A Cold Comfort

There was something of a doozy at Monday’s Senate Judiciary hearing with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates:

[Nebraska Senator Ben] SASSE[R]: Director, do you stand by the IC’s January assessment that WikiLeaks is a known propaganda platform for Russia?

CLAPPER: Absolutely, and I am in agreement with Director Pompeo’s characterization of WikiLeaks as a non-nation state intelligence service.

There is, to put it gently, overwhelming consensus within the intelligence community that Wikileaks is acting, essentially, as a front for the Russian intelligence services. Moreover, the argument Clapper is supporting in this testimony is that Wikileaks acted in that capacity to influence the election to marginalize Hillary Clinton and to help Donald Trump get elected.

This is no real surprise if you’ve been following the news at all recently. But it nevertheless resonates with me deeply. In a number of ways, my former career (as a journalist, commentator, pundit, what have you) was predicated on my early criticism of Wikileaks for its reckless pattern of only leaking against western, liberal Democracies (starting with the US and eventually morphing into the UK, Germany, and France). To drive that point home, here is seventeen minutes of me debating John Meachem on PBS Need to Know, in 2010, about how dangerous and misleading their leaking activity is:

I could rehash the next several years of arguments but it is not really worth the space — needless to say, you can find all that with some very simple web searches. As the organization and its boosters became aware of my criticism — coming as it did from specific knowledge (in the case of Afghanistan) and expertise its fan club simply lacked (in the case of military and intelligence issues) — so too did the nether regions of the Internet emerge to “audit” my public and private life in search of weaknesses.

When Wikileaks “outed” me in 2013 as a government contractor — at the time, I traded openly on my previous jobs working in the defense industry, so the charge was impotent —  the debate over their role in the public had reached a fever pitch: not only had the organization helped Chelsea Manning leak hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents, but they had also assisted Edward Snowden pilfer millions more of the most sensitive documents the nation possesses and was publishing them all over the world. It was, for me as it was for them, an intense period.

Their outing caused massive personal turmoil I’ve rarely, if ever, discussed publicly. It was cheered on by a famously mendacious bully who amplified its effects beyond a scale I had ever experienced before. People tried to hack into my email, my bank account, my social media accounts, and my healthcare records. There were phishing attempts on my credit cards, and I noticed some Pastebins where people attempted to “dox” me — that is, publish my home address and phone numbers as an opening move for more violent forms of abuse like Swatting and falsifying police reports for crimes like rape.

I was, in a word, terrified. At the time I thought I could navigate an online dust up, thanks to a run-in with another aggressive bully the year before. In 2012 a hate-filled, abusive man decided to “destroy” me by misquoting a bunch of my writing, mocking a college livejournal post on Columbine I had deleted years earlier but which still existed at the time on Web Archive, and calling me fat. It was unpleasant, especially the homophobic angle many of his fans adopted, but within a week or two it passed (for the most part). For context, this was over a dispute about how many innocent people the police in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, had murdered during a labor protest.

When Julian Assange directed another swarm of trolls at me the following year, I was a bit more prepared. I had already scrubbed most information I could think of from the internet, but I knew there would be things I had missed. Getting the alerts from my financial institutions and email provider about attempts to recover my password and PIN prompted me to involve the FBI to gain law enforcement visibility into my options should something bad happen; I consulted friends who run information security firms on how to protect myself. It was harrowing. I survived, but it effectively scared me into silence. Controlling a swarm of abusive trolls is its own form of censorship.

(There is probably another story in there about how many on the Left seem just fine with vicious, personally destructive male figures who brag about their sexual abuse of women — something Assange has in common with my harasser from 2012 — if they express the “right” type of leftwing political beliefs, but that is probably a discussion for later.)

Just a few days after Assange issued his false accusation that I was some sort of plant for the defense industry, I finally published a post that had eaten up a lot of my time — an exploration of how Wikileaks, and Julian Assange in particular, had extremely close ties to the Russian government. This was, of course, the “bombshell” that General Clapper dropped in his testimony on Monday.

I think I was the first person to have made this connection based on the chain of analysis and evidence. Yet, the piece landed with a bit of a thud: people were intrigued by it, but were, for the most part, much more caught up with the romantic image of Assange as a rogue taking on the big bad U.S. government to care. Few acted on it, most editors shrugged, and none of the reporters I reached out to wanted to discuss it.

