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Dec 7, 2010

'Critical infrastructure' = hysterical

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


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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39 thoughts on “‘Critical infrastructure’ = hysterical

  1. Misanthropic Dave

    Too true Bernard!

  2. Altakoi

    I have wondered about the shock value of a lot of the wikileaks stuff, unless you count it being shocking that the government thinks much as everyone else does. US concerned Pakistans nukes not secure – should bloody hope so, ’cause I am. US advised to be ready with conflict with China – well thats only been the subject of god knows how many foreign policy papers and a recent quarterly essay. Saudi Arabia on the nose – well Saudi’s did do a lot of the flying in 9/11 and they are a despotic state that even other despotic states think is the work of the great Satan. So, having not read the gigabytes of leaks, the media reportage is just a litany of uncomfortable truths everyone knows but the media seems just faintly embarrassed at not having mentioned themselves.

  3. David

    Our slack MSM should be bloody ashamed of themselves. It has taken one man to arouse this shabby lot (Crikey excluded) from their disinterest, sloppy reporting, shock jock, glossy magazine attitude. Bernard has covered it well and once again we are better served by Crikey than the Murdoch and Fairfax empires combined.

  4. ronin8317

    It’s a planted story to make ‘Wikileak’ look irresponsible. They’re preparing the public for the arrest of Mr Assange. The US Government is not worried about the diplomatic cable, they’re worried about what Wikileak will release on Bank of America.

  5. Perry Gretton

    I can’t find NAB’s online banking system on the list.

  6. freecountry

    Yeah, I to do a double-take of the “non-military assetts” alarum. This is all missing the point, which is that state officials all over the world will now feel that every single word they say to US consular officials is on the record. As a result, diplomatic lines of communication will become strained.

    In 1961 the UN formulated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to codify age-old conventions for the protection of privileged between diplomats and their governments, in the hope of fostering dialog between states.

    The reason this needed codifying was pretty obvious at the time. It was underlined the following year, when the whole world held its breath waiting for a runaway exchange of nuclear-warhead missiles to draw the final curtain on the human race.

    I hope in some way the Wikileaks saga progresses beyond childish assertions like the right of the public to know everything, and gives rise to an evaluation of global diplomacy today. On the one hand we talk and talk with governments of North Korea and Iran while they arm themselves with post-cold-war nukes and hold their own populations as hostages against our aggression. On the other hand our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were done in such a clumsy way as to alienate much of the Muslim world, when I feel we could have made common cause with most Muslim countries–and even with most of the Mujahidin who freed Afghanistan from Russia–being the enemy of my enemy.

    Julian Assange no doubt has his own views on all this, maybe insightful, maybe not, but whatever his motives are it’s likely they go beyond personal gain. Annoying as he is, it should be fairly clear that the sheer volume of off-the-record talk he has in his possession, if not the banal nature of most of it, gives him enormous leverage.

    It would be interesting to know if any approach was made to him–using diplomatic methods to argue for the concept of diplomatic privilege–to ask Assange what he wanted, and whether there might be a way to address his objectives without exposing the back room chatter of every US diplomat and every world leader.

  7. Jimmy

    I had to laugh yesterday at the media’s coverage of the rudd/clinton discussion, they sounded almost happy that Australia was important enough to be leaked about, but the headline was “Rudd encourages military action against China” when to me it seemed he was encouraging the carrot diplomacy to bring them into the fold while still holding the bloody big stick just in case.

  8. julieb

    Too true – love the footnote

  9. Venise Alstergren

    The reality of all of this is that America has been made to look foolish. And if there is one thing a world power will not tolerate, it is the loss of face.

    The MSM are nothing if not fond of their jobs, so they followed the PMs command. They are dutifully outraged that we, at America’s behest, have brought brought some Western peoples’ live a bit closer to the end of the road.

    They fail to think of the amount of lives lost in invaded countries by America’s endless wars.

  10. SusieQ

    Sadly, trumped up hysteria and celebrity tittle tattle seems to sell these days. As the media cut resources, they seem to become more and more reliant on the ‘press release as story’ option and whatever they can republish from overseas sources. If a story can incorporate a pretty girl in a bikini, a famous sportsman and a sick child, then all the better!

  11. eldon2

    i’m worried that julian is gonna be having a very hard time for his mouthpiece role – if he gets arrested now, it’s for rendition purposes, like to give him the big squeeze.
    i just hope i haven’t been watching too many episodes of spooks.

