Civic News

Why alleged arms shippers are fighting this open-data nonprofit in court

C4ADS uses public data to analyze international conflicts. Its approach has won it fans and also enemies.

COO Farley Mesko (standing) with members of the C4ADS team. (Photo by Lalita Clozel)

“Our client admits that at one point in early 2012 it shipped arms to Syria,” said well-reputed white collar attorney Andrew Friedman as he argued on behalf of Kaalbye Shipping International, a Ukraine-based cargo transportation company.
But that was beside the point, he added at the late August hearing in D.C. Superior Court. The suit in question pitted C4ADS (Center for Advanced Defense Studies), a nonprofit that uses open data to analyze international conflicts, against Kaalbye, a company it had cited in a report on Russian arms shipments.
The focus of the case is not whether Kaalbye is an arms shipper, but whether or not C4ADS drew inferences from its data in a libelous way.

The case

Kaalbye’s alleged implication in arms transfers around the world — including the sale of USSR-issued X-55 missiles from Ukraine to Iran and China in 2001, a $4 billion military equipment deal between Russia and Venezuela and more recently, suspicious shipments to the Syrian regime through Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea — are mere details in a case that will hinge on the technicalities of a fledgling D.C. law meant to protect the First Amendment rights of vulnerable parties.
“We set out to present an objective picture of a very opaque system, in this case the system of maritime arms transfers related to the Russian government and former Ukrainian government,” C4ADS COO Farley Mesko told
C4ADS followed the spotty trail of port logs, tracking data and news reports, and found that certain Ukrainian ports were hotspots for the circulation of suspicious cargoes from Russia. Among them is Oktyabrsk, which sent out the Havana-bound cargoes in 1962 that would cause the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After seeing their names in the September 2013 C4ADS report, titled “The Odessa Network,” many companies complained to the nonprofit, said Mesko. When Kaalbye threatened legal action, C4ADS decided to preemptively sue the arms shipper and its D.C. colleagues. The two other defendants are the Global Strategic Communication Group (GSCG), which has lobbied for Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia who laughed about being on a list of officials sanctioned by the United States, and GSCG senior consultant Peter Hannaford.
Kaalbye is asking for damages of at least $1 million — which is more than C4ADS has ever made in a year, said Mesko. “I think Kaalbye’s goal with all of this is clearly to silence us by forcing us to pay for all of this.” C4ADS has now filed an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion, in accordance with a 2010 statute that has attorneys on both sides, and Judge Thomas J. Motley, scratching their heads.
“There’s been a growing recognition that libel lawsuits are time-consuming and they’re expensive,” said Leslie P. Machado, a LeClairRyan attorney who runs the blog The statute can allow defendants to “dispose of them earlier and sooner so that people feel that they’re not inhibited from speaking up for fear of getting sued.”
This case could help shape how courts will interpret the statute, because guidelines on its implementation “are not completely fleshed out today,” said Machado. C4ADS and Kaalbye disagree on what standards apply to determine whether a case can qualify for anti-SLAPP dismissal. “Because the statute is still relatively new, there certainly is an opportunity for this case and certainly any other case to add to the body of law,” Machado added.

Open data under fire

Kaalbye’s defense has also called into question the validity of C4ADS’s open data sourcing.
In court documents, the shipping company declared the evidence “neither data-driven nor the product of true factual research, but rather unreliable online-only entries from questionable sources.” C4ADS collected information from the Automatic Identification System, a GPS-based tracking system for vessels, rather than satellite data. According to Kaalbye, satellite data showed that a ship it managed could not have been present near Syria at certain dates indicated in the C4ADS report.
This led The Washington Post — which has also been approached by Kaalbye attorneys, according to court filings — to run a major correction on an article that had drawn heavily from the report. Hannaford, the GSCG consultant, applauded the modification in a Washington Times op-ed, which was closely followed by C4ADS’s suit.
“We have data, enormous amounts of data, stacks of data,” said C4ADS attorney Andrew Ward at the Aug. 26 hearing, “I could go through it with you, it would take too much time.” Before him, several boxes, containing probably hundreds of pages of documents and, Ward specified, “75,000 data points” lay pointedly on the table. C4ADS analyzed the data using Palantir Technologies’ Gotham platform — a software that has been used by the CIA, the FBI and the Pentagon, among other government organizations.
Through its attorney, Kaalbye Shipping International declined to comment on the case.
C4ADS has conducted research on Somali pirates for the World Bank and been cited on multiple occasion by officials at the highest ranks of government, according to Mesko. “We have presented our work to admirals and ambassadors and generals and staffers,” he said. The organization has also received a West Coast nod, winning a $96,000 “New Digital Age” grant from Google CEO Eric Schmidtannounced in March.
And yet, said Mesko, the very government that has vindicated their research is naturally inclined to trust a different set of sources. “You’re trying to compete with the retired ambassadors,” said Mesko, 27: “the generals and ambassadors in the world.”
C4ADS jealously guards its independence as a nonprofit that nevertheless produces research that is invaluable to officials. “The type of work that we know how to do — as soon as the government touches it, they break it,” said Mesko. “It’s a dance, right?”

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