Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sunday Reading

John Cassidy in The New Yorker argues that the indictment of Julian Assange is a threat to journalism.

Imagine that, in the summer of 2014, the Justice Department had indicted Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, charging that, in 2010, he engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, to “facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.”

How do you think the editorial page of the New York Times would have reacted? (In July, 2010, the Times joined with the Guardian and Der Spiegel to publish tens of thousands of the documents that Manning provided to WikiLeaks.) What about the editorial page of the Washington Post, which published extensive stories about the leaked material? This material included video footage from 2007 of a U.S. Army Apache gunship carrying out an attack in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Iraqi civilians who were working for Reuters.

We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the Times would have published an editorial that said, “The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime.” It also seems unlikely that the Post would have published an editorial that said, “Mr. Assange’s case could conclude as a victory for the rule of law, not the defeat for civil liberties of which his defenders mistakenly warn.” Both of these statements were contained in editorials that the Times and the Post, respectively, published on Thursday, after Assange was arrested, in London, and Donald Trump’s Justice Department unsealed a federal indictment that federal prosecutors filed in Northern Virginia, last year.

Of course, a great deal has happened since 2014, much of it awful. During the 2016 Presidential election, Assange and WikiLeaks repeatedly published information that was damaging to the Democratic Party and to Hillary Clinton, timing the releases for maximum political damage. Assange denied that the Russian government was the source of this information, but, last summer, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, charged twelve Russian intelligence operatives with hacking D.N.C. servers and the e-mail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. Mueller’s indictment said that the Russian spies “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to release additional stolen documents through a website maintained by an organization (‘Organization 1’),” which was WikiLeaks.

Whether he knew it or not, Assange was a key participant in an outrageous Russian effort to sow division inside this country and help Donald Trump. It is understandable that the events of 2016 have heavily colored perceptions of Assange’s arrest and possible extradition to the United States. (“Once in the United States, moreover, he could become a useful source on how Russia orchestrated its attacks on the Clinton campaign,” the Times editorial noted.) But it is important to recognize that the legal charges against him have nothing to do with Russia or the 2016 election. They relate exclusively to his dealings with Manning, in 2010. As numerous media watchdogs and civil-rights groups have already pointed out, they amount to a dangerous attack on the freedom of the press and on efforts by whistle-blowers to alert the public of the actions of powerful institutions, including the U.S. government.

In explaining the charges against Assange, the indictment’s “manners and means of the conspiracy” section describes many actions that are clearly legitimate journalistic practices, such as using encrypted messages, cultivating sources, and encouraging those sources to provide more information. It cites a text exchange in which Manning told Assange, “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” and Assange replied, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” If that’s part of a crime, the authorities might have to start building more jails to hold reporters.

The indictment, and some of the commentary it engendered, also makes much of the fact that Assange offered to try to crack a computer password for Manning. The Department of Justice claims that this action amounted to Assange engaging in a “hacking” conspiracy. Even some independent commentators have suggested that it went beyond the bounds of legitimate journalism—and the protections of the First Amendment.

But did it? On Thursday, my colleague Raffi Khatchadourian, who has written extensively about Assange, pointed out that, as of now, it looks like Assange didn’t do much, if anything, to crack the password once Manning sent the encrypted version. Khatchadourian also pointed out that federal prosecutors have known about this text exchange for many years, and yet the Obama Administration didn’t bring any charges. “As evidence of a conspiracy,” Khatchadourian writes, “the exchange is thin gruel.”

Even if Assange had succeeded in decoding the encryption, it wouldn’t have given Manning access to any classified information she couldn’t have accessed through her own account. “Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers using a username that did not belong to her,” the indictment says. “Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.” So the goal was to protect Manning’s identity, and Assange offered to assist. But who could argue that trying to help a source conceal his or her identity isn’t something investigative journalists do on a routine basis?

Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the indictment as “deeply troubling” because of the precedent it sets. “With this prosecution of Julian Assange, the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest,” Mahoney warned.

The editorial in the Times did ultimately acknowledge “that the prosecution of Mr. Assange could become an assault on the First Amendment and whistle-blowers.” The Post’s editorial didn’t even go that far. Instead, it ended by saying Assange “is long overdue for personal accountability.” Many people would agree with that statement. But it is important not to view absolutely everything through the prism of 2016.

Putting The Picture Together — Marina Koren in The Atlantic on how the pieces came together to get the picture of the black hole.

The picture of a black hole, captured for the first time, shows a ring as radiant as gold against the darkness of space. At its center, the charcoal shadow of a void so powerful, nothing can escape its pull.

The dreamy photograph represents a tremendous technological achievement, assembled using eight radio telescopes in four continents—two each in Hawaii and Chile, and one each in Arizona, Mexico, Spain, and Antarctica—all synced together to scan the skies for several days in a row.