  12. HughG

    Im just baffled why Mr Assange is in the firing line – surely the fault here lies with the person who has leaked the documents. Perhaps the countries involved need to increase their document security, and implement checks on those who would need to access them.

    The whole wikileaks thing to me seems to be a lot of hysteria from governments that the world is disenfranchised with – hung parliaments in Australia and the UK, the US democrats losing lots of seats in the upper house, the various European governments,

    and also, its the first major world wide scandal since the GFC.

    I think this has all become very sensationalised partially because the media needs a new scandal to gossip about, and partly because the worlds ineffectual leaders are scared that if people do find out how ineffective they are and how awfully corruptly and inefficiently they are managed, then they may in future face larger challenges from their publics.

    is this something anyone else thinks? There have just been so many scandals lately relating to lack of governmental transparency (UK expenses scandal, the entirety of the way the GFC was globally managed, anything at ALL to do with the Labor party in Australia…)

  13. Angra

    Bernard – you forget to mention that this was first discussed here on Crikey at 8:00 am yesterday morning – a full 24 hours before the mainstream press got onto it.
    See posts 1, 2 and 3 –


    I hope you are not taking credit for what the contributors to Crikey first pointed out yesterday.

  14. puddleduck

    Hysteria about a hysterical list. Come on, really?
    @ Venise – so true. This is about everyone realising that sometimes, the emperor wears no clothes.

  15. Cripes...

    If justice is to be served, Assange must be punished. As an example to other sociopaths and criminal malcontents, the punishment should be substantial, say, thirty years on a prison farm, but reduced to twenty years if Assange makes a public statement acknowledging full remorse for his part in the commission of a major act of international terrorism.

  16. HughG

    but Cripes…
    why is it Assange’s responsibility?
    Im not sure its clear either whether he has in fact broken any law.

    What he has done is offered a platform for people to upload documents and publish them without trace.

    Is it his fault ultimately that someone has uploaded these documents? Surely if they are as dangerous as they say, shouldnt the governments involved have strictly regulated who saw them, performed psychometric testing etc and prevented leaks from possibly happening?

    Why should Assange be given responsibility for any problems that arise?

  17. Meski

    An inept troll, at that

  18. Felix

    This article by Bernard Keane has confirmed all our suspicions that the leaked information is just another of the many red herrings of overblown importance used to build a case against Assange to justify his public flogging…or worse.

    I am still waiting for those conscience driven Journos within the MSM, that last bastion of good men and women, to walk out in protest. To throw caution to the wind and tell their employers they will cease being their news patsies.

    Resign, go to the edge, take a risk and then fly.

  19. David

    [FELIX…”I am still waiting for those conscience driven Journos within the MSM, that last bastion of good men and women, to walk out in protest. To throw caution to the wind and tell their employers they will cease being their news patsies.”]

    Great idea Felix, trouble is they haven’t got the guts or the ticker to do it.

  20. Perry Gretton

    Especially if they work for Murdoch.

  21. Cripes...


    Assange has recently publicly boasted of his responsibility for the controversial ‘WikiLeaks’ disclosure of a huge volume of strictly private, internationally sensitive, and highly restricted information with classified details that will certainly affect the safety and security of countless individuals and endanger critical facilities and infrastructure of many nations across the world.

    Is this the psychopathic act of a madman or terrorist? Let the legal system examine the extent of Assange’s guilt in this matter, or otherwise (should he be found insane), so justice will be seen to be done by the international community.

    However, the Courts cannot only deal with Assange; his many collaborators’ guilt must also be examined. Indeed, some extremely irresponsible news organizations must promptly answer for their broadcast, print and digital dissemination of much potentially dangerous ‘WikiLeaks’ material.

  22. David

    Cripes…you weren’t a member of the gestapo in another life were you?

  23. Noocat

    What has been very illuminating since the start of cablegate is how governments, corporations (banks, mastercard, amazon, paypal, etc), and much of the mainstream media have come together to demonise or destroy Assange. The fear coming from these guys is almost palpable.

    I guess we all knew that much of the mass media puts a lot of energy into protecting the status quo and to therefore dumb the masses down, keep them distracted, and screen out any information that could possibly threaten the rich and powerful (who own the media) from exploiting the world to get even richer and more powerful. But since cablegate it just looks so obvious. What is it that they’re so afraid of people knowing?

