A Conspiracy Indictment For Wikileaks?

December 16, 2010

All over the news this morning (Wired, NYT): The Justice Department wants to go after Assange for conspiracy to encourage Bradley Manning to disclose classified information, rather than for publishing that information.

Apparently this is felt to be clever: prosecution for publishing secrets has a long and celebrated history of failure in the US. Such a prosecution would face nearly insurmountable First Amendment case law, and would also immediately mobilize the US media against it. Prosecution for conspiracy, on the other hand, offers much flexibility in the sort of admissible evidence and legal theory, and doesn’t wave the same sort of red cape at First Amendment defenders. It’s brilliant.

Except it’s stupid.

Let’s think about this for a second. The legal theory here is that it is illegal, for a citizen of a foreign country living abroad, to conspire with a US citizen to furnish classified information to unauthorized recipients, and that anyone engaging in such a conspiracy may be extradited to the US for prosecution. Can you think of anyone else that this theory sweeps up in its net?

I can: the heads of intelligence services of most major nations (certainly of China, Russia, Israel, France, India…), as well as hundreds of thousands of their subordinates, and possibly a few of their political masters. All of these people have “conspired” (the word is used advisedly, in its original sense, not in comically vague sense of American legal jargon) to obtain classified information from the US, and most of them are at it now.

So what are we saying? Is Vladimir Putin a criminal under American law? He ran the USSR’s KGB, after all, and its Russian successor agency, which answers to him, is known to have successfully run high-level American agents. Shouldn’t a grand jury at least look at him?

And, if we’re going to take this theory seriously, couldn’t other nations legitimately employ the same theory against us? Shouldn’t the US Director of National Intelligence fear being taken into custody whenever he travels abroad to any nation where he might get hit by an extradition request from, say, China? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, after all. It can’t only be illegal under International law to spy on the United States.

But if it’s not an extraditable offence for foreigners to spy on us, then what is the difference here? Why is Assange liable? What did he do that’s any different?

That’s right! He published the stolen information!

That’s the difference. The whole difference. If Assange had taken that document drop and read it all, but not shared it with the media (or even not garnered as much publicity for it), would he be in the legal trouble he’s in now? I doubt it. Even if he’d shopped it to a few unaligned governments on the QT, and the U.S. government knew about it, a veil of secrecy would cover the whole thing. No Interpol, no International arrest warrant issued on charges mysteriously reheated after being dropped, no DOJ investigation, no conspiracy charge in prospect. If he ever happened to travel to the US he’d get what was coming to him, but otherwise he’d be fine.

The DOJ’s theory is incoherent. If this isn’t an effort to suppress political speech, they should be after heads of foreign intelligence agencies, maybe heads of state. Since they aren’t, and because they are preparing to drop from a great height on a guy whose only distinction from his fellow foreign spies is that he shared what he obtained with the media, this is ipso facto a First Amendment case. Good luck distinguishing it from the Pentagon Papers. Unless DOJ comes to its senses (or, less likely, Obama locates his spine) I think the kind of lawyers who will break through walls for a chance to represent Assange will make a very unlucky US Attorney look like an idiot in a trial that will rivet the world’s attention.

The theatrical aspect of this action merely heaps injury upon insult. Assange isn’t Wikileaks. Taking him down doesn’t shut down Wikileaks. The US’s heavy-handed response to the latest document dump is, if anything, empowering Wikileaks, bringing them more attention, more passionate support, more money, and, probably, more leaks. At the same time it is plunging International public regard for the US back to levels last seen at the nadir of the Bush administration — a public-relations disaster worse than the original security breach. The same blind, narrow-minded stupidity that leads book-burners to furnish publicity to the authors that they hate is causing the US government to pave the way for its next embarassment, and to train a new generation of world citizens to detest it. How pathetic.


Wikileaks Is A Valuable Service

December 16, 2010

An article  (“Assange Is a Jerk. So What?”) in Slate by Esther Dyson captures exactly my own feelings about the Affaire Wikileaks. The point is that while Wikileaks is offensive to government, it supplies essential transparency to government operations. It would be nice if we had a more orderly mechanism to supply that transparency, but we’ve failed to produce such a mechanism. So Wikileaks (and other such services, like Cryptome) are all we’ve got.

The problem with executive secrecy is not that it’s unnecessary — of course there should be secrets. The problem is that there is no check on the ability of a government to classify something a secret. Governments (not only the U.S.) do this promiscuously, unrestrained by any outside authority, based on their own unreviewed judgment. Naturally, this privilege is chronically abused, covering ineptitude, malice, and corruption as well as genuine security-driven secrets. In addition to which, sheer bureaucratic caution drives much silly, pointless classification. That secrecy is obviously damaging to good democratic governance. And our ability to pry away at those layers of secrecy is dwindling.

