A very private conversation revealed, just like Wikileaks

The following is an accurate account of a recent conversation in which illegal, and possibly dangerous acts against the Federal and State governments were planned.

"I'm glad you guys could come over for dinner," said our host, as we shared the task of moving dishes and serving plates, silverware and glasses from the dining room table to the kitchen.

"Get out of here, no need to help cleaning up," he continued, shooing the three of us away from the kitchen and into the living room, where we distributed ourselves on various pieces of furniture.

I had known Bill years ago in school, and we only recently got in touch via, you guessed it, Facebook. Bill and I had a mutual friend, as it turns out, Patti, and Patti's friend, Angela and I ended up over a Bill's for a bit of catching up and to meet his wife, Marge. The dinner conversation had been mostly a matter of re-orientation and catching up, but as was clear from the nature of the original invite, there was another reason to get together. Bill was interested in talking politics, and in particular, trying to recruit some help in one of his latest activist ventures.

"We'll do the dishes later," Marge noted as she and Bill joined us in the living room. We were all well fed, the baby was in bed, the dog let out in the yard and back in again (a couple of times) and the cat was content and asleep on the window sill. There wasn't much more to do but to talk.

And the conversation did develop quickly. Bill outlined his recent interests in Native American rights, and got us up to speed on an upcoming internal government conference between BIA folks from Washington and their local counterparts, State DNR and Minnesota Department of State officials, and some county representatives regarding future plans for land use in and near one of the larger reservations up north.

The meeting was important, and it would be held without a single representative from the Native American community. This was the feds and the state planning how to "handle" the Indians in what would be a contentious fight over land use. Bill quickly got to the point: He was a member of a group who intended to disrupt, and thus call attention to, the meeting, using a combination of legal and illegal means. None of the illegal means were meant to be especially violent or harmful, but there would be smoke bombs and a car fire (of a recently commandeered clunker, and the fire would be very controlled ... something about a "res car" on fire as a symbol of repression).

It was certainly interesting to hear the discussion and planning of an actual radical event. It had been years since I had ever been involved in anything like that. Actually, other than storming the State Capitol a couple of times ... those were always unplanned, impromptu events at major anti-war demonstrations ... I had only been involved in the planning of an actual illegal protest once. A group of us formed a "cell" to discuss, and not necessarily enact, illegal actions against those who were regularly attacking abortion clinics in the Boston area. We would have done things like letting all the air out of the tires of their cars while they were in church in the early AM before clinic attacks, or perhaps using impromptu road blocks to stop one or more of their buses from making it to the clinic on time.

Our intention in forming our secret cell was to discuss the possibility of doing this and make a decision as to whether or not to go on with our plans. So we did ... we discussed it, at length, at a meeting in Harvard Square one balmy August night, sitting in plain sight and looking like nothing other than a bunch of hippies hanging around with nothing better to do.

Our meeting broke up after we decided to not carry out any such acts against the anti-choice protesters. We decided that it would be counterproductive if what we would do worked, and doubly counterproductive if it didn't. As the meeting broke up, six newly recruited marines, drunk as skunks, sauntered into the square and started to beat up homeless people. So, in a moment of poignant irony, we walked around the corner to where we knew the police would be stationed, "keeping an eye on things," told them about the out of control Marines, and then we dispersed never to meet again.

And here I was decades later in a room with Bill, Marge, Angela and Patti, discussing the possibility of lighting a car on fire to disrupt a meeting of state and federal officials.

"We'll park the car in the ramp next to the Federal Office Building in Saint Paul one day before, and wipe it down. The smoke bomb and a small Molotov Cocktail will be in the car already, but we'll light it by hand on the day of the meeting."

Interesting. Simple is good, makes it hard for anything to go wrong.

"Marge got a job with the catering service handling the luncheon for the conference."

Wow, an inside job!

"She'll arrange to get me, and a few others, into the meeting. We'll be dressed in Native American garb, and we'll read a proclamation we've written that takes land away from the whites and puts them on a reservation, turns downtown Saint Paul over to the tribes, restricts white hunting rights, yada yada," Bill was saying. "A parody, if you will, of the US treaties and policies against Indians."

Could make good press, I thought, if the press picks it up.

"And we'll pour red-colored water all over the papers in their meeting room, to symbolize the blood that all the treaties have been written in."

A bit of a cliche, I thought, but whatever ...

