WikiLeaks should propel less secrecy at the top

By: John McCarthy

DURING the festive season we were entertained by the US’s diplomatic mail and by Julian Assange’s alleged transgressions under the midnight sun.

As 2011 gets under way, we need to think what WikiLeaks will bequeath us.

Some say that WikiLeaks only revealed what was known anyway – and everyone talks tough in private – so who cares?

But who says what matters a lot. To have a journalist say X is a venal idiot is one thing. To have a US embassy say so is another. American comments about figures in Afghanistan and Pakistan come to mind.

Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s alleged comments about Malaysia have caused open friction between Singapore and Malaysia. Singaporean comments about Japan and India will stay on people’s minds in those countries. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah would not be too relaxed seeing his remarks about cutting off the head of the snake (Iran) in the press, and Kevin Rudd could have done without seeing in print comments he is alleged to have made on China.

Face matters everywhere, particularly in non-Western societies. Certain things are never said publicly – about lack of intellect or status – and coming from a leader have added force. Aggressive language, even if only reported by journalists, is not acceptable.

But the plethora of diplomatic squalls arising from WikiLeaks will not necessarily have long-term effects. .While much of what has been said will not be forgotten, nations are driven by interests. There will be two lasting perspectives on WikiLeaks. The first is that most people, particularly the young, sympathise with WikiLeaks and what it represents in terms of information flow in a new era, even if they have limited time for Assange. The second is that for most people in Western countries, the material released is not half as much of a problem as it is for governments. What appears to be occurring – and must not – is a widening gulf between official and community attitudes.

There is no question the US and others will tighten up on who gets what information in the short term. To the extent that new measures are required in the US to prevent other Bradley Mannings from repeat performances, few could quarrel with measures that are necessary. The initial tendency in Australia and similar systems will also be towards less, rather than more, openness – which is ironic, given much of Assange’s support comes from the advocates of freer information.

In Australia, a lot of material is heavily restricted anyway. The most pronounced short-term result here is likely to be an increase in the existing tendency to keep material out of the main cable communications system, using emails to one or two addressees and, rather comically in this age, the telephone.

This behaviour in the Australian system is a response to fear of leaks, but also to fear of Freedom of Information laws.

This climate of inhibition is not in the national interest. A good policy requires all sensible points of view to be reflected, representing different foreign policy and domestic interests. This means the relevant people need to be informed of what is coming in and going out. A good cable system does this. Over the longer term, the test in Australia will be to create an internal culture where greater openness is seen as the avenue to better policy – albeit at the cost of the occasional leak or the odd embarrassing FoI release.

Over time, WikiLeaks could actually generate a more open approach to managing foreign relations in democracies such as Australia. The climate on FoI is already under unprecedented scrutiny. The Australian Law Reform Commission has proposals before the government to amend the Crimes Act, which would make unauthorised release of certain information punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.

In Australia, not only is non-disclosure the default position – a view that American officials, according to WikiLeaks, seem to share – but arrangements for information protection are complex and these are driven by a number of considerations, some of which have real merit.

They begin with privacy provisions covering non-disclosure of personal details of ordinary citizens who have a consular problem, and scale up to protection of genuine national security information, such as an imminent naval action or protection of a real intelligence source that could be jeopardised or endangered by disclosure. Most would not quarrel with the status quo in these two cases. Most would also agree that a bottom line of a trade negotiation should be protected.

There are grey areas where foreign governments or individuals have given information in confidence. Should this be protected? If we do not dispute the right to business confidences, protection of media sources or protection of police informants, we should respect genuine confidences imparted to our diplomats. However, the response to WikiLeaks suggests governments may have to work to do to bring the public to this viewpoint.

It does not make sense to create a climate in which embassies are afraid to file critical reports about people in their host countries for fear of it getting in the media.

That said, more than 80 per cent of general political assessments and 90 per cent of general economic assessments could be freely shared, even though the material has the significance of being a government view. There are real differences between what a government thinks must be protected in the public’s interest and what the public believes. Governments need to give ground here.

Any serious attempt to bring our systems into line with modern attitudes to information will be difficult. For example, making FoI provisions broader only makes sense if accompanied by attitudinal changes in the bureaucracy. Otherwise the tendency will be to put less on paper. The priority should be to enter into much freer debate both within government and outside of it.

The Americans have a system of publicly issued National Intelligence Estimates which can differ from policy lines. In the past decade, aspects of these papers have been at variance with administration policy on Iran and Iraq. The State Department publishes annual human rights reviews of all countries, often including comments highly critical of countries close to the US. It is difficult to see these practices taking off in Australia. But they could.

WikiLeaks has underlined that community attitudes on FoI issues are going through generational change. It behoves democratic governments to embrace greater openness. Ultimately, principled open government should be the basis for the implementation of foreign policy.

We promote transparency and open government elsewhere. We should be prepared to put our own houses in better order.John McCarthy is one of Australia’s most distinguished diplomats.

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