  24. Guwardi

    Perry Gretton, NAB online banking…Classic

  25. shepherdmarilyn

    Our pathetic bloody media won’t even read DIAC reports on the net.

  26. Joze

    *What is it that they’re so afraid of people knowing?*

    I could answer that, but not here.

  27. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Cripes – “they” don’t even know what to bloody charge him with! In the absence of an actual chargeable offence, we’ve seen calls for everything from charges for “consensual sexual assault” (!!!) to assassination to extortion using the kidnapping of next-of-kin. Whatever the end result here, there is no way the Powers-that-be or the MSM can ever come out of this looking reasonable. It seems the only objective now is to monsterise Assange to the point that no-one else will ever dare do what Wikileaks is doing – an objective which has already failed epically.

  28. markw

    Are mainstream media, and for that matter the Australian public, really that gullible? The Australian Government, through Geoscience Australia, publish in far more detail than that reported in the Wikileak cables, including latitude and longitude positions of many of the nation’s “high value” assets… power stations, gas pipelines, chemical processing plants.

  29. Daniel

    Cripes!!! Crikey!!! Croikey!!!! Bloomin’ ‘eck!!!

  30. MLF

    Phew! Thank heavens Crikey is much smarter than the US State Department!

    I feel much safer now.

  31. RW

    Everybody seems concerned about the so far unproven risks that cable leaks created for those who are associated with “strategic targets” but nobody notices that there is another side of coin to it. I postulate that most of these who are directly involved in “strategic structures” know very well that these are strategic structures and as such can be targeted and Wikileaks didn’t discover it for them. These people know the risk so the important “strategic structures” have usually some defence plans, shelters, etc. In contrast ordinary people who live around these “strategic structures” frequently have no idea about it but would be badly affected in case of an attack. I lived for 30 years close to one of these “strategic structures” which was very well disguised. As it was military structure of strategic importance it would be one of the first to be nuked in a conflict. I didn’t know about it because it was shroudded in secrecy so I was unnowingly taking risk living there. Don’t you think that ordinary people have a right to know that they sit on a barrel of gun powder before it blows up under them??? Wikileaks just provided them with that knowledge. Frankly, I don’t like secrets that endanger my life – how about you??

  32. Socratease

    Bugger cable locations, I’m waiting for Wikileaks to tell me the whereabouts of:

    Harold Holt
    Juanita Neilsen
    The bloke who borrowed $20 from me in 1981

  33. AR

    ..err.. I think CRIPES is being sarcastic – the boilerplate he used is standard stalinist/totalitarian. No-one with two spare neurons to rub together would take it seriously.
    Which is why the MSM is going nuts, too few spare neurons.

  34. sprite

    If I was Assange I would be making sure that every pic he poses for, from now on, shows him with a copy of Orwell’s 1984 tucked under his right arm. Such an image would speak more eloquently than any possible combination of words.

  35. Tamo

    I think that CRIPES, in his/her/its, own way is highlighting the obvious – if publishing leaked material by WikiLeaks is a crime then the SMH, ABC and Crikey are equally guilty of the same crime. I only get to read the WikiLeaks data via the normal media channels. The inability of our Federal Government to understand this indicates that their mean IQ was accurately reflected in the recent election.

  36. David

    Posted Tuesday, 7 December 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
    Are mainstream media, and for that matter the Australian public, really that gullible? ]


  37. Bela

    The most revealing thing for me in all of this is that Julia Gillard really is not up to the job of Prime Minister.

    A fine operator in her pet areas of education and industrial relations, she is so far out of her depth when called to consider complex questions in areas of foreign policy or where difficult principles are at stake, that she parrots the words of advisers in a reactionary way. Remember her slogans during the election on climate change and population.

    A lawyer, she seemed not even to understand the presumption of innocence which is at the core of our legal system and democracy, far less was she prepared to defend it to another apparent democracy – the United States, which in it’s embarrassment at the whole Wikileaks episode, has thrown it’s own constitution out the window.

    Gillard and her US counterparts have in effect, validated the very premise of Wikileaks – that if you are going to promote actions such as wars against despots, you should be wary of trashing the very democracy you are purporting to defend.

    Gillard and Abbott. Put them together and you still wouldn’t have one capable leader. Pathetic.

  38. fitter

    Cripes – You use interesting language ” international terrorists and collaborators” I agree with the cat, I think you’re possibly gestapo, or a CIA renditioner/waterboarder.

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