Bill had a number of other details, including their escape plan. None of the operatives wanted to get caught, there was no plan for jailed radicals, hunger strikes, any of that. Just make a big mess and get the hell out of Dodge.

The conversation went on for a while, and although I could tell by subtle eye contact with Patti and Angela that they thought the whole thing was a bit crazy and had no intention of volunteering to help. Then we talked about other things ... a bit more catching up, some more of politics distant in time and space, and eventually, Wikileaks came up.

"That is so cool," Bill was saying. "Releasing years and years of all the emails between the US embassies and the state department. It will take years to process all that dirty laundry!" He was almost giddy.

"Yeah," I said. "A lot of interesting stuff there. But I don't think Wikileaks should have just released everything, you know?"

"Why not?" replied Bill, giving me a funny look.

"Yeah. For instance, remember me telling you years ago about catching those missionaries who were looting archaeological sites?"

"Oh, yeah, I remember that."

"Well, that involved communications between the US State Department and Embassies in two countries. If I knew at the time that those communications were not private, I'm not so sure I would have been so quick to be, essentially, an FBI informer."

That got his attention. I don't think Bill, who fully enjoyed the fact that the missionaries had gotten nabbed at the border, really ever thought of me as an FBI informer. Mainly because I'm not. Except that one time.

"Also, remember when we arranged to have people investigate that Mass Grave in Central Africa?"

"Oh yeah, cool! Applied anthropology with a political vengeance!" Bill replied, nostalgically.

"Well, those communications are probably in that wikileaks package now," I said. "They'll be overlooked because they are not important now, all small time stuff, but at the time, very private conversations were being held. I remember one email, cc'ed to all parties, in which an FBI agent ... the one who was helping us ... made a fairly strong political remark that I appreciated but that would probably have gotten him assigned to a post in Nome, Alaska."

Bill stared at me, not quite getting it. Then he blurted out, "This whole thing about lives being in danger ... that has been disproved."

"Maybe. But you've got to admit, that there are times when people have private conversations that really should not be released to the public just because they exist."

"No such thing," Bill replied, quickly, and rather thoughtlessly. "Openness is the best policy, no matter what. There may be a few embarrassing moments, but for the most part, more openness is always good. Wikileaks is only doing what everybody else should do."

Angela quickly jumped in, seeing the conversation getting uncomfortably heated, and changed the topic to the latest play at the Bedlam, her favorite anarchist hangout. And, for my part, I was happy to see the subject dropped. Bill and I had similar overall political interests, but very different ways to approach them, and in this case, a vastly different view of what constituted 'freedom of information.' I had a sense that our freedoms, even as government workers or, more importantly, private citizens who are communicating about sensitive issues to government workers, included freedom to speak freely without fear of international publication of our words meant to be heard in private. I even thought that Wikileaks had no choice but to release all of what they had once they had it, but that the people who had stolen the files had done something abysmally wrong.

Finally, the conversation wound down, and unlike the old days when we may have filled up on coffee, or something, to keep going until dawn, yawning goodbyes were being said, when Bill asked, "So, are you interested. In helping with the protest?"

"I'll let you know," I replied.

"Sorry to push, but I'll need to know soon," he urged.

"You'll know tomorrow. So will everyone else."

A questioning look.

"I feel strongly that this conversation needs to be on my blog. Where everyone can read it. Check it tomorrow AM, Bill."

PS: Bill, sorry, I can't help you out with this one.

PPS: The preceding story was ENTIRELY MADE UP. There was no conversation about a radical protest at the "federal office building" in Saint Paul. The only part of this conversation that is even remotely real is this: A bunch of newly recruited Marines did indeed show up late one night in Harvard Square, attacking homeless people (and others). The rest if fiction. Oh, and Wikileaks really did release all that information. Bonus points if you can identify the theme of the names used in this story.


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The theme of the names: American radical protesters? Angela Davis, Patty Hearst ... but I don't know who Bill and Marge might be.

I was trying to figure who the Marge was.

By Mike Haubrich (not verified) on 28 Nov 2010 #permalink


Are you stupid or something?

'k, DR laden, this is not how wikileaks works. At all. I have read w great deal about wikileaks. They bend over backwards to redact all names of informers and other parties that could be put at risk. They even have developed software to do this automatically for large quantities of documents.