This is not in principle an uncorrectable tendency. One could imagine that, if we decided to reimpose some kind of controls over executive secrecy, legislation could establish a separate oversight agency with budget, personnel, and legal authority to demand document review and declassification from the three-letter-agencies. Such an agency, created with some independence from the Feds, and accountable to Congress, could force the executive to rethink its instinctive urge to classify everything that will bear a “Secret” stamp. This is a pipe dream, of course, given the atmosphere set by post-911 terrorism fearmongering. But it demonstrates the theoretical possibility of an orderly process by which government could be held accountable in spite of its power of secrecy classification. It’s just that we don’t have the will, or enough of a national sense the obligations of patriotic citizenship, to go to this sort of trouble.

In the U.S., Congressional oversight was supposed to help prevent the worst secrecy abuses from happening, especially after the investigations related to Nixon’s colossal abuses. But Congressional oversight has quite simply failed — members of Congress who aren’t kept in the dark are simply recruited. For example, in 2006, Congressional oversight subcommittees with responsibility for Intelligence matters felt unable to warn the public that the NSA has a systematic program of domestic warrantless wiretapping, despite this constituting an obvious danger flag for civil liberty. Again, the post-911 hysteria over terrorism has essentially authorized the securocracy to write its own ticket, untroubled by any outside scrutiny, and unaccountable to any institution that makes civil liberties a priority (the Obama White House is apparently not such an institution).

So if we’re not going to use our built-in constitutional checks-and-balances to restrain improper secrecy, and we’re not going to legislate a separate oversight agency to review classification, then all we’re left with is Wikilieaks, Cryptome, etc. It’s far from perfect, and some interests (like privacy of diplomatic correspondence) will get damaged in the process. Some people may even get hurt. But the alternative is worse.

Assets: There Is No “Value”, Only Price

December 3, 2010

I did something weird (for me) last year: I wrote an economics paper. This was weird, because by profession I’m an astrophysicist. It was also unproductive, since I could not persuade editors at any of several economics journals that an astrophysicist might have anything useful to say about asset pricing. So after three submission attempts (none of which even got to a referee) I gave up.  The thesis of the paper — that the notion of “value” of an asset, which underlies the Efficient Market Hypothesis, has no meaning, because asset markets have no stable price equilibria — evidently only persuaded the editors of these journals that they were dealing with a crackpot.

Nonetheless, I believe that there are valuable ideas in the paper. It’s a bit technical (although anyone with a little training in differential equations ought to be able to read it), but the main ideas can be described reasonably clearly without resorting to math. At least, that’s what I’m going to attempt to do here.  After all, it’s in the finest tradition of crackpottery that we publish our stuff ourselves…

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Waiting For The Revolution In Physics

June 16, 2010

As I indicated in The String Theory Calamity, I am extremely skeptical that string theory will eventually turn out to have been the road to unification of gravitation and quantum theory (as well as deeply cynical about the sociology of the field).  The reasons for that skepticism are in part the “technical” reasons concerning the development of the theory, which are discussed very knowledgeably in two books, “The Trouble With Physics”, by Lee Smolin, and “Not Even Wrong”, by Peter Woit — two books that I recommend to anyone interested in understanding how high-energy theory came to this pass.

However, I have another set of reasons for being skeptical, which have not really been set forth anywhere else, so far as I am aware.  These are not so much technical, as historical/philosophical, and have to do with patterns in how crises in science tend to be resolved by the Kuhnian revolutions that they unleash.
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Selective Deficit Hawks

June 9, 2010

The New York Times is reporting that all chances for more stimulus are dead, and that the chief concern in the Executive, the Congress, and to some extent the Fed is controlling the budget deficit. Budget Hawks are ascendant everywhere.

This is absolutely infuriating. Many of the reasons for which this is wrong-headed are detailed by Paul Krugman, in recent entries in his blog. But there’s another reason why this is pure stark, daylight madness, festooned with hypocrisy.

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The String Theory Calamity

May 30, 2010

The status of string theory in physics has no historical analogue in modern science, at least so far as I can see.  The theory is at the same time a smashing “success” and a colossal, catastrophic failure.

String theory is a success in the sense that for all intents and purposes, for the subset of physicists concerned with theorizing about the unification of gravity and quantum theory, it appears to be the only game in town.  As documented in Peter Woit’s book “Not Even Wrong”, string theorists have swept the board, seizing control of faculty appointments and grant committees pertaining to high-energy theory (in the U.S., at least), dominating the publication of results, determining the research directions to which resources are allocated, and largely ensuring that graduate students are trained to regard string theory as the single worthwhile stream of research.  Alternative directions are marginalized, and students quickly understand that exploration cutting at cross-purposes to string theory will almost certainly result in unread work and unrequited careers.