It was, in hindsight, the penultimate straw on my back. A series of follow up pieces, including a detailed essay about the challenge the NSA had in recruiting hackers I am still very proud of, simply went nowhere. No one cared. It was a dead topic, and the hivemind of journalism and punditry had decided on who the heroes and villains were, and they had decided that I was wrong about the villains. All I got for the trouble was a long-tail of trolls on Twitter that continued for months on end (I eventually wound up writing a script in python to block networks of them; the list eventually topped 10,000 blocked accounts before I deleted my Twitter account).

The financial stresses of freelance writing may have been tolerable, but the psychological cost of exerting tremendous effort to uncover a rather jaw-dropping story and receiving in return little more than abuse were such that I transitioned into the communications field just a few months later and eventually quit Twitter for good.

In many ways, my confrontation with Wikileaks both defined and destroyed my career as a writer. I still write essays on occasion, but that summer of 2013 marked the end of my time doing any sort of truly newsy punditry (rare exceptions notwithstanding).

Some months ago, I learned from a friend-of-a-friend who works in the government that he appreciated the work I did back then. He told me, in a surprisingly casual manner, that my work had helped him in his own job, and that it had some measurable impact on the world as they worked to repair the damage those years of leaking had inflicted upon the country.

It was a rather cold comfort. My mood that night, which was buoyant from seeing old friends after a long absence, crashed, and I spent the remainder of the evening in a contemplative funk. Hearing that encouragement for a job well done years after it would have mattered is almost a mockery — it came far too late to have had any real effect on my life, though it does offer a tiny bit of closure to seal off whatever lingering tendrils of that time may have stubbornly stuck to my subconscious.

Even now, I can hear the mocking tweets, upon reading the last two paragraphs, accusing me of somehow secretly working for the government while I barely eked out a marginal existence in a claustrophobic apartment and constantly worried about paying bills. The memory of such ritualistic attacks is both silly and harrowing — it is one reason I speak about this part of my life so rarely in public.

Monday’s Senate testimony was not the first time I have been reminded that I was basically right about a controversial national security topic, despite my career ending up in a shambles because of it. When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, it is a routine occurrence, and one I suspect will become more routine should President Trump follow through on his promise to re-expand the war there.

I have tried to account for the things I got wrong, like the war in Iraq. But how should you approach something you got right, when that seemed only to hurt you? Four years later, there is some gratification for hearing the DNI say what was, to me, quite obvious years earlier: that Wikileaks and Julian Assange are a cut out for Russian intelligence and their goal is to, essentially, destroy the liberal world order. But that gratification doesn’t get me anything. I was right about Wikileaks, but I was nevertheless punished — personally, professionally, and so on. Opportunities are permanently closed to me as a consequence of that summer in 2013, that should have, in theory, been open. Being right didn’t get me anything — if anything, it made me lose out.

Two years ago, I took note that being right about a few topics in this arena did not count for much: it never helped me ascend the ladder of my career, because that ascent was never predicated on being right, but on being friends with the right people (it’s called “networking”). Moreover, the people who were conclusively proven wrong nevertheless profited from it, and remained in positions of power despite being wrong. That is still true today.

Success and progress, at least in Washington, are decoupled from one’s skills or knowledge. DC, much like New York and Los Angeles, runs on its own form of social capital such that actually calling something correctly is not the most important attributes of a person (just as the most talented actors don’t always become famous, or the most talented writers don’t always become best-selling authors). That has been a hard lesson to learn the last few years, and as my distance from that world has grown I have seen it with more and more clarity.

Yet as I look ahead to what is going on in DC right now, it is hard for me to feel anything beyond sadness. So much of what has happened and is currently embroiling the country was avoidable if only those in charge (of the government, of the Congress and Senate, of the trade rags, of the media, etc.) had bothered to listen. But everyone was concerned with other things, whether a tribal partisanship or some sort of noble purpose that only appears scrutable to some inner circle most of us can never see. But it wasn’t avoided. Our current mess was blundered into by people who should know better, who spent years chasing away people who knew better and tried to warn them, and now we’re left with the uncertainty of what comes next.

I wish I had an answer. But I don’t think there is any such thing as being right about this anymore. We know what happened, and we have a fairly good idea of what is coming, and I still struggle to see why it should matter. I’m grateful that people are finally warming to the warning signals from a half-decade ago, but there are precious few reasons to think that they will get any of it right thing time around.

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