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Dec 7, 2010

'Critical infrastructure' = hysterical
reaction

The "critical infrastructure" apparently leaked by WikiLeaks is a bureaucratic exercise that tells us nothing. Why is the press overreacting?

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What a load of rubbish the media are going on about over the alleged list of terrorist targets published by WikiLeaks. Fairfax and News Ltd newspapers are running virtually the same line as Robert McClelland about how this is allegedly some serious breach of security.

So let’s consider the list of purported targets here in Australia that WikiLeaks has apparently leaked.

In the event al-Qaeda wants to prosecute a death-by-rattlesnake strategy in the United States, yes, it could take out Mayne Pharma’s Melbourne plant, in the hope of increasing the number of deaths from snake bite, although most rattlesnake bites are not lethal. Or … maybe that would just increase sales of the other, Mexican-developed antivenin Antivipmyn, which some practitioners regard as cheaper and more effective than Crofab.

Or they could sever the Southern Cross fibre optic cable in Sydney (“Australian link broken — rest of world isolated!”). But then, terrorists would know about that from Wikipedia, rather than WikiLeaks. Or perhaps they’d find out from the website of the cable owner.

In fact if you want the exact spot for that cable, consult ACMA’s handy “Sydney Submarine Protection Zones”, which details the precise location of these important pieces of communication infrastructure. In handy pamphlet form, it’s a must for any serious terrorist.

I await the breathless media report that our communications regulator is giving al-Qaeda a helping hand.

OK, jokes, aside, perhaps the threat to the production of sedative Midazolam is more disturbing. Quite why isn’t clear, though, because Midazolam, however important the production of a sedative might be in these over-wrought times, is manufactured right around the world, not just here — indeed, India is increasingly the go-to place for pharmaceutical manufacturing, not high-cost countries such as Australia.

A well-known fibre optic cable, a sedative manufacturer, a antivenin manufacturer — this is the stuff of a major breach of counter-terrorism security? Are you kidding? And you can bet exactly the same mix of publicly available information and anodyne report-filler has been replicated across the world in response to the State Department’s request for advice on “critical infrastructure” in host countries important to the US.

“Critical infrastructure protection” is a confection of command-and-control obsessives engendered by 9/11. The Howard government was big on it and this government is too. It’s based on the idea that those cunning terrorists might decide to try inflicting mass inconvenience on us rather than mass slaughter, by disrupting critical networks such as power or communications or fuel. To the extent that it facilitates what should be business-as-usual risk management and contingency planning by sensible private infrastructure owners, it’s valuable, but of course, in true national security state fashion, it didn’t stop there. Instead, it has become a mini-industry unto itself, employing bureaucrats, consultants and private sector employees. Its primary activity is endless meetings between bureaucrats from different departments and a central co-ordinating body such as, in Australia’s case, the Attorney-General’s department, with occasional meetings with key industry players, to develop strategies about what to do if a particular piece of critical infrastructure is wrecked, either by terrorists or by less sinister forces.

Most of the bureaucrats involved are acutely aware that time spent in such meetings is time away from anything resembling productive work, having to feign interest in risk management working papers and preliminary draft strategic plans. It’s apparently the same for US bureaucrats. The request that is at the centre of the leak is actually from the Department of Homeland Security, channeled through the State Department. You can almost hear the groan as embassy officials read DHS’s demand for “name and physical location of the asset, system, or supply chain node” and the “Post’s rationale for including, modifying, or removing an asset, system, or supply chain node …”

The half-arsed nature of the response of state officials to the previous such request is clear from the document. Some of the 2008 lists are extensive and detailed. Others … well, not so much. “Metal Fabrication Machines: Small number of Turkish companies” is the startling revelation in the Europe section. “Shipping lane is a critical supply chain node” offered the Djibouti post. “Oman: Strait of Hormuz”. “Nuclear Power Plant, Ontario, Canada” (presumably previously unknown to terrorists). In fact, most of the list of “critical infrastructure” is undersea cables or associated facilities (but don’t tell opponents of the NBN).

In short, it’s a fair bet there’s virtually nothing on the list that isn’t accessible by anyone with access to Google and, in the case of more specific industry information, the willingness to spend some time in industry-related chatrooms. After all, the request specifically said that State Department officials didn’t have to consult with host governments. The response to the previous request has “tick-and-flick” all over it.

One of the main charges levelled against much of the mainstream media, especially in the US, over its response to WikiLeaks is that its coverage has been tainted by resentment: resentment, especially, that it is WikiLeaks that has started playing the role of watchdog vacated by the press. Much of the mainstream media has, the charge goes, become too close to governments, too uncritical, with too many interests in common with the politicians and the political culture they should be holding up to scrutiny.

The charge may not be correct but the reaction to this cable, where the press and governments are united in condemnation, looks an awful lot like it. Or perhaps it’s just the incapacity of our media to display the slightest scepticism when it comes to anything touching on national security.

*As a public servant, Bernard Keane participated in a transport and communications critical infrastructure committee.

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