This Machine Kills Secrets, by Andy Greenberg: A Book Review

This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileaks, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information. Andy Greenberg. Dutton Press. Hardback. $12.

A dilemma looms. How much of what an organization does should remain private? If the organization crosses the line and become corrupt, how best to protect the privacy and identity of the whistleblower?

I use “organization” to mean any group of people who have come to together for mutual benefit. IBM, the Bulgarian government, the Icelandic government, Globaleaks.org, the American Civil Liberties Union, Multigroup (Bulgarian organized crime), and the New York Times are all examples of what I mean by the term, “organization.”

Many other questions then arise. How should society react to corruptions within organizations? How should governments react to corruptions? What legal protections should whistleblowers have? What legal protections should whistleblower groups, such as BalkanLeaks, GlobalLeaks, or WikiLeaks have? How should confidential sources be protected? How should leaked documents be treated?

In “This Machine Kills Secrets,” Greenberg asks these questions, and many more. Answers to most questions are still evolving. Following WikiLeaks, or following Bradley Manning news, or more recently, following Edward Snowden is not the same as following the global movement of freeing information and exposing corruption. If anything, Manning and Snowden are the most visible vanguards of what lies to come, but they hardly represent the full spectrum of international leaks. Manning and Snowden are absorbing the most visible aspect of the punishment.

Leaks, cryptography, exposing secrets, and hiding identities is nothing new. People have been obfuscating their histories, sources, and identities for literally thousands of years. From Greek philosophers to English and French noblemen, people have been trying to expose knowledge while trying to remain anonymous. I can see really only one reason why a person would behave this way: to avoid prosecution, or even worse, persecution. In many eras, persecution followed prosecution, and imprisonment and/or death usually followed persecution. Rarely, have whistleblowers enjoyed any modicum of safety or been celebrated personalities.

To protect what they might call “societies greater interests” people endeavor to release important information while at the same time protect their life and the lives of the people around them.

Greenberg begins by relating an abbreviated history of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg. To make a very long story short, Dr. Ellsberg is responsible for releasing what would become the Pentagon Papers, the most public breach of U.S. Top Secret documents of the 20th century. Why did he release over 7,000 documents related to United States involvement in Vietnam? In a nutshell, he was one of about 5 people in the government who actually understood the true nature of the conflict because he had what might be called “perfect knowledge.” Now, no knowledge can be accurately called “true,” but he had access to reams of documentation, spread across time and geography. Coupled with that information was what he was witnessing on the TV news and reading about in the newspapers. He knew the American population was being lied to, had been lied to for years, in order to drum up support for intervention in Southeast Asia. For example, he knew the Vietnamese had no interest in fighting a protracted war against Communism for Democracy. That is what the U.S. government wanted at the time to stop the “domino effect” of countries becoming Socialist or Marxist, not the vast majority of Vietnamese. Having a conscious and knowing U.S. lives were being used to fight a war the locals did not support, he had a crisis of conscious.

English: Daniel Ellsberg

English: Daniel Ellsberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. Ellsberg then began a very long, detailed, and elaborate process of documenting about 30 years of history leading to and including the Vietnam War. Eventually, he compiled thousands of pages of documentation which he then took to several Congressmen, hoping to have the documentation read into the Congressional Record, thereby making the documents public. That effort failed, as no Congressman wanted to stand up, enter the documents into the public record, and risk their political careers in opening the United States government to undesired attention. Students of Vietnamese history will know the war began long before the United States entered, and many secret military engagements have since been revealed and documented. Ellsberg tried multiple routes in his effort to education the average U.S. citizen about the United States involvement in Vietnam before passing his documents to news organizations.

When the Pentagon Papers were released, President Richard Nixon literally lost his shit. Nixon wanted Ellsberg tried by the “court of public opinion” and then promptly thrown in prison. Nixon ordered then Attorney General John Mitchell scavenge for every morsel of info about Ellsberg. Ellsberg, due to the monumental psychological weight of learning about the transgressions of the U.S. government, had been seeing a therapist. The office of the therapist was ransacked but no embarrassing details were found. Nixon then hired Cuban thugs on two occasions to beat or scare Ellsberg. Both efforts failed, but people were still assaulted because the thugs simply wanted to beat on people, so they elected to pick fights with people in attendance at a peace rally.

If this all sounds far-fetched, just google “Nixon” and “Watergate.” President Nixon was a rat, plain and simple, and abused the powers of his office. The U.S. Attorney General eventually had to serve prison time for his involvement in Watergate, and Ellsberg’s trial ended in a mistrial due to gross malfeasance and abuse of the office of U.S. Attorney General.

The author Greenberg spends some time wrapping the history of leaks in recent and current history, enjoining the efforts of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange in the early chapters. The stories of Ellsberg, Manning, and Assange is somewhat convoluted. I can understand Greenberg trying to establish parallel modalities among the three most prominent “leakers” of our age, so as you read through, be patient.  I might have preferred a separate chapter detailing the unique history of each personality. To each, his own.

The history of Manning is honestly not particularly interesting. The environment in which he was able to acquire information was far more interesting. To quote a popular statement made by Helen Keller in 1957, “Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature.” In a site and situation like the Baghdad “Green Zone,” security is mostly theoretical, as the pragmatist is going to bend or ignore most rules simply to fulfill incoming requests in a timely manner. Manning simply happened to have the most pliable personality at that point in time, plus some technical know-how. As the author relates early in the book, Manning would still remain unknown had he simply kept his mouth closed and never approached another well-known hacker turned government consultant.

Julian Assange has apparently from an early age had the chops for hacking code. He is the “real deal” as the saying goes. I did not fully appreciate his coding skills prior to reading this book. I thought him to be simply the “face” of WikiLeaks and not actually the life-blood of WikiLeaks.

