06 December 2010

Do WikiLeaks cables put informants’ lives at risk?

One recurrent theme in the ongoing drama about the WIkiLeaks publication of US cable traffic is the proposition that the revelation of the contents of these cables puts the lives of informants at risk.

Our own Attorney-General fell for this one.  According to James Massola in today’s edition of The Australian (see here):

Attorney-General Robert McClelland today condemned the release of confidential cables by whistleblower website WikiLeaks as “grossly irresponsible”, and which would put the safety and even the lives of people helping western governments at risk.

If lives are indeed put at risk the primary responsibility would lie with the originator of the cable, because it would be an act of lunacy to name someone who was giving information at risk of life and limb in a cable that was destined to be posted on a diplomatic network to which about 3 million people have access.

In my experience knowledge of the precise individual involved in providing human-source intelligence is restricted in any given case to an extraordinarily small number of people – probably no more than the agent receiving the information and perhaps (but not necessarily) that person’s supervisor.

The intelligence reports received by the analysts whose job it is to make sense of the stream of incoming raw intelligence (eg me in a couple of past lives) simply come with a descriptor of the source – for example, “A reliable source with good access”. To me as analyst that descriptor is far more useful  than the source’s name: it tells me that the person is probably in a position to know what we are being told, that we have used him/her before, and that he/she has proved to be reliable.

In the days when all of this material was delivered in hard copy, it would be sent by the originating agency to a specific officer who was cleared to receive it, who was required to sign for it, and was thereafter responsible for its secure handling and storage.  Such material is no doubt distributed electronically these days, but you can be sure that anything really sensitive – the kind of information that if released would put lives at risk – would be handled with an equivalent level of security.  Access would be limited to those with a need to know, and it would not be posted on a general network to which millions of people have access.

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