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Nov 29, 2010

Rundle: the world changed this week. And it's only Monday

When the diplomatic correspondence of an entire nation can be loaded onto a memory stick, then security is only as good as the least 'dependable' individual in the whole chain.

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Wikileaks has commenced a release of its file of US diplomatic cables, with The Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel and other outlets publishing reports based on around 250,000 key documents in the cache.

They reveal a range of facts and statements that will be embarrassing and more, not only to the US administration, but to a range of other governments. Prominent among the cables are instructions to US diplomats to spy on other nations’ delegates to the UN, and find ways to gain key information about them including their fingerprints and credit card numbers. Other nations’ government officials were also to be spied on by US diplomatic staff in national missions elsewhere.

Other key revelations from the cache include the widespread fear and loathing among the Arab world for Iran and the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Saudi Arabia reportedly urging the US to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability by any means necessary.

The 250,000 documents were passed on to Wikileaks by Bradley Manning, a former military intelligence analyst based in Iraq, who copied the files – as well as the files that became the site’s earlier Iraq and Afghanistan war logs releases – in 2009 and 2010, and later passed them on to Wikileaks. Manning is currently on remand, awaiting trial, after bragging about the release to an ex-hacker, who turned him in.

Predictably, much of the media focus has been on the lurid details – that Ahmadinejad is routinely referred to as ‘Hitler’, that Barack Obama thinks David Cameron is a lightweight, and that Muammar Qaddafi is accompanied everywhere by a blonde Ukrainian nurse. And some commentators have mocked claims made for the documents, suggesting that they reveal only the usual business of statecraft. “Also on #wikileaks “global diplomatic crisis”: British royals an embarrassment; Afghan govt corrupt; X-factor a bit dull” tweeted the fanatically pro-Blair UK journalist John Rentoul.

If you’re looking for a signed confession from Alexander Haig that he killed the Kennedys to cover up the faked moonshot, you won’t find them. But as with earlier releases, it’s the accumulation of detail that’s devastating, as well as direct evidence of what was previously deniable.

Other revelations in the cache include massive money laundering and corruption by the Afghan government, close co-operation and fusion between the Russian intelligence service and local mafias, fears of nuclear leakage from Pakistan should the state collapse entirely, and the abysmal failure of the UK military effort in Afghanistan as assessed by US representatives.

But there are several areas where the cables reveal or confirm potential military and espionage action in chilling detail.

One ‘seam’ is the instructions to US diplomats to spy on their opposite numbers that is truly devastating, with so-called ‘national human intelligence collection directives’ issued by both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. These demanded ‘biometric information’ on UN figures, and representatives of more than 33 countries elsewhere, including DNA, fingerprints and iris scans, as well as tech specs of information systems, passwords, encryption keys and the like. The UN effort was to involve the CIA, the NSA and the FBI, a clear breach of the immunity afforded the UN for its presence in New York.

Other cables explicitly discuss an Israeli attack on Iran, quoting Ehud Barak as saying that 2010 would be the essential year to attack, as Iranian nuclear sites would otherwise be too well defended. The exchange was in the context of a delivery of bunker busting GBU-28 5,000 pound bombs which the US wanted done ‘discreetly’, so that it wouldn’t look like they were preparing for a military strike.

The quarter of a million cables are ‘Sipdis’ communiques, loaded on the military’s ‘Siprnet’ internet and secure embassy websites. Eleven thousand of the cables are marked ‘secret’, and nine thousand of those are marked ‘noform’ – ‘no foreigners’.

The US and other governments have repeatedly petitioned Wikileaks not to release the cables, and argued that it would put ‘countless’ lives at risk. In an exchange of letters between Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange and the US ambassador to the UK, Assange claims that all material will be redacted for vulnerable personal names, and suggests that the unwillingness of the US to help with this is sign that they are more concerned with secrecy than human life.

Commentators have been running thick and fast since the first rank of stories was released on Sunday afternoon, due to an inadvertent early release by Der Spiegel. Some officials suggest that the release is no biggie; others are less restrained, with the Italian foreign minister declaring it the ‘9.11’ of diplomacy, making secure national communications impossible.