At the very core of this book, however, lies simply one of the most important questions of our current era:

“How are we, citizens, best able to police or surveil our own governments, corporations, and politicians when those in power have access to the power to make a single person’s life an unbearable Hell on Earth?”

In Bulgaria, a country enjoying immense coverage later in the book, a former Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, was connected to massive government corruptions, with government ministers taking bribes, Borisov’s relationship with organized crime, threats against journalists, and his wife, the head of a large Bulgarian bank, was accused of laundering money. The United States Ambassador to Bulgaria is said to have believed the Prime Minister was a “criminal.” Two young men, inspired by WikiLeaks, created BalkanLeaks to expose what they saw as rampant corruption in their government. Their investigative work generated little response for the Bulgarian public. Later, though, Borisov would resign under both political and public pressure.

Groups in many countries are following the example of Iceland’s Birgitta Jonsdottir. Ms. Jonsdotter used her outrage concerning Icelandic banking industry’s incompetence and corporate malfeasance to establish the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). Due to Iceland’s near-criminal use of people’s savings, the average debt of a Icelander due to the 2008 international banking debacle is about $220,000 PER PERSON! And people in the U.S. think they got the shaft. Iceland arrested and brought criminal charges against over 200 bankers and forced the banks to pay for their own bail-out.

Birgitta Jondottir then pushed for new laws protecting journalists. Iceland’s laws now hold journalists responsible for ensuring sources are protected. The IMMI would take journalistic protections even further, protecting any media corporation, investigative journalists, and whistleblowers who make their home in Iceland. Today, efforts to duplicate the IMMI are underway in Ireland, Italy, and Bulgaria. The possibility exists of U.S. Indian Nations and associated reservations initiating a IMMI model, protecting journalists and whistleblowers within the U.S. borders and extending the legal protections enjoyed by Native Americans. I personally would find a legal battle between the U.S. government and Indian Reservations over privacy, personal rights, and open media and transparency one of the most fascinating legal confrontations in the history of Ever.

Greenberg’s brief history of the cryptography, leaks, and hacktivism covers many other personalities, instrumental and popular within the realm of leaks. What the instruments of anonymity and cryptography?

Have you heard of Tor? The TOR Project grew out of a DARPA project. The Department of Defense, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency built the device, the tool, the “machine” using U.S. taxpayers dollars, that would later provide WikiLeaks the ability to publish “leaked” documents. Anyone in the world can now download and use TOR and related TOR tools to cover their digital tracks. In fact, the more people who use TOR, the larger the anonymous network grows, and the less likely people are to be “discovered.” TOR essentially fuels my argument that tools are not weapons; it is the intent to which the tool is applied that is the difference.

Why would the U.S. government develop a tool with such a nefarious potential? Spying, of course. We want people in other countries to spy for us. We give TOR to people in Iran, Iraq, China, France, Russia, Israel, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Korea – I would guess people around the world are running TOR – specifically to encourage them to divulge secrets to the U.S. government. It would seem we don’t want the same done to us, however. “Do as I say, not as I do.” The U.S. State Department funded the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency responsible for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the Farsi Radio Farda, in order for them to develop a more user-friendly version of TOR.

A fellow, Jacob Appelbaum, the primary advocate for TOR, traveled around the globe, Brazil, Turkey, China, Poland, and Germany, encouraging people to download and use TOR. He has visited every major U.S. city to promote TOR, to distribute TOR, and train people on using TOR.

Applebaum relates an interesting story of traveling into Iraq sometime after the 2003 U.S. invasion. He traveled by taxi from Diyarbakir, Turkey, through Batman, Turkey, and crossed the border into Iraq. At Zakho, Iraq, he collected a friend of his and his wife, armed themselves with a Glock, an AK-47, and Browning .9mm, and headed off to Arbil, Iraq. In Arbil, he handed out copies of Linux.


The last interesting bit I’ll mention concerns a fellow by the name of Aaron Barr. Barr had an interest in technology early in life and was able to use that interest when he joined the Navy. In 1999, the Marines needed a Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) officer to assist in NATO operations in Kosovo. Barr is quoted as saying, “we had no business inserting ourselves into a battle that had been going on for centuries.” In 2003, he would leave the Navy, work for TRW, create his own Internet security company, HBGary, and then Northrup Grumman. At Northrup Grumman, he would focus on using social media to hunt down and track cyberspies. His efforts would then be to hunt those trying to reveal secrets and those trying to remain anonymous. His methodical pursuit of hackers would bring him up against his greatest foe, Anonymous. The intrigue between Barr and Anonymous was a pretty captivating read. If you’ve read anything by William Gibson, the atmosphere of digital measures and countermeasures is fascinating. I would also recommend two books by Daniel Saurez, Daemon, and Freedom. Brilliantly intense cyber-thrillers.


“This Machine Kills Secrets” is a good read for someone not particularly knowledgeable about the milieu of cyber-crime, or how WikiLeaks works, and who may have never heard of hacktivism. Adam Greenberg covers considerable time and the geography of cypherpunks is the world, literally the entire globe is the network of hacktivism. Having said that, Iceland could be breaking new digital pathways for protecting both a person’s privacy, and ensuring governments and corporations maintain integrity.

The book does not explicitly raise the questions I’ve posed but while reading, one cannot help but have those questions arise. Just how does a person protect their privacy in the light of wrong-doing? We have anonymous tip lines for police departments. Newspapers have emails and tip lines for newsworthy items. But what about when a politician engages in inappropriate activity? Or a government agency? Or a government? By what means can a person protect themselves and their family and friends when details emerge of corporate malfeasance, or government corruption? Are some levels of government immune? Is the DoD immune? The DOJ? The White House?

“This Machine Kills Secrets” is not going to answer those questions, but it sure makes you think about them.

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