information from government files. It can apply to anyone handling the information as well.

There’s no technical limit to the law. It doesn’t have to take place on US soil, and a non-US citizen can be charged. In the past, they rarely have been, and the application of the law has been limited to the first-order “spy”. But those days are long gone. As I noted last week, the total and global nature of new networks, technologies, etc, is replied to with a total state response as a way of shoring up its power. In that respect, it is more than likely that the US government would seek to charge Assange and others associated with him. It could if it wanted, under the act, charge the editors of The New York Times, Guardian, etc, but that won’t happen. They’ll make a distinction between the in-laws of power, and the outlaws.

The trial has coincided with dual revelations about the surveillance state: that US comms giant Verizon has given up all its traffic data — who called whom, when, for how long, etc — for the last seven years, and that a group called PRISM has been operating, under which all the major internet corporations co-operate with the NSA in voluntarily providing customer data. All the content of your emails, messaging, searches, etc, can be deep-searched by wordbots, picbots, face-recognition bots, and eventually safely downloaded to the NSA’s new centre in Bluffdale, Utah, with sufficient storage for 100 years’ worth of data communication. Quelle surprise.

There appeared to be some consternation over this, a reminder that most people haven’t thought twice about using comms devices provided by megacorporations with their own agendas and power relations. That now seems to have sunk in, and we can mark this week off as the end of the age of innocence about the web. The web’s appearance is that of fragmentation, but its deep structure is centralisation of a higher order than hitherto conceived. Where once it was possible to maintain an independence, clandestine or otherwise, by means of running a printing press, heading for the Yunnan mountains, or melting away into the anonymous city, covering jungle for the urban guerrilla, today opting out of the cutting-edge level of comms technology puts you at a crucial disadvantage, not parity. Though the state is disadvantaged, too — its nuclear response, to shut down the internet at a territorial level, would be disastrous for its own global functioning — its everyday ability to track, survey and apprehend is vastly extended by compliant corporations. “Total” is not too hyperbolic a word to apply to the situation. Total and the adjectives arising from it.

The trial of Bradley Manning has weeks and months left to run. It is difficult to see him getting off on a technicality, a brilliant, unconventional lawyer, or Jack Nicholson yelling “I ordered the code red!”. The only real question is whether he will avoid the whole life tariff. And what comes after — for him, for Assange, for all of us.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey