The latest leaks by Julian Assange’s organization, like any valuable piece of information, tend to illuminate our surroundings as much as they serve to highlight the limitations of our understanding. The batch of files known as ‘Vault 7’ has the distinction of being, to date, the largest and most extensive disclosure of the inner workings of the notoriously murky Central Intelligence Agency. Detailing a series of techniques, programmes and strategies employed in the service of cyber intelligence, the documents reveal an impressive capacity by the agency to affect almost any conceivable element of the digital world.
Much like the NSA revelations, “Vault 7” sheds light on aspects of the national security apparatus which rightly colours the dark imaginings of paranoid anti-statists and conspiracy theorists everywhere. At the risk of trotting out clichés, the Orwellian nature of the possibilities offered to the state by technology can only be faulted on one respect- namely that contemporary reality, in technical terms, has eclipsed anything conceived in the 1940s in matters of scope, efficiency, and ambition.
It is more important however, to consider the implications and troubling suggestions which hover vaguely in the background. In the context of contemporary debates, on the Trump presidency, the so-called “deep state”, the proliferation of “fake news” and uncertainty- it’s necessary to wade through the sea of conflicting narratives, to craft an admittedly provisional, yet lucid, perspective on these questions.
The So-called ‘Deep State’
It is the staple of conspiracy theory circles, on the subject of government, to weave threads of causation between public policy initiatives, flourishing surveillance, and the incestuous relations that often characterize the upper echelons of power. This particular set of circumstances, which often conjures up mental pictures of smoke-filled rooms, goes by many names. Roosevelt once alluded to the dangers to “the simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people” in a speech in 1938. In 1961, Eisenhower more pointedly raised concerns about the undue influence of a “military-industrial complex”.
Whatever the sobriquet, or ambiguous allusion, the fact of the matter is that indeed, there can reasonably be said to exist a constellation of factions, agencies, corporations and individuals who collectively form an invisible government.
As Mark Lofgren puts it in his book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (2016):
“There is the visible United States government, situated in imposing neoclassical buildings around the Mall in Washington, D.C., and there is another, more shadowy and indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is the tip of an iceberg that is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg operates on its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.”
We can have no illusions as to the relative independence these circles have from any meaningful form of public accountability or oversight. “National security” after all has long been the rhetorical carte blanche, capable of amassing provision of resources, the protection of secrecy, and proved sufficient to summon almost blind trust on the part of elected representatives, and the electorate at large.
With these observations in mind, when it comes to the CIA specifically, we can only say that the intelligence agency has quite the illustrious track record of cloak-and-dagger operations, which always come to light only long after the dust has settled. Since presumably having gone rogue, sometime after WWII, the CIA has been involved in grievous human rights abuses and all manner of criminality. Of these, we can point out to such well-known examples as MK-Ultra , the botched mind control experiments (which unwittingly popularized LSD, as seen in the life story of the likes of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), or for that matter, the more pernicious psychological experiments conducted in ‘black sites’, devised to mentally destroy suspected terrorists.
In the 1970’s, the findings of the Church Committee , invoked by US Senator Frank Church, delivered a substantial account of the methods and practices at the disposal of the CIA, alongside other agencies- which goes so far as to include assassinations of foreign leaders. Further down the line of revelations, it is also notable the various instances in which the agency has been implicated, with varying degrees of involvement, in the aiding and abetting of drug trafficking, especially in Nicaragua in the 1980’s. A Senate report by John Kerry in 1986 certainly alluded to this, noting the questionable funding, logistical assistance, and general support that were available to the CIA-backed Contras in the civil war against the Sandinistas.
Surveying this lurid history, it is certainly no wild leap of the imagination, to admit some kernel of truth to the more extravagant speculations on the possibility of a “Deep State”, acting above and beyond legal propriety in the advancement of ideological agendas. We don’t even have to go into the dubious “intelligence reports” which preceded the Iraq War. Indeed, given the evidence of precedent, this ought to be the default position, rather than assuming that somehow deep-rooted institutional custom has been swept away quietly and quickly, once we entered the contemporary post-Cold War era.
Having left behind the rough and tumble of drug-smuggling in the Nicaraguan jungle, or Frankensteinian scientific experimentation on unwitting civilians, it seems like the modern CIA has simply decided not to be outdone by the upstart NSA in the internet era. Wikileaks gives us but a glimpse into what these novelties might entail, and I say glimpse by virtue of the admission that what has come to light is but a tiny portion of the documents they claim to be have in their possession.
So far, for instance in a section referred to as “Year Zero”, it appears that the agency has accumulated a vast collection of Trojan horses, malware, and remote control systems devised to target the most widely used means of communication, namely Google’s Android, Apple Iphones, as well as, incredibly enough, Samsung TVs.