But the picture would not exist without technology much less sophisticated: computer disk drives.

The telescopes’ data had to go to two astronomy institutions to be processed, MIT’s Haystack Observatory in the United States and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany. An email attachment wasn’t going to work. The observatories had collected five petabytes of data. The average iPhone has 64 gigabytes of data storage. One million gigabytes are in one petabyte. It would have taken years for the data to cross the internet.

And so the data were carried on hundreds of hard disk drives, shipped to and from the observatories through plain old FedEx. Which is kind of marvelous, when you think about it. In a world where transferring information from one end of the world to another takes only a click, some things still have to be done the old-fashioned way. Humanity owes its first glimpse of one of the most mysterious objects in the universe not to something flashy and high tech, but a technology that has been around since the late 1950s, and transportation methods far older.

And to find out how it’s done, you have to talk with Don Sousa.

Sousa is a computer-support specialist at the Haystack Observatory. He’s also the shipping guy. He handled virtually every shipment for the Event Horizon Telescope, the effort to photograph a black hole.

Sousa grew up a few towns over from Haystack and has the trademark Boston-area accent to prove it. Over decades at the observatory, he has packaged equipment, put in orders, wrangled foreign customs regulations, and filled out reams of paperwork so that all kinds of hardware, from atomic clocks to disk drives, gets where it is needed. Before disk drives became widely available, he shipped reels of magnetic tape. “It’s amazing the differences from the mid-eighties, when I started, to what we do now,” Sousa says.

For the Event Horizon Telescope, Sousa packaged the disk drives in groups of eight. (“These are off-the-shelf hard drives,” he says. “You could buy them for your own personal computer if you wanted.”) The stacks were placed inside custom cases that allowed data to be recorded on all eight drives at once. Each module—eight disks, plus their custom coating—weighed about 23 pounds. Sousa shipped them in boxes labeled fragile and lined with a two-inch layer of foam, with cutouts in the middle to snuggle the modules, like precious jewelry in an antique box.

Sousa says he uses mostly FedEx and UPS. Some routes were trickier than others. Chile and Mexico had stricter rules about what could cross their borders. Sousa had to obtain a special license from the U.S. Department of Commerce to ship a particular piece of equipment to Mexico.

The toughest destination was the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. Without a nation to decide customs law, the continent relies on shipping agencies in Christchurch, New Zealand, which dispatch cargo ships and planes to the ice. Sousa had to coordinate with the National Science Foundation, which operates the research station where the telescope is based. Shipments had to meet very detailed specifications; Haystack had to build a wooden crate to carry the modules, because plastic containers weren’t allowed. “If it gets to Christchurch and something’s wrong, your equipment just sits there,” Sousa says.

The journey to the eight observatories was fine. It was the return trip that was worrisome. There were too much data to go through the burden of making extra copies; the disks that flew out of the stations were the only ones they had. “Going out there, they’re just blank,” says Mike Titus, the researcher who operated the supercomputer that helped synthesize all the data into a single, composite image. “Coming back, they’re precious commodities.”

I asked Titus whether the team considered asking a file-sharing service like Dropbox to build them something capable of transferring all those petabytes. “Don’t tell me that Amazon Cloud and Google Cloud, they wouldn’t love to have our data and store it for us,” Titus said, laughing. But even groundbreaking scientific teams don’t have that kind of budget. “Too much data and too much money—that’s why we don’t do it that way. Nothing beats the bandwidth of a 747 filled with hard disks.”

The return of the disks from the South Pole was particularly welcome. The shipment arrived months after all the rest thanks to the Antarctic winter, which had prevented anyone from flying in. The staff at Haystack was jubilant when FedEx arrived with a truck full of cosmic goodies from the bottom of the Earth. “It’s like they thought we were expecting penguins to jump out of the box or something,” says Nancy Wolfe Kotary, the communications officer at Haystack.

Sousa understood the concern, but he wasn’t too worried himself. “I’ve shipped to every continent,” he says, and in his 32 years on the job, he hasn’t lost one package.

Well, there was one, but it wasn’t his fault, or even the fault of any shipping company. The equipment, bound for a new research station in South Africa, cleared customs in Johannesburg and was loaded onto a truck. On the road, the truck was hijacked, and its contents stolen. “To this day, we figure it’s sitting somewhere on a coffee table as a conversation piece,” Sousa says.

Sousa plans to retire in three years and enter a new phase of his life that doesn’t require checking tracking alerts every day. He doesn’t have a background in science; before joining Haystack, he worked as a police officer for the state of Massachusetts. For him, the photo is the culmination of years’ worth of effort by astronomers and shipping experts alike. But the actual shot, he says, is pretty impressive, too.

Doonesbury — That’s Headley.

Speak!