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What Should Happen To BP

May 27, 2010

Three simple words: “Corporate Death Penalty”

BP should get what Arthur Andersen got in the Enron fiasco. A fine amounting to all their U.S. assets. Their shareholders should take a bath.

If we don’t have the will or the wit to regulate companies whose operations take the environment hostage at this sort of scale, at least we can is create a precedent that will get shareholder attention.

If BP gets destroyed for their unreadiness and negligence in the Gulf, then perhaps the shareholders of Exxon, Texaco, etc. will come to regard unmitigated environmental risk as tantamount to a due diligence failure. They would presumably demand to know what corporate officers are doing to protect the environment, because environmental protection is now equivalent to shareholder-value protection — the highest (and perhaps only) mandate that is recognized by our otherwise thoroughgoingly sociopathic corporate culture. Corporate officers would then require the highest disaster readiness, because to do otherwise would invite a shareholder lawsuit.

I wish it were otherwise. I wish we could rely on Government regulation to hold corporations’ feet to the fire. But regulator quality oscillates on timescales dictated by the public’s attention span, as expressed by administration ideology. If we want a stable regime of corporate attention to environmental duty, corporate officers and shareholders must be persuaded that failures to perform those duties jeopardize their assets. The way to accomplish that is to bring BP to the brink of disaster, and then give them a push.

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Code Freedom: Why Does It Matter, And To Whom?

May 22, 2010

Today’s XKCD:

I’m no Richard Stallman (who the guy with the beard is obviously meant to be), but I occasionally get the same sort of eye-roll from people when I tell them that I don’t do PowerPoint/Word/Excel, I don’t have access to a Windows machine (or to a Mac for that matter), I don’t want to, and I don’t want an iPhone (or an i-anything) either.  The eyes start rolling when I try to explain why I’m not interested in computing that way.  I’m sure it sounds very pointlessly ideological to people for whom computers  (and computer-based technologies) are just appliances, tools suited for certain jobs.  You don’t get political about your dishwasher.  Why is a computer any different?

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What Are Crowds Good For?

May 21, 2010

The book “The Wisdom Of Crowds”, by James Surowiecki, evoked a surprising amount of interest upon its publication in 2004.  The book sets forth a thesis that seems to have struck a chord with many people.  Actually, there are two forms of the thesis, which it is helpful to distinguish:

Wisdom Of Crowds Thesis, Weak Form
: By properly selecting a large number of people with a good mix of skills and knowledge about some subject, and by adopting a carefully-designed procedure for distilling their views into some kind of weighted-average consensus view, it is possible to arrange matters so that this consensus view is almost always more accurate and reliable than any individual view held by any member of the group.

Wisdom Of Crowds Thesis, Strong Form: Given a sufficiently large group of people, if their average or consensus view on any subject is somehow ascertained, that view is always more reliable than the views of any individual.  Expertise on the subject in question is nice, but not required, since knowledge will emerge of its own accord once some “Large Number of Participants” threshold has been reached.

As a brief assessment of these two versions of the “Wisdom” Thesis, the Weak Thesis is demonstrably true, while the Strong Thesis is, not to put too fine a point on it, bunk.  On this, more below.

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Ed Fenimore, Scientist

May 20, 2010

Ed Fenimore is probably not a household name, unless you’re a high-energy astrophysicist, in which case he’s ED FENIMORE, scientist, instrument builder extraordinaire, theorist, rare case of honest and able data analyst in a field of charlatans, mentor of dozens of front-rank students.  Ed was a key figure in the process of turning the field of Gamma-Ray Burst studies from a freak show into an actual science.  He was also a key member of the High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE) team, of which I also was a member.

We had a scientific meeting in September 2009 to celebrate Ed’s retirement from Los Alamos National Lab (actually he’s not really retiring, just taking evasive action from management responsibilities.  Rumor has it he’s still in his office 6 days a week, to his wife Sue’s chagrin).  There were talks all day, mostly on GRBs, and on Ed’s influence on the subject.  I gave the final talk of the day, by the title of “HETE-WXM: Fenimorean GRB Localization On A Shoestring”.  The PDF of my presentation is here.

At the end of the presentation, there’s a largely blank slide, entitled “Why Does Ed Always Think He Might Be Wrong (Even When He’s Right)?”. The slide has a single bullet, “A meditation on Ed’s unyielding commitment to scientific truth.” I showed that slide, then talked for about 15 minutes about some fairly deep things about science that I had learned from watching Ed at work. None of it was written down, which I’ve since felt was a shame, since I’m pretty sure it was worth preserving (and several other attendees told me they felt the same way). So here, now, as best I can reconstruct them (and cleaned up a bit, so as to be closer to what I would have said were I a better extemporaneous speaker), are those remarks.

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