IDFA Special II: The Most Dangerous Man in America


The 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is just over. In this special, I look back at some of the human rights films in which technology played a special role.

Pentagon Papers vs. WikiLeaks

The Most Dangerous Man in America (Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith, 2009) won the Special Jury Prize at IDFA 2009 and was screened again this year. The film shows how Daniel Ellsberg leaked the 7000-page Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971. These papers contained a study by the department of defense, which documented how the public and congress had been lied to about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. By now, it is almost a cliché to compare these events to the recent circus around WikiLeaks, especially from the point of view of technology. It is a case in point to show how technological progress has changed the work of whistleblowers and of activists in general.

Daniel Ellsberg used a Xerox machine, then a cutting-edge technology.  By now, “to xerox” is a verb. Julian Assange, the “face” of WikiLeaks, uses “the internet”, another technology that allegedly “revolutionised” the world. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Ellsberg says:

‘I’m glad to see that new technology being exploited here. I couldn’t have released on this scale 40 years ago. In fact, I couldn’t have done what I did do without Xerox at that time. Ten years earlier I couldn’t have put out the Pentagon Papers’.

We still tend to look at technology as a meteorite that simply enters our atmosphere at a certain point. We split history in the “time before impact”, and the “time after”. The line that divides Ellsberg and Assange is the transition from the Industrial Age into the Information Age. What if we don’t look at technology from outer space, however, but from where they are, right on our desks, or kitchen counters?

Ellsberg vs. Assange?

First, let’s look at this issue a bit closer from the point of view of the people involved. Ellsberg is typically presented as Assange’s historical predecessor. How correct is this observation though? Assange does not leak information. He is publisher and editor-in-chief of information that others leak to him, as he keeps on repeating. Bradley Manning, an ‘unparalleled hero’ to Assange, was working in Iraq as an intelligence analyst for the U.S Army. He was arrested in May 2010, and hasn’t been released since. Then, it makes sense to establish a historical connection between Ellsberg and Manning. Who was Assange’s 1971 counterpart? Neil Sheehan, perhaps? The journalist of the New York Times who received Ellsberg’s copies? Or Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher at the time?

A question of time: 7000 Xerox-pages and a Lady Gaga song

Let’s focus on Ellsberg and Manning for now, and try to feel what must have gone through them while they had their hands on their technology.

The 1971 scene is described in a publication of the Beacon Press:

‘Having decided not only to photocopy, but to leak the papers, Ellsberg enlisted the aid of Anthony Russo, a former Rand associate. Russo had a friend with a Xerox machine in a Los Angeles office. Mid- photocopying, the men heard a knock at the door: it was the Los Angeles Police Department. Assuming the worst—that the government had already tracked them down—Russo thought to himself, “God, those guys are good.” In reality, the coconspirators had accidentally tripped the building’s burglar alarm, and the police officer departed after an explanation from the office owner, who was on-site to assist Russo and Ellsberg’ (Trzop, 2007, p. 18).

The film on Ellsberg does a good job in using animation for this scene. We see the policy officers peaking in through the blinds, expecting Ellsberg to be caught red-handed. Particularly the image of his 11-year old daughter Mary sticks in your mind. I imagine how the beam of the officer’s torch would catch the large and shiny pair of scissors in her hand, with which she was just about to cut off the words “top secret” from another page. There were over 7000 of these pages. It took them months to do it.

How different this was for Bradley Manning. Let’s see how he supposedly described the scene in a chat on May 22 with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who reported him to the U.S. Army. This is what the Guardian reported on December 1, 210.

(1:54:42 pm)Manning: i would come in with music on a CD-RW
(1:55:21 pm)Manning: labelled with something like “Lady Gaga”… erase the music… then write a compressed split file
(1:55:46 pm) Manning: no-one suspected a thing
(2:00:12 pm) Manning: everyone just sat at their workstations… watching music videos / car chases / buildings exploding… and writing more stuff to CD/DVD… the culture fed opportunities
(2:12:23 pm) Manning: so… it was a massive data spillage… facilitated by numerous factors… both physically, technically, and culturally
(2:13:02 pm) Manning: perfect example of how not to do INFOSEC
(2:14:21 pm) Manning: listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltratrating [sic] possibly the largest data spillage in american history

Just a note: different versions of these logs circulate.

Activism, clicktivism and ethical reflection

This comparison is interesting from the point of view of what is called “clicktivism”, or “slacktivism”. Many fear the decay of “courageous” forms of activism, due to internet-based causes that can be supported by “one click of the button”. Critics argue that if you sign petitions, wear ribbons, or join a Facebook group, it rather serves your personal sense of self-respect than that it serves the actual cause. Clicktivism is said to replace activism.

No one would claim that what Bradley Manning did was not courageous. He is certainly no clicktvist. Still, he noted himself how easy it was to do what he did. This is particularly apparent in comparison with Ellsberg’s case.

Recently, concrete technologies are said to stimulate ethical reflection. Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek shows how ultrasound images during pregnancy “make” the foetus a person. This creates a new relation between the unborn child and the future parents. On the one hand, any serious disease that is detected on an ultrasound might probe parents to consider abortion. On the other hand, the newly established relation may also be a factor against abortion. Technologies can make us think.

Something similar happens here, but in an entirely different way. As the comparison of the Ellsberg/Manning cases shows, the concrete technologies with which they interacted changed the “time of activism”. The Xerox machine did not allow Ellsberg to cover more than a certain number of pages per night. Manning’s clicks to copy and paste allowed him to store thousands of documents in the time-frame of a Lady Gaga song.

Ethical reflection takes time. I am curious to know what went around in the minds of these men. Certainly, Ellsberg had more time to think things over. More time to establish for himself that he would risk imprisonment for what he did. Can we say that time was on Ellsberg’s side? Or was it on Manning’s? Would Manning have gone through with his leaks if it had taken him months? Would he have considered the consequences of his deeds differently? Once again, he is no less courageous or heroic this way. It’s just that time does funny things. Unfortunately, he has his time to think, in prison. Thinking about clicktivism this way, the time spent does become a crucial factor. Probably even more so than the question of being courageous.

In line with the view of technology as something that stands on your kitchen table, rather than as some meteorite from outer space, let’s end with a remark by Daniel Ellsberg. When questioned whether he envied the technological advantages of preset-day whistle blowing, he answered: ‘Actually, I’m envious of the new Xerox machines. They collate, and they staple. They do everything for you. I could have saved a lot of time’.

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