The problem is they are runnin gon a shoestring, really. They have spent something like $100,000 in the last 2 years for the whole organization. I don't know if people are afraid to donate or what.

Yes there were a small number of names of iraqi informers that were accidentally released recently, but that was completely overblown by the media.

Secondly, they do NOT release just any old information willy nilly. They are journalists, basically. They decide stuff that is important and needs to be published, and what is not. This hypothetical conversation you just aid out, if it cam into their possession, would not be published, an if it were, names of innocents would be redacted.

And yes, that introduces a political aspect to them, of course it does, and there is a lot of juggling to do, but that does not mean they have done tremendous good.

Your name as an informant would not have been released by them, there is no way, and the FBI could just keep you pseudonymous in their records. It just becomes their responsibility to change their ways slightly.

In any case, the very small risk, and slight chilling effect it might exert on people doing the right thing is completely outweighed by the good they do - just look, for cripes crap, at the summary of stuff they have published. Go check out their wikipedia page, and they probably have a roundup on their own site somewhere.

And then read some about how they actually do things, instead of assuming, or worse taking the main stream media's word for it.

Then have some integrity and post a follow up correcting the falsities you just perpetuated with this post.

Innocent parties, I mean. And you have made another basic mistake here in assuming that a conversation between protesters would be published, even if it were nefarious. Wikileaks is about publishing what governments, the incumbents, the powerful people, want to keep secret, not protesters. It is largely about disrupting governments that are doing things that that are not what the people want, and the only way a democratic government can keep doing that is by keeping it secret or obscure.

Governments are plenty good at disrupting and suppressing protesters all by themselves, thanks. Protesters certainly don't need to fear wikileaks, with enemies like that.

disdgts, your arguments would be more persuasive if you did not wrap them in needless ad hominem invectives. And, I do appreciate what you are saying, to the extent that these things are true, good for wikileaks.

There are two flaws in this approach, however.First, WTF is Wikileaks? I, personally, do not remember ever being asked if Wikileaks could take over the job of deciding what I get to see and not see. IN my view, either they close down or expose everything they have, because it is not their job to be my filter.

Second, concerning this: "you have made another basic mistake here in assuming that a conversation between protesters would be published, even if it were nefarious. Wikileaks is about publishing what governments, the incumbents, the powerful people, want to keep secret, not protesters. "

Your argument does not hold water. If a group of people get together to, say, overthrow the government, that makes them the same thing as the government. For instance, say you looked at the documents of the US "Founding Fathers". Are their letters amongst themselves prior to some date private and after related to the US government's history? And, what would that date be? The Albany Congress? Saratoga? Yorktown? Sept 17th '87? Who decides that? Wikileaks? You?

What I'm asking people to do here is to think about this, rather than to come to the table with a strongly held opinion and no interest in other people's perspectives. If you continue to comment here, please consider that. Oh, and the first think you need to produce is a set of apologies to match your horrid insults.

I agree with you regarding anonymity. It's a key part of subversion, which is rarely but occasionally necessary. You can solve some problems of anonymity with technology, but too high a degree of it makes it difficult to establish credibility.

Regarding Wikileaks specifically, I think what they're doing is filling a role that's been in many ways abandoned by the media. Are they doing as good a job as others have in the past? Probably not. Hopefully they'll get better at it over time, or someone else will step up.

WTF is Wikileaks? WTF is the New York Times? Journalists gather, vet, contextualize and publish information. Wikileaks skips that third step, but I don't think you can make too great a distinction between the two before you run into precisely the reasons Wikileaks can do what the NYT can't.

I think if Wikileaks can do anything to improve themselves and what they do, it's to become better curators of the information they get. I'm not sure how much filtering that involves, but they are probably in a better position to do it than their source when so much information is involved.

"Regarding Wikileaks specifically, I think what they're doing is filling a role that's been in many ways abandoned by the media. "

That is very true. And it has always been true that te media has dropped this ball most of the time, with the wikileaks role, as you call it, being filled by renegades (Ellseworth, etc.).

"but I don't think you can make too great a distinction between the two before you run into precisely the reasons Wikileaks can do what the NYT can't."

Which is why I have said that Wikileaks is better off simply passing on all of the information it gets.

This is probably the end of Wikileaks. Two things will happen, I suspect: Such bad things are going to happen to step one whistleblowers that Wikileaks is going to have a hard time getting sources, and the major media will jump in and start to fill this role more themselves for a while.