The following article was published in lightly edited form as an op-ed piece in the Monday 13 December edition of The Age, under the title The net will win against deception - see the published piece online here.
Nations need secrets. They are fundamental to the preservation of national security.
Democracy demands openness and governments dealing frankly and honestly with the people to whom they are accountable.
If the point of national security is to preserve our open democratic society, we must start with a presumption of openness and ask what tests a document must meet to warrant the protection of a national security classification.
Obvious subject matter includes sensitive military technologies, the design and performance characteristics of military equipment, technical means of intelligence collection, human intelligence sources, intelligence priorities, defence science programs and priorities, the readiness state of elements of the Australian Defence Force, information about military operations, operational plans and other information about actual or planned deployments. Release of any such material would enable a potential adversary to put counter-measures in place and/or improve the performance of their own forces.
Material falling into these categories would be classified TOP SECRET, SECRET, CONFIDENTIAL or RESTRICTED according to the consequences for national security if it were to be made public, ranging from “exceptionally grave” to not much.
In my younger days one of the attributes that would attract a CONFIDENTIAL classification was that the information, if known, “could cause administrative embarrassment”. In these days of Freedom of Information legislation, release of a document could not as a matter of law be withheld on the grounds that the information would cause administrative embarrassment – a point to be borne in mind in considering many of the WikiLeaks revelations.
Within this framework a security classification would apply to many diplomatic communications, but they cannot be justified by a desire to protect the exchange of scuttlebutt, or self-aggrandisement like Mr Rudd big-noting himself by referring to the French and German efforts in Afghanistan as “organising folk-dancing festivals”.
Nor should national security classifications be used to conceal from the public the real assessments and motives of the governments we elect.
Some striking examples of this have come to light in the last couple of days. One relates to the Chinese response to provocative and unnecessary commentary about China in the 2009 Defence White Paper, which I understand was inserted at the behest of then Prime Minister Rudd. The Australian public was told from the Defence Minister down that China had no particular problems with this content. Now the WikiLeaks reveal that in fact the paper’s principal author was “dressed down” by the deputy director of foreign affairs in the Chinese defence ministry. No national security purpose was served by misleading the Australian public in this way.
Other leaks show that Mr Rudd as Prime Minister was less than frank about his attitude to US deployment of ballistic missile defences, publicly opposed but privately telling the US he was on board.
Perhaps the most serious case relates to the prospects for the war in Afghanistan. The stock line from Western Governments is that they are optimistic, things are going well, perhaps not quite as well as we would like, but we are making progress. What we find from WikiLeaks is that the real assessment – no doubt shared by all our NATO allies – is quite different. In October 2008 Mr Rudd told visiting US Congressmen that the national security establishment in Australia was very pessimistic about the long-term prognosis for Afghanistan, a pessimism which was evident in a December 2009 cable reporting the views of Australia’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, former Defence Secretary Ric Smith, who referred to the “train wreck” the Australian Federal Police have to deal with in working with the Afghan National Police.
This deceptiveness is quite unconscionable. The situation it suggests is that all Western Governments involved know the outlook in Afghanistan is very bleak, but none is prepared to confess this to their public. They all cling on, feeding us their bromides, hoping that when the war is lost it will be on someone else’s watch. Meanwhile they attend the funerals, praise the fallen and comfort the families.
Such deceptiveness is not confined to the Rudd and Gillard Governments. The Howard Government was committed to the US invasion of Iraq by July 2002; we would not have had Australians embedded in the US planning process if it were otherwise. Yet John Howard insisted right up to the eve of the March 2003 invasion that no decision had been taken on our participation.
This particular game is up – Governments will sooner or later be outed when they say one thing to foreign governments and another to their public. The world is witnessing something like a collision between two galaxies; the hot swirling mass of secret diplomatic correspondence has come into collision with the fast moving, rapidly changing and supremely adaptable mass of the internet. The latter will devour the former, and Governments had just better get used to the idea. The leaks are technology-driven – they occur because they can.
The consequences of this will not be confined to the foreign policy arena. In the hubris of power and their desire to stay in office solely for the purpose of being in office, modern governments routinely mislead us in two ways. They feed us an endless stream of misleading drivel manufactured by their spin doctors, and they withhold from us information about their real agenda and other inconvenient truths that the public has a right to know. This is now much more difficult to sustain.
Julian Assange will no doubt pay a heavy price for his role in this inevitable development, but in the long sweep of history he will be seen more as hero than as villain.
Paul Barratt AO is a former intelligence analyst and a former Secretary to the Department of Defence.