The scale of this operation is not to be underestimated either, as Wikileaks notes in its press release that, “by 2016, [CIA] hackers had utilized more code than that used to run Facebook. The CIA had created, in effect, its “own NSA””. More worryingly to the users of the technologies targeted, which includes most people alive today save for perhaps hermit monks and uncontacted Amazonian tribes, is the fact that apparently the CIA has “lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal”, which is now circulating in an “unauthorized manner” by people in the know. No doubt, these are days of plenty for the criminal elements whose specialty is cyber-crime, seeing as the vulnerabilities found and exploited by the CIA have also, in many cases, not been divulged to the relevant companies- Google, Microsoft, Apple, and so on- contrary to what was promised by the Obama administration in the aftermath of the NSA leaks.
More interestingly, there is evidence that the CIA has also pondered possibilities of hacking into vehicle control systems, and although Wikileaks confesses no knowledge as to the purposes behind this, it concludes this would allow “nearly undetectable assassinations”. This potential hasn’t gone unnoticed; some have now gone on to speculate whether such technological wizardry may have been employed in the death of journalist Michael Hastings, a prominent thorn in the side of the Obama administration who died in mysterious circumstances.
One of the most ambitious items disclosed however, would be the CIA’s Remote Devices Branch’s UMBRAGE group, which is said to maintain a library of hacking techniques stolen from internationally-produced malware, which Wikileaks affirms tentatively, also include those of Russian origin. In relation to UMBRAGE, it is explained that while hack attacks leave a “fingerprint” which is then used to identify its perpetrator, the CIA is now perfectly capable of mimicking specific techniques, using what it knows from foreign malware, to make it appear as if someone else in a different loaction was behind them.
Of News and Fakes
With what we know of UMBRAGE, the waters definitely become far murkier. The claims that spread wildly in the aftermath of the Trump election, concerning Russian tampering and interference, which we must remember originated with the CIA, become more than questionable, given the agency’s ability to convincingly simulate such an attack without detection.
Considering this alongside an infamous history of the ends justifying the means, as far as the legality, morality or propriety of intelligence operations are concerned, we simply have little reason to pay heed to a narrative of Trump colluding in some way with Russia- even if evidence was presented, we could no longer be sure to any satisfactory degree that this wasn’t yet another fabrication.
For some reason however, this hasn’t stopped many on the Left from suggesting, that in any case, the CIA ought to be taken as some form of unassailable authority as far as its word goes, provided it delivers something that might just be used to undermine the despised Trump presidency. If there is any reprehensible collusion that has taken place in this whole ordeal, in fact, it was one of an altogether different nature, not so much a Trump-Putin alliance, but mutually beneficial meeting of minds between the intelligence community and the Clinton campaign, and presumably DNC higher ups.
Glenn Greenwald appears to entertain this scenario , when he reminds us that Obama’s former CIA chief Michael Morell was an outspoken Clinton cheerleader, who sang the praises of the Democratic candidate on The New York Times, and for a moment also added to the speculations on Trump’s links with Russia. It’s noteworthy then, as Greenwald puts it, that even Morell backpedaled on this question, subsequently dispelling the idea that such a link existed in the first place, once evidence no longer seemed forthcoming.
The mainstream media’s enthusiasm in promoting a patently false story, in this case the Russia-Trump connection, on the other hand was only matched by its derisory take on Trump’s own fanciful concoction that his office had been “wire-tapped” at the behest of the Obama administration. Curiously however, not long after Trump’s claim, the Wikileaks revelations surfaced, suggesting that even if the alleged wire-tapping didn’t take place, it still wouldn’t be inconceivable given the ample means to conduct such an operation, should an agency such as the CIA wish it to be done.
Whatever the case might be in regards to specifics, Wikileaks’s ‘Vault 7’episode only adds to the phantasmagoria of contemporary affairs, where truth appears ever more elusive, and increasingly we can only speak of a multiplicity of ‘narratives’. This isn’t so much the case with the content of the leaks themselves, but what they mean, in terms of how information is weaponised in the political arena, where sources for claims and counter-claims of espionage or interference simply cannot be taken at face value, for obvious reasons.
Ultimately, it can be said that at stake is nothing less than the very foundations of liberal democracy; many pressing issues have come to light by virtue of these revelations which are rarely discussed in the mainstream media- such as, to what extent is the surveillance apparatus accountable to democratic mechanisms? How can meaningful public policy debate occur when crucial information only comes out surreptitiously, through leaks? What are we to think of the potential of agencies such as the CIA to influence political outcomes well beyond its legitimate authority to do so?
These are all questions worth pondering, especially as they most likely will never receive due appreciation in the mainstream media news cycle, where the type of information divulged by Wikileaks almost always fades into obscurity after a day or two.