Australia’s most experienced diplomat has branded the reaction to the leaking of diplomatic cables in the WikiLeaks scandal as “overblown” and says most of the information is nothing more than gossip.

Richard Woolcott, Australia’s last representative on the UN Security Council, told Crikey today that unless lives were actually put at risk or military operations were compromised the information was of little value.

“In fact,” he said, “some of the leaking could be useful as it brings matters to the public domain that otherwise would remain buried.”

With WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange in hiding with a warrant out for his arrest over alleged sex crimes in Sweden, and the website under siege by governments for publishing hundreds of thousands of leaked diplomatic communication documents, more cables have emerged pointing to corruption in Afghanistan and souring relations between the US and Pakistan.

Many of the cables have contained embarrassing character assessments of world leaders — idle gossip, says Woolcott, and nothing new.

“The frank assessments of [Russian prime minister] Putin, [French president Nicolas] Sarkozy and [Italian PM] Berlusconi were hardly news — they had been circulating in the world’s media for sometime. But,” he says, “the US State Department and Hillary Clinton would hardly have welcomed the public airing of the views of US diplomats.

“And Sarah Palin’s call for Julian Assange to be ‘hunted like we hunt terrorists’ is laughable. Obama must be hoping she gets the Republican nomination — it will ensure his re-election for  another four years.”

Woolcott said the leaking of a cable he sent from the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 1975 — by somebody at the embassy or in the foreign affairs department, presumably, designed to embarrass new prime minister Malcolm Fraser — was regarded as serious at the time. “But,” he said, “it’s contents at least were then open for discussion and this is what’s happening now courtesy of WikiLeaks.”

He said diplomats worldwide need to consider the methods they may need to adopt to ensure their reports are tamper-proof. He suggests encryption may be the answer.

Peter Fray

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