That comment goes to the heart of the Wikileaks project, which, as per Assange’s theorising, has been more directed to the quantity of information released as the quality of it. Assange’s arguments tend towards the techno-anarchistic, arguing that the state (as conspiracy) is simply a product of the ratio of information within to information outside it. As these approach 1, the conspiracy’s energies become increasingly consumed with plugging the leaks – while, by contrast, the ‘exterior’ gains greater power from increased access to information. When the ratio is 1:1, and access to information is equal, the conspiracy by definition has ceased to exist.

Even if one takes that as an ideal type, to describe a fuzzy reality, one can see that it usefully describes some of the effects taking place. The three early releases – the ‘collateral murder’ videos, and the Afghan and Iraq war logs – appear to have categorically dissolved any trace of ‘war mystique’ that those conflicts held. The old trick of suddenly revealing a new terrifying reason why we must stay the course appears to have been undermined as much by public knowledge of the amateurish and chaotic texture of the war operation, as anything else.

The ‘cablegate’ releases go a step further, moving forward a historical shift that has long been obvious – once information is no longer paper-bound, there is a categorical and qualitative change in its character and the relationship of power to information. When the diplomatic correspondence of an entire nation can be loaded onto a memory stick, then security is only as good as the least ‘dependable’ individual in the whole chain.

Mass whistleblowing used to be massively difficult – it took your correspondent two weeks to steal, photocopy and replace the whole Victorian government file on the ‘multifunction polis’ in 1989, and that was 3,000 pages. Increasingly it will be difficult not to, ie for someone to resist the temptation.

Here the US was hoisted on its own petard, for Bradley Manning was a less-than-stable teenager rendered so by middle American homophobia – when he joined the forces, the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy effectively encouraged him to develop a double life. The shadow side of that led him to hackers and libertarians intersecting with the Boston gay community, and he became convinced by their arguments that ‘information wants to be free’. Whether he still is, after eight months solitary, will remain to be seen. But governments across the world must be quietly freaking out at the sudden porousness of their entire apparatus. National security now relies on the mood of its least gruntled operative.

There’s more to come in the days ahead, and eventually Wikileaks will dump the whole file on their site, suitably redacted.

I can’t help but yell ‘huzzah’ at all this of course – but equally I can’t pretend that it sets a general rule. I is no anarchist, and there are states whose monopolies – on violence, on classified information – one would want to support.

Were someone to do an indiscriminate document dump on the socialist government of Bolivia for example, I’d be comfortable with them being locked up and welded in. So what are the ethics and politics of such dumps? Who knows, but it’s fair to say the world changed this week. And it’s only Monday.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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28 comments

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28 thoughts on “Rundle: the world changed this week. And it’s only Monday

  1. freecountry

    Very interesting discussion, Mr Rundle. Three points:
    [Assange claims that all material will be redacted for vulnerable personal names, and suggests that the unwillingness of the US to help with this is sign that they are more concerned with secrecy than human life.]
    Perhaps the US government had legal advice that to do so might arguably be to give consent and lose the power to prosecute official secrets charges against its employees.
    [When the diplomatic correspondence of an entire nation can be loaded onto a memory stick, then security is only as good as the least ‘dependable’ individual in the whole chain.]
    The ideal response one might hope for is to improve the quality of discussion until every written word can bear scrutiny without embarrassment. A more practical response might be to reduce the size of the human chain handling any meaningful information at all, converting 99 per cent of the diplomatic service to human mules who stick to the script, ask no questions and see no evil. They could use Lavrentiy Beria’s historical NKVD of trained baboons for an example of how to organize such a service.

    Your closing half-joke about Bolivia illustrates the principle that secrecy is bad except when it serves a necessary purpose, and that that necessity is in the eye of the beholder. I would like to think a more objective basis for secrecy and transparency can be justified. For example, in Australia, the minutes of Cabinet deliberations are top secret, but ministers’ answers to Parliament on the outcomes of those deliberations are so transparent as to be immune from all legal restrictions (defamation damages, Official Secrets, etc).

    You could probably explain the reasons for this more clearly than I could. In the first case, Cabinet has to be able to “brainstorm” and think out loud in a frank manner, without the fear that every passing thought might hit the tabloids, otherwise they simply will not do so and policy formation will be insipid. But once those deliberations are done, the principle of responsible government requires them to justify their decisions; if this requirement is diluted (if, for example, an ALP leader decrees that backbenchers who have something to say must say it in secret Caucus rather than in open Parliament) then Cabinet decisions are likely to tend towards the politically strategic rather than being wise and in the